One of the most legendary and iconic songwriters and performers in reggae, and all, music is the beloved Bob Marley. Marley’s message of peace, love and unity to this day is being spread throughout popular culture. His music has influenced many artists, people and movements across the globe. Marley brought the reggae and Rasta movement to the attention of mainstream culture that, without him, otherwise may never have been achieved. His likeness can be seen countless times on art, clothing and accessories, signifying his importance to our global society even some thirty years after his death!
Marley was born Nesta Robert “Bob” Marley on February 6, 1945 in the village of Nine Mile, in Saint Parish, Jamaica. A Jamaican passport official would later swap his first and middle names; lending to his choice of the Bob moniker. Many are not aware of Marley’s mixed heritage; his father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was a White English-Jamaican, whose family came from Sussex, England. Marley often was questioned about his racial heritage throughout his life, stating: “I don’t have prejudice against myself. 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.” This sentiment definitely fits in with Marley’s belief and push unity throughout all races and backgrounds.
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.
Marley was raised in Catholic tradition, but later in life became captivated by Rastafarian beliefs when he was away from his mother’s influence. It was when he was formally converted to Rastafari that Marley began wearing his trademark, and traditional Rastafarian, dreadlocks.
The Wailers were in the early stages of their storied career in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was during this time that they entered their inauspicious recording contract with CBS Records, touring with American soul singer Johnny Nash. The deal with CBS Records left the Wailers broke and stranded in London. This was the catalyst for the The Wailers brokering a deal with Island Records to record a full length album, Catch a Fire. the album did not make Marley a mainstream star, but the band did receive critical acclaim for the record. The follow-up album, Burnin’, featured the hit tracks “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff”. “I Shot the Sheriff” caught the attention of legendary artist Eric Clapton, who covered the song. The song has been covered, featured and parodied countless times since. Burnin’ also gained more respect and praise form the Jamaican community; whereas Catch a Fire featured a new “improved” reggae sound, Burnin’s Trenchtown style gained The Wailers fans across reggae and rock.
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 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 began the transcendence of Marley becoming a juggernaut in reggae and mainstream music. Bob Marley and The Wailers would go on to create many more legendary albums and songs, including the beloved, posthumously released “Buffalo Solider”. Marley would his fame to spread his beliefs of the Rastafarian religion and. Broader, beliefs of peace, love and unity for all inhabitants of the world, regardless of gender, race or religious creed.
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. On September 23, 1980, Marley held his last concert the Stanley Theater, now The Benedrum Center For The Performing Arts, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can the audio recording of this performance in many forms of media.
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.
Bob Marley’s influences are still being felt today, especially as his multitude of offspring (his official website confirms eleven Marley siblings) carrying their father’s message. Sons Ziggy and Damian are even carrying own the musical legacy if the Marley family, both regarded as major players in reggae and other genres.
Even with his work and spirit still strong in today’s societies, and with his sons carrying the musical torch, Bob Marley will be greatly missed by millions across the globe! We can just hope that his wish of peace, love and unity will someday be realized. If it is, then surely Marley will smile down form heaven with zealous approval.