Bob Marley – circa 1977
“How long shall they kill our prophets / While we stand aside and look?” – ‘Redemption Song’ (Bob Marley)
Gunfire rings out. “It was about 9.00 in the night,” says Jamaican singer Bob Marley. It is 3 December 1976 and seven gunmen have opened fire on Island House, Marley’s headquarters. A bullet grazes Bob’s chest and lodges in his left forearm. The singer’s manager, Don Taylor; Marley’s wife, Rita; and another friend all sustain wounds, but no one is killed. The assassination attempt is apparently politically motivated. “All me hear is gunshot. No, I see no man fire no shot. Somebody feel like ‘Smile Jamaica’ concert shouldn’t go on, so them try to stop it.” This concert is an attempt to soothe public unrest but it is not clear which faction ordered the attack. The only person who thinks they know the identity of the guilty party is Bob Marley: “Well, I think it was the devil, y’know. But God protect, you know…Yeah.” He adds fatalistically, “What is to be must be.”
Bob Marley speaks in a thick Jamaican patois (a dialect, a provincial form of speech). Marley’s quotations here are transcribed as faithfully as possible.
Robert Nesta Marley (6 February 1945 – 11 May 1981) is born in the village of Nine Mile in rural St. Anns Parish, Jamaica. “That’s in the country, a little place up the hills,” he explains. The boy is the son of Norval Marley, a middle-aged white Jamaican, and Cedella Booker, a teenaged African-Jamaican. Bob Marley is named after his paternal uncle, Robert Marley. Norval Marley is a plantation overseer and he is routinely addressed as ‘Captain’. He claims to have been a Captain in the Royal Marines, but there is no evidence that he ever saw active military service or that he ever rose above the rank of Private. Cedella Booker is pretty much left to raise their child alone.
As a half-breed, Bob Marley experiences scorn from his peers. He later says, “My father is a white and my mother black. Now them call me half-caste or whatever. Well, 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 man who create me, who cause me to come from black and white.” Despite such sentiments, Bob Marley identifies himself as an African-Jamaican.
When Bob Marley is 12, his father dies and his mother and he relocate to Kingston, the big city, in search of a better life. They wind up in Trench Town, a rough, almost-lawless ghetto. “It was lean, but I could stand it,” Marley asserts. “When I livin’ in Trench Town, y’know as a young man, survivin’ it was easy. The only thing you really look out for was the police. ‘Cos the police get you, blame you, you go to prison…” Bob Marley attends Jamaica’s Stepney School where his friends include Winston Hubert McIntosh and Neville O’Reiley Livingstone, later to become better known as, respectively, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone. As far as music goes, despite “growing up in a musical family,” Marley notes, “We couldn’t afford to buy records so we listened to the radio.”
It is “1958” when Bob Marley begins to get into music himself. Marley points out that “Well, in Trench Town now you find…all talent in Jamaica come from Trench Town. And it’s a place where they used to take the slaves them, you know. So it carry a heavy vibration.”
Bob Marley is working as a welder. “I was learning a trade.” One of his co-workers is Desmond Dekker, who begins carving out a recording career for himself (Years later, in 1969 Dekker will have an international hit with the song ‘The Israelites’). Inspired by Dekker, Bob Marley thinks he should be a recording artist too.
Jamaica is an island in the Caribbean Sea, just below Cuba. Jamaicans take an interest in U.S. music when American troops are stationed on that island during World War Two. The native Jamaicans are fairly poor so buying records is a luxury most can’t afford. Instead, sound system operators spring up. They are entrepreneurs who drive from town to town in a truck equipped with amplifiers and records, charging others a fee to hear their sounds or provide music for parties. These proceeds are used to create a plethora of Jamaican record labels, recording local acts that either provide original songs or sing cover versions of overseas hits. It’s a notoriously wild business. When Jamaicans sing of outlaws and gangsters, it isn’t just boasting. Crime lords are sometimes involved in the recording business as are many unscrupulous operators. It is almost impossible for Jamaican musicians to make a decent living from the minimum wages to which they are restricted.
Perhaps the first time audiences in the U.S.A. and Britain hear Caribbean music, it is called calypso. Harry Belafonte has a hit in 1956 with ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day O)’ (US no. 5). Calypso is a swaying, syncopated sound that speaks of exotic tropical locales. Calypso is followed by a number of other genres that tend to overlap and blur together. Mento is more jazz-influenced, home-made and primitive; Dancehall – as the name implies – is designed for moving crowds; Bluebeat is a name Britons give to the music of West Indian émigrés to that country. All these style exist during the 1950s.
