Music

Photographer Dennis Morris on capturing legend Bob Marley – and how the reggae icon changed his life

Dennis Morris was the teenage photographer Bob Marley brought along for the ride as the leader of The Wailers became a global superstar

“Are you ready, Dennis?” Marley from the back of the van, 1973. Image: Dennis Morris

When you shoot the king, you’d better not miss. In May 1973, teenager Dennis Morris skipped school because Bob Marley & The Wailers were in London to play at famous record industry hangout The Speakeasy. He was determined to get a shot of his new musical hero. 

An obsessive photographer since learning the craft at Sunday school, Morris spent hours waiting for Marley. And when the chance came, he did not miss. In fact, he got so much more than a photograph.  

Click: in an instant, his life changed. The next morning, Morris took off on the road with Bob Marley & The Wailers and any notions of becoming a war photographer like his hero Don McCullin went out of the tour bus window. 

Dennis Morris. Image: The Photo Access / Alamy Stock Photo

“I never planned to be a rock photographer,” Morris says now. “But meeting Bob Marley changed my life and opened so many doors. 

“And what really changed my life was talking to Bob. He was something special. If you had a dad like that, you are going to do great things, you know? And I never knew my father. So talking to Bob on a daily basis at that pivotal point in my life – everything seemed possible. I couldn’t believe the wisdom that was coming from his mouth.” 

A previous father figure for Morris was Donald Paterson, who made his fortune as a purveyor of photographic equipment and, to give something back, had set up a photography club for the choirboys of the church Morris attended.  

Morris still recalls the wonder of seeing a picture developed for the first time. “I was nine and watched one of the older boys in the dark room. When he put the paper in the dish and rocked it back and forth and this image appeared, it was magic. I was smitten. 

“Donald Paterson saw my amazement and took me under his wing. He taught me everything – took me to museums, gave me books and magazines to read.” 

Bob Marley, Kingston, 1978. Dennis Morris

“His second love was table tennis. This was in Jamaica, in his house. In every room, he would have a map. And on the map in this room, there were tiny little pins in different countries. I asked him why and he said because I’m gonna touch all those places. And he did. He was a messenger. Throughout the ages, we’ve always had messages – particularly individuals who come with a message, male or female, good or bad. But certain people come specifically to give a message. And for Bob, the message was to be delivered through music. And that’s why to this day, people are still listening. And every song is even more pertinent. He was a revolutionary. But it was all about love. And he was, for us, the first black messenger for my generation.”

For the next few years, Morris honed his skills and the style that would stand him in good stead on the road. 

“Reportage photography, Don McCullin and Henri Cartier-Bresson, that was where it was at,” he says. “The powerful images in Life magazine were partially responsible for stopping the war in Vietnam.” 

Morris was inspired. “I would take pictures of my surroundings. I would take pictures of my friends. And I would go off on adventures,” he says. Many of these early works ended up in his photo series Growing Up Black, some of which are now in the Tate Britain’s collection. 

Sista Cool (1974). Dennis Morris

Shooting on the move, when opportunity presented itself, was key to capturing Marley – “We never did posed shots. They are three or four frames. Photographing Bob you always had to be, as I call it, conscious.”  

Morris was there when Bob Marley & The Wailers played to 200 people in 2,000 capacity venues across Britain later that year on the Burnin’ Tour – their fame had yet to spread outside West Indian communities. “Bob stepped out every single night as if it was sold out. For him he was building a biblical movement.” 

And Morris was with Marley when the singer first saw snow. “Bunny Wailer was convinced it was a sign from Jah that they should leave Babylon, so he and Pete Tosh left and the tour collapsed.”  

Bob Marley. Leeds, 1974. Dennis Morris

“Bob Marley had this incredible aura. He wasn’t a tall man, but he had such an incredible aura. In all my years of photography, he’s one of a very few people where you don’t need any light. It’s just coming out of him. He had that magic about him. It might look like these are taken in the studio, but they’re not. He just had this aura about him. And I think what he saw from those early shots that I had the ability to capture how he saw himself.”

