Photo illustration by Sofia Fabiano
Jul 10, 2023
A conversation with reggae legend Marcia Griffiths
We feel like jumping: Ahead of her Celebrate Brooklyn! show this week, Griffiths joins us on the podcast to discuss her indelible career
In an industry dominated by male voices, Marcia Griffiths is about to enter her 60th year as a trailblazing reggae vocalist, songwriter, performer and collaborator.
You may know her from early hits like “I Feel Like Jumping,” and her work with the also-legendary Bob Andy — she is the Marcia of Bob and Marcia. She also worked with another important Bob, Bob Marley, as a backup singer as part of the I Threes trio. If you’ve ever done the Electric Slide, you have Marcia Griffiths to thank for that — her 1983 hit “Electric Boogie” ultimately gave birth to that global dance phenomenon which simply refuses to quit.
“When I stand on stage and I watch a hundred thousand people doing the Electric Slide, I am just blown away to know that my song has united the world and so many people can come together in one body,” she says on this week’s episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” “You don’t need a partner. It’s so much fun. It’s happiness.”
Marcia Griffiths will be bringing some of that happiness to Brooklyn this week when she performs as part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! summer concert series this Saturday, July 15, in Prospect Park at the Lena Horne Bandshell. I spoke with her from her home in Kingston, Jamaica, and we touched on all of the above, plus the business of music and how she see views the role of a performer — a philosophy she picked up from Marley himself.
“He opened my eyes to realize that it’s a responsibility, that this is our only vehicle and weapon to use in a positive way to teach and educate and uplift mankind, to unite the world,” she says.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
Next year is the 60th anniversary of your very first performance. It was with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, which is a very high bar to start at. Not a bad place to start. Can you tell us the story behind that first show when you were a teenager?
Oh my Lord, this is a song that I’ve been singing for 60 years.
Are you sick of it? I apologize, but some of our listeners have not heard the song.
Well, that’s true. I started out on Easter Monday morning, 1964. I was still going to school. My father went to Carib Theatres because in Jamaica we are influenced by American music.
Motown, especially, right? That was a big influence.
Oh yes, of course. You know, Studio One is like Jamaica’s Motown. Studio One is where all the great artists graduate. So we were influenced by American music. That’s all we heard. For me, I was inspired by Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, all these female singers were so popular in Jamaica, and Carla Thomas, of course. “No Time To Lose” by Carla Thomas, that’s the song I chose to do on Easter Monday morning with Byron Lee. It was a big issue getting me on the show because the show had already [been] planned. So Byron Lee said, “No way.” But somehow I managed to get on, went to the rehearsal, rehearsed one song and went on stage morning, young little. I was going to be 13 in November. When I walked out there, I was more anxious to show everyone what I could do. I wasn’t nervous, nothing. Because I’m just young and innocent. So I walked out there, and I didn’t have a clue that the band had planned to sabotage me.
Let’s walk it back a bit because Philip James from the Blues Busters who wanted you to perform. You were 13 years old. How did he know that you had what it took to get on stage?
He came to visit his girlfriend just where I was living in Hannah Town, Kingston. And he heard me singing with this guy who lived in the same yard. He played a guitar, and I was harmonizing this guy’s song, and Phillip heard me singing this song with this guy, and he said, “Wow, this little girl can sing.” And he asked me what else I could do. And I sang Patti Labelle, “Down the Aisle,” and he said he insists that he had to get me on the show.
Did you feel like you were a good singer at that age? Did you feel like you had something special or you just enjoyed it?
No, I just enjoyed it. It didn’t matter whether I had something special. I just know I love to sing. I sing in school at the concerts and I sing on the church choir, and that’s all I knew. And I had no vision of what was about to happen.
What was about to happen? Philip brings you to this concert with Byron Lee and you were saying they didn’t want you there and they sabotaged you.
Yeah, because they could not understand why, after the show is planned, why he wanted me so badly to appear on the show. So I don’t know. When I stood there waiting for the guitar to start the song, I couldn’t hear anything. And the audience started to mumble in the theater, and I’m saying, “My God, what is this?” So I turn around to look on the musicians to at least say what’s going on? And then I saw they were smiling. It was like-
They were in on the joke.
