Bob Marley and the Wailers
Photo courtesy of Elan Atias

The Unlikely L.A. Story of the ‘New’ Bob Marley

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Elan Atias was the lead singer of Bob Marley and the Wailers for nearly 15 years. Before the local kid got started he had no experience in a band. Ever. 

He had never sang in front of 4,000 people before. In fact, the half-Moroccan, religious Jewish kid from Los Angeles had never sang in front of a crowd at all. He was never even part of a band, until that moment.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” the guitarist for The Wailers, Bob Marley’s band, asked Elan Atias.   

It was 1996 and Atias was riding in a van with the band, most of whom he had just met at the airport. They were pulling up to the concert venue in Dubuque, Iowa, where the 20-year-old was scheduled to perform as their lead singer.

Atias did not do a soundcheck; he did not even know what a soundcheck was. There had been no rehearsal because he had been enlisted only a few days prior. The evening’s performance was going to be based wholly on the hours upon hours he had spent listening to Marley growing up. 

The van door opened into the sauna-like Midwestern evening. The stage had no backdrop, and there was nowhere to hide, really. Thunder and lighting went off in the distance. The crowd had already started to fill in by the time they got there, as the sun was setting on that Friday night. They had come to hear Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Atias was determined to give that to them, or at least the next best thing.

He walked up onto the stage, felt the beat of the drums and the flow of the guitar, took the mic and closed his eyes. 

Atias did not know it then, but that night would launch a multi-decade run as the lead singer for The Wailers, as well as a music career that would take him around the world and connect him to the biggest artists and producers in the industry.

But what happens when everything you have ever wanted, the best-case scenario for your life, jumps out at you at 20 years old? And all because you sound exactly like one of the most legendary musicians of all time?

What happens is that you take the opportunity and hold on tight?

“Once you go this way, you will always be known as a Wailer,” said Carlos Alomar, David Bowie’s guitarist, to Atias right after he was offered the role.

Atias knew Alomar because he went to Beverly Hills High School and had seen some success as an actor. Although Atias went to school with Angelina Jolie and had befriended Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Adrian Brody and Charlize Theron, he says he didn’t really come from that Hollywood world.

Atias’ father, a Moroccan-Israeli immigrant, and his mother, a Jewish L.A. native, met in Tel Aviv. They were married shortly after in a whirlwind romance.

What happens when everything you have ever wanted jumps out at you at 20 years old? All because you sound exactly like one of the most legendary musicians of all time.

Growing up in a religious Jewish household in Los Angeles, Atias self-describes as a rambunctious kid who flitted among different schools.

“I was wild,” he says, following morning prayers at his L.A. synagogue. “I was very energetic, classified ADHD, whatever that means. My attention span was all over the pace. I loved sports, going around, partying, having fun. I couldn’t sit still.” 

Besides the school hopping, he also felt stuck between the two cultures of his family: Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazi) and North African/Middle Eastern Jews (Mizrahi). Atias says his grandmother told stories from the early ’70s, about his father driving to a local gas station just so he could speak Hebrew with the man who worked there.

Mah sh’noach li,” or what’s comfortable to me. That was his father’s guiding principle, Atias says. 

And over the summers, Atias spent many of his teen years in Israel fully embracing this philosophy. 

Ayton and Elan Atias
Elan and his brother Ayton Atias at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Elan Atias.

He says those days in Israel were some of the best times of his life: blazing hot days when he would wake up in the afternoon take a bus to the beach in Tel Aviv, screw around there for a few hours, grab something to eat, hangout and club with his friends until the next morning — all the while “chasing skirts,” he says with a smile, recounting that he’d oversleep, miss his stop and sometimes wake up at the end of the bus line.

The highlight of his time in Tel Aviv were the nights when he would go to Gil Bonstien’s Soweto club to listen to reggae music. Only a teenager, the mix of getting into the club, being among his people and even getting on the mic to talk over the songs Jamaican DJ-style, was an intoxicating mix for him — sometimes literally.

