The Boston Globe
September 14, 1987
by Steve Morse, Globe Staff

The murder of reggae singer Peter Tosh, who died Friday after gunmen forced their way into his Kingston, Jamaica, home in an apparent robbery attempt which others believe may have been an assassination, has left reggae lovers in “a state of worldwide mourning,” according to noted reggae historian Roger Steffens.
“They removed the greatest living reggae voice,” Steffens said yesterday in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “And I’m not sure it was just a robbery. Tosh’s security guard says these men came in with guns firing.”

Tosh, a founding member of the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Livingston, was in the midst of a comeback that would have seen him tour the US this fall. Also killed in the incident was Wilton “Doc” Brown, who had been Marley’s doctor. And in critical condition was revered reggae disc jockey Jeff Dixon, who had merely been there to interview Tosh. Four others were wounded, including drummer Santa Davis, who was to accompany Tosh on tour.

Tosh’s loss is incalculable. He had been reggae’s most defiantly outspoken singer, often showing up at concerts wearing steel manacles to symbolize the oppression of his fellow dreadlocked Rastas. He smoked huge, cigar-sized spliffs on stage (yes, even on Boston stages) and recorded some of the music’s most famous songs, such as “Legalize It” (referring to marijuana), “Get Up, Stand Up” (a plea for human rights co-authored with Marley), “African” (a polemic about how all blacks from Brixton to Boston are descended from Africa) and the anguished “Mama Africa.”

Tosh, 42, whose father left him as an infant and whose mother gave him to an aunt to raise, was an outstanding musician. He taught Marley how to play guitar in the Kingston ghetto of Trenchtown — and by age 12 also knew how to play steel guitar and piano.

The best reggae concert I ever saw was by Tosh at the Paradise Theater in 1979. A strikingly tall, ministerial figure, he played with the acclaimed Jamaican rhythm section of Sly & Robbie and leapt around stage giving mock- karate kicks that made him all the more mesmerizing. He had also added a controversial touch of rock ‘n roll to the music, having hired San Francisco Latin-rock guitarist Ed Elizalde.

Perceiving this ability to combine commercial music and reggae, Rolling Stone Mick Jagger signed him to Rolling Stone Records and made his famous duet appearance with him in 1979 on “Saturday Night Live,” singing the old Motown tune, “Don’t Look Back.” But this liaison would end in a fiasco. “I lost 50 percent of my sales in Europe because people didn’t like my association with Mick Jagger,” he later told me. “They thought I was selling out.”

In recent years, Tosh’s career was full of acrimony. In 1983, after playing to 2,400 people at the Plaza Castle across from Boston’s Park Plaza, he denounced Jagger, though Jagger was then in Europe trying to recoup $78,000 in royalties for him. And for the next four years he didn’t release a record while embroiled in a lawsuit with his new label, Capitol-EMI. Tosh was angry the label released his last record in South Africa — a nation constantly on the butt end of his loudest rhetoric. The label sued him for non-delivery of new music, but Tosh won a reported $250,000 court settlement.

Tosh’s long-awaited new album, “No Nuclear War,” is artistically inconsistent, but again uncompromising politically. Tosh lashes out at nuclear buildup, apartheid and the continued criminalization of marijuana. Rarely has a singer of any genre stuck so firmly to his beliefs for so long. The reggae community has lost a great singer and a true firebrand.