Roger Steffens is a man who without a doubt knows a lot about Reggae music and in particular The Wailers. He has the largest collection of Wailers memorabilia and is constantly requested to consult on programmes focussing on Bob Marley as well as other things.
Born in 1942 in Brooklyn, Roger was raised in New Jersey and first got interested in Reggae music in 1973.
Roger differs from some who claim to know about Bob Marley and his life as he actually knew Bob personally. His was nicknamed Rojah by Bob when they "were on the road together in '79 during the West Coast part of the ‘Survival' tour" and he added the Ras himself.
Getting involved with Reggae music was a whole other story and Roger got into it in 1 week when he read an article in Rolling Stone magazine called ‘The Cold Side of Paradise' by Michael Thomas. This article later became a book called ‘Babylon on a Thin Wire', then re-released some years later as ‘Jah Revenge'. Roger then bought ‘Catch A Fire' and as he recalls he "never took it off the record player for 3 weeks." He then watched the movie ‘The Harder They Come' starring Jimmy Cliff and bought that soundtrack. He became hooked on Reggae from there on in.
Roger has done many things in the music business including record promotion and was the National Promotions Director for Island Records between 1982 and 1983 for Reggae and African music. He has also been a record and TV producer, a concert MC, a DJ and then moved into being an archivist, writer, editor and critic. He also lectures on ‘The Life of Bob Marley' and other topics. The list doesn't end there though as Roger has also been a TV host, a documentary narrator and has been chairman of the Reggae Grammy Committee since its inception in 1985. As he puts it he is a "general advocate for Jamaican culture."
The Dainty Crew got to hear about Roger through finding he does a lot of liner notes for JAD Records' releases. Danny Sims, the head of JAD Records, approached Roger in 1995 At the Archives and asked him to identify all the Wailers tracks that existed from the period in which he and his partner Johnny Nash had signed the Wailers as writers and performers. Roger then suggested that Danny should do a "definitive series of albums… in proper chronological order with superb factual liner notes." Prior to starting the liner notes work, Roger added 10 hours of interactive material to an album that Danny had just released called ‘Soul Almighty' containing several unreleased Wailers tracks from the late ‘70s. This album was reissued as an enhanced CD called ‘Soul Almighty: the Enhanced CD' and it is still in print.
The next step for Roger involved Bruno Blum from Paris with whom he had worked on the French Reggae encyclopaedia. Bruno had found a French record label that was willing to fund the ‘Complete Wailers 1967 – 1972' box set series and they set to work finding all the material for it. Bruno took some of Roger's rare singles to the Abbey Road studio in London, England and the engineers who worked on the Beatles anthology box sets cleaned them up. Roger says, "It is one of the projects of which I am most proud in my life. For the first time, all the rarest 7" singles from the Wailers prolific late ‘60s to early ‘70s period are available to the public at fair prices."
Roger has worked with a plethora of other labels and he says it must be "over a hundred by now." He has dealt with liner notes for many different artists including Peter Tosh, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Cliff, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Barrington Levy, Alton Ellis, Mighty Diamonds, Skatalites, Jacob Miller and Dean Fraser. Some of the works include ‘Complete Bob Marley and the Wailers 1967 – 1972', ‘Honorary Citizen' – the Peter Tosh box set and nearly all of Bunny Wailer's albums for the past 10 years.
Roger first started collecting Wailers memorabilia "right from the start" with his first Reggae purchase being the Zippo lighter cover of the Wailers' US debut album ‘Catch A Fire' in 1973. He then started saving everything he found on Reggae, Rasta and Jamaica. Obviously, time has gone on and now Roger says his "collection has grown to fill 6 rooms, floor to ceiling" of his home in LA.
Some of you may be familiar with BEAT magazine. Well, Roger was the founding editor and it started out in 1982 as "a combination play list of the Reggae Beat show" that Hank Holmes and Roger did on KCRW in LA. It also had a listing of upcoming events. The very first issue was a 14" two-sided broadsheet that got folded into a 12 pager in the second issue of the magazine. By the end of 1982, the magazine had become an 11 x 8 black and white publication. The first colour cover followed a year after and as Roger states, "it's become the biggest, most widely read Reggae and world beat magazine in the world." This is quite an amazing feat when it comes to light that all the writers and photographers are all volunteers. Roger now writes a bi-monthly column called ‘Ras Rojah's Reggae Ramblings' and edits the annual Bob Marley Collector's Edition whilst CC Smith is the editor and publisher. The reach of the magazine is now worldwide especially as Tower Records buy several thousand copies of each issue.
