BY 1972, REGGAE had been the dominant popular music of Jamaica for a good five years. Reggae grew out of its Jamaican precedents -- "rock steady" and ska -- which in turn had fused Caribbean folk music with American rhythm & blues, especially the New Orleans R&B practiced by Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint.

The resulting reggae had a distinctive backbeat that sounded like a syncopated shuffle done backwards. The guitars and bass were given more individual room than the current superslick American soul. The lyrics were full of marijuana celebration, ethnic pride and genuine poetry. It was the most vital black music of the time.

But it remained mostly unknown in North America. There had been one freak hit -- "Israelites" by Desmond Dekker & the Aces -- and reggae-in-fluened hits by Paul Simon and Johnny Nash. They came the film, The Harder They Come , starring Jimmy cliff as an exploited reggae star who turns to dopedealing in frustration. Perry Henzell's film captured a culture through its music industry in the way Robert Altman tried unsuccessfully in Nashville. The Harder They Come was perhaps the best thrid-world film ever made and became a cult favorite here.

As did the soundtrack. The album included songs by three of the best reggae artists: Cliff, Dekker and the Maytals. The Harder They Come (Island SMAS-7400) REMAINS THE BEST COLLECTION OF REGGAE TO DATE. In the wake of its success, two more important artists -- Bob Marley and Peter Tosh -- came to prominence. In 1973, reggae seemed poised to take America by storm.

It never happened. Critics lavished praise on reggae, while musicians like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones stole as much as they could. American record companies pushed Cliff and Marley hard. But record sales were modest and reggae soon settled into a comfortable niche, much like American bules: both have a large influence on critics and musicians with small but steady sales.

One of reggae's biggest disappointments was the colossal failure of Jimmy Cliff to follow up on his four brilliant songs from The Harder They Come . Those songs presented political frustration with moving melodies and graceful understatement. His succeeding albums, however, were full of tuneless, overstated political tracts. One could overlook one failue, but after three of four, Cliff was written off by nearly everyone.

Now all be forgotten, Cliff has released an album, Give Thanks (Warner Brothers BSK 3240), which fainally fulfills all the promises of The Harder They Come .Reaching back to the American soul roots of reggae, Cliff has written floating, elusive melodies to show off his still rich voice. In "Meeting in Afrika," he evokes the diaspora's homeland with a high tenor that gets a running start, then just coasts with satisfaction against the beat.

Cliff hasn't abandoned his political themes but has wrapped them in a lyricism that makes them that much more persuasive. "Stand Up and Fight" has no trace of martial marching but instead makes rebellion sound bouncy. "Wanted Man" has the momentum of a cops-and-robbers chase but with a political prisoner context.

The album's most remarkable songs are the first and last. "Bongo Man" opens the record with tribal ritual percussion and jungle bird calls. As if welcoming the spirits, Cliff and his choir announce that the Bongo Man has come to take us to Zion. Their voices rise and fall with the inevitability of the wind, giving the ritual convincing authority.

The closing "Universal Love (Beyond the Boundaries)" has a similar otherworldly chant between Cliff and his chorus. Most importantly it movew reggae away from its usual swamp of religious mysticism. Cliff advises: "We don't need no religion/We donht need no other savior/What we need is to under stand/Our feelings and our behavior." Such pragmatism is a welcome change from reggae's usualy Rastafarian smoke-screen.

If Jimmy Cliff tried to be Jamaica's Marvin Gaye, the Wailers tried to be the island's Rolling Stones. The Wailers included three major talents -- Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone. Though they began with Motown-in-fluenced woul harmonies, they moved steadily toward a tougher, more instrumental rock sound. Eventually the three leaders proved to much for one group and Tosh and Livingstone departed for solo careers in 1974, leaving Bob Marley & the Wailers.

When Cliff stumbled after the movie, Marley became reggaehs bright hope. He released three brilliant studio albums on Island Records: Catch a Fire, Burnin ' and Natty Dread -- that had the contagious attack of the best Rolling Stones' albums without sacrificing the distinctive reggae character. Marley then made his best record ever, Live! (Island), at a 1975 concert in London.

Island Records next prepared a big push to make Marley an American superstar, but the following record, Rastaman Vibration , was aletdown. The next, Exodus , let down further and Kaya simply collapsed. Marley's studio work began to drag with tempos that oozed where they should have jumped. His ghetto-streets anger was replaced by abstract rhetoric and paeans to a feudal monarch, Haile Selassie, the religious messiah of the Jamaican Rastafaris. The melodies were downplayed as the sermons increased.

Thus, his new double album, Babylon by Bus (Island ISLD 11 1298) qualifies as an encouraging comeback. Recorded at several concerts in Europe, Marley takes the best songs from his three letdown albums and revives them with his former fervor. On the studio album, for example, "Exodus" was a monotonous seven minutes of unvaried reggae pattern behind Marley's droning narration. On the live album, the song is charge with the urgency of refugees on the run.

As on the other vastly improved remakes, the critical difference is in the relation between Marley and his band. He Wailers are one of the best rock'n'roll units around. The Barret brothers -- Carlton on drums and Aston on bass -- keep the prominent beat distinctively Jamaican. But guitarists A1 Anderson and Junior Marvin move aggressively from rhythm to lead and Wire Lindo's organ swells out of the background with irrepressible R&B.

On recent studio albums, Marley has kept his musicians in a restricted background. On Babylon by Bus , the balance is restored and the Wailers push Marley at every turn and he responds with his best vocals in years. Therehs also room again for guitar and Marvin and Anderson leap into every breach, most notably on "Heathen."

Marley includes a version of his 1977 single, "Punky Reggae Party," which underscores punk-rock's debt to reggae. Only two old songs are included, but the newest version of "Lively Up Yourself" shows that for all their improvement Bob Marley & the Wailers still haven't recaptured their peak form.

When Tosh left the Wailers, he became better known for his coutspoken advocacy of marijuana than for his music. His recent association with the Rolling Stones should win his unaltered basic reggae new audiences. Tosh toured with the Stones this summer and his new release on Rolling Stone Records, Bush Doctor (COC 39109), features Mick Jagger vocals on one song and Keith Richards' guitar on two others.

Despite these cameos, the record contains the truest reggae of the three releases discussed here. 'Dem Ha Fe Get a Beaten" is a song of promised revenge in heavy dialect and heavy backbeat. Neither Tosh's backhills voice nor Robert Shakespeare's loping bassmake any concessions to Maerican markets. It's to Keith Richards' credit that one can't pick out his guitar on the title tune. All the instruments shuffle around the main beat as Tosh defends marijuana as a natural herb against technological medicine.

Toshhs duet with Jagger (also released as a 12-inch single) is of Smpkey Robinsonhs "(You Got to Walk and) Don't Look Back." This isn't a betrayal of reggae roots but a return to the deepest of those rrots. Jamaica has long been strongly influenced by imported American black music and Motown records formed the basis of much early reggae. On this song one can witness the origin of reggae as an American soul song is transformed by Caribbean rhythms and inflections.

Of course, Jagger also began his career covering American soul sosngs. He transformed them too by seeding them with Chicago blues and British pop. Jamaican reggae has been the most invigorating variationg on American rhythm & blues since British rock 'n' roll and these three records deserve a far wider audience than they're like to to get.