Marley, Bob

Marley, Bob (1945-1981), Jamaican singer and songwriter whose name invokes reggae music, the tenets of Rastafarianism, and, more broadly, the struggle of the economically and politically oppressed.

The first global pop star to emerge from a developing nation, Marley has won fans from nations around the world who share his vision of redemption and freedom and love his innovative blend of American and Caribbean music.

Bob Marley was born Robert Nesta Marley in rural Rhoden Hall in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. His mother was a Jamaican teenager and his father a middle-aged captain in the West Indian regiment of the British Army. Marley's parents separated when he was six years old and he moved with his mother to Kingston, joining the wave of rural emigrants that flooded the capital during the 1950s and 1960s. Marley and his mother settled in Trench Town, a west Kingston slum named for the sewer that ran through it.

There, Marley shared quarters with a boy his age named "Bunny" Neville O'Riley Livingston. The two made music together, fashioning a guitar from bamboo, sardine cans, and electrical wire, and learning harmonies from local singer Joe Higgs. Like a number of their contemporaries, Marley and Bunny listened to radio from New Orleans, Louisiana; and like their peers they adopted the sounds of rhythm and blues, combined them with strains of mento, a local musical style, and produced a new music called ska. Although encouraged by his mother to learn a craft, Marley soon abandoned an apprenticeship as a welder to devote himself to music.

Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh) joined Bunny and Marley's musical sessions, bringing with him a real guitar. In the early 1960s, the three formed a harmony group, the Wailing Wailers. Meanwhile, through a connection with local ska celebrity Jimmy Cliff, Marley recorded a few songs with producer Leslie Kong. Marley's earliest recordings received little radio play but strengthened his desire to sing.

Joined by Junior Braithwaite and two backup singers, the Wailing Wailers recorded on the Coxsone label, supervised by local sound-system superstar Clement Dodd. The group became Kingston celebrities in the summer of 1963 with "Simmer Down," a song that both indicted and romanticized the lives of Trench Town toughs, known as "rude boys." The Wailing Wailers recorded more than 30 singles in the mid-1960s, reflecting—and sometimes leading—the evolution of reggae, from mento to ska to rock steady.

In 1963 Marley's mother moved to Delaware, expecting her son would follow her and begin life anew. Marley did make a prolonged visit in 1966, working jobs for the automaker Chrysler Corporation and chemical manufacturer DuPont Company; yet his heart lay back home, where his new wife, Jamaican Rita Anderson, and his old passion—the music of the island—both remained. When he returned to Jamaica in 1967 he converted from Christianity to Rastafarianism and began the mature stage of his musical career. Marley reunited with Bunny and Peter Tosh, and together they called themselves The Wailers and began their own record label, Wail 'N' Soul. They abandoned the rude-boy ethos for the spirituality of Rastafarian beliefs and slowed their music under the new rock steady influence.

Although the Wailers soon cohered as a group, they did not find success beyond Jamaica for a few years. In 1970 bassist Aston "Family Man" Barnett and his drummer—together considered the best rhythm section on Jamaica—joined the Wailers. With this addition the group attracted the attention of Island Records, a company that had started in Jamaica but moved to London. In 1971 they recorded Catch a Fire, the first Jamaican reggae album to enjoy the benefits of a large budget and widespread commercial promotion. Catch a Fire sold modestly, better in Europe than America, but well enough to sustain Island's interest in the Wailers.

During the early 1970s the band recorded an album each year and toured extensively, slowly breaking into the European and American mainstream. They played shows with American superstars Bruce Springsteen and Sly and the Family Stone, and in 1974 British rocker Eric Clapton scored a hit with "I Shot the Sheriff," a Marley composition. In 1975 The Wailers made their first major splash in the United States with "No Woman No Cry" as well as an album of live material. At this point, however, Peter Tosh and Bunny left the band, which took the name Bob Marley & the Wailers.

Although Marley had melded politics and music since the early days of "Simmer Down," as his success grew he became increasingly political. His 1976 song "War" transcribed a speech of Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian king upon whom the Rastafarian sect was based. In addition to Rastafarian spirituality and mysticism, his lyrics probed the turmoil in Jamaica. Prior to the 1976 elections, partisanship inspired gang war in Trench Town and divided the people against themselves. By siding with prime minister Michael Manley—and by singing songs of a political bent—Marley angered some Jamaicans. After surviving an assassination attempt in December 1976, he fled to London until the following year.

When Marley returned to Jamaica in 1978, he performed in the One Love Peace Concert, which sought to ameliorate existing political conflicts. During his set Marley orchestrated a handshake between political opponents Manley and Edward Seaga, a highly symbolic moment.

Marley's activism extended beyond Jamaica, and people from developing nations around the world found hope in his music. In 1980 Bob Marley & the Wailers had the honor of performing at the independence ceremony when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. The group's concerts in the late 1970s attracted enormous crowds in West Africa and Latin America as well as in Europe and the United States.

Bob Marley died at the age of 36 from a cancer that began in his toe and spread throughout his body. His memory was honored by the Jamaican government, and he was given a national funeral. During Marley's lifetime his music became closely associated with the movement toward black political independence that was then prominent in several African and South American countries. His songs have remained popular, and for many they symbolize the hopes of the downtrodden for worldly redemption and spiritual transcendence. The conviction and sincerity of Marley's performances, and his unique, melodic songwriting have influenced many pop artists, including Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

 

Contributed By:
Eric Bennett