Lion in a Concrete Jungle: Bob Marley and The Wailers at The Apollo Theater

Over four days in late October, 1979, Bob Marley and The Wailers performed seven shows at the legendary Apollo Theater, marking the first ever reggae performances at the recently reopened Harlem venue. The shows, beginning on October 25 and ending October 28, would add to the rich history of the Apollo and connect Marley with the one-time home of fellow Jamiacan, Marcus Garvey.

bob marley apollo

The shows at the Apollo were the third stop on his Survival tour, which had kicked off on October 21 in Boston at Harvard Stadium with Stevie Wonder. A day later, Marley and The Wailers would perform at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Performing in Harlem was designed to broaden his reach to a demographic that had not yet tuned into his music, Black Americans. Dennis Thompson, one of four audio engineers and sound technicians working with Marley on these shows told the Jamaica Observer.

Bob wanted to reach the African-American people and he liked the idea of an intimate setting, and the Apollo had it. Survival related to the struggles and oppression of people; Bob once said to me, how great it would be if there could be a United States of Africa, so these concerts were very important to him.”

Dennis Thompson

The album Survival still stands as one of Marley’s most politically charged albums, featuring anthems “Africa Unite” and “Zimbabwe,” the latter celebrating the fall of the white supremacist regime in Rhodesia.

A mixed audience of African Americans, West Indians and whites was reported by Clinton Lindsay, a Jamaican student at the New York Institute of Technology. In covering the shows for college newspaper, Scope, he noted

“The show on the Saturday night was the best, it was sold out and had the best vibes. The opening show was also sold-out and had lots of major stars attending. Each show, although the set list might have been the same, were never alike. Each had its own identity.

Clinton Lindsay

Part of the reason Marley sought to perform in Harlem was due to the connection of Marcus Garvey to the neighborhood. Garvey was a Jamaican-born writer and speaker in the early 20th century who encouraged the Pan-African movementa, emphasizing unity between African-Americans and their ancestral lands. Garvey would inspire Rastafarians advocating for Pan-Africanism. Marley would perform at the Apollo with three backdrops: one of the Ethiopian flag, one of Ethiopian emporer Haile Selassie I, revered by Rastafarians, and one of Garvey, Selassie and guerilla fighters.

bob marley apollo

One member of the Wailers shared with NME:

The Apollo is an important part of black heritage, I can’t think of any major black international star who hasn’t played there at one point – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, right from them people there to all the soul stars, everyone. That’s one reason Bob has to play there, to put him in that tradition for people to understand.

As told to NME

The lineup for the Apollo residency included Bob Marley on vocals and rhythm guitar, Aston Barrett (bass), Carlton Barrett (drums), Junior Marvin (lead guitar), Al Anderson (lead guitar), Tyrone Downie (keyboards), Earl “Wya” Lindo (organ), Alvin “Seeco” Patterson (percussion), Devon Evans (percussion), Glen DaCosta (saxophone), Dave Madden (trumpet) and The I-Threes (backing vocals).

A first hand experience from the show, shared with Marley Arkives, gives insight into the audience reaction to the peformances.

“Concerning the Bob Marley concert at the Apollo….there were three shows, in three days….and I made sure I was present for all three…Each show was different…but each unique. The Apollo Theater has 2 balconies…I was in the first balcony …front row center…best seat in the house…I sooo wish at least one of the concerts were on film….Bob rocked the house…so much so, at one point I actually got frightened…at the end of the third and final show…Bob had everyone on their feet singing “Get up Stand up”…of course everyone got up…but it wasn’t until a few minutes into the song that I realized the whole balcony was shaking….literally moving…I kept still to see if it was movement that I was really feeling…sure enough…it was…that’s when I started to hope that the balcony would hold….the balcony was full…even the isles…the Apollo is an old theater…..After the concert , I left feeling fulfilled and exhausted…Bob had taken all my energy…..any time he played NYC I was there….have never been to a concert that could surpass any Bob Marley concert since…….BLESS.”

As shared to
bob marley apollo

Opening the shows was Betty Wright, known for “Clean up Woman” and “Tonight is the Night,” singing with a range from disco to soul. The New York Times said of the run of shows:

The theme of Bob Marley’s four-evening stint (Thursday through tomorrow) at Harlem’s newly reopened Apollo Theater is “black survival,” and Mr. Marley’s own survival has been a subject of concern lately. Although he seems to have recovered fully from a shooting incident a couple of years ago in politically turbulent Ja- maica, his reggae nas sounnea ratner pallid on recent albums and his opening‐night performance on Thursday was his first New York City appearance in nearly a year and a half.

While the Times felt that Marley was less energetic, he had begun to use his presence on stage to preach and inspire, with impassioned vocals and an audience that quickly warmed up and threw their energy back at the stage. These historic performances would be among Marley’s last shows in New York, returning the next September to open for The Commodores at Madison Square Garden in September, 1980; it would be one of Marley’s last performances.

On September 21, 1980, Marley would collapse while jogging in Central Park, likely due to malignant melanoma cancer he was diagnosed with three years prior. He would perform one more time, at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, before losing his battle with cancer at age 36.

Setlist – Bob Marley and The Wailer at The Apollo Theater, October 25, 1979

Natural Mystic, Them Belly Full (But We Hungry), I Shot the Sheriff, Concrete Jungle, Ambush in the Night, Ride Natty Ride, Running Away, Crazy Baldhead, Wake Up and Live, One Drop, No Woman, No Cry, Jamming, So Much Trouble in the World, Zimbabwe, Africa Unite, War, No More Trouble

Setlist – Bob Marley and The Wailer at The Apollo Theater, October 28, 1979

Positive Vibration, Wake Up & Live, The Heathen, One Drop, I Shot The Sheriff, Runnin Away, Crazy Baldhead, Zimbabwe, War, No More Trouble, Exodus

Encore: No Woman No Cry, Jammin

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