Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley, (6 February 1945 – 11 May 1981) was a Jamaican singer-songwriter and musician. He was the rhythm guitarist and lead singer for the ska, rocksteady and reggae band Bob Marley & The Wailers (1963–1981). Marley remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music, and is credited with helping spread both Jamaican music and the Rastafari movement to a worldwide audience.
Marley’s music was heavily influenced by the social issues of his homeland, and he is considered to have given voice to the specific political and cultural nexus of Jamaica. His best-known hits include “I Shot the Sheriff”, “No Woman, No Cry”, “Could You Be Loved”, “Stir It Up”, “Get Up Stand Up”, “Jamming”, “Redemption Song”, “One Love” and, “Three Little Birds”,as well as the posthumous releases “Buffalo Soldier” and “Iron Lion Zion”. The compilation album Legend (1984), released three years after his death, is reggae’s best-selling album, going ten times Platinumwhich is also known as one Diamond in the U.S., and selling 25 million copies worldwide.
Early life and career
Bob Marley was born in the village of Nine Mile in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica as Nesta Robert Marley. A Jamaican passport official would later swap his first and middle names. His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was a Jamaican of mixed English and Syrian-Jewish descent whose family came from Sussex, England. Norval was a captain in the Royal Marines as well as a plantation overseer, when he married Cedella Booker, an Afro-Jamaican then 18 years old. Norval provided financial support for his wife and child, but seldom saw them, as he was often away on trips. In 1955, when Bob Marley was 10 years old, his father died of a heart attack at age 70. Marley faced questions about his own racial identity throughout his life. He once reflected:
I don’t have prejudice against meself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t deh pon nobody’s side. Me don’t deh pon the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me deh pon God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white
Although Marley recognised his mixed ancestry, throughout his life and because of his beliefs, he self-identified as a black African, following the ideas of Pan-African leaders. Marley stated that his two biggest influences were the African-centered Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie. A central theme in Bob Marley’s message was the repatriation of black people to Zion, which in his view was Ethiopia, or more generally, AfricaIn songs such as “Black Survivor”, “Babylon System”, and “Blackman Redemption”, Marley sings about the struggles of blacks and Africans against oppression from the West or “Babylon”.
Marley and his step brother Bunny Wailer (Bob’s mother had a daughter with Bunny’s father, younger sister to both of them) started to play music while he was still at school, which he left at the age of 14 to make music with Joe Higgs, a local singer and devout Rastafari. At a jam session with Higgs and Livingston, Marley met Peter McIntosh (later known as Peter Tosh), who had similar musical ambitions. In 1962, Marley recorded his first two singles, “Judge Not” and “One Cup of Coffee”, with local music producer Leslie Kong. These songs, released on the Beverley’s label under the pseudonym of Bobby Martell, attracted little attention. The songs were later re-released on the box set Songs of Freedom, a posthumous collection of Marley’s work. Marley was also known to use an Epiphone guitar for much of his career.
Bob Marley & The Wailers
In 1963, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith formed a ska and rocksteady group, calling themselves “The Teenagers”. They later changed their name to “The Wailing Rudeboys”, then to “The Wailing Wailers”, at which point they were discovered by record producer Coxsone Dodd, and finally to “The Wailers”. By 1966, Braithwaite, Kelso, and Smith had left The Wailers, leaving the core trio of Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh.
In 1966, Marley married Rita Anderson, and moved near his mother’s residence in Wilmington, Delaware in the United States for a short time, during which he worked as a DuPont lab assistant and on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant, under the alias Donald Marley.
Though raised in the Catholic tradition, Marley became captivated by Rastafarian beliefs in the 1960s, when away from his mother’s influence. Formally converted to Rastafari after returning to Jamaica, Marley began to wear his trademark dreadlocks (see the religion section for more on Marley’s religious views). After a conflict with Dodd, Marley and his band teamed up with Lee “Scratch” Perry and his studio band, The Upsetters. Although the alliance lasted less than a year, they recorded what many consider The Wailers’ finest work. Marley and Perry split after a dispute regarding the assignment of recording rights, but they would remain friends and work together again.
Between 1968 and 1972, Bob and Rita Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer re-cut some old tracks with JAD Records in Kingston and London in an attempt to commercialise The Wailers’ sound. Bunny later asserted that these songs “should never be released on an album … they were just demos for record companies to listen to”. Also in 1968, Bob and Rita visited the Bronx to see Johnny Nash’s songwriter Jimmy Norman. A three-day jam session with Norman and others, including Norman’s co-writer Al Pyfrom, resulted in a 24-minute tape of Marley performing several of his own and Norman-Pyfrom’s compositions. This tape is, according to Reggae archivist Roger Steffens, rare in that it was influenced by pop rather than reggae, as part of an effort to break Marley into the American charts. According to an article in The New York Times, Marley experimented on the tape with different sounds, adopting a doo-wop style on “Stay With Me” and “the slow love song style of 1960’s artists” on “Splish for My Splash”.An artist yet to establish himself outside his native Jamaica, Marley lived in Ridgmount Gardens, Bloomsbury, London during 1972.