“I was just hanging out smoking herb and listing to music I loved,” he says.

This time impacted him in such a way that he was just about ready to give up his “life in a movie” in Los Angeles.

“I was ready to be in the [Israeli] army, because that’s what they do. But that was not my path, maybe God didn’t want  — ” he trails off, before continuing, “I came back [to Los Angeles] and that’s when the whole thing with The Wailers happened.”

Military life would have been unlikely to suit him. Atias recalls having 54 absences during his senior year in high school. But, he cut a deal: either he would not be allowed to walk for graduation or not be allowed to go to prom. He walked — and went to the prom afterparties.

He says he considered college but ultimately decided to stick with his burgeoning acting career. One night at the Hollywood Bowl, he even told his friend, actor Esai Morales, he would be on that stage by the following year. It was a weird thing to say, since he had done literally nothing to achieve that goal, short of going to local reggae shows.

Leon “Lou” Perez, now a music producer, mix engineer and musician, played sax and sang for one of the bands Atias would listen to at the West End in Santa Monica. Atias told him that he was a singer too, but Perez, who is also Moroccan-Jewish, said he brushed him off as just another L.A. dreamer.

“I was in such a space, I didn’t really pay attention to him,” Perez says from his home in Montreal. 

On another night out at a Hollywood club, one of his friends spotted Kaz Utsunomiya, a top music executive and acquaintance. So, they walked up to the exec and told him, Atias was a singer. To Atias’s surprise, Utsunomiya said he would love to hear his music.

“I was like, holy shit, this A&R guy  wants to hear me! … So I call him up and …   I didn’t tell him I didn’t have it — I just said I’m not prepared,” Atias says with a grin.

They scheduled to meet in one month. And Atias got to work making a demo record.   

By happenstance, again at a club, his agent introduced him to Al Anderson, guitarist for The Wailers. Atias pitched him on playing guitar for his demo, and Anderson accepted. Atias was stoked — here was Bob Marley’s guitarist playing in his demo.

Little did Atias know that The Wailers’ lead singer, Junior Marvin, who had taken over in 1981 following Marley’s death, had just left the band. They needed a singer. And this half-Moroccan, Che Guevara-looking kid had a voice that sounded like Marley’s. So, Anderson played the demo he and Atias recorded to Aston “Family Man” Barrett, a fellow Wailer, who told Anderson to offer Atias a golden ticket: the chance to sing with The Wailers, in Iowa, a few days later.

Despite wearing out the Bob Marley cassette tapes his sister gifted him as a little boy, singing the songs on repeat in the car and shower and having a premonition about being on big stages, Atias asked for some time to mull it over. 

Everyone told him to jump in. Only Alomar told him to think it over carefully.

Young Lion 

Up on the stage, with actual storm clouds brewing, Atias sang the songs he grew up with and knew by heart. Still, he wrote down the opening lyrics to them on his setlist, just as a kind of safety net.

“Right as we were about to go on stage, the band asked me again if I was ready, and I said ‘I was born ready!’ out of some kind of youthful confidence. And really, I was only ready because I had listened to the records as a kid. That was my only rehearsal, for the first eight shows, for  15,000-25,000 people!” 

Of course, he was nervous, but the reason he was standing still throughout the performance was not because of nerves. It was because he did not know what to do on stage. The concept of “stage presence” had not really occurred to him.

Just as he finished the last song, fans started throwing things at him. Atias was dismayed, thinking he blew it. Rain started to pour down.

As he was leaving the stage, Atias looked closer at what the audience was throwing. It was cannabis. The crowd loved him. He picked up as much as he could carry as he ran through the deluge to the bus. 

Just as he finished the last song, fans started throwing things at him… It was cannabis.

Though he was a hit, no one outside of the band knew who he was. Atias took on the moniker “Young Lion” and was referred to by his bandmates and Jamaican fans as “The Artikal,” which means “the real thing” in Jamaican Patois.  Most other people just assumed he was one of “Bob’s whiteys,” as the late singer’s children with white women are known.

