Yesterday near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Inner Circle's tour bus crashed into a highway cable barrier on Interstate 10 as the classic reggae band traveled to California to kick off its summer tour. A tire blowout was the cause.
"Listen man, God is good," cofounder and guitarist Roger Lewis tells Crossfade. "I thought the whole bus was gon' flip and it was all gon' be over. It was like a movie, everyting was flyin' and turnin'. The only thing that held us from flipping was a wire. And the driver was very good, he held tight. We skid into a ravine and then crash. Somebody great was looking out for us boy, somebody great."
We happened to be there with a camera as the bus prepared to leave for tour Monday night.
Inner Circle is most famous for writing and recording the theme song to the TV show COPS, as well as "Sweat (A La La La La Long)."
But the group's history stretches back much further, to its essential role in the birth of reggae, recordings and concerts with Bob Marley, session work with production legends Harry J, Joe Gibbs, Sir Dodd, King Tubby, Lee Scratch Perry, Derrick Harriott, and Byron Lee to name a few -- not to mention its run in the 1970s as the most popular band in all of Jamaica, before the tragic death of lead singer Jacob "Killer" Miller in a 1980 car crash in Kingston.
Originally born as a high school band made up of the Fatman Riddim Section of brothers Ian and Roger Lewis and a bunch of their friends (who would later leave to form the band 3rd World), Inner Circle was formed in 1968 in Jamaica.
But the band has been based in Miami since 1984, when Ian Lewis and Bernard "Touter" Harvey opened Circle House Recording Studio, one of the nation's premier hit-making facilities.
Bob Marley handpicked "Touter" Harvey to play keyboards, piano, and organ with him live and in the studio when he was just 15 years old. His work appears on every song of the Natty Dread album. He has also worked extensively with Burning Spear, including on the classic Marcus Garvey album. "Touter" joined Inner Circle officially after extensive studio work for other artists, as a member of The Aggravators and The Upsetters bands. Those groups are spoken of with awe by fans around the world.
The Lewis brothers were no slouches in the studio either. Beginning with session work at Dynamic Sounds Studios, operated by Byron Lee of The Dragonaires fame, Ian and Roger quickly built a reputation as talented youths. They ended up in the studio with Eric Donaldson after his "Cherry Oh Baby" won Jamaica's annual national festival song competition in 1971. It is their instrumental riddim that backs it, and it has been covered over 50 times by artists including The Rolling Stones on their 1976 album Black and Blue.
In 1971, Inner Circle joined socialist PNP party candidate Michael Manley on a "Bandwagon Tour" that would see him elected Prime Minister of Jamaica just a year later. Inner Circle was the official backing band for artists like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Marcia Griffiths, and Clancy Eccles, on the historic tour through every crevice of Jamaica. It was the first instance of politics invoking the use of popular music on the island to help secure the vote of the common people.
The band remained a popular local draw making money from studio sessions and by playing sets of American pop and R&B covers at tourist hot spots. And in 1974, thanks to an introduction by Augustus Pablo, the group hired solo artist Jacob Miller as Inner Circle's permanent singer.
Miller was a devout Rastafarian at a time when it was dangerous to be so, when having dreadlocks meant assured police harassment, beatings, and lockups without cause. He was an unabashed proponent of the legalization of marijuana, and his hyperkinetic stage antics included wild acts like taking the hat off of policemen and blowing weed smoke while wearing them, inciting crowds to pandemonium.
Miller was a consummate showman also known as "The Man With the Bionic Voice" because of an echo effect he invented using only his own vocal cords. It is still being copied today.
Inner Circle and Jacob Miller made a vicious combination. Together, they were an unstoppable musical force. They recorded several major label albums that saw international release throughout Europe, the UK, and the United States. But in Jamaica, this was the most in-demand live band in the country.
There are two political parties in a constant state of war to rule Jamaica, the JLP and the PNP. Each group hires private armed militias of bad men and gangsters to secure blocks of territory and deliver votes when the time comes. They are given free reign, guns, and the power to control vast urban warzones.
In 1978, Bob Marley was lured back to Kingston to play a peace concert encouraging a truce between the rival factions. In 1976, he had been shot over politics and moved to England. This would be his first time back to his country since.
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Inner Circle also played this peace concert. And in a spontaneous act of showmanship and bravery, during the premiere of his new song "Peace Treaty," Jacob Miller invited the baddest thugs of West Kingston, Claude Massop and Bucky Marshall, onto the stage. He brought them together with music.
After Inner Circle's set, which was caught on film for the movie Heartland Reggae, Peter Tosh performed, and then Bob Marley. Inspired by Miller's bravado and in a friendly act of competitive one-upmanship, Marley invited the rival leaders of the political parties, Edward Seaga and Michael Manley, onto the stage, asking them to lock and raise their hands during his song "Jamming." This moment is always referred to as one of the most historic moments in Marley's career, and it was inspired by Jacob Miller and Inner Circle.
Give thanks, because nobody was injured in yesterday's Inner Circle bus crash. The Lewis brothers and crew will be back home safe in Miami soon, after a successful tour that'll see them continue to spread the positive message of love and unity that makes this one of the greatest living bands in the history of reggae music.