Who Did It Better? “I Shot the Sheriff”

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“I Shot the Sheriff” is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1973 when Bob Marley wrote it. While reggae was popular in the early 70s (Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” was released in 1972), it took Eric Clapton‘s version released one year later to put this song on the map, or more accurately, on the radio. No one can dispute that both men are legends and this song was so strongly composed that it worked as an urban blues/rock cover, as well as in its original reggae form. What we can dispute is “Who did it better?”

“I Shot The Sheriff” is perhaps Bob Marley’s most famous song and was originally recorded for the Wailers‘ 1973 album Burnin’. Sadly, it was the last single Marley released with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, both left to go solo. The song tells the story of a man who shoots a sheriff who is harassing him but is wrongly accused of killing the deputy. Marley said that some of it is true, but would not say what parts. He went on to say, “I want to say ‘I shot the police’ but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead… but it’s the same idea: justice.”

Eric Clapton needs no introduction, he was part of the seminal bands Cream, Blind Faith, The Yardbirds, and Derek & The Dominos. He also had a very successful solo career, but his only #1 on the Hot 100, either with a band or solo, was his cover of “I Shot The Sheriff.” He came close in 1992 with “Tears In Heaven,” which reached #2. Clapton kept the underlying reggae beat from Marley’s original but made it more of a well-produced rock song, with prominent organ and guitar.

Seth Warden, Warden and Co.

I discovered Bob Marley (thank god…I mean Jah) because of the Eric Clapton cover.  It’s wild that a blues/rock artist can adapt a reggae vocal so well and make it their own.  I love Clapton’s version so much and am grateful that it led to me to Marley’s catalog, but once it did, I was truly hooked on the Jamaican sound.  So much so, that I wrote my High School senior term paper on Bob Marley.  Both versions are fantastic, but if I had to chose, and I must for the sake of this article, it would be “Robert Nesta Marley’s” version. 

Dave Geoghegan, Dr. Jah and the Love Prophets

Do you like it raw? Or Polished? That’s the big question for me here. It’s pretty clear that Bob is talking about an experience that was really happening to him and his people at the time. Fighting back, standing up for your beliefs. A raw emotional journey through the eyes of an oppressed man, this was life or death. If I can’t escape Sherrif John Brown, he’s gonna kill me. Bob was a master of taking real people’s feelings and lives and translating that into song. Bob’s a storyteller who can sing.

Eric’s a musical genius. He took the blueprint for the song and created a transcendent performance. His ability to combine his rock sound and Bob’s lyrics and rhythm makes this cut special. There are no rough edges, and everything seems perfect. Eric brings to the music what Bob brought to the feeling.

Which one’s better, for me, it’s Bob. The newness of the sound and the ability to take a new and unknown music form ( reggae) and develop it from a seed is unique. But, what I really wish we had was Eric in Bob’s band for the night. Man, that would be something to see. One Love!

Andy Gregory, WEXT

The first time I heard this song was the version by Eric Clapton, and I’m sure it was on AM radio. I hadn’t quite discovered the wonders of the FM dial as I did during my teen years. Really, it was the funky groove that caught my ear. “Shot the sheriff?” I had no idea what that meant, except that seemed a bit dangerous to do.

I didn’t become aware of Marley’s original until the 1980’s, where a guy in our college dorm was a big reggae and dub fan, as I hazily remember. I could better appreciate the song and lyrics, but it didn’t strike me in quite the same way.

I have to give the nod to Clapton here, if only because his version was the one I knew best.

Chris Shaw, Adirondack Folk Singer

Actually, I’ve heard as many covers of “I Shot the Sheriff” as the next guy, (tons more if you count the number of guys at the NAMM show in Los Angeles who were constantly playing it at every manufacturer’s booth.) But for my money, you can’t beat the Marley and the Wailers version.  Makes you feel like you’re on the street in Kingston with jerk chicken in one hand and a Red Stripe in the other…

Lucas Garrett, Singer-Songwriter

So, I’d like to briefly weigh in on something before giving my thoughts on each version of the song. Determining which song is better is as subjective a task as most things are in music. Perhaps it should be framed as which version is most relevant or impactful upon the art form. That being said, I could pull at that particular thread for ages and end up talking myself in circles. On to the song. 

Before we consider each artist, let’s evaluate the lyrics; a part of the composition I feel is oft overlooked. One only needs to read the words to start understanding what Marley was singing about at the time he wrote the tune. The more things change, the more they sadly stay the same. This song, at its crux, is about the oppression that people of color – in this case, black people – face at the hands of law enforcement. The rhythms in Marley’s version, especially the interplay between the bass and percussion are such a rich sound, steeped heavily in reggae and Jamaican traditions, and in my view also help drive the meaning of this song home. Looking at Clapton’s version, we start to see something else going; something that many musicians are guilty of during the course of their career. This ‘something’ to which I refer is cultural appropriation.

During the seventies, Clapton graced us with what many call his “reggae” period, in which he penned other songs with a similar vibe to that which we heard in his version of I Shot the Sheriff. To me, Clapton took all the raw, and visceral elements that made Marley’s version great and memorable, and then proceeded to sand those parts way down. Everything is perfectly in time in Clapton’s version, and all parts are dripping with technical proficiency. But, where’s the feel? Where’s the emotion that hits you right in the gut like what is felt in Marley’s version? One of the most powerful lines in Marley’s version is when he cries out, pleading and acknowledging that “if I am guilty, I must pay.” That line just doesn’t exist in Clapton’s version. If you want a song with emotion, meaning and impact, you have to go with Marley’s version. If you’re looking for technical proficiency, go with Clapton. No one can doubt his ability to play, I just would be remiss if I don’t say I doubt his sincerity behind his version. 

For me, it’s Bob Marley hands down.

Katy Ashe, Singer-Songwriter

“I Shot the Sheriff” is a song that transcends time and genre. The original version by Bob Marley has an authenticity that cannot be imitated. The opening of the song is striking, because you have 3 and 4 part harmony in obviously male falsetto voices. I’m a sucker for falsetto! (Thank you Freddie Mercury and Jeff Buckley.)  

Why did Eric Clapton’s version do so much better on the charts? I’ll tell you. He made it more accessible to the untrained ear. Where Marley uses intricate chords in his voicings, Clapton made the chords unmistakably minor in sound, and really brought the melody out in the mix. It’s easier to sing with Clapton because of his playing style. Though he is imitating a Reggae style, it’s still the blues. While Clapton’s version is more mainstream, and is awesome in its own right,  my feeling is that the original is the better version. Why? Because Marley wrote it. And it wasn’t like a song that was done 20 years later; Clapton released his version just one year after. I doubt Bob Marley minded cashing all those royalty checks, but he still did it better. 

Michael Hallisey, The Spot 518

Growing up as a kid in white suburbia, I can say I didn’t have a lot of exposure to reggae, but I do know who Eric Clapton is. With that said, I grew up thinking Clapton originated the song, and that Marley covered it. I learned from my mistake years ago, and developed a healthy appreciation for Marley, too. However, if I pit the two against one another and I’m forced to decide which one I like best, I can’t go against Slowhand.

The Verdict

Eric Clapton spoke with Bob Marley about the song, he said “I tried to ask him what the song was all about, but couldn’t understand much of his reply. I was just relieved that he liked what we had done.” Both versions are excellent, but this is a case of authenticity and feeling. As Lucas said, “it’s Bob Marley hands down.”

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