I Shot the Sheriff


This is supposedly the one moment when Reggae music exploded all over the world. Thanks to Eric Clapton, of course. When he recorded his cover of I Shot the Sheriff, he brought Reggae to thousands of American ears, launching the career of Bob Marley. That’s the legend, anyway. As usual it takes a white man to make the wide world appreciate black music. I think the reality is more complicated than that, though. Marley was already well known in 1973, and Reggae music’s popularity had been on the rise for years. It’s true that Clapton’s cover did bring the song to a wider range of ears, but it was far from being the first Reggae song anyone outside of Jamaica had ever heard. Reggae first emerged in the sixties, and though it wasn’t exactly a force to be reckoned with at first, it quickly became influential. Ska and then Reggae (like American blues during the same period) music was heard mainly by listeners in English port cities, who had access to exotic records brought by music loving seamen. Those influences were incorporated into nascent rock’n’roll. England has been home to a thriving ska scene since the fifties, which gained widespread popularity in the late seventies. It was the Jimmy Cliff starring movie The Harder They Come that really took Reggae worldwide in 1972, with the hit soundtrack album. Cliff has built a long career out that initial wave, and it brought Bob Marley & the Wailers to global fame as well. So no, Eric Clapton did not singlehandedly bring Reggae to the masses. It was already beloved around the world. All Clapton did was push it a few notches up the American pop charts.

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