Bob Marley - Biography

Among the most influential figures in the history of music, Bob Marley, his dreadlock-full mane raised in pride, remains eternally relevant as a seminal creator of reggae music and a revolutionary fetish figure. Born in Jamaica in 1945 and raised by a mother of African descent, he was marked by the absence of his British seaman father. For the teenage Marley, Kingston in the early sixties was a city that was bubbling with musical energy as blue beat (the Jamaican version of rhythm and blues) gave rise to a more original music-- ska. Marley made enough of an impression on producer Leslie Kong to convince him to record his first record, “Judge Not,” in 1962. Like scores of his contemporaries, he looked towards black American vocal groups for inspiration and with a group of neighborhood friends that included Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone (later known as Bunny Wailer), they recorded as The Teenagers, the Wailing Rudeboys, The Wailing Wailers and, ultimately, The Wailers.

    Jamaica’s popular music scene was dominated by a handful of producers whose studios worked around the clock, producing a stunning volume of music that fed a vibrant and competitive music scene. As a member of The Wailers, Marley learned the nuances of vocal harmony, and with the help of mentors such as Joe Higgs he began to find his voice. Assuming lead vocals on “Simmer Down” (1963 Studio One), a plea for calm in the troubled ghettoes of Kingston, The Wailers hit the top of the Jamaican charts in January 1964. Recording for legendary producer Coxsone Dodd, proprietor of a popular sound system that literally took the music to the people, The Wailers kept busy, releasing more than 30 singles by 1966 and receiving flat fees per song regardless of success. Ska was party music and most subject matter was facile or topical, but young Marley was already beginning to distinguish himself with more serious lyrics such as “Who Feels It Knows It.” Later, with the popularity of ska on the wane, a new style known as rocksteady emerged-- its distinct, muted-string, rhythmic guitar up-stroke, known as “skank,” front and center. Amidst a sea of rapid change, Marley married Alpharita Constantia Anderson, aka Rita Marley, and relocated to Delaware at the beckoning of his mother, where he worked in a factory for eight months. Later that same year he returned to Jamaica, pursuing his career in music with renewed vigor.

    Reunited with Tosh and Wailer in 1967, the Wailers formed their own label, releasing the original “Stir It Up” before linking their fortune to idiosyncratic producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, who helped them usher in the ‘70s with songs like “Soul Rebel” and “Small Axe.” Guided by his association with the Rastafarian sect, which, along with biblical tenets, looks to Africa and employs marijuana as a sacrament, Marley’s life took on a new dimension of seriousness. By now, their Tuff Gong label was established and the Barrett brothers, Aston and Carlton, joined the group on bass and drums, forming one of the greatest rhythm sections ever. Marley went to Sweden in 1971 to work on a soundtrack with Johnny Nash, leaving him with an international hit in “I Can See Clearly Now,” then met up with his Wailers in London where they would make the bold leap of signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Their first international release by Bob Marley & The Wailers was Catch A Fire (1973 Island), sporting a close-up picture of Marley with a big spliff.

    Ambitious tours of the U.K. and the U.S. were mounted and they quickly established a reputation for great live performance, upstaging Sly & the Family Stone, who hence dropped from that tour. Time on their hands, they recorded a live session for San Francisco indie rock station KSAN, further making inroads into the rock arena. Later that same year they released their second international LP, Burnin’ (1973 Island), which included the songs “Get Up, Stand Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” and “Rastaman Chant,” noteworthy for its use of the afro-folkloric nyabinghi rhythm. Their rebellious, slightly dangerous image intrigued pop audiences and with Eric Clapton’s chart-topping version of “I Shot the Sheriff,” their star was on the rise. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left the band, weary of touring, continuing on with success as solo artists. Natty Dread (1974 Island) came next for Marley and included the timeless “No Woman, No Cry,” giving him his first top forty hit. The album also introduced the I-Threes, the female chorus trio of Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, & Marcia Griffiths, which added a more sensuous spirit to the music.

