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Bob Marley and The Wailers' 'Capitol Session '73': How the Lost Footage Came to Light

Bob Marley
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Bob Marley photographed in London on May 31, 1973.

In 1989, British filmmaker, archivist and historian Martin Disney was asked by Polygram -- who had recently purchased Island Records -- to sift through extensive footage of Bob Marley and The Wailers in preparation for the Marley documentary Time Will Tell. While combing through piles of footage in various formats, Disney was especially intrigued by a three-minute segment of 16mm black and white film, without sound or labeling, featuring an early '70s performance by The Wailers.

No one seemed to know where or when this performance was taped or if additional footage existed, so Disney embarked on a fact-finding mission that spanned over two decades. He learned that British producer Denny Cordell -- who co-founded Shelter Records with Leon Russell in 1969 and owned a state-of-the-art mobile broadcast unit -- was involved. Cordell passed away in 1995, so Disney tracked down his son Barney, who remembered The Wailers being around his father in Los Angeles. His son recalled a session his father filmed with The Wailers at the Capitol Records' Tower, but Barney had never seen the footage. Disney continued his search, traveling to New York and California, eventually retrieving seven and a half hours of film from the four-camera shoot Cordell had organized. Disney and editor Tim Dollimore spent several months collaborating over Zoom, painstakingly repairing, syncing and condensing seven hours of material shot from two cameras and a live mix from four cameras into a cohesive 60-minute presentation.

Their diligence has unearthed a momentous artifact: Bob Marley and The Wailers' The Capitol Session '73, which will be released on Sept. 3, via Tuff Gong and Mercury Studios, on CD/DVD, CD, 2 LP colored vinyl and digital audio formats; it will stream exclusively via the Amazon Prime hosted music documentary channel, The Coda Collection.

"For over two decades I have been tending, researching and gently waving the banner for prepping the seven hours of Capitol footage for the release it so richly deserves," said Disney, who has worked on almost every film made about Marley as a researcher, producer, or consultant. "As we were editing, we felt like no time had passed, it sounds so fresh. In a way the film made itself, we just pushed it, to get that feeling right and show how raw, ad hoc, and relaxed it all was."

The year 1973 marked a turning point in The Wailers' trajectory: they released their first albums for Chris Blackwell's Island Records, Catch A Fire (April 13) and Burnin' (Oct. 19), which were essential in expanding the international fanbase for reggae after the landmark Jamaican film The Harder They Come and its soundtrack, released the previous year. Two of The Wailers' three founding members exited the group in 1973, Bunny Livingston (later Wailer) in April and Peter Tosh in December. The Wailers were booked for 17 dates opening for Sly and The Family Stone beginning in October 1973, but they only performed on four shows before they were fired because they didn't connect with Sly's audience. Stranded in Las Vegas, The Wailers called Jamaican attorney Gus Brown who brought them to San Francisco, where they performed a pair of shows before reaching out to Cordell and traveling to Los Angeles. Shelter Records had released The Wailers' first U.S. single, "Duppy Conqueror" (misspelled as "Doppy Conquer"), one of the songs they performed on Capitol Session '73, highlighted by Bob's mesmeric vocals and the band's indelible reggae beat, as seen in this exclusive clip.

The Wailers closed-door shoot at L.A.'s Capitol Tower took place on Oct. 24, 1973. The lineup consisted of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh on lead vocals and guitars; The Wailers' mentor Joe Higgs on percussion and backing vocals; Earl "Wya" Lindo on keyboards; and brothers Carlton Barrett and Aston "Family Man" Barrett on drum and bass, respectively. The Barrett brothers played with Bob until his death in 1981. Family Man, now 74, who stopped touring with The Wailers after suffering a series of strokes in 2017, is the only surviving member of this extraordinary ensemble.

The Wailers were still a vocal trio at the time (with Island's release of Natty Dread in 1974, Marley received top billing and from thereon, The Wailers referred to his backing band) but Marley is undeniably the film's focal point. He takes commanding lead on nine of the twelve songs selected from Catch A Fire and Burnin', conveying a range of moods: playful on "Stir It Up", anguished on "Burnin and Lootin" and meditative on "Rasta Man Chant," with all three Wailers seated, playing conga drums, delivering inspired, soulful harmonies; Marley and Tosh share lead on "Get Up Stand Up," the enduring protest anthem they co-wrote.

"This film is like a master class with Bob in charge. Bunny left The Wailers in England, Peter was already plotting to leave, so Chris Blackwell identified Bob as being the right front man, the driving force," comments Disney, who is also film's executive producer, alongside Barney Cordell. "Denny created a wonderful session, with a small, appreciative audience enjoying a private performance from six of Jamaica's greatest musicians and the sound at Capitol is just fabulous."

"One of the most fascinating things for me was gaining insight into these human beings who were at a pivotal point in their lives," adds Dollimore. "Everyone in that configuration of the band went on to do amazing things musically, but there were also many tragedies. [Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981 at 36; Peter Tosh and Carlton Barrett were murdered five months apart in 1987.] It's fascinating to see them when they weren't ginormous, but they knew that they were on to something."

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