Feb. 14, 1977, was the greatest Valentine's Day of Junior Marvin's life. The Jamaican-born guitarist, who headlines Reggae Night at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre on Friday, was living in London and had an appointment that day with Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records.
Before he left his apartment, his telephone rang. It was Stevie Wonder. Wonder's guitarist was leaving and had recommended Marvin as a replacement, so the American R&B star was offering Marvin the job. Marvin begged for a few hours to think about it and rushed off to his appointment with Blackwell.
Blackwell took him into an apartment in London's fashionable Chelsea neighborhood; sitting with his back turned was a man in long dreadlocks.
"I instantly knew it was Bob Marley," Marvin recalls, "and when he turned around, it was. I was carrying my guitar, as you always did in those days, and he invited me to jam on some new songs he'd just written: ‘Jammin', ' ‘Waiting in Vain' and ‘Exodus.' We clicked right away, and after we had jammed for about an hour, he slapped me five and said, ‘Welcome to the Wailers.' But then I remembered I owed Stevie Wonder a phone call. I said, ‘I need a couple hours,' and Bob looked at me like, ‘What? You can't decide now?' "
With invitations on the table from two of his favorite musicians, Marvin's mind was spinning. He called every friend he could find and asked for advice. The consensus was that because Marley and Marvin were both Jamaican, that tie should trump his admiration of Wonder.
Marley quickly took Marvin into a London studio to record "Exodus," which has been cited by VH1, Time and Rolling Stone as one of the best albums of all time. Marvin remained in the band and played on all of Marley's subsequent albums: "Kaya," "Babylon by Bus," "Survival," "Uprising" and "Confrontation." This last phase of Marley's career was marked by an internationalization of the songwriter's sound, with elements of rock, folk, R&B, jazz and blues sneaking into the dominant reggae sound.
Marvin was a crucial catalyst in this shift, having recorded with Steve Winwood, Fairport Convention, Keef Hartley and Stomu Yamashta, and having toured with T-Bone Walker before joining the Wailers.
"Bob was trying to reach as many people as possible," Marvin explains, "and my role in the band was to bring some of those other sounds into the mix. On our last tour, American R&B radio was playing his song ‘Could It Be Love,' and we were planning a tour of 60 cities across the United States, featuring Bob and Stevie together. I think it would have taken reggae to another level. Stevie had been writing some reggae songs such as ‘Master Blaster' and ‘Boogie On, Reggae Woman.' That tour would have brought my career full circle, but Bob got sick."
After Marley's death in 1981, Marvin became the lead singer and chief songwriter for the Wailers Band, made up of Marley's former backing musicians. That group stayed together long enough to record three studio albums and one live album; four songs from those recordings are included on Marvin's 2013 compilation album, "Smokin' to the Big M Music."
Marvin departed the Wailers Band, moved to Brazil, recorded his solo debut "Wailin' for Love," and briefly joined the Original Wailers led by Al Anderson, Marley's other lead guitarist. Now, he has returned to a solo career and is working on a second solo album that he promises will be two-thirds reggae and one-third blues-rock when it emerges in October.
"You have people like Bob and Stevie who can sit down and write a great song," Marvin says with a chuckle, "and then you have people like me who have to write 100 songs to get five great ones. So people like me have to work really hard. I'm trying to create songs like Bob's ‘No Woman, No Cry,' which is both a reggae song and a pop song. I'm trying to create songs like that, where you don't say, ‘That's a reggae song,' you say, ‘That's a great song.'"
Marvin now lives in Virginia, where his wife is from. He thinks the reggae scene in the United States is improving, if only because more quality American bands are playing the music and fusing non-Jamaican elements to the genre.
Marvin believes that reggae, like a lot of modern music, has suffered from the producer supplanting the songwriter as the dominant force on recordings. "Bob paid a lot of attention to the songs," he says, "and we need to bring that back by creating those little stories about things that happen to people and draw lessons about life that can uplift you."
Two acts from the Washington area will open for Marvin at Carter Barron. Jamaican-born Ruth-Ann Brown strips her reggae sound to its minimalist basics, crooning with understated cool as if she were Sade transplanted to the Caribbean, on her recent EP, "Ruth." Ras Lidj, a native Washingtonian who grew up on go-go music before joining the Rastafari movement in 1992, calls his pioneering blend of sounds "regg-go." At times, his latest album, "Live at Tropicalia," sounds as if Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers were jamming with the Wailers.
Junior Marvin at Reggae Night
With Ruth-Ann Brown and Ras Lidj & Deep Band on Friday at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 4850 Colorado Ave. NW. 202-895-6000. Gates open at 7 p.m. Free.
Ticketing tips: The shows are free and tickets are not distributed in advance. Gates open at 7 p.m. to the first 3,700 people, and the shows start at 7:30. For more information, visit www.goingoutguide.com or call 202-334-6808 or 202-895-6000. There are no rain dates. Picnic areas are available in the park surrounding the amphitheater. Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 4850 Colorado Ave. NW. 202-895-6000. www.nps.gov/rocr/planyourvisit/cbarron.htm.