Like a giggle. So that was when I heard a voice say to me, “Little girl, you better start singing.” So I just forgot everything about the band, and I started singing this song, and they all had to follow me. That’s how we overcame that.
It’s an amazing story because it was an instant hit. Literally one song, live, in concert, and right afterwards people were clamoring to sign you. You mentioned Studio One. The legendary Coxsone Dodd and his studio ultimately enticed you to come over and you met on day one, legends hanging out in the studio.
That’s correct. It’s the same day after I left Carib Theatres, I was taken to Studio One. We walked from Carib straight to Studio One because it’s like a five-minute walk and I went straight in the studio.
How did you feel walking in?
I felt so overwhelmed as a little girl because I know that Philip was worried that if I didn’t go over well, they would all curse him and say, “See what I told you.” But he was so happy and I was so happy that I did not disappoint him. So I was very happy going down the street.
Who were some of the names in the studio? I know there were some big ones when you walked in.
Wow. I saw Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson. I didn’t know any of these people. I saw Scratch was taking care of Mr. Dodd’s big fishtail car, Lee Perry.
Lee “Scratch” Perry. Yeah. And you didn’t know who they were?
No, I didn’t. The only person I recognized there was Bunny Wailer because he and I went way back from kindergarten.
Bunny who sang with Bob Marley in the Wailers.
That’s right. He’s a part of the Wailers. Yeah.
So growing up, what was the music in your house? You said Motown. How did you hear music growing up? Was it the radio? Was it people playing live music?
We had a Rediffusion. One little box with one station. Whether we liked it or not, we had to just listen what was there. But we were just hearing a whole lot of American music, Jamaican music, occasionally, of course, but as I said, we were totally influenced by American music.
What was growing up in Kingston like? You were coming up in the ’50s, ’60s. What was the environment?
Wow. Those are the days that I usually say I would never ever give up. I would never want to be young again because this generation will never ever see and experience what we all knew and experienced in those days. Those were beautiful days, and today they would refer to that music as old school. But like Barry Simon says, “It’s not old school. It’s a good school, and you have to be blessed to be a part of the good school.” Those days, the music, even if some of the music like between Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster, they used to throw words at each other in the music. They were on a different level.
When you say throw words, do you mean diss tracks like in hip hop today or—
Well, they maybe want to curse off each other. But things that we could tolerate. Nothing like what’s happening today. So I used to enjoy every moment, every moment and the different genres of music while it changed, it was so beautiful and everyone, it was like a family affair at Studio One. If the Wailers are in the studio, it’s like a one family thing. Bob Andy recording, the Wailers would be singing back in vocals for Bob Andy, and if I am recording Ken Boothe, Bunny Wailer would be singing harmony and then it’s two track, so the music and the voice goes on at the same time.
You come into the Studio One house. You start recording solo records, you come out with “Naturally,” which has classics like “Feel Like Jumping,” “Truly,” “Melody Life.”
Yes. I think that if I may say so myself. That’s a classic album.
I love this album. What was that moment like for you when you were in the studio recording your first songs and collaborating with some of these people?
Mr. Dodd, he was so overwhelmed with my voice that he was desperate to find a hit song for me. And this is a reason why he had me doing collaborations with people like Free I, Jeff Dixon, Bob Andy, Tony Gregory, and another small island guy called Owen Boyce. He just wanted me to have a hit song, but it didn’t come until 1967 with the same “Feel Like Jumping.” That was my first hit song.
It stands the test of time. What was Mr. Dodd like? He wanted an ingenue, I guess, he wanted a star. He wanted you to have a hit. What was he like to work with?
Well, I can tell you one thing, it’s just two people that I know in this business so far, Mr. Dodd and Chris Blackwell, that can identify any song that’s going to be a hit and any artist that is going to be a hit. Somehow they can identify that, and he could tell that “Feel Like Jumping” was going to be a hit song. Just like, oh, he heard Bob Andy when he recorded the first song there and he said he’s going to bust.
You worked with Bob Andy from 1970 to ’74. You were Bob and Marcia. Talk about your relationship with him.
