In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Bob Marley is a mythic figure, a man bigger than music. The best version I’ve seen of him is the one in Marlon James’ great 2014 novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings — a fictionalized account of Marley’s Jamaica built around an unnamed Marley-esque figure known only as the Singer. He’s a religious figure, an object of reverence. He survived an assassination attempt, brought together leaders of warring political factions, served as the public face for both reggae and Rastafarianism, and eventually became one of the highest-selling musicians of all time. For decades, he’s been an omnipresent face on dorm-room posters — a stoners’ Mao. I once went on a camping trip that turned tense when one of our number said that she didn’t like Bob Marley. The ensuing argument wasn’t even over Marley’s music; it was simply over whether it was OK to not like Bob Marley.
Most of Marley’s myth came into being after his death — 1981, skin cancer, 36 years old. During his lifetime, at least in the US, Bob Marley was not a pop star. He made records, and he was probably better-known than any other Jamaican reggae star, but he never really made a dent in the pop charts. Marley’s highest-charting single, 1976’s “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” only made it as high as #51. It’s the only Marley single that ever charted on the Hot 100. A Bob Marley song did, however, once make it to #1; it just wasn’t Marley singing it.
Like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, Marley only ever got to #1 because someone else covered one of his songs. But Dylan and Springsteen at least got to get as high as #2 on their own, and both of them also got to sing on “We Are The World,” which will eventually end up in this column. Marley wasn’t destined for either of those — though now that I think about it, there’s like a 60% chance he would’ve been on “We Are The World” if he hadn’t died young. And unlike Dylan or Springsteen, Marley had to suffer the indignity of a limp-ass Eric Clapton cover that commercially eclipsed everything he ever did.
Marley had started recording in Jamaica in 1962, but he was relatively new to the international scene when he made the original “I Shot The Sheriff” with the Wailers. Marley had traveled to the UK in 1972 with “I Can See Clearly Now” singer Johnny Nash, and he’d gotten himself signed to Island Records. (Jimmy Cliff, previously the label’s signature reggae star, had just left.) Marley and the Wailers became the first reggae stars to record in top-flight rock studios, and their second album for the label, 1973’s Burnin’, was the one that featured “I Shot The Sheriff.”
“I Shot The Sheriff” is a story-song, sung from the perspective of an outlaw who claims that he’d killed a sheriff in self-defense but that he did not kill the dep-u-ty. On face value, it’s a regretful Old West shoot-’em-up, a bit like Marty Robbins’ 14-years-earlier chart-topper “El Paso.” But because it’s Bob Marley, there’s more going on. In later years, Marley spoke expansively about the song’s meaning. In one interview, he claimed that the song was a stand-in for “wickedness”: “That’s not really a sheriff, it’s the elements of wickedness. The elements of that song is people been judging you and you can’t stand it no more and you explode, you just explode.” In another, he said that he really wanted the song to just straight-up be about killing cops: “I want to say ‘I shot the police’ but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead. But it’s the same idea: justice.”
There’s another possibility. Decades after Marley’s death, the Jamaican actress and filmmaker Ester Anderson, who had once been Marley’s girlfriend, claimed that the song was about birth control. In her 2012 documentary Bob Marley: Making Of A Legend, Anderson said that she’d been on birth control pills and that Marley hated the pills, thinking they were killing his babies. In this version, the sheriff is a stand-in for the doctor who kept prescribing her the pill: “Every time I plant a seed/ He said kill it before it grow.” So maybe “(You’re) Having My Baby” and “I Shot The Sheriff” were two back-to-back #1 singles that both made oblique reference to birth control.
In any case, Eric Clapton presumably knew none of this. After his version of “I Shot The Sheriff” hit, Clapton talked to Marley about the song. In his autobiography, Clapton wrote, “I tried to ask [Marley] what the song was all about, but couldn’t understand much of his reply.” Clapton had been reluctant to record a version of the song. George Terry, a guitarist in his group, had brought Clapton the song, and his bandmates had convinced him to record it.
By 1974, Clapton was a firmly established guitar hero, but he was only just getting started as a solo artist. A legitimately fascinating figure, Clapton was the son of a 16-year-old mother and an absent father, a Canadian soldier, who went off to fight in World War II before Clapton was born. He grew up thinking that his mother was his sister and that his grandparents were his parents. A guitar prodigy, Clapton had dropped out of high school and started busking with acoustic guitars around London as a teenager before joining his first band.
Over the next decade, Clapton played in a ton of different bands, plenty of which had chart success on both sides of the Atlantic: the Yardbirds, John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek And The Dominoes. (The Yardbirds’ highest-charting single was 1965’s “For Your Love,” which peaked at #6. It’s an 8. Cream’s highest-charting single was 1968’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” which peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) Clapton had also sung backup on the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and played on George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” And then there was the matter of people writing graffiti koans that Clapton was God. Point is: He was a known quantity. Even so, he only has one American #1, and that’s “I Shot The Sheriff.”
Before 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, the album that featured “I Shot The Sheriff,” Clapton had only released one solo album, a 1970 self-titled affair. 461 Ocean Boulevard came out of a tumultuous time for Clapton. He was in the process of kicking heroin. He was also in the process of moving in with his friend George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, whom he’d been publicly pursuing for years. And he was shattered by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, his friends and peers. And yet 461 Ocean Boulevard is a relentlessly, almost tryingly mellow album — a record that effectively transforms blues-rock into a sleepy noodle-shuffle.
Even in its original form, “I Shot The Sheriff” had been a concession — an artifact of the period that Marley and the Wailers had tried to court mainstream (or, I guess, white) fans by fusing their reggae with expansive ’70s rock sonics. With his take, Clapton takes that tendency and pushes it much, much further. Clapton’s “I Shot The Sheriff” is only reggae in the vaguest, most forgiving sense of the word. There’s a slight skank in the rhythm guitar and maybe a theoretical roll in the bassline, and that’s pretty much it.
Instead, Clapton takes this song and turns it into gooey proto-yacht-rock mush, a lazy swirl of organs and pianos and aimless soloing. Clapton attempts to fake Marley’s patois, but he never gets there. His voice is too weak and timid to leave any sort of impression. Everything dissolves into a thick, tasteless soup. (Backup singer Yvonne Elliman will eventually appear in this column, but you wouldn’t guess it from her buried-in-the-mix work here.) The end result is a song that really did help grow the international audience for Marley and for reggae in general, and maybe it deserves credit for that. But on its own merits, it’s a fucking drag — a song not worthy of Marley, or even of Clapton.
BONUS BEATS: EPMD built their eternal 1988 classic “Strictly Business” from a chopped-up sample of Clapton’s take on “I Shot The Sheriff.” Here’s their video for it:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Warren G’s video for his own 1997 version of “I Shot The Sheriff,” which samples Clapton’s version and which peaked at #20:
(Warren G’s highest-charting single is 1994’s Nate Dogg collab “Regulate,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)