Next up were two concerts back in California. One of which was the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, a mainstay reggae show in Northern California that drew more than 15,000 people at its peak.

“Every big Jamaican and reggae artist that I grew up listening to, and idolizing in a way, was opening for me!” Atias says, still with a kind of amazement.

Perez, whom Atias had watched perform in Santa Monica only a couple years prior, also opened for him at one of those early shows.

“As I’m getting off stage, I see Elan,” Perez says. “I said, ‘Hey Elan, what are you doing here?’ And he’s like, ‘I got hired by The Wailers to sing!’”

Neither could quite believe it was true. 

They did Havdalah — the prayer marking the end of Sabbath— together, backstage, using cannabis as a stand-in for the usual spices required in the ritual, and then Atias ran on stage.

Elan Atias
Elan Atias, who was nicknamed ‘Young Lion,’ performing on stage. Photo courtesy of Elan Atias.

“He was blowing me the fuck out of the water,” Perez says. “His emotional connection to the music was mind-blowing, and he was just a kid. I don’t even know how the fuck he did it. I’ve never heard of that in my life. And the way people reacted to him, it made me think of the old Beatles movie, with the people screaming.”

After only a couple shows, Atias had solidified his place in the band, which was then doing as many as 300 shows a year. Atias would have done even more back then. This was it, this was the dream.  

“[Atias] is gifted, gifted by Jah,” “Family Man” Barrett, The Wailers’ de facto leader at that time, and the one who Atias would end up being the closest with. 

“It reminds me of some kind of joker card, a one in the world kind of voice,” says Sly Dunbar, one half of the iconic reggae production duo Sly and Robbie.

Atias says he began to lay Tefillin (a ritual involving two small boxes containing Torah passages which are secured with leather straps and worn during Jewish morning prayers), again while on the tour bus. It was something to do with being away from home, something to ground him back to his own roots. The Wailers gave him his space and respected his practice, which was not as alien to them as it would appear.

For his Jamaican bandmates, who were his father’s age, their differing cultures and backgrounds fell away in the face of the music.

Rastafarianism’s Jewish Roots 

Reggae music, and its associated religion, Rastafarianism, draws heavily on the Jewish bible and adherents see Haile Selassie as a direct descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. 

More recently, Bob Marley’s paternal grandmother claimed Syrian-Jewish origins, and although estranged from his father, Marley’s music draws heavily on Jewish biblical references and historical themes, many of which are reflected in the African diaspora. 

An obvious example is the hope for an Exodus back to Zion (the name of a song as well as an album) and within song lyrics, such as his well-known “Redemption Song, which recounts elements of the story of Joseph:

“Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit  (Beresheet/Genesis 37:23-28)

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty (Beresheet/Genesis 49:24)

We forward in this generation, triumphantly”

Further, the iconography of Rastafarianism includes the star of David, Marley was pictured with a Chai necklace, and his grandson is Jewish because son Ziggy married an Israeli woman. 

Of course, the similarities only go so far — Rastas believe that Ethiopian King Haile Selassie was the returned Messiah and an incarnation of God, akin to how Christians perceive Jesus of Nazareth.  

Another Unexpected Role 

Atias’s rise came unexpectedly and fast. He was now the lead singer of one of the world’s most well-known bands, traveling the country and the world, partying with fans and other bands on tour. But he was also taking up the mantle of another role, one which he was equally unprepared for.

The year before he became a Wailer, he became a father. Not even 20 years old, the mother of his first son was 15 years his senior, and they were not together. She claimed she didn’t think she could get pregnant at that time, he says.  

At a show in Los Angeles, at the famed House of Blues, he revealed both his name and that he was not, in fact, related to Marley.

