Tomorrow, May 4, reggae superstar, Jacob Miller, lead singer of the Inner Circle band, would have celebrated his 67th birthday. Much has been said and written about the man, who was poised to become a giant in the reggae industry, but who lost his life in a car accident, 29 years ago.
Founder of the International Reggae And World Music Awards (IRAWMA) Ephraim Martin, who was a photographer at The Gleaner at the time, recalls in techni-colour the details of the Friday evening leading up to the fateful Sunday evening of May 23, 1980. And, what’s more is that he still has unanswered questions.
“It was Friday, March 21, 1980, at about 7 p.m., and I was getting ready to leave for the day when Rita Marley (widow of Bob Marley) called the office and said that Bob was coming in to the island and that he had won an award, but it was for football rather than music. She asked if we could send somebody out to the airport.”
Although his shift was done, Martin said he decided to go to the airport. Bob was indeed there. He had just come in on a flight with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, Junior Marvin, Clancy Eccles and Jacob Miller. They were returning from Brazil, where Blackwell had just opened an office, to much fanfare.
“I greeted them and took some pictures,” Martin recalled, and then he and Miller, who was his friend, got into conversation.
“Jacob and I had a friendship. I would go up to Beverly Hills and we would talk. One of those conversations was about me getting involved in the music business. Jacob asked me to meet him on the Sunday at Zinc Fence, where Third World would be opening their club.” Miller wanted copies of the pictures that Martin had taken, and in those days, the process was much more involved than simply clicking a button and sending via WhatsApp.
Two days later, on Sunday, March 23, 1980, Martin recalls that having got the pictures developed, he took the package with him and swung by Dumfries Road, to the newly opened Zinc Fence. “It was the official opening and when I went there, a lady at the door told me that Jacob had not yet arrived. I had an assignment. As soon as the assignment was finished, I went back to Zinc Fence and I was told that Jacob had been there, but he just went out to get some sugar cane. I needed to get back to the office because the editor was waiting on the pictures, so I couldn’t wait,” Martin said.
He went to The Gleaner, and while there, the news editor at the time, Ivoral Davis, told him to go to Half Way Tree because he heard that Jacob Miller had died. “I actually didn’t even move because I knew he had to be joking,” he said. “When I reached Half-Way Tree, I saw Errol Thompson and Marcia Griffiths, as the two persons from the music fraternity, along with other people. ET was holding his head and shouting, ‘Jah! Jah! Jah!’ Marcia was repeating, ‘Bwoy, mi nuh know,’” Martin said.
The story was that Jacob Miller had been driving and a piece of cane dropped and he picked it up, and subsequently crashed into the wall. When Martin arrived on the scene, the vehicle was gone, and so too was his friend’s body and that of Miller’s son.
“I was in total shock. I was lost. On my way back to The Gleaner, I drove by Dumfries Road, intending to stop, but I couldn’t even get out of the car. I returned to the office, but I had nothing to give the editor. Sometimes I still wonder if I had waited on him when I heard that he had gone to buy the sugar cane, if things would have turned out differently. Would he have been in that place at that time, or would we have been in conversation about music. I don’t know,” Marin said.
Miller appeared at the One Love Peace Concert, held at the National Stadium in Kingston on April 22, 1978. While performing his set, he brazenly put on a policeman’s hat and lit an enormous spliff, much to the delight of the audience. His set is featured prominently in the concert documentary film Heartland Reggae, which chronicles the historic event.
Miller and Inner Circle had been preparing for an American tour with Bob Marley and The Wailers, and the next album, Mixed Up Moods, had been recorded prior to his death.