Recording information: Jamaica Recording Studio, 13 Brentford, Kingston 5.
At first listen, 1965's The Wailing Wailers doesn't sound like a crucially important album, even though it was the first long-player from what would become the most important group in the history of Jamaican music. Bob Marley & the Wailers would become as important to reggae as the Beatles were to British rock in terms of influence and bringing a new musical style to the world, and Marley, Peter Tosh, and Neville Livingston (later and better known as Bunny Wailer) would all go on to celebrated solo careers. But at this point, the trio called the Wailers (or the Wailing Wailers) were just another young vocal group (albeit the biggest of the day in their homeland), making music that found them exploring ska, rocksteady, and American R&B. (It also wasn't recorded as an album, but instead was a collection of single sides Clement "Coxsone" Dodd had produced for his Studio One label.) More than anything, The Wailing Wailers documents three guys reveling in their youth and their talent; Marley's lead vocals are less imaginative than what he'd offer a few years later, but his delivery was already expert and impassioned, and his harmonies with Tosh and Livingston are thrilling, like vintage R&B and doo wop spun in a whole new way. "I'm Still Waiting" and "I Need You" are thoughtful, pleading love songs that suggest Marley could have been Jamaica's Smokey Robinson if he'd wanted, and "Rude Boy" and "Simmer Down" show he was already interested in writing about the larger world around him. The Wailers turn their covers of "What's New Pussycat" and "Ten Commandments of Love" into something very much their own. "When the Well Runs Dry" shows Livingston's own vocal style was already cast in stone, and short-time Wailer Junior Braithwaite shines on "It Hurts to Be Alone" like the long-lost sibling of Frankie Lymon. And if the Soul Brothers and the Skatalites would deliver wilder and more powerful work on their own, their backing on these sides is expert and supportive. The Wailing Wailers is a snapshot of the Wailers as they were first finding their feet from 1964 to 1966, and if the grand vision hadn't quite cohered for them yet, the talent was clearly there, and it's a fun listen as well as documenting a handful of legends when they were young and eager. ~ Mark Deming