“We didn’t speak in the beginning,” Atias says, “I was very upset, it was unexpected, there was no decision, she just made the decision, and let me know four months ahead of time. She sent photos and tried to tie me down. It ended up working out though, but we weren’t together like that. So why would you do that to someone so young, to put him in that position? But I ended up doing that, and being there for [my son].”

The show went on. After about a year of touring, Atias was ready to announce himself. At a show in Los Angeles, at the famed House of Blues, he revealed both his name and that he was not, in fact related to Marley. It was a pivotal moment. It marked the beginning of his journey to build his own musical voice, both with the Wailers, and on his own.

A rehearsal for the Country Music Awards with Kenny Chesney. Photo courtesy of Elan Atias.

“I wasn’t trying to be Bob Marley,” Atias says, noting that some of his proudest moments were when fans would assume one of the songs Atias had written for The Wailers was an original.

As he gained notoriety, he also reconnected with his spirituality. Before a show in Australia, he recalls doing a Passover Seder at a local Chabad, which ran late. Atias stayed until the end and had to rush to the venue, with people he met at the Seder in tow, only to be stopped and harassed by the security guards, who could not believe this white-looking guy was the lead singer for The Wailers.  

A Reggae Force

It must have been easy for a teen, who had amassed so much success so quickly, to assume that it would always be like that. 

In 1999, after three years of living the life and playing hundreds of shows, Atias was back in Los Angeles for a short stopover before running off with the circus again,  except, at his friend’s wedding, he saw his wife.

She didn’t know that yet, but he did, and he told her on the spot. And then he skipped the tour. 

“I was supposed to go back on tour and — I didn’t,” he says

They married in 2002. 

Atias started to sing his own songs, exclusively, and partnered with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal while recording for Warner Music Group. His first single, “Dreams Come True,” appeared on the “Sex and the City” series soundtrack in 2000.

Everything was going according to his ambitious plan for a solo career. His next single “I’m in Love With You Girl” was planned for September and Atias hit the road for a radio tour. 

He thought his life would change on the song’s release day. And it did. The date was September 11, 2001.

“Everything shut down. The music industry shut down. We had to drive back from Chicago to LA.,” he says.  

The U.S. needed his upbeat music more than ever, but it wasn’t to be. The solo career he envisioned would have to wait. 

In the years that followed, Atias cut a self-driven path adding jewels to his crown including a song in the 2004 Adam Sandler / Drew Barrymore film “50 First Dates” and signing with Interscope Records, the label of Dr. Dre and Eminem that was founded by Death Row Records impresario Jimmy Iovine —  who also worked with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith.

Atias also recorded with Carlos Santana, whom he counts as a mentor, and Algerian singer Khalid, the artist behind  “C’est la vie.”

The Wailers
Elan Atias on tour with the Wailers in Europe. Photo courtesy of Elan Atias.

One show during this time, a solo performance, had him traveling to perform in Morocco, after his rabbi had a chance encounter with a prince of that country, who was a huge reggae fan. Atias played for 250,000 people on the beach in Essaouira at the Gnaoua World Music Festival while being embraced as a son who had come home.

By 2006, his debut album “Together as One” placed as high as seven in the Billboard reggae charts and stuck around the top 15 until that fall. It included a duet with Gwen Stefani (“Allnighter”), who also sang background vocals on another song (“I Wanna Yell”). 

An AllMusic Reviewer wrote, “Elan is already a reggae force, but with his debut album he now strongly stamps his own imprimatur on the scene.”

He decided to rejoin The Wailers at the end of 2006, after solo tours and tours with UB40, Ozomatli, but he would not be going back in the same way.

“I had to do it on my terms,” he says. “Family Man basically let me do what I wanted.”

Part of that included doing his own high-profile collaborations, including a recording and a live performance with country megastar Kenny Chesney at the Country Music Awards in 2008.

He was performing many more of the original songs he wrote for the band as well as songs from his album. And he had a chance for a kind of homecoming. 

In 2009, he came with The Wailers for his first concert in Israel, at the Tamar Music Festival near the Dead Sea. 