The first single issued by 16 year old Bob Marley is ‘Judge Not’ in 1962. It is co-written by his mentor, Joe Higgs. After another 1962 single, ‘One Cup Of Coffee’, Marley severs his relationship with the famed producer Leslie Kong ‘over a monetary dispute.’ In August 1962, Jamaica gains its independence and ceases to be a colony of the British Empire.
In 1963, when Bob Marley is 17, his mother, Cedella Booker, goes to live with relations in Newark, Delaware in the United States of America. Her son remains in Jamaica.
Observing the success of African-American vocal groups like The Impressions (featuring Curtis Mayfield), young Bob Marley thinks such a vehicle may work for him too. In 1963 he recruits his old school chums Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone to form a similar vocal trio. The three boys are soon joined by three more singers, Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith. At first they call themselves The Teenagers. This name is abandoned in favour of The Wailing Rudeboys, which is modified to The Wailers. The name is chosen because they come from the ghetto, a bad place where people are always bawling and wailing.
Important as the formation of The Wailers is another event in 1963. “I come to Kingston, meet some people, they Rasta…They have the same thing I have inside,” Bob Marley recounts, adding that, at that time, he is “about 17, 18.” The singer is speaking of the Rastafarians. It is Mortimer Plano, a Rasta spiritual leader, who teaches Bob. Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone also convert to Rastafarianism.
The teachings of the Rastafarians originate from a modified version of the Christian Bible. “King James edit the Bible,” Bob Marley acknowledges, and then adds, “I don’t think he edit it for the benefit of black people.” This is the justification for the Rastafarian interpretation. Marley explains the central concept of his religion this way: “Christ promised mankind that him will return within two thousand years and when him return him will be the King of Kings through the lineage of King Solomon and King David. Now we look out there to see who this is. One man, Haile Selassie I” (1892 -1975), the Emperor of the African country of Ethiopia from 1930 – 1974. Haile Selassie is seen as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, ‘Ras Tafari’ – the source of the name Rastafarianism.
The Rastafarians believe that Jah (God) will see that eventually all blacks will be liberated from Babylon (the western world) and returned to their spiritual home of Africa. “Go forward, not back to Africa,” Bob Marley corrects, “Forward to Africa.” He insists “Earth was ruled by Africa” and “When you accept Rasta, you become Ethiopian…Africa for Africans,” he says, quoting the sentiments of the Jamaican-born civil rights activist Marcus Garvey (1887 – 1940). The trappings of the Rastas include their red, green and gold flag. They plait their hair into what are called dreadlocks. The Biblical rationale for this practice comes from the Book of Numbers: ‘Let the locks of the hair of his head grow.’ It takes some time for new converts to cultivate proper dreads but, when he has a full mane, Marley proclaims of his hair “This? This is my identity, mon,”; it is a symbol of his faith. Another aspect of Rastafarianism is smoking marijuana or ‘ganja’ as it is called in Jamaica, though the Rastas refer to it as ‘herb’. The Book of Revelations instructs adherents to ‘partake of the herb’ so it is a religious ceremony in the eyes of the Rastas. At the height of his fame, Marley smokes about a pound a week. “Herb is important…Herb make you work for yourself,” claims Marley. Comparing it to the west’s favourite drug, he says, “Alcohol make you drunk, it don’t make you meditate [as herb does].” It is still illegal in Jamaica to possess marijuana.
Bob Marley already suffers discrimination because he is a half-caste. He faces more such difficulties when he converts to Rastafarianism because, at this point, they are still a mistrusted cult in Jamaican society rather than an accepted religion.
The winds of change are blowing through music as well. “Calypso always the first,” Bob Marley acknowledges, but now there is a new variant: “That music was ska…Quicker music.” The chief characteristic of ska is that it is much pacier than its forebears. Additionally, ska often uses a horn section for emphasis. In 1964 Millie Small has an international hit with a ska song entitled ‘My Boy Lollipop’. The record is produced in England by the white Jamaican-born Chris Blackwell. He parlays the proceeds into founding Island Records in 1964.
