Bob Marley died 36 years ago today – as we reveal rare information about his long-lost 1973 performance in Hitchin a short time before he and his band hit global superstardom – and talk to a person who was there that seminal night.

The Comet: An original copy of the 1973 Bob Marley and The Wailers 'Catch A Fire' tour posterAn original copy of the 1973 Bob Marley and The Wailers 'Catch A Fire' tour poster (Image: Archant)

Next Friday, May 19, it will be 44 years to the day since Rastafarian reggae superstars Bob Marley and The Wailers played in Hitchin.

The band played Hitchin Town Hall in 1973 to a packed crowd as part of their month-long ‘Catch a Fire’ tour – even if the rest of the English leg of the run saw the Wailers playing a series of ill-attended gigs at university and college halls, pubs and clubs.

The band – which had developed from earlier Ska group the Wailers created by Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer – had yet to hit the big time. They were struggling financially and frustrated at the lack of recognition their talents deserved.

When The Wailers played in North Herts the Jamaican band members were yet to become global stars. The tour started in April in Nottingham and ended in Southampton on May 29 – stopping off to play a live set for BBC music show ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ in London along the way. The tour then went back to the USA where it continued until July of that year.

The Comet: Dorrel Haynes attended Bob Marley and The Wailers at Hitchin Town HallDorrel Haynes attended Bob Marley and The Wailers at Hitchin Town Hall (Image: Archant)

Yet members of the African Caribbean Seniors and Carers Luncheon Club remembered the star coming to Hitchin. Dorrel Haynes, who attended the Brand Street gig, said: “It was a privilege such an upcoming star came to Hitchin – it was so well attended too.

“We already knew all about the Wailers from Jamaica before he came here, so it was really exciting.”

Bob and his group may not have hit the mainstream by then but Dorrel wasn’t alone in feeling such pride the tour took them to North Herts as the town was earning a reputation as musical hub for other artists, some already established, some about to explode into popular consciousness.

Dorrel added: “It was about the same time Desmond Decker and Stevie Wonder also came to Hitchin to play – as it was quite a small town then, it really put Hitchin on the map.”

It is said the band were on the verge of splitting up around that time. Yet they were on the cusp of superstardom. In an interview with the NME only eight days before their Hitchin show, Bunny Wailer explained: “We got a few stage shows which weren’t very regular. We used to get small bread because promoters as a whole are all for themselves. They don’t want to build no artists, they don’t want to give you anything to build yourself up. They want you to work for them all the days of your life without having anything substantial.”

The previous month, on April 13, they released their fifth album, Catch A Fire, their first on the Island record label. It was packaged like a rock record with a unique Zippo lighter lift-top.

Who knows what the positivity shown by the crowd in Hitchin that night did for their spirits during an otherwise poorly attended tour? Although Dorrel couldn’t confirm it surely Bob and the band would have played their song Stir It Up? Composed by Bob in 1967 they re-recorded it, playing it on The Old Grey Whistle Test on May 1, 1973 – 18 days before they played Hitchin.

Footage of that iconic performance captures Bob at the height of his powers looking impossibly perfect only weeks before their Hitchin show – just months before they were to be adored by millions around the planet. At the time of writing it has had 31 million views on YouTube.

One critic who saw the tour when it reached Leicester Polytechnic four days after the Hitchin gig, reported: “Featuring mainly material from their excellent new album, ‘Catch a Fire’ the group answered all those who claim reggae is samey and repetitive with a beautifully balanced [set].”

Although the ‘Catch a Fire’ album was followed six months later by Burnin’ which shot the singer to world fame later years were cruel to some.

Band member Winston McIntosh, known to the world as Peter Tosh met a tragic end in 1987 when a former convict, a man he had previously befriended to help find work tortured him in his Jamaica home before shooting him dead. The man remains in prison to this day.

Bob – Robert Nesta Marley – died at the tender age of 36 from skin cancer. Bunny Wailer, aka Neville Livingston is still going strong at 70, renowned as a standard-bearer of reggae music, also picking up three Grammy’s.

Despite their differing fortunes after that Hitchin gig Bob Marley and The Wailers’ music will live on forever as their infectious rhythms are credited with popularising reggae music around the world – also serving as a symbol of Jamaican culture and identity.

And for one glorious, long lost night 44 years ago, they brought their mesmerising sounds to Hitchin.

As Bunny Wailer put it enigmatically in that 1973 NME interview: “You will have to live forever to know all things. And that’s what we intend doing.”