No, I worked in the decade of the ’60s. All the songs I recorded at Studio One.
He wrote them.
He wrote all those songs. Bob Andy and myself recorded a song on Studio One, “Always Together,” one of the biggest songs even in sound system world today. But we came together when we left Studio One and went to [the label] Harry J in 1969, we recorded over Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black” at Harry J. Surprisingly, it went to No. 2 on the British charts. So we headed up to London. They called us, and we headed to London to do “Top of the Pops.”
Was that the first time you flew?
No, as a matter of fact, I returned from Germany, 1969, recorded two songs in German language with a 30-piece orchestra.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
When I returned from Germany, that’s when I got the news that “Young Gifted And Black” is No. 2 in the British charts. I came back to Jamaica only to return to Munich to continue touring because I was doing shows there. When I got the news about the song, I was torn between two things that was happening at the same time and I had to make a choice. So I made a choice going to London with Bob Andy to do Top of the Pops, even though I still ended up in back in Germany.
Can you talk about the German or the European audiences of the ’60s versus, maybe, the American audience or other audiences? European audiences have a different palette musically.
As for the German audience, this was something completely new for them, but they loved it because I played at a couple of different places, and this is something new for Germans and there’s no way I could not communicate in the German language. So I had to be singing English. So it’s on my birthday, November 23rd, that I was in the studio and I heard two tracks playing. and it was always a wish that I had when I heard songs with strings and orchestra, Dionne Warwick and Aretha singing with some big orchestra behind them. I used to just close my eyes and dream and wish one day I’d be able to do that. So I was there in the studio listening to this track so full only to when the song this track was finished, this professor looking guy, he is with his pipe. He said, “You like them?” I said, “I love them.” And he said, “Well, they’re yours.” I thought he was joking, and he said, “Yes, they’re yours.” They recorded those two tracks for me to sing on them.
And that was mind-blowing.
Oh my God. So immediately they took me next door from the studio and tried to teach me the language. Wow. That was a task because I think it’s the hardest language.
Do you remember any German?
Yes, I did the songs in German. One of the songs were titled “Alles Ist Wunderschoen” and the other one was “Bleib By Sir.” I had a difficult time, because it’s a throat thing, it comes with a little sound. In the throat. I wasn’t able to master that at all. I just did what I could and they loved it.
Well, the Beatles sang in German too, so you’re in good company. But reggae at the time, and it still is, was really a male-dominated industry. Did you struggle to find your footing, obviously? I mean you have a sort of storybook career. You’re 13, you do your first gig, they take you across the street to Studio One, you meet people. Instant traction. Did you struggle to find your footing as a woman in the industry?
For me, it was like a bed of roses compared to what others might go through. I didn’t struggle to become who I am, but it was a male-dominated business, and as an unknown female in the business, it wasn’t easy for me among male musicians, male artists. That’s why I always have a special thing in my heart because that’s where I met Sister Rita as the only woman in the stable. So we became very close. So it was really a struggle keeping your head up. And I can tell you this, that one of the reasons I survived was because I met Bob Andy.
He was a protector of yours.
He was everything that a young girl needed to survive in a male-dominated business because he was everywhere that I went, every performance, every recording, everything. They just couldn’t get him out. And they didn’t like that. A young girl is in town and you’re vulnerable and all the guys have eyes out looking and here’s this guy who is not leaving. So they hated his presence, but I didn’t care. He was just there for me. I think God wanted me for a reason, for a purpose to have met Bob Andy as a guide and he was way ahead in knowledge of the music and very intelligent, very smart.
Moving forward a little bit. ’74 to ’81, you’re a member of the I Threes. You supported the other Bob, Bob Marley, as a group of backup singers. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between being a backup singer and working as a unit versus your solo career? What do you take away from each of those?
Those are completely two different things because on your own, you are positive. You don’t have to think about any mistakes. You are presenting yourself, just you and you. With a group, we have to coordinate and we have to communicate as a group. And Bob [Marley] was so meticulous and he was a man who strived for perfection. So when it comes to Bob, we have to be so right. I can’t tell you, I’ve never seen anything like that. If he hears one wrong [note]: “No. Remember we are going to rehearse it like an evening on stage.” The following day we do that one song for three, four hours because he wanted perfection.