Roger has written for numerous other international publications including the NY Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Reggae Nucleus, Rolling Stone, Jamaica Observer, Moda (Italy), Nova (France) and Player (Japan).
Radio work has also featured in Roger's life and he was a DJ on Air – WVOX in New Rochelle, New York from 1961 to 1963 and also co-hosted Planet Reggae on Groove Radio in LA between 1993 and 1997. There are plenty of other stations he has worked on which are too numerous to mention within this short article, but suffice to say Roger has worked on worl' of radio stations and programs! These days, due to work commitments, Roger just guests on shows hosted by other people.
Sound waves are just one side of Roger's many talents. He has also worked on film and TV narrating documentaries and making appearances. Some of the long list of shows he has worked on include Dean Quixote, Liberty Heights, Ghosts of Mississippi, The American President (Columbia), Forrest Gump (Paramount), The Making of Batman Returns (narrating - Warner), Soul Rebel: The Bob Marley Story (UK Channel 4), Behind the Music: VH1 (Alan Freed, Peter Tosh and 1970), Empty Nest (NBC), CHiPS (12 episodes, MGM) and LA Reggae (host – Century Cable from 1981 – present).
With so many commitments in various media, it's a wonder how Roger even manages to find time to also co-write Bunny Wailer's autobiography. This came about through Roger meeting Bunny at Sunsplash in 1985. A few years later, Bunny asked Roger to co-write his autobiography and Roger agreed. The book is to be called ‘Old Fire Sticks' and although Roger says, "it's a huge, time-consuming task", he feels a great responsibility to do the work right. The book release date is down to Bunny Wailer and as yet is unspecified.
Roger has also co-written other works, namely ‘Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer' which was published in 1994 and contributed to around 20 other books including essays and chapters.
Lecturing is yet another facet of Roger's many skills and he lectures on ‘The Life of Bob Marley' and other Reggae topics. He has been a lecturer since he was just 16 years old and was the New Jersey state champion in the American Legion National Oratory Contest as a senior in high school. He won drama and oratory scholarships to college and recalls his first touring show was ‘Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry' between 1966 and 1976. He lived out of his car from September through to May each year and so he says he can "really relate to the life of a travelling musician."
Another lecture topic of Roger's is Vietnam as he worked there with refugees for the last 26 months of the 1960's. He did his own TV show on the Armed Forces Network reading poetry to the combat troops on Sunday afternoons and was happy that he never had to fire a shot in all the time he was out there during the war.
So, with all these strings to his bow, what is Roger's living? He says he makes his living as an actor; hence long engagements away from LA are not in his schedule as he must be available for a job sometimes within 24 hours.
Still, as a Reggae super nova, Roger finds the LA Reggae scene slow with only festivals drawing the big crowds. Sadly, he also believes that Dancehall Reggae culture is just "discovering the blatant fact that slackness has done no-one any good and destroyed almost all the foreign touring markets for Jamaican acts." He doesn't see a bright future for Reggae as he says, "the language barrier is too profound. Dancehall is the thickest of Patois and Japanese people, for example, cannot penetrate its lyrics as they could so much more easily with Bob."
Roger listens to a lot of current singers and is particularly fond of Luciano. He thinks, "Stephen Marley is vastly underrated and has a major role to play still in the growth of conscious Reggae." His favourite sound system is Doug Wendt's Midnight Dread as they are "an absolute of the dance floor and world beat hero."
His plans for the future include a major exhibition of his archives at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. They have given him his own 10,000 square foot building dockside and the opening will be November 20th 2000. His 26-person design team will be working hard to ensure everything is in place for the launch day. There will be plenty to see and even some interactive material including films and videos. The tentative name for the exhibit is ‘The Story of Reggae and Bob Marley featuring Treasures from Roger Steffens' Reggae Archives'. Roger says "I couldn't be more excited. It's the culmination of a lifetime of collecting and a chance to share the 6 rooms of stuff downstairs in our crowded house with thousands of people. Wish me luck."
It's doubtful Roger needs any more luck than he already has. A man as dedicated as him can only reap the benefits of his work and give other fans an in-depth insight into the Wailers: where they came from, their works and their lives. As Roger says, "man proposes, God disposes." God definitely sees no need to dispose of Roger and we can see why.
You can contact Roger on firstname.lastname@example.org and don't forget to check out his website at www.reggaesupersite.com.