In 1972, the Wailers entered into an ill-fated deal with CBS Records and embarked on a tour with American soul singer Johnny Nash. Broke, the Wailers became stranded in London. Marley turned up at Island Records founder and producer Chris Blackwell’s London office, and asked him to advance the cost of a new single. Since Jimmy Cliff, Island’s top reggae star, had recently left the label, Blackwell was primed for a replacement. In Marley, Blackwell recognized the elements needed to snare the rock audience: “I was dealing with rock music, which was really rebel music. I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image.” Blackwell told Marley he wanted The Wailers to record a complete album (essentially unheard of at the time). When Marley told him it would take between £3,000 and £4,000, Blackwell trusted him with the greater sum. Despite their “rude boy” reputation, the Wailers returned to Kingston and honored the deal, delivering the album Catch A Fire.
Primarily recorded on eight-track at Harry J’s in Kingston, Catch A Fire marked the first time a reggae band had access to a state-of-the-art studio and were accorded the same care as their rock’n’roll peers.Blackwell desired to create “more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a reggae rhythm”,and restructured Marley’s mixes and arrangements. Marley travelled to London to supervise Blackwell’s overdubbing of the album, which included tempering the mix from the bass-heavy sound of Jamaican music, and omitting two tracks.
The Wailers’ first major label album, Catch a Fire was released worldwide in April 1973, packaged like a rock record with a unique Zippo lighter lift-top. Initially selling 14,000 units, it didn’t make Marley a star, but received a positive critical reception. It was followed later that year by Burnin’, which included the standout songs “Get Up, Stand Up”, and “I Shot the Sheriff”, which appealed to the ear of Eric Clapton. He recorded a cover of the track in 1974 which became a huge American hit, raising Marley’s international profile.Many Jamaicans were not keen on the new “improved” reggae sound on Catch A Fire, but the Trenchtown style of Burnin’ found fans across both reggae and rock audiences.
During this period, Blackwell gifted his Kingston residence and company headquarters at 56 Hope Road (then known as Island House) to Marley. Housing Tuff Gong Studios, the property became not only Marley’s office, but also his home.
The Wailers were scheduled to open 17 shows for the number one black act in the States, Sly and the Family Stone. After 4 shows, the band was fired because they were more popular than the acts they were opening for.The Wailers broke up in 1974 with each of the three main members pursuing solo careers. The reason for the breakup is shrouded in conjecture; some believe that there were disagreements amongst Bunny, Peter, and Bob concerning performances, while others claim that Bunny and Peter simply preferred solo work.
Despite the break-up, Marley continued recording as “Bob Marley & The Wailers”. His new backing band included brothers Carlton and Aston “Family Man” Barrett on drums and bass respectively, Junior Marvin and Al Anderson on lead guitar, Tyrone Downie and Earl “Wya” Lindo on keyboards, and Alvin “Seeco” Patterson on percussion. The “I Threes”, consisting of Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, and Marley’s wife, Rita, provided backing vocals. In 1975, Marley had his international breakthrough with his first hit outside Jamaica, “No Woman, No Cry”, from the Natty Dread album. This was followed by his breakthrough album in the United States, Rastaman Vibration (1976), which spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.
On 3 December 1976, two days before “Smile Jamaica”, a free concert organised by the Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley in an attempt to ease tension between two warring political groups, Marley, his wife, and manager Don Taylor were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen inside Marley’s home. Taylor and Marley’s wife sustained serious injuries, but later made full recoveries. Bob Marley received minor wounds in the chest and arm. The shooting was thought to have been politically motivated, as many felt the concert was really a support rally for Manley. Nonetheless, the concert proceeded, and an injured Marley performed as scheduled, two days after the attempt. When asked why, Marley responded, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” The members of the group Zap Pow, which had no radical religious or political beliefs, played as Bob Marley’s backup band before a festival crowd of 80,000 while members of The Wailers were still missing or in hiding.
Marley left Jamaica at the end of 1976, and after a month-long “recovery and writing” sojourn at the site of Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, arrived in England, where he spent two years in self-imposed exile. Whilst there he recorded the albums Exodus and Kaya. Exodus stayed on the British album charts for 56 consecutive weeks. It included four UK hit singles: “Exodus”, “Waiting in Vain”, “Jamming”, and “One Love” (a rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s hit, “People Get Ready”). During his time in London, he was arrested and received a conviction for possession of a small quantity of cannabis. In 1978, Marley returned to Jamaica and performed at another political concert, the One Love Peace Concert, again in an effort to calm warring parties. Near the end of the performance, by Marley’s request, Michael Manley (leader of then-ruling People’s National Party) and his political rival Edward Seaga (leader of the opposing Jamaica Labour Party), joined each other on stage and shook hands.