And this was at the pinnacle of his career. Did you learn anything from him that you take with you today?
Oh my Lord. First of all, I learned so much. That’s where my eyes were open to realize that what I’m into is music, it was not just entertainment and fun and you go on stage and dance and have a good time. He opened my eyes to realize that it’s a responsibility, that this is our only vehicle and weapon to use in a positive way to teach and educate and uplift mankind, to unite the world. I found out for the first time when I started working with this man, I saw how serious this man took his music. I have never seen anything quite like that. So that’s when I realized that people who are called who have a God-given talent and they’re called to be in the music. I don’t think we all realize how blessed we are that we can communicate to the world through the medium of the music.
Is that the role of a musician? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but uplift, educate? What is your role as you see it?
I see myself as a missionary on a mission from God given a talent from God. And I am going to send messages to the world through the medium of the music, my music. This is a responsibility that I have to teach and to educate through the music. This is my role because when I read my Bible, God calls upon the singers and players of instrument. Remember, music is something that we could never live without. And music touches the soul. As a baby is born, they can feel the rhythm. That is their soul. I think we are blessed to be a part of upliftment to mankind. And I give thanks for Bob Marley that he opened my eyes that I found out when I started working with him that I am chosen. A lot of artists and singers and whatever, they’re in the business, and they don’t think about the message in the music, which is the most important thing. A 3-year-old, maybe 2, knows the song from beginning to end, and they can sing it once they keep hearing it in their ears. Riveting, riveting.
We can all agree on the spirituality of music and the impact the music has on the soul. But the business of music, especially in those days in Jamaica and elsewhere, wasn’t always fair to the artists. Do you feel like you’ve gotten your due in terms of royalties or what you’ve deserved to earn?
Absolutely no. And I can say this honestly sitting here that it is unfortunate. I might be one of the few who never get my reward that is due to me. Because in Jamaica, I think we were naive, we weren’t knowledgeable of the business part of the music. We were just so happy to go in the studio and to hear a voice playing on the radio. That was just what everybody wanted to do. And we were not knowledgeable to the business part at all about publishing, copyright and all those things. We didn’t know anything.
It’s set up so that it’s difficult to understand and that artists, who may be naive or young or whatever, it’s too hard for them to figure out. And now decades later, we know that. But it’s crazy because we’ll get to “Electric Boogie.” But “Electric Boogie” is the highest-selling single by a female reggae singer ever of all time. And the fact that you haven’t gotten your due is galling.
You know another thing that we were lacking in Jamaica — and this is especially for the woman — overall, women are usually seen for their favors. They believe women are mothers and wives and they should stay in home and look at the babies and keep the house and cook. So we were not privy to a lot of the things business-wise and we never had good management. Even today, I would beseech all my sisters in the business: One of the most important things, I think, we as women in the business need is to have good management to represent us because we cannot be singers and managers. We cannot be a business person and a singer. One is definitely going to suffer.
I hope you have a good manager now? Do you feel like you’re taken care of these days?
I am getting there. I’m not there a hundred percent, but I’m getting there. I’m getting there. Yeah.
I did mention “Electric Boogie.” You’ve mentioned Bunny Wailer in 1983. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. You put out a version of Bunny Wailer’s “Electric Boogie.”
No, no, no, no. Can I just give a correction?
I did not put out a version of Bunny’s “Electric Boogie.” The original “Electric Boogie” was written by Bunny, sung by me. And can I quickly tell you how that came about?
Please do. Yeah. And I’m sorry I got that wrong. But yeah, correct the record.
Again, as I said earlier, it’s a male-dominated business, and the women are usually disrespected, nine out of 10 times. Me personally, when I perform anywhere, if it’s not like a sold-out audience or you have some road manager behind you, you are not paid. You get some hard-luck story from the promoters and that’s it. We went to Toronto, I Threes performed in Toronto, Sister Rita, Sister Judy, and myself.
Ms. Rita Marley and Judy Morward.
