Introduction to the reggae legend
The late Bob Marley (1945-1981) is one of Jamaica’s greatest treasures. He was a singer, songwriter, guitarist as well as the founder and leader of his band The Wailers. He became the first music legend to have originated from the Third World, rising from extreme poverty and hardship to become one of the most prominent musicians in the 20th century. Marley incorporated his beliefs and philosophy within his music to foster peace and unity around the world no matter what his listener’s race, religion or creed.
The reggae superstar that is Bob Marley was born Nesta Robert Marley on February 6, 1945 in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. He was the offspring of a short affair between teenage black Jamaican mother and white English father, who was 60 years old when Marley was born. Marley’s father used to send financial support for him and his mother but later would be absent from their lives for good. Marley’s father died when the boy was ten.
Growing up, he met childhood friend Neville Livingston, who would also be his band mate in the Wailers as “Bunny Wailer.” His mother and Bunny’s father soon got involved with each other, and the two families lived under the same roof for a time in the Jamaican capital of Kingston.
Soon, as Marley’s family settled in one of Kingston’s poorest suburbs, he was experiencing extreme poverty. His only solace from all of life’s hardships was music. Aside from reggae, he also grew up with music coming from the West: Ray Charles, The Drifters, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley were some of his favorites. His political and religious ideas, meanwhile, were influenced by Jamaican political leader/Rastafarian founder Marcus Garvey and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who has been widely regarded as the Rastafarian messiah. Needless to say, Marley was drawn to Rastafarianism spirituality that considerably influenced his music.
Bob Marley and The Wailers
Marley and Bunny devoted much of their time to their common passion, which was music. Later on, they became acquainted with another local singer named Joe Higgs. He was also a devout follower of Rastafarianism who also helped improve Marley’s singing capabilities. Through Higgs, Marley also met Peter Tosh, who would also be Marley’s long-time collaborator.
Marley cut his first few singles which were produced by local music producer Leslie Kong. Such singles as “Judge Me Not” and “One Cup Of Coffee” didn’t fare well. In 1963, Marley formed his first group along with Bunny Wailer, Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith, named the Teenagers. Their original repertoire was “ska” and “rocksteady.” The group later changed their name into the Wailing Wailers.
With this new group, Marley found some success through their first single “Simmer Down,” which shot to the top of Jamaican music charts. The group gained a considerable popularity in their country, but financial straits in particular made it hard for the group to keep things together. For a time the group went on their separate ways. Marley married Rita Anderson and then flew to the United States where his mother now resided.
Marley lived in the US for a while, and then returned to Jamaica after a matter of months. He reunited with some of his original Wailer band mates Tosh and Livingston, and together they formed a band simply called The Wailers. During this period, Marley began to explore his spiritual side by discovering the political/religious sect Rastafarianism, whose ideologies became firmly rooted in him and influenced his music.
For a time Marley collaborated with American pop singer Johnny Nash who sang one of the former’s compositions “Stir It Up,” which became a Top 20 hit on both the US and UK singles charts in 1972. The two would also work together on a soundtrack while for the Swedish film Vill så gärna tro.
Also during those days Marley and his band did some work with record producer Lee “Scartch” Perry who released some of Marley’s earliest reggae records that included “Trench Town Rock,” “Soul Rebel,” and “Four Hundred Years,” all of which became quite successful. In 1970, two musicians and brothers Aston “Family Man” and Carlton “Carlie” Barrett became the Wailers’ newest members. By then the group deviated from their original repertoire and into reggae music.
In 1972, Bob Marley and The Wailers landed their first recording contract with CBS Record but that proved to be a hapless experience. Shortly after, the band moved to Island Records in London, which otherwise provided the band with some cushion. The group recorded their first album for the label Catch a Fire. The album sold a few thousand copies, but it nevertheless received critical approval.
In 1973 Bob Marley and The Wailers released their second album Burnin’ which contained tracks such as now-Marley classics “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot The Sheriff.” English singer and guitarist Eric Clapton liked “I Shot The Sheriff” and so released his own version of it. Clapton’s cover of “I Shot The Sheriff” went to the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 and #9 on the UK singles chart in 1974.
The prominence of “I Shot The Sheriff” gradually let Marley’s name surface. Following the success of Clapton’s cover of the song, the band proceeded to record their next album; by then Bunny Wailer and Tosh had left the group to pursue their respective solo careers.
That album was to become 1975’s Natty Dread, which was more spiritually and politically-charged. Natty Dread also featured the female vocal backing trio the I-Threes, which included Marley’s wife Rita. The album yielded their first very own hit with “No Woman, No Cry” which peaked at #22 on the UK singles chart, and is now considered a solid Marley classic. The I-Threes would also perform with the Wailers on tour.
Marley became a music sensation in his native Jamaica, and was on the threshold of becoming an international superstar. After placing respectable hits in the UK, Marley released his next album Rastaman Vibration (1976), his breakthrough album in the States which eventually netted a place on the Billboard’s R&B album charts. The album yielded a single called “Roots, Rock and Reggae” which placed on both Billboard Hot 100 and soul singles charts.
Because of Marley’s unshakable political beliefs (and his supposed siding with the then-ruling Jamaican PM Michael Manley and his People’s National Party of PNP), they resulted into threats around his life. During the heat of the Jamaican elections in late 1976, a group of unnamed gunmen shot him, his wife and his manager Don Taylor. All sustained serious injuries but luckily for Marley and his wife, they made a full recovery. On the other hand, Taylor had to undergo surgery to save his life. The incident was thought to be politically motivated.
Despite the assassination attempt, it didn’t deter Marley from going out and performing but it did drive him out of the country and instead force him to live in London for a while. There, Marley recorded and released Exodus (1977), the album that propelled him into international stardom. The albums’ tracks “Jamming,” “Waiting In Vain,” “One Love” and the title song all became global smashes.
In 1978, Marley and the Wailers issued their next LP Kaya, whose themes on love were decidedly different compared to its predecessors. The album yielded two hits in “Satisfy My Soul” and “This Is Love.”
In that same year, Marley returned to Jamaica and together with the Wailers, he launched a concert called One Love Peace Concert which became an instrument of reconciliation between two opposing political groups in his country – Manley’s PNP and the Jamaican Labour Party.
In 1980, Bob Marley and the Wailers released Uprising, which declared his staunch affirmation to his Rastafarian believes. Highlighted by the track “Redemption Song,” Uprising also became Marley’s most successful album, peaking at #41 and #43 on the US soul and pop charts, respectively. Sadly, it was to be his last album in his lifetime.
The following year, Marley’s cancer (which he had sustained four years earlier) worsened. For months he was able to fight his condition through unconventional treatments. But the cancer was extremely aggressive and it spread over his body. He died in Miami, Florida, USA on May 11, 1981. His fans the world over mourned his great loss. Before his death he had received the Order of Merit, the highest honor ever awarded to a Jamaican citizen who has achieved prominent international distinction in different fields.
More than the recognition, Bob Marley is an international music legend, and fans continue to revere his music as well as his beliefs, even years after his death. His name is synonymous not only to reggae music but also to peace, unity and love that he had been trying promote to the world rigged by antagonism and discrimination. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll of Hall of Fame in 1994, and received a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame seven years later.