With Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer having left The Wailers after a decade with Bob Marley, 1974's Natty Dread represented the first of the Bob Marley & The Wailers recordings. If there was any concern that losing Tosh and Wailer would adversely affect Marley's career, Natty Dread proved definitively and without doubt that Marley was a true superstar, not just in reggae, but in general.
Moreover, he had a crack band with the amazing rhythm section of the Barrett brothers, Carlton on drums and Aston on bass, the excellent lead guitar of American Al Anderson, the keyboard work of Bernard "Touter" Harvey (who was a key member of the great Inner Circle) and the sweet female backing combo, the I-Threes, featuring Marley's wife Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt. Using female singers instead of the duo of Tosh and Bunny Wailer was a shrewd way of reconfiguring the sound of the band, as well.
This album is brimming with classic tracks that have become masterpieces of reggae, starting with the brilliant "Lively Up Yourself," moving to be beautiful ballad, "No Woman No Cry," then to the sharp social commentary of "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" and "Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)."
What stands out on the latter two is the synchronicity between the Barrett brothers and the general tightness of the sound--carefully crafted and calibrated to make the most of the music. "Rebel Music" adds the unusual use of a harmonica, as well, while Marley croons in an upper register with the I-Threes to state the title before launching into his vocal, while the backing singers sound fantastic. There is also some tasty organ playing on this track.
By contrast the remaining songs are not as strong, though they are all excellent songs--this is a testament to the staggering quartet that opens the album. "So Jah Seh"is a very fine song, with a nice intro showcasing percussion, horns and a diligent groove before Marley comes in with his vocals. "Natty Dread" has that memorable chorus and a typically-strong bass line from "Family Man" Barrett.
"Bend Down Low" has a singsong opening theme on two kinds of keyboards and then that great groove and chorus that is about as danceable a tune as can be. "Talkin' Blues" has a smart acoustic intro, before the insistent beat and rhythm guitar lead the way to Marley's keening vocal and the sweet backing of the I-Threes. "Revolution" might be most memorable for the excellent backing of the I-Threes and the nyabinghi drumming that rattles through the piece.
Many observers call Natty Dread not only Marley's greatest record, but the finest reggae album ever made. This blogger hesitates using the term "best" whenever possible, but there is no question that this recording is a landmark for the leader and the genre.
The remarkable thing, probably, is that he was able to follow it with a series of great albums from Rastaman Vibration to Exodus to Kaya to Survival that showed his staying power was solid. Sadly, cancer cut his life short in 1981 at age 36, but Natty Dread marked the beginning of a remarkable run for this amazingly charismatic performer.