We performed as I Three in Toronto. At the end of the day, no pay. Each of us got 700 Canadian dollars. That’s like about 500 U.S. dollars. And that’s what we got for our performance.
What would a male group have gotten for that performance?
Well, I don’t know, but they would not try that with a male group because they would be confronted with all kind of hard words, maybe, end up in fights. Anyway, that’s what we got, 700 Canadian. The following day, I went downtown in Toronto and I was walking, went to the store, and I saw a rhythm box, like a keyboard.
A funk box.
Yes. And the man came over to me and started demonstrating the different songs. And can I tell you, I fell in love with this box. It had every song in the world, every beat and every keyboard, piano, organ, a violin, everything you can think of.
It’s like an early Casio recorder kind of thing with the pre-recorded beat.
You could do a one-man band from that. And I just bought that keyboard, maybe, for 300 and something out of my $700 that I got. And I took it to Jamaica, and I started fiddling around. I discovered a lot of things on it, but there was a particular sound on the piano called “the repeater,” and I loved it. And then I found a beat and I put that beat with the repeater piano sound, and the sound is so great together. [Bunny Wailer] used to visit me when he comes from Portland on his vineyard yard and bring the best fruits. So when he came to visit me that night, I said, “Come here, Bunny, listen to this.” And let me tell you, Bunny just fell in love with that box even more than me.
And I played the beat for him along with the repeater sound. Bunny loved that beat so much that he just taped it off on a cassette, took it to Portland, came back the following day with “Electric Boogie.” We went in the studio, Sly Dunbar, and one of the Brownie [brothers] plays the bass and we over dub on the same rhythm box beat.
It wasn’t Sly and Robbie, it was Sly and someone else?
No, it wasn’t Robbie. Glen Brownie. He’s a bass player, Glen. And Bunny used the same rhythm box to put 11 keyboard parts on that song. So that song was so full and fat and really sounded good. And we went in, and I learned the song. He taught me the song and he was telling me that he got the idea from Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.” He was honest enough to say that. I’m telling you about the original “Electric Boogie.”
Right. It was remixed in ’89.
Yeah. When I was voicing that song, he got an idea to just come in and do his part that says, “dig Ms. Kelly with electric belly. She’s movin’ with electric. She sure got the boogie.”
So he had two raps in that song. So the song was released in Jamaica, and by Christmas it was No. 1 on all the charts. Chris Blackwell heard the song. And as I said earlier, remember I told you Chris Blackwell and Mr. Dodd are the two people that could identify a hit song when they hear it. Chris came to Jamaica, and he said, “Boy, I want that song.” So by that time we had already completed an album that he, Bunny, produced with me. So Chris Blackwell wanted the entire album because he says big company does not promote singles. And he wanted the album. Of course, Chris gave him a huge advance for the album and he gave Chris only the single.
Chris loved the song so much that he still took the single, but he did nothing with it. And maybe about a year or two years after, I was speaking with Chris one day and he said, “You know what, it’s selling and I’m not even promoting it.” So it was just there going off its own strength. So it was 1989 while I was on Sunsplash tour on the West Coast. Dr. Dread called me from Washington, D.C., and he said, “You know what, your song ‘Electric Boogie’ is the biggest thing in Washington, D.C., and they put a dance to it.” By the time the tour reached the East Coast to Washington, D.C., I was forced to learn the dance and perform on stage.
And the dance, we all know, is the Electric Slide. You gave birth to the Electric Slide.
I have never seen anything like this. And guess what? This song, everyone was on summer holiday from different parts of the States. So how that song spread, they took it back to the other states, all the other states that they came from. All this time I’m trying to find Bunny to say, “Bunny, this song is a big hit. Let us do a video.” Can I tell you that we search the entire globe for Bunny, trying to find him just to give him the good news that this song is a big hit and we want to do a video. And we called Chris Blackwell as well. Chris was shocked. He didn’t know that the song was so big. And when he called Island Records and they said yes, how much song was selling, and he was so upset that they didn’t inform him.
He sat on it.