“I choked up,” he says. “It was an amazing feeling to be singing [Marley’s] ‘Natural Mystic’ at the Dead Sea.”

Keeping the Faith

By the time he hit his 30s in 2011, the constant travel had started to catch up to him. Once again he came back to L.A. after a long tour, with a quick turnaround. His first child with his wife had been born, but Atias got sick while on tour, and his wife banished him to his converted-garage studio.

“I felt like I was in prison,” Atias says, “my wife wouldn’t let me come out because I was sick and I was literally separated from my son. The decision was basically made for me.”

On a recent Shabbat, he offered wisdom from Bob Marley’s Rastafarian faith at his L.A. synagouge.

Atias picked up the phone and told the band he was out. This was also after a financial dispute: he hadn’t been paid for the last tour. 

He’s been out since then, and not regretted it. He credits his faith and being fed up with the stresses of the road. 

“I never want to be in a band again,” he says, alluding to being with the same people “22 hours a day.”

A solo album, “We Are” (2011) and recordings with Snoop Dogg and Skrillex have followed, as has the release of a song on Chesney’s album that Atias sang while still with The Wailers. 

In that same studio where he was quarantined, Atias cuts a laid-back figure in his L.A. home, which is in the same neighborhood he grew up in, and within walking distance of his siblings and his synagogue, where he sometimes acts as a cantor. On a recent Shabbat, he offered wisdom from Bob Marley’s own Rastafarian faith, which was thoughtfully accepted by the traditional French and Moroccan congregants. 

Elan Atias
Elan Atias at his synagogue in Los Angeles. Photo by Noah Smith.

“I always felt that there was a story behind him, that there was something more to him. You just feel it, you feel there’s something behind the guy … and one day it finally came out!” says Natan Bogin, a congregant at Baba Sale and agent at the high-powered Hollywood talent agency CAA. “He’s the life of the party. The guy who is a giver of energy and time, and he’s just a good positive force there.”

The studio looks like any other “man cave,” but a closer look reveals his gold records, guitars from Kenny Chesney, and a Chinese cabinet filled with weed, which he grows with his son —  he now has 4 children — teaching him about horticulture and responsibility.

Atias, in an old T-shirt, Tesla car hat and checkered running shoes fits in with every other 40-something in his L.A. neighborhood, right down to his raspy, Californian voice.

So when he starts singing or saying Jamaican words as if he was born in Kingston, it’s almost disorienting, like the voice is coming from somewhere else.

The other thing Atias masks adeptly is his music career. He has a disarming smile and an easy manner. There is no “Hollywood” distance with him.

Atias stays busy and has big plans, notably an upcoming project with a member of Major Lazer. He had also just returned from a studio in Jamaica prior to the interview.

He is also trying to complete a “Supernatural”- type album with The Wailers, akin to Santana’s seminal work that had him working with current artists. The project, which features original drum tracks from the ’70s on  two-inch tape that were transferred to digital, has been stalled for about a decade due to legal hangups, but Atias keeps the faith.

Reflecting on the legacy he’s already created, Atias is humble. “I’m happy in the moment,” says Atias.

His old friend Perez is more frank.

“This guy put The Wailers back on the map,” he says. “It’s never been seen before, not close to him, his impact, not even with Marley’s kids. He was much more powerful, he was a serious light.”

Atias was content to have the opportunity to perform Marley’s songs, and the joy it gives people. 

“I sang it from the heart, it almost felt like I wrote them,” he said. 

Atias, while sitting in the synagogue after prayers, went on to explain something deeper. 

“If I don’t perform again, and I hope not, I hope to keep performing as long as I can, but I’ll be happy. I’ll find a way. I’ll perform here if I have to … Reggae is spiritual music, it always spoke to me,” he says. 

And looking at him during morning prayers, just like when he’s on stage, he closes his eyes, tilts his head upward and smiles.  

Originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz

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