On September 29th, 1980 Stevie Wonder released Hotter Than July, a 10 track record that was set a blaze with his tribute to Bob Marley on the leading single, “Master Blaster (Jammin)”.
While that album was recorded at Wonderland Studios in Los Angeles, CA in 1979, Bob and Stevie first met each other in 1975 at the The Wonder Dream concert in Kingston, Jamaica. The concert was held to support the Jamaican Institute for the Blind. What made this show so memorable is it was not only the first time that Bob & Stevie would perform with each other, but it’d be the last time that Bob would perform with Peter Tosh & Bunny Wailer of The Wailers.
Watch: Stevie Wonder – “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
The Wonder Dream Concert would feature a collaborative performance between Bob & Stevie as they jammed with each other on “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Superstition.” The two would go on to become good friends, even discussing the idea of a huge concert together where Bob would play his Survival album start to finish and Stevie would do the same with Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (both albums that were released in 1979).
The Wonder Dream Concert in ’75 wouldn’t be the only time the two would perform together as on Nov 7th, 1979, Stevie joined Bob for the encore of his performance at the Black Music Association concert in Philadelphia. The duo performed a rendition of “Get Up, Stand Up” and The Salinas Journal at the time reported the encore had the crowd jumping up on chairs and tables.
A friendship that started in 1975 would go on to become the inspiration for Stevie’s “Master Blaster” 5 years later. The song is a reference to Bob’s 1977 fan favorite “Jammin” off his Exodus record. Stevie did a take on what Marley sang with “Jah children must unite” and they would be “jammin’ in the name of the Lord.” In “Master Blaster”, Stevie sings they’re “Jammin’ until the break of dawn.”
Discussing the song and hearing it for the first time, renowned Reggae Producer Michael Goldwasser of Easy Star tells The Pier: “I was a kid in my mom’s car, and we were pulling out of our driveway. It must have been a Sunday morning because I was listening to Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40 and I remember Casey talking about how Stevie Wonder had written the song in tribute to Bob Marley. Pretty cool to think that a reggae-style song about Bob could have been on the pop charts when it came out.”
“Everyone’s feeling pretty, it’s hotter than July,” are the opening lyrics to the song, which would influence the title of Stevie’s record while the song would go on to spend 7 weeks at number one atop the Billboard R&B singles chart, reaching number five on Billboard’s pop singles chart in the fall of 1980. The song is also credited with having 7 background vocals behind Stevie.
Michael G. explains: “I think that what makes ‘Master Blaster’ sound more ‘reggae’ than other songs by non-reggae artists that incorporate the style is that Dennis Davis approached the drums with a reggae sensibility and does a good job of it. The other instruments are more of an American approximation of reggae but the drums hold it down for me. And the horns also have a late 70’s Bob Marley & the Wailers vibes. The song also played an important part in my production philosophy, which is to try to expand the reach of reggae by incorporating other styles and influences while still keeping the roots. And also to stay grounded in the connection between Jamaican Reggae and American R&B music that is sometimes lost on people — there would be no Reggae as we know it without R&B.”
And while “Master Blaster” is a tribute to Bob Marley, the song also includes a name drop of Jamaican reggae band Third World who Stevie would go on to write and produce for. As Michael G. suggests: “Stop reading and immediately find and listen to ‘Try Jah Love’ and ‘You’re Playing Us Too Close’ by Third World right now to hear the results.”
Watch: Third World – “Try Jah Love”
In 1982 Stevie made a slew of public appearances paying homage to Bob Marley with “Master Blaster” including a collaborative performance of the song with Third World during that year’s Reggae Sunsplash event showing Stevie’s continued connection to Jamaica & Bob’s music.
No word on what Bob thought of “Master Blaster” but my guess is he likely enjoyed the song as much as he did his friendship with Stevie up until his unfortunate passing on May 11th, 1981.
The influence of that connection between Bob & Stevie is timeless and finds itself emerging in today’s productions of reggae-rock to pop, including Jason Mraz‘s 2020 record Look For The Good. That album was produced by Michael G. and as he concludes with The Pier: “When Jason Mraz sent me a demo of his song ‘Take The Music,’ I immediately heard a Stevie influence and as I started working on the arrangement and demos I kept thinking back to ‘Master Blaster’, especially with the horns. We even tried to get Stevie to jump on the track but unfortunately he was dealing with some health issues at the time that we were trying to finish up the album so it didn’t work out.”
Watch: Third World with Stevie Wonder – “You’re Playing Us Too Close”
Listen: Jason Mraz – “Take The Music”