We couldn’t find Bunny. And I am saying, “Boy, this is the biggest opportunity I’ve gotten in my entire career. And look, it’s going to go to waste.” So I came to Jamaica to go to Sunsplash. While I was driving down South Avenue, which is Media Mix, a music place was right on that road. So while we were passing, I saw Bunny’s car parked in the yard. I was so happy. We turned inside so overwhelmed to see Bunny, and we went inside. When I walked in, I just wanted to disappear, wanted to go to the earth. I saw Bunny inside recording the video! He had already gone in the studio, to over the song and he was now doing the video and guys were dancing the same dance. I was speechless.
Do you feel betrayed? What was the feeling?
Didn’t know what to feel because I’m still young and innocent of all of these dirty negative things. I don’t know anything about this kind of style that people do. I didn’t know what to say, and I just came out of the place. I can’t remember if I cried out. I was just out of it. I couldn’t believe that after all this time, I’m looking for him to give him the good news. He, maybe, heard that the song hit. And instead of trying to find me like I was trying to do, he went in the studio, record over the song, and now, he was doing the video.
Did you guys recover from that? Did you ever patch it up after that?
Well knowing me, I don’t carry things like that. And we were coming from so far. So he used to hold my hand when I was, maybe, five years old and take me to kindergarten, which we call little school in that time. And he would go onto big school. It was such big a shock for me. So when I hear people saying that I recorded over Bunny’s Electric Boogie, I said, what is this? First of all, the whole thing was born from my rhythm.
Your funk box. Yeah.
Do you still have it?
Listen to me, my three sons mashed that thing to pieces.
No! It doesn’t work anymore? No.
They were so overwhelmed with it and enjoying the beats and everything. They could hear music playing the playing piano, violin and everything that let us destroy that box.
It belongs in a museum. Oh, no.
That should be in a museum. So I ended up not getting anything from Bunny, not a dime. It was while I was there complaining and saying how unfair and unreasonable everything was and I wasn’t getting anything. And he was a hundred percent of whatever the song was earning. I just know sometimes when I do interviews and people think I’m so rotten rich with that song.
But it’s also, for as unfair as that is, it’s part of your legacy. It is a tremendous cultural phenomenon. So what’s next for you? I mean, next year you’re entering your 60s, it’ll be a 60-year anniversary. I don’t want to call out your age or anything like that, but how are you feeling? What’s next? Are you excited you’re coming to Brooklyn?
I don’t look on age. I don’t feel a day over 30 years old.
What can we expect from this show? Do you have any surprises in store? Are you bringing any surprise guests, anything like that?
On this? Yeah, we do have surprises. Of course, we do, but we’re not going to let that out right now. We have pleasant surprises.
What are you feeling at this moment in your life? You’re an established legend. You may not have the royalties you deserve, but what’s next?
I am thankful that when I travel to the four corners of the Earth with Bob, without Bob, by myself, wherever I go, the satisfaction that I get from my audience and the good energy that they pass on to me, that I can rejuvenate myself no matter how I’m feeling. I feel blessed that I am doing God’s work by uniting. When I stand on stage and I watch a hundred thousand people doing the Electric Slide, I am just blown away to know that my song has united the world and so many people can come together in one body. You don’t need a partner. It’s so much fun. It’s happiness. And that’s what life is about. I am truly blessed. I can travel anywhere, any part of the world. I was in Europe and a 13-year-old boy came to me. I’ll never forget this. And he came backstage with every vinyl that I have ever done. For me to sign them.
And I was astonished as to where this little 13-year-old boy would get all these albums. His parents, ardent fans of the real authentic reggae music. And when I signed those albums for that little boy, I have never seen anything like this. The boy just look at me with every soul in his heart, and he said, “This is the happiest day of my life.” So even though I’d never got the cash or the life of to get rich, no money in the world can purchase what I have gotten, and what I have, I can always get what they have, but they cannot get what I have.
No one can take away from you what you’ve done, and you’ve done a lot.
No one. And I’m thankful that God has preserved me, and I’m here cut across age barriers and still doing the work along with this generation, still consistent. And you know what more could one ask for so many of my colleagues are gone, and for whatever reason, I don’t know. So I have to give God thanks that I’m still standing there, keeping the fire burning.
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