Peter “Stepping Razor” Tosh made such an impression on the reggae world, he will be forever remembered as a founding member of the Wailers band with Bob Marley and Bunny “Wailer” Livingston, a fantastic solo artist and great promoter of human rights and the Rastafari faith.
Sadly, Tosh only lived for 32 years, like Marley his life cut prematurely short. Winston Hubert McIntosh was born in 1944 but was murdered in 1987 during an attack at his home in Jamaica.
Tosh was born in Westmoreland but abandoned by his parents and "shuffled among relatives”. When he was 15, his aunt died and he moved to Trench Town in Kingston. He first picked up a guitar by watching a man play a song that captivated him. He watched the man play the same song for hours, memorising everything his fingers were doing. He then picked up the guitar and played the song back to the astonished man. Tosh formed the Wailing Wailers band with Marley and Wailer in 1962 and three others.
The Wailing Wailers had a major ska hit with their first single, ‘Simmer Down’, and recorded several more successful singles before the band went through several changes.
Rejecting the up-tempo dance of ska, the band slowed their music to the newly popular rocksteady pace, and infused their lyrics with political and social messages inspired by their new-found Rasta faith. The Wailers composed several songs for the American singer Johnny Nash before teaming with producer Lee Perry to record some of the earliest classic songs, including ‘Soul Rebel’, ‘Duppy Conqueror’, and ‘Small Axe’.
The band signed a recording contract with Chris Blackwell and Island Records company and released their highly acclaimed debut, Catch a Fire, in 1973, following it with Burnin' the same year.
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 began recording and released his solo debut, Legalize It, in 1976. The title track soon became popular among endorsers of marijuana legalisation, reggae music lovers and Rastafari all over the world, and was a favourite at his concerts.
Tosh started to make his own album with Rolling Stones Records and CBS Records Equal Rights followed in 1977, featuring his recording of a song co-written with Marley, ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, and a cover of ‘Stepping Razor’ that also appear on the soundtrack to the film Rockers.
Tosh organised a backing band, Word, Sound and Power, who accompanied him on tour for the next few years, and many of whom performed on his albums. In 1978 the Rolling Stones record label Rolling Stones Records contracted with Tosh, on which the album Bush Doctor was released, introducing the Jamaican to a larger audience. The album featured Rolling Stones frontmen Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and the lead single – a cover version of The Temptations song ‘Don't Look Back’ – was performed as a duet with Jagger. It raised Tosh’s profile as an artist.
During Marley's free One Love Peace Concert of 1978, Tosh lit a spliff and lectured about legalising cannabis, lambasting attending dignitaries Michael Manley and Edward Seaga for their failure to enact such legislation. Several months later he was apprehended by police as he left Skateland dance hall in Kingston and heavily beaten up while in police custody.
Mystic Man (1979), and Wanted Dread and Alive (1981) followed, both released on Rolling Stones Records. Tosh tried to gain some mainstream success while keeping his militant views, but was only moderately successful, especially when compared to Marley's achievements.
In 1984, after the release of 1983's album Mama Africa, Tosh went into self-imposed exile, seeking the spiritual advice of traditional medicine men in Africa, and trying to free himself from recording agreements that distributed his records in South Africa. Tosh had been at odds for several years with his label, EMI, over a perceived lack of promotion of his music.
He also participated in the international opposition to South African apartheid by appearing at anti-apartheid concerts and by conveying his opinion in various songs. In 1987, Tosh seemed to be having a career revival. He was awarded a Grammy for Best Reggae Performance in 1987 for No Nuclear War.
At some point after his departure from the Wailers, Tosh developed an interest in unicycles; he became a unicycle rider, being able to ride forwards and backwards and hop. He often amused his audiences by riding onto the stage on his unicycle for his shows. He was also a martial arts exponent and used to perform moves on stage.
On 11 September 1987, just after Tosh had returned to his home in Kingston, a three-man gang came to his house on motorcycles and demanded money. Tosh insisted 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 for money. Over the hours, as various Tosh's 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 previously befriended and tried to help find work after a long jail sentence. Eventually, Lobban and the gunmen began opening fire in a reckless manner. Tosh was shot twice in the head and killed. Herbalist Wilton "Doc" Brown also died. Several others in the house were wounded. Lobban was found guilty and although sentenced to death by hanging he remains in jail for the incident. The other two gunmen are supposedly shot dead in a street gun battle.
A square on Trafalgar Road in Kingston was renamed Peter Tosh Square. The square is home to the Peter Tosh Museum, which opened in October 2016. Among the artefacts on display is Tosh's beloved M16 guitar.
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