    Playing to ever larger audiences, enchanting them with his soulful high-stepping, dread-waving, shaman-like performance, Marley’s legendary 1975 shows at the London Lyceum were captured for release as Live (1975 Island). Rastaman Vibration (1976 Island) followed with songs such as “War,” taken from an anti-racism speech before the U.N. by Emperor Haile Salassie of Ethiopia (revered by Rastafarians), “Rat Race,” and the ever-hopeful “Positive Vibration.” Entering the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S. album charts, this gate-fold LP also served another purpose as the tiny print along the inside spine states, “This LP can be used to clean ganja.” With the political climate heating up in Jamaica, Marley scheduled a free concert for December 5, 1976 in Kingston’s National Heroes Park, after which a national election was called for on December 20, sparking shoot-outs between rival political gangs. The night before the concert gunmen broke into Marley’s home, shooting and wounding him, but he would not be silenced -- he performed with his arm in a sling. The next day he left for exile in London.

    Marley’s rise to prominence and the successful marketing of his records to a rock/pop audience sparked a vibrant U.K. reggae scene that spread beyond the West Indian immigrant community and into the mainstream. Recorded in London, Exodus (1977 Island) stands as a marker in the development of an “international reggae” sound, characterized by a more polished sound than the quickly recorded singles made for domestic consumption in Jamaica. “Jammin’” was released as a hit single, solidifying reggae’s soul-rock crossover.  The song would be covered by Stevie Wonder and Grover Washington Jr. The album remained on the UK charts for 56 weeks, with the title track and also the love song “Waiting in Vain” enjoying single success. Kaya (1978 Island) came to market the following year and Marley made a triumphunt return to Jamaica, where he played the One Love Peace Concert. While performing, he invited Prime Minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Saega to stage, raised their arms and joined their hands together with his in an unimaginably impossible gesture of reconciliation. Later that same year he received the United Nations Medal of Peace in New York City. Life was going well and Kaya (slang for ganja) showed the lighter side of Marley with such sweet tunes as “Is this Love?” and “Easy Skanking.”

    An ambitious touring schedule continued, yielding another superb live recording, Babylon by Bus (1978 Island). With the band at full strength one can hear elements of funk in the rhythm section, rock-like guitar solos, and keyboards worthy of arena rock or P-Funk-- roots rocking on a global scale. Striking from first sight, with its title over a schematic of the hold of a slave ship surrounded by the flags of independent African countries, Survival (1979 Island) is overtly political from the start with “So Much Trouble in the World.”  “Africa Unite” has become the timeless anthem it was meant to be and “Zimbabwe” throws natty dread’s support clearly behind African rebels fighting off the yoke of colonialism. Even the sound is heavier, featuring a more active horn section, perhaps inspired by afro-beat.

    After traveling to the newly liberated Zimbabwe to play at the Independence Ceremony in April 1980, Marley released his final and most successful recording, Uprising (1980 Island). “Could You Be Loved” with its infectious chorus and bubbly rhythm was a huge international hit and “Coming in from the Cold” became a classic. The acoustic “Redemption Song,” included at the end almost as an afterthought, remains among his fans’ most cherished. The naked honesty of a lone voice and acoustic guitar singing “won’t you help to sing/these songs of freedom” left his adoring fans with an enduring message. Marley & the Wailers toured Europe, playing to 100,000 fans in Milan, then the U.S., where they played two shows at Madison Square Garden.

    Then, Marley fell ill. A cancerous toe gave rise to the disease throughout his body and ultimately he died in Miami on May 11, 1981, at the height of his popularity and influence. Worshipped like a prophet by many, Marley has an ever-increasing fandom that crosses the borders of every country and continent on earth, transcending barriers of language and race. His musical legacy is the establishment of reggae as a legitimate style and commercially viable music, but above all it is as an advocate for the dispossessed and a symbol of righteousness that his legacy thrives. Marley has attained the mythical status of a rebel icon like Ché Guevara and is as identified with black pride as Martin Luther King Jr. With a popularity that continues to grow decades after his death, a songbook that springs eternal, and an internationally recognized image deep with meaning, he stands as one of the most significant individuals in the history of the world.

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