In 1962, Bob Marley was only 16 years old and could barely play the guitar. Having moved from St. Anns, Jamaica, to the Trench Town area of Kingston four years earlier, Marley was only just beginning to learn how to play and sing music for himself when he noticed his friend and fellow elding apprentice Desmond Dekker had recorded a song at Jimmy Cliff’s Federal Studios.
Marley and his friend Bunny Livingston were just beginning to learn how to write music, and Livingston didn’t believe that they were good enough to get on a record. But when Marley saw Dekker cutting a record, he wanted in immediately.
“After [Dekker] did that song, Robert wanted now to record,” Livingston recalled in the documentary Marley. “So Desmond takes him to Beverly’s [Records], and he goes away and records a song, just to prove that if he can record a song, I can record a song.”
The result was ‘Judge Not’, a single that fell into the then-popular genre of ska. Before reggae became the predominant music associated with Jamaica, ska was the stylistic predecessor that almost all of the popular Jamaican artists, including Bob Marley, played. ‘Judge Not’ was actually one of four songs Marley recorded at the sessions, along with ‘One Cup of Coffee’, ‘Do You Still Love Me?’ and ‘Terror’.
‘Judge Not’ showed Marley’s early interest in morality and set the template for his later meditations on the human spirit and personal relationships with higher powers. But ‘Judge Not’ was not a chart success in Jamaica, even in a relatively small recording industry. Still, Marley had achieved his goal: he had shown Livingston that it was not impossible to make a record. All you had to do was go down to the studio and make it happen.
Soon, Marley and Livingston befriended Peter Tosh, and the three decided to form a vocal group called The Teenagers. With help from both Tosh and local musician Joe Higgs, Marley began to learn how to play guitar and found his artistic voice. Along with a number of friends, The Teenagers became The Wailers and released the single ‘Simmer Down’ in 1966, with a socially conscious message aimed at curbing the violence that occasionally followed dance hall concerts that the group put on. ‘Simmer Down’ was Marley’s first number one hit in Jamaica, and The Wailers became a popular local draw.
Check out ‘Judge Not’, Marley’s first single, down below.