Morris was also with Marley at his home on Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica as the singer grew into a global superstar. “At that point, there was no one bigger. Before his success in Jamaica, Rastas were looked down on, like tramps or something. Bob spun all that around. Suddenly, there was this Rasta the entire world wanted to come and see. He bought a house on Hope Road, where the prime minister lived. Before that, if any Rasta went up that road, they would be shot, but Bob had a house there, so all the Rastas would go and no one could touch them. Because he was the man. He made Jamaican society rethink its attitude. 

“One of the main reasons I’m doing this new exhibition with The Big Issue is Bob Marley’s song, Talkin’ Blues. One of the lyrics is ‘Cold ground was my bed last night/And rock stone was my pillow.’ That lyric was written from the time when he was homeless, when he was sleeping on the floor. Bob’s songs spoke to everyone. He was such a unifying force.” 

Morris remained a member of Marley’s inner circle – touring the world, taking photographs, inhaling the wisdom – until the singer’s life was so tragically cut short by illness in 1981. During those years together, as Marley became one of the most famous musicians on the planet, Morris was often with him, taking pictures that would become iconic. And the striking photographs got Morris noticed.  

Bob Marley London, 1980. Dennis Morris

“This was the last time we met. I never knew how ill he was. No one did, apart from his family. But when I met him that time, I knew something was wrong. He wasn’t his usual self. He wasn’t his usual vibrance. When we were talking, I almost felt self-doubt in him for the first time. Then he picked up the guitar and started playing. I didn’t realise, but he was playing Redemption Song. I was back home, staying with my mum, when we heard he’d passed. It was a newsflash on the radio. We both broke down in tears, because we knew that was the end of an era.”

Sex Pistols live, Marquee Club, London, 1977. Dennis Morris

Morris was handpicked by the Sex Pistols and, after their split, worked with John Lydon on the imagery for Public Image Ltd. He took a job as art director at Island Records and signed The Slits to the label. He photographed and designed graphics for Linton Kwesi Johnson, and shot everyone from Marianne Faithfull to James Brown, The Stone Roses to Benjamin Zephaniah as he became a mainstay of alternative culture. 

“After that I worked with every single movement coming out of England,” he recalls. “Within the indie dance movement with bands like Flowered Up, drum and bass with Goldie, photographing The Stone Roses from the very beginning.” 

But it all began with a special connection made with Bob Marley.  

Bob Marley – Portraits of The King is a new exhibition of Morris’s photographs from that life-changing, world expanding, mind-blowing eight-year period. It opens this month at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, just a short walk down Oxford Street from where it all began more than 50 years ago.  

The Stone Roses London, 1989. Dennis Morris

“Every West Indian person was talking about Bob Marley’s music,” recalls Morris, who had lived in Dalston, East London, since arriving from Jamaica with his mother as a four-year-old.  

“He was the new voice of Jamaica. The new rebel voice. His music was being played in every household. So when I read he was coming to play these gigs, I decided I wanted to meet him. I didn’t go to school that day. I went down to The Speakeasy Club at about 10am, which I now know was silly. Bands don’t get up that early! But I waited and waited and at 3pm, Bob turned up with the rest of the band. I said, ‘can I take your picture…’” 

Morris was invited inside. And right from the start, the interest was mutual.  

“They were doing a soundcheck,” Morris recalls. “And between songs, Bob was asking what it was like to be a young black kid living in London. He was fascinated by me; I was fascinated by him. Then he told me about the tour and asked if I wanted to come along.  

“The next day I packed my bags, went to the hotel where he was staying, and one of my iconic shots is him in the van looking back and saying, ‘Are you ready, Dennis?’ And so that adventure began…” 

Bob Marley – Portraits of the King is at Stephen Friedman Gallery, 28 Old Burlington Street, London, 16 February to 7 March. Entry free.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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