Internationally renowned reggae artist Peter Tosh was born Winston Hubert McIntosh on October 19, 1944, in Westmoreland, Jamaica, to a pair of parents too young to raise him. Instead, Tosh was raised by his aunt in Grange Hill. Early in his childhood, and inspired by American radio stations, Tosh exhibited a talent for singing and learned how to play guitar ‐ one he stole from his mother's church, according to a review by the Los Angeles Review of Books of Colin Grant's The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh and Walker.
In the early 1960s, Tosh moved from the countryside to the Trench Town slum of Kingston and began selling sugarcane juice from a cart. In was then that he met Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley) and Neville O'Riley Livingston (Bunny Wailer). All three began visiting voice teacher Joe Higgs, and, as they developed their musical talents, decided to form a band called The Wailers in 1962.
The trio started out playing covers of American pop hits. As they slowly rose to fame, The Wailers’ sound changed and they became “masters of the slinky, driving rhythm known as reggae,” according to the Review of Books. By the early 1970s, The Wailers, who had expanded by several new members, were, according to an article in The New York Times, “the most popular and admired of all reggae groups.”
From its inception to the present, The Wailers band has sold more than 250 million albums worldwide and, in England alone, released more than 20 chart hits, including seven Top 10 entries. But Tosh, along with Bunny Wailer, left the group in 1973. Tosh began producing his own music. He released his solo debut, Legalize It, in 1976 with CBS Records company. The following year he released the album Equal Rights. Both albums were a testament to Tosh's belief in the Rastafari religion, to which he had converted in years prior, and his endorsement of marijuana legalization.
Tosh's solo work caught the attention of Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who signed him to their own label in 1978. They also appeared with him on his Bush Doctor album; Jagger performed a duet with Tosh on the Temptations’ hit “(You've Got to Walk and) Don't Look Back.” The collaboration introduced Tosh to a larger audience.
As his career took off, Tosh began traveling the world, but he returned to Jamaica often to see family and friends. He was killed there on September 11, 1987, at the age of 42.
According to the Associated Press, at around 8:30 p.m. that day, three armed men on motorcycles arrived at Tosh's home in the Kingston suburb of St. Andrew, entered the house and attempted to rob its occupants, Tosh and six others, including his common-law wife Andrea Marlene Brown and health-food maker Wilton “Doc” Brown; The gunmen shot all seven after they refused to give up their money, the AP said.
Reggae fans and artists mourned Tosh's death, but celebrated his legacy. He is still known as the most controversial member of The Wailers, according to The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, which wrote that “he ruffled many a feather with his unapologetic stance on issues [such as] black liberation and the legalization of marijuana.”
Tosh's son, Andrew Tosh, walked in his father's footsteps and rose to fame as a reggae artist himself. He and other members of Tosh's family continue to hold commemoration concerts and celebrate the anniversary of Tosh's birth and rise to success. In 2016, his family opened a museum dedicated to Peter Tosh in Kingston, Jamaica. Mick Jagger congratulated the family at the opening and reflected on their musical relationship.
October 19, 1944
September 11, 1987
- Tosh was an accomplished guitarist despite having learned to play on a “sardine pan guitar.” Tosh was also a gifted multi-instrumentalist who played melodica, recorder, piano and organ on many recordings (many uncredited) early on in his career.
- Legalize It was a smash hit despite the fact that the first single from the album (also titled “Legalize It”) was banned from radio broadcast in Jamaica. The landmark album was released in 1976, the same year that Bunny Wailer’s Blackheart Man and Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration were released. These three albums, each one released by a founding member of The Wailers, are considered to be among the very best reggae albums ever recorded.
- Tosh’s legendary debut album Legalize It was produced in part by photographer, and former touring member of Bob Marley and the Wailers Lee Jaffe. According to Tosh’s bass player Robbie Shakespeare, Jaffe was also partially responsible for assembling Tosh’s all-star backing band Word, Sound and Power. Jaffe also shot the iconic cover photo for the Legalize It album in a ganja field in Westmoreland, Jamaica.
- Both Tosh and Jaffe were part of the Wailers contingent that opened for Bruce Springsteen at Max’s Kansas City from July 18-23, 1973. The Wailers played a total of 14 shows at the club during the six-night run. Writing in Billboard Magazine, Sam Sutherland called the young Wailers “the only unknown band capable of neatly eclipsing Springsteen’s formidable, growing charisma.”
- Tosh was closely associated with the Rolling Stones throughout his career, because he was the only reggae artist signed to the group’s label (from 1978-1981). He also opened for the Stones throughout their 1978 US tour. Tosh is featured in the opening scene of the group’s video for “Waiting On A Friend.”
- Tosh was genius at deconstructing the English language. He infamously referred to New York City as “New York Shitty;” he often railed against the “Jamaican Crime Minister who shit in the House of Represent-a-t’” he referred to the Babylon system (the white-colonialist establishment) as the “Babylon shit-stem.” The Queen of England was known to him as “Queen ‘Ere-lies-a-b****h.”
- Tosh friend and reggae historian Roger Steffens describes another interesting fact in the Foreword to John Masouri’s 2013 biography of Tosh titled Steppin’ Razor: The Life of Peter Tosh. Despite being an outspoken critic of the so-called “Babylon Shit-stem,” ironically, it is this very same establishment that awarded Tosh its third highest honor in 2012 when Jamaica awarded the rebel Wailer with the Order of Merit.