Peter Tosh was, and still, in death, remains Jamaican music royalty. Aside from his longtime friend and fellow Wailers founder Bob Marley, virtually no other reggae artist has garnered a legacy as vast and enduring as Tosh’s. Born outside of Kingston in rural Westmoreland, Jamaica in 1944, Tosh came to prominence in the burgeoning Jamaican reggae scene in the mid-60’s along with Marley and Bunny Wailer in a group that would eventually be known as The Wailers. Tosh was a driving force behind the success of the Wailers and the unfathomable international explosion of Robert Nesta Marley. Although it was never officially confirmed by Marley, Tosh and Bunny Wailer, as well as several others, maintain that Tosh was the person who first taught Bob how to play guitar. A self-taught musician himself, he guilted his bandmates into developing their own musical abilities.
Tosh released his seminal debut album Legalize It in 1976. The album and its pervasive hit single of the same name took a bold stance against marijuana prohibition, a central issue for Tosh and his increasingly outspoken Rastafarian brethren. Upon its release, the Jamaican government quickly banned the album, which only helped catapult the music and its radical message to worldwide notoriety. Today, “Legalize It” remains a universally-known rallying cry for marijuana advocates.
Last year, a museum exploring the life of Tosh was opened in his native Kingston. In it, his solo years are then explored at length, including memorabilia like the golden microphones he received as a gift from friend and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. Tosh’s coveted GRAMMY, received for his final studio album, No Nuclear War, is given pride of place in the museum, after it was reportedly retrieved from a Massachusetts pawn shop following its unauthorized sale. The museum also displays the famous M16 machine gun-shaped guitar that Tosh used to wield as a musical weapon on stage.
Listen to Tosh’s 1978 live album, Live At My Father’s Place, below via Spotify:
Though it was all part of his unafraid and righteous persona, Peter Tosh’s frequent discussion and allusion to violence seem to foreshadow the unfortunate road the musician would go on to endure later in life. While Tosh’s influence is undebatable, his legacy is one marked just as much by its agony as by its ecstasy. In 1973, Tosh was driving home with his girlfriend Evonne when his car was hit by another car driving on the wrong side of the road. The accident killed Evonne and severely fractured Tosh’s skull.
After Island Records president Chris Blackwell refused to issue his solo album in 1974, Tosh and Bunny Wailer left the Wailers, citing the unfair treatment they received from Blackwell, to whom Tosh often referred with a derogatory play on Blackwell’s surname, ‘Whiteworst.’ Tosh had written many of the Wailers’ hit songs such as “Get Up, Stand Up”, “400 Years”, and “No Sympathy,” but was shorted on the royalties for the songs due to morally questionable contracts from the record company.
Finally, on September 11th, 1987, just after Tosh had returned to his home in Jamaica, a three-man gang came to his house on motorcycles and demanded money. Tosh replied that he did not have any with him, but the gang did not believe him. They stayed at his residence for several hours and tortured him in an attempt to extort money from him. Over the hours, as Tosh’s various associates arrived to visit him, they were also taken hostage by the gunmen. The gunmen became more and more frustrated, especially the chief thug, Dennis “Leppo” Lobban, a man whom Tosh had supposedly befriended and tried to help find work after a long jail sentence. Eventually, frustration and tension grew to a breaking point and shots were fired. Tosh was hit twice in the head and killed, while one more of his associates and several others were injured in the altercation. He was 42 years old.
Although his story ended in unthinkable tragedy and was often marred by sadness, the legacy he left behind through both his own music and the vast amount of music he directly influenced is one of hope, togetherness, peace, and courage.
Rest in Peace, Peter Tosh.
[Cover photo via Riddim Magazine]