(Note: Not all of the below may be 100% accurate)
With the recent much-anticipated release of the documentary Marley, I thought there would be no better time to look at a little known anecdote that links the legendary Jamaican reggae singer with one of Ireland’s most beloved football players.
It may come as a surprise to you, it certainly did to me, to learn that Johnny Giles and Bob Marley were close friends right from the time they first met in London in August 1972 to the time of Marley’s untimely death in May 1981.
While some may know Marley as a football fan, most may not know that Johnny Giles was (and remains) a huge lover of both reggae music and Jamacian culture. He is affectionately known as ‘Dub Rudie Giles’ amongst the Afro-Caribbean community of Harbourne, Birmingham where he lives today. He has been the chairpeson of the Irish-Jamacian Fraternal Society of Harborne for the last eight years.
Bizarrely, Giles’ love of reggae is all down to George Best.
While Best just missed playing with Giles at Manchester United (he joined the year Giles left for Leeds), the two Irishman started up a long-lasting friendship around this time. The two clubs faced each other in the championship in 1965 with Manchester United coming out top. Dejected after this and Leeds’ defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup, Best invited Giles to accompany him on a trip home to Belfast to help him take his mind of things. No one could have forcast how life-changing this weekend away would be for Giles.
Always a good host and well tuned into the local scene, Best ended up bringing Giles to a hip, new Jazz club in the city centre at which Terri Hooley (later of Good Vibrations fame) was DJing. Towards the end of the night Hooley played ‘Simmer Down’, the first single from an up and coming new group called Bob Marley and the Wailers. It was this point that Giles’ life changed.
Hooked by the catchy ska rhythm, Giles approached Hooley and asked him about this new and exciting music which he was hearing for the first time.
Terri Hooley takes up the story:
“Ha! I remember that incident actually. George Best and this Leeds footballer were in the club, having a few drinks and chatting to the ladies. Immediately after I played ‘Simmer Down’, the Leeds footballer ran up to me. In a thick Dublin accent, he asked me questions about the music and he wanted to know who was singing. He was in a frenzy! I wrote the info down on a piece of paper and gave it to him. He seemed so pleased. It was only a few years later that I realised the bloke had been Johnny Giles! He actually wrote to me in the late 1970s, thanking me for turning him onto reggae and congratulating me on bringing out Ireland’s first reggae single ‘Repression’ by a great band called Zebra. We still exchange Christmas cards. Nice bloke”
Returning to Leeds a changed man, Giles would the spend the next few years following Marley’s career, collecting records and attending reggae and ska dances whenever he had the chance.
Giles’s love of reggae soon became a talking point within the footballing and music world. Through George Best, Giles met record producer and songwriter Jonathan King who was taken aback at this Dublin born, Leeds footballer reggae fanatic. Giles was the inspiration for Kings’ 1971 novelty pop record ‘Johnny Reggae’ put out under the pseudonym The Piglets. (Giles being the ‘Johnny’ Reggae referred to)
One of the main giveaways is the verse:
He looks great in his big white
He’s stupid over football
An’ he looks me in the eye
when he shoots.
Giles was well-known for wearing a pair of white American basketball boots, that were sent over by a stateside relative, at the time. He was fond of wearing them to the reggae clashes and dances that he attended in Leeds and other English cities (usually depending on where the team were playing).
But it wasn’t until 1972 that Giles got to meet his hero. Marley was in London mastering his groundbreaking Catch a Fire album. On one Saturday in August, Leeds traveled down to North London to play Tottenham Hotspur. Giles couldn’t believe his luck when he found out that Marley was playing that very night in The Telegraph venue in Brixton.
Up at the very front, Giles would later describe this gig as the best of his life.
At the bar Giles met Malchi Ó Conghaile, a Jamaican-Irish DJ and drug dealer who had been supplying Marley with his ganja since he first got into the city. Delighted to meet an Irishman who was obviously so into the music, Ó Conghaile invited Giles back to his house in Kilburn where the after-party was.
It was here, in the kitchen of Malachi Ó Conghaile’s house in NW6, that Giles finally got to meet his idol. Giles was blown away to find out that Marley was a huge football fan and even knew that Giles’ played midfield for Leeds. They spent the night drinking Guinness, eating Jerk Chicken and talking about world politics and music. (Marley was particularly keen to learn more about Bloody Sunday and the conflict in the six counties)
While they kept in touch via mail, the two didn’t meet again until 1977 when Marley invited Giles down to London to play some 11-a-side at Battersea Park. This second meeting is credited as really cementing the bond between them.
In 1980, Marley sorted out Giles with backstage tickets for his triumphal Dalymount Park gig in Dublin on July 6 . (Giles only complaint apparently was that the gig was happening at the home of Bohs!) In some pictures, you can actually see Giles’ head popping out from the side of the stage. During the encore, Marley invited Giles out to sing his favourite song ‘Johnny Was’. (Unfortunately the only known picture of this momentous event were stolen in a burglary of Giles’ home in the early 1990s)
Marley’s premature death the following year rocked Giles to the core. Most of his friends say he never got over it.
While going onto become one of Ireland’s best known and respected football pundit, Giles love of reggae seems to be strong as ever. Still collecting records to this day, he has apparently amassed one of the largest and most rare reggae record collections in Western Europe.
“I may have the best dubplates but without a doubt my man ’Dub Rudie Giles’ has the best original Trojan and Studio 1 collection. No doubt!”, renowned British reggae DJ David Rodigan and close friend once commented.
On the anniversary of Marley’s death every year, Giles lights a candle and plays both (his signed copies of) Catch A Fire and Rastaman Vibration from start to finish.
I say Marley would chuckle if he was told that Irish reggae enthusiasts often seek out Johnny Giles’ plaque in Ormond Square to take pictures and leave offerings.