For eighteen years Packy Malley’s Midwest Reggaefest has been a summer concert staple in our region. It’s earned the status as one of the preeminent reggae music festivals in the U.S. This year’s event takes place this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (August 8, 9, and 10) at Nelson’s Ledges Quarry Park in Garretsville, Ohio, 45 miles east of Cleveland.
I was surprised to learn how few people are aware that Cleveland was one of the first cities in America to embrace Jamaican reggae.
Though there were a couple of reggae hits that made the top 10 charts in 1968 by Desmond Dekker and the Aces (“The Israelites”) and Johnny Nash (“Hold Me Tight”) – and again in 1972 with Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” they were deemed novelty hits and not front-runners for a new musical style.
They’d become U.S. hits largely because of their British chart-topping success. Back then, U.S. radio and labels paid close interest to U.K. music trends.
Hoping to benefit from Nash’s success, A&M Records rereleased Jimmy Cliff’s Wonderful World, Beautiful People in the U.S., in 1970, but it’s title track met with limited regional success on radio.
Reggae didn’t catch on in the states until a low budget, independent Jamaican film got notice in the art cinema circles – The Harder They Come.
It was 1973. I was moving to from Boston to Cleveland to join WMMS. I ran into Kenny Greenblatt, the always in-the-know sales manager for the original WBCN/Boston. He eagerly said, “You have to see The Harder they Come before you go to Cleveland. You’ll want to take this music with you.”
The Harder they Come, just opened at the Orson Wells Cinema in Cambridge. The Orson Wells was one of many theaters in Boston and Cambridge, committed to showing independent and foreign films. I took Kenny up on the offer.
I loved the film and loved the music so much I picked up a copy of the soundtrack the next morning – and called Denny Sanders at WMMS to tell him about it.
The Harder They Come was filmed in Jamaica in 1972. It was directed by Perry Henzell and starred Jimmy Cliff . He played Ivan Martin, a poor man who travels to Kingston and becomes a reggae singer. Though he records a hit record, he receives no royalties or credit – and is forced to parlay his part-time pot dealing into a life of crime and violence.
B-movie director and distributor Roger Corman bought the U.S. distribution rights and released it in February, 1973 as a “Blaxploitation” film. It bombed at the box office.
In April, The Harder they Come was picked up as a Saturday night “midnight movie,” – this time using the original advertising artwork. It quickly developed a cult following.
A couple of months later, the Orson Wells took a chance and booked it as a regular feature. It became a huge hit – and played the theater for several months.
(That wasn’t unsual for Cambridge, Mass., which had a few art house theaters. At one, the Central Square Cinema, the movie The King of Hearts played continually for five years).
Within a few weeks of my arrival in Cleveland, Denny and I decided to play the soundtrack to The Harder They Come on WMMS and work on bringing the film to Cleveland. The songs immediately caught on – and four tracks from the album, the title cut, “You Can Get it If You Really Want It” – also by Cliff, “Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers and “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals started picking up noticeable requests. Within a couple of months, nearly every track on the album was getting airplay.
When the Wailers’ first U.S. album, Catch A Fire, was released, it’s “Stir It Up” also became a top-requested track. That was followed by Toots & the Maytals’ Funky Kingston album, which produced three popular cuts – “Pressure Drop,” which was already getting play from its inclusion on The Harder they Come soundtrack; the title track – “Funky Kingston,” and their cover of “Louie Louie.”
Reggae music was now well represented on WMMS – and Cleveland became a top-selling market for the genre.
Toots Hibbert at WMMS, 1975. L to R- standing: Unknown, Dan Garfinkel, Steve Lushbaugh, John Gorman, Denny Sanders, Murray Saul. Seated: Toots Hibbert, Jane Scott
We also managed to secure a theater for a proper premiere of The Harder They Come. It had played Cleveland briefly, for one week, at the old Hippodrome Theater. Though we wanted to premiere it at the Heights Art Theater in Cleveland Heights, which we felt was the most appropriate venue for its showing, we had to deal with local theater politics and our premiere was regulated to a late October showing at Loew’s Stillwell Theater in Bedford – the worst performing theater in the chain. Even worse than that, the theater used the old “Blaxploitation” poster instead of the revised one. Surprisingly, the film did better than expected in attendance though its challenging out-of-the-way location (I-480 was under construction and I-77 was incomplete) prevented the theater from becoming a destination location. The Stillwell was torn down not long after the film was shown.
A year later, Marley’s second U.S. album, Burnin’ broke nationally with “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” In 1975, both Bob Marley and the Wailers and Toots and the Maytals did WMMS-sponsored club dates in Cleveland. Marley played a WMMS Night Out at the Agora – the same show where opening act, the Kent-based 50-60-75 (The Numbers Band), recorded their live Jimmy Bell’s Still in Town album – and Toots and the Maytals at the Smiling Dog Saloon.
Some were not appreciative of our reggae airplay. Dave Thomas was one. In his Scene Magazine column, written under the nom de plume Crocus Behemoth, he complained about our reggae airplay and suggested we’d be best to stick to rock and roll – and nothing else.
Cleveland remained a strong reggae record sales market for many years – and responsible for breaking many reggae hits, including, “Legalize It” by former Wailer Peter Tosh, Dillenger’s “Cocaine,” and Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown.”.
By the end of the decade, we launched our WMMS Jamaica trips hosted by Jeff and Flash. We also did a few contests to send listeners to Reggae Sunsplash, the all-star reggaefest in Jamaica.
Today, reggae music can be heard on college and public radio stations in Cleveland and Akron.
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