Under the name Bob Marley and the Wailers eleven albums were released, four live albums and seven studio albums. The releases included Babylon by Bus, a double live album with thirteen tracks, were released in 1978 and received critical acclaim. This album, and specifically the final track “Jamming” with the audience in a frenzy, captured the intensity of Marley’s live performances.
Survival, a defiant and politically charged album, was released in 1979. Tracks such as “Zimbabwe”, “Africa Unite”, “Wake Up and Live”, and “Survival” reflected Marley’s support for the struggles of Africans. His appearance at the Amandla Festival in Boston in July 1979 showed his strong opposition to South African apartheid, which he already had shown in his song “War” in 1976. In early 1980, he was invited to perform at the 17 April celebration of Zimbabwe’s Independence Day. Uprising (1980) was Bob Marley’s final studio album, and is one of his most religious productions; it includes “Redemption Song” and “Forever Loving Jah”. Confrontation, released posthumously in 1983, contained unreleased material recorded during Marley’s lifetime, including the hit “Buffalo Soldier” and new mixes of singles previously only available in Jamaica.
Bob Marley was a member of the Rastafari movement, whose culture was a key element in the development of reggae. Bob Marley became an ardent proponent of Rastafari, taking their music out of the socially deprived areas of Jamaica and onto the international music scene. He once gave the following response, which was typical, to a question put to him during a recorded interview:
Interviewer: “Can you tell the people what it means being a Rastafarian?”
Bob: “I would say to the people, Be still, and know that His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is the Almighty. Now, the Bible seh so, Babylon newspaper seh so, and I and I the children seh so. Yunno? So I don’t see how much more reveal our people want. Wha’ dem want? a white God, well God come black. True true.”
Observant of the Rastafari practice Ital, a diet that shuns meat, Marley was a vegetarian. According to his biographers, he affiliated with the Twelve Tribes Mansion. He was in the denomination known as “Tribe of Joseph”, because he was born in February (each of the twelve sects being composed of members born in a different month). He signified this in his album liner notes, quoting the portion from Genesis that includes Jacob’s blessing to his son Joseph. Marley was baptised by the Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kingston, Jamaica, on 4 November 1980.
Final years and death
In July 1977, Marley was found to have a type of malignant melanoma under the nail of one of his toes. Contrary to urban legend, this lesion was not primarily caused by an injury during a football match in that year, but was instead a symptom of the already existing cancer. Marley turned down doctors’ advice to have his toe amputated, citing his religious beliefs.Despite his illness, he continued touring and was in the process of scheduling a world tour in 1980. The intention was for Inner Circle to be his opening act on the tour but after their lead singer Jacob Miller died in Jamaica in March 1980 after returning from a scouting mission in Brazil this was no longer mentioned
The album Uprising was released in May 1980 (produced by Chris Blackwell), on which “Redemption Song” is particularly considered to be about Marley coming to terms with his mortality. The band completed a major tour of Europe, where they played their biggest concert, to a hundred thousand people in Milan. After the tour Marley went to America, where he performed two shows at Madison Square Garden as part of the Uprising Tour.
The final concert of Bob Marley’s career was held 23 September 1980 at the Stanley Theater (now called The Benedum Center For The Performing Arts) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The audio recording of that concert is now available on CD, vinyl, and digital music services.
Shortly after, Marley’s health deteriorated and he became very ill; the cancer had spread throughout his body. The rest of the tour was cancelled and Marley sought treatment at the Bavarian clinic of Josef Issels, where he received a controversial type of cancer therapy (Issels treatment) partly based on avoidance of certain foods, drinks, and other substances. After fighting the cancer without success for eight months, Marley boarded a plane for his home in Jamaica.
While flying home from Germany to Jamaica, Marley’s vital functions worsened. After landing in Miami, Florida, he was taken to the hospital for immediate medical attention. He died at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami (now University of Miami Hospital) on the morning of 11 May 1981, at the age of 36. The spread of melanoma to his lungs and brain caused his death. His final words to his son Ziggy were “Money can’t buy life”.Marley received a state funeral in Jamaica on 21 May 1981, which combined elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy and Rastafari tradition. He was buried in a chapel near his birthplace with his red Gibson Les Paul (some accounts say it was a Fender Stratocaster).
On 21 May 1981, Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga delivered the final funeral eulogy to Marley, declaring:
His voice was an omnipresent cry in our electronic world. His sharp features, majestic looks, and prancing style a vivid etching on the landscape of our minds. Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.