Uncompromising reggae musician Winston Hubert McIntosh, or Peter Tosh as he began to call himself in his late teens, was born in 1944 in Grange Hill, a small town in the agricultural belt of Jamaica. His mother was Alvera Coke, who attended a small church at which his father, James McIntosh, was a preacher. His father had many children by different mothers, none of whom he cared for, and his mother wasn't much interested in her son, so Tosh was raised by his aunt. From an early age he displayed the bad temper, brash arrogance, and aggressive attitude that he would keep throughout his life; these character traits would in time earn him the nickname "Stepping Razor".
Tosh apparently showed a talent for music from an early age, though he only had a few months piano lessons as a boy. As he told it, he watched a guitarist play one day and was so mesmerized that he took in all the man was doing; when the man put the guitar down the boy picked it up and played the song he had just heard, and that was that. Tosh could play guitar. (Tosh liked to portray himself as independent and self-reliant in all things.)
As a boy he moved with his aunt to Kingston; when he was 15 she died, and he moved in with an uncle in the ghetto slum of Trenchtown, where he would meet Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer. The three formed a band, first called "The Wailing Wailers", later just "The Wailers". Tosh would assert that he was the impetus behind the band, being the only one who could play an instrument, and that he was the one who taught Marley to play guitar. Whatever the truth of that story, the young musicians, drawing on a strong commitment to emancipation of blacks and the poor, began playing a new kind of music, which coupled politically engaged lyrics with a hard-driving beat. They became famous in the slums of Jamaica.
Along the way, they discovered religion: Rastafarianism, a syncretic creed that reworks Biblical scripture to include a creator called by the Rastas Jah and deification of Haile Selassie, Lion of Jah, emperor of Ethiopia. Though disaffected western youth identify Rastafari with dreadlocks and the giant spliffs Marley and Tosh were not afraid to be photographed smoking, the religion is equally based on an I-Tal lifestyle: natural, clean, vegetarian, holistic. It calls for a rejection of Babylon - white, western, oppressive culture - and a black Exodus back to a better world in Africa.
As the Wailers were becoming well-known in Jamaica, the original trio began to fracture. Producer Chris Blackwell flew the band to London in 1972 to record "Catch a Fire", but when they were to go to the US and England to tour the following year, Bunny left the band, citing fear of flying. The tour didn't go well, and tensions between Marley and Tosh began to build. That same year, 1973, Tosh suffered what would seem a tragedy, though he denied such things had any effect on him: he drove his car off an unfinished bridge; his girlfirend was killed in the accident and he suffered severe skull fractures. His surliness was already legendary, but after this he apparently became even more prickly and difficult. He grew jealous of Marley's success, which he would later charge happened because Marley was part white, and he too soon left the Wailers.
Now a solo act, Tosh's lyrics became even more political, a stance which did not endear him to the authorities. Arrested for possession of ganja in 1975, he was brutally beaten by the police. As the years went on he began to have frightening visions of being haunted by ghosts and demons, visions which might seem paranoid except for the actual hauntings and beatings he was increasingly subjected to. Watch the documentary "Stepping Razor Red X" about Tosh's life: you'll see the gradually accumulating scars on his face, the result of numerous run-ins with police.
In 1975 too the One Love Peace Concert took place, featuring Tosh and Marley playing, though not together. "Stepping Razor" shows Tosh haranguing members of parliament in attendance, including Prime Minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga, calling for an overthrow of the "shit-stem" run by "crime ministers who shit in the House of Represent-a-Thief" and finshing off by lighting a huge spliff onstage. By contrast, Marley, as seen in the documentary about his life, "Rebel Music", is an ecstatic whirling demigod of love, calling for peace and reconciliation. Malcom X and Martin Luther King indeed, if in a different idiom.
Sadly, in 1987 three armed intruders broke into Tosh's house looking for money; when Tosh said he didn't have any, they shot and killed him and herbalist Wilton "Doc" Brown. Tosh's common-law wife and manager, Marlene Brown, drummer Santa Davis, musician Michael Robinson and disc jockey Jeff Dixon and his wife, Yvonne, were also wounded in the attack. One of the assassins was a man Tosh had befriended and tried to help find work after a long jail sentence. He was later arrested and tried for his crime, though his accomplices were never caught.
Selected solo discography:
There's a critical review of "Stepping Razor Red X" which makes many interesting points at