In Jamaica, The Wailers begin working with producer Clement Coxsone Dodd and score a hit with ‘Simmer Down’ in 1964. The group release their first album ‘The Wailing Wailers’ (1965) and, over 1964 – 1965, virtually every track on the disc is released as a single: ‘Simmer Down’, ‘Mr Talkative’, ‘There She Goes’, ‘Love And Affection’, ‘One Love’, ‘Rude Boy’, ‘What’s New Pussycat’ (a bizarre cover version of the movie song recorded in Britain by Welsh-born singer Tom Jones) and ‘I’m Still Waiting’. Coxsone Dodd keeps The Wailers busy. By one reckoning, they cut thirty sides for him. Amongst the (non-album) singles are 1964’s ‘I Am Going Home’, ‘Climb Up The Ladder’, ‘Donna’, ‘Tell Them Lord’; 1965’s ‘Hooligans’, ‘Hooligan Ska’, ‘Habits’, ‘Jumbie Jamboree’, ‘I Made A Mistake’, ‘Diamond Baby’, ‘Playboy’, ‘And I Love Her’, ‘Shame & Scandal’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Another Dance’; and from 1966 ‘I Left My Sins’, ‘Good Good Rudie’, ‘Cry To Me’, ‘Lonesome Track’, ‘Let Him Go’, ‘Rasta Shook Them Up’, ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Rock Sweet Rock’ and ‘Dancing Shoes’. Although The Wailers may be ‘one of the hottest groups in Jamaica’, that’s about as far as their music reaches. They are not internationally successful. Along the way they shed first Junior Braithwaite in 1964, then Beverly Kelso in 1965, and Cheryl Smith in 1966. This leaves only the trio of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone. During 1966 – 1967 backing vocals for the group are supplied by Constantine Walker. In the studio they are backed by The Skatellites, a group that includes Ernest Ranglin (guitar), Tommy McCook (keyboards) and Don Drummond (trombone).
1966 proves to be an important year for multiple reasons.
In 1966 The Wailers break-up – at least temporarily – due to ‘wrangles over payment for their recordings’. With The Wailers inactive, Bob Marley considers moving to the U.S.A. Coxsone Dodd urges that, before he leaves the country, Marley should marry the girl the singer has been seeing.
On 10 February 1966 Bob Marley marries Alpharita Constantia Anderson, better known as Rita Anderson. She is a singer in the group The Soulettes. Bob and Rita have an unusual relationship. Despite their marriage, Bob dallies with other women. Perhaps his most notable extracurricular love is Cindy Breakspeare who, as Jamaica’s entrant in a beauty contest, goes on to win the title of Miss World in 1976. In later interviews, Bob denies point-blank he is married. This is how he justifies his lack of marital fidelity: “You see, I can’t deal with the western way of life. If I must live by law, it must be the laws of His Majesty. If it’s not the laws of His Majesty, then I can make my own law.” For her part, Rita claims to have been attracted to Bob because of his shyness and seriousness. She overlooks his girlfriends because she feels their mission, to bring people closer to Jah, is more important. Bob even calls on Rita to remove the extra women from his dressing room.
Bob Marley goes on to have ten (maybe twelve) children by six (maybe eight) mothers: (1) Sharon (23 November 1964) – mother (i) Rita. Sharon is Rita’s daughter from a previous relationship, but she is adopted by Bob; (2) Cedella (23 August 1967) – mother (i) Rita. Cedella is named after her paternal grandmother; (3) David – better known as Ziggy (17 October 1968) – mother (i) Rita; (4) Stephen (20 April 1972) – mother (i) Rita; (5) Robert – a.k.a. Robbie (16 May 1972) – mother (ii) Janet Hunt; (6) Karen (1973) – mother (iii) Janet Bowen; (7) Stephanie (17 August 1974) – mother (i) Rita. Stephanie is the child of Rita and a man named Ital, but she is acknowledged as Bob’s; (8) Julian (4 June 1975) – mother (iv) Lucy Pounder; (9) Ky-Mani (26 February 1976) – mother (v) Anita Belnavis; (10) Damian (21 July 1978) – mother (vi) Cindy Breakspeare. Bob Marley’s paternity in the next two cases is a bit more open to debate: (11) Makeda (30 May 1981) – mother (vii) Yvette Crichton. Makeda is not born until after Bob Marley’s death; (12) Imani Carole (22 May 1963) – mother (viii) Cheryl Murray.
Bob Marley goes to live with his mother in Wilmington, Delaware. Bob is employed at the Chrysler automobile factory. He drives a forklift and works as a welder.
On 21 April 1966, the Lion of Judah, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, visits Jamaica. The Rastafarians greet the dignitary like a rock star.
It is also in 1966 that ska is superseded. The story goes that on one particularly sweltering summer night, a crowd is just too hot to dance to ska’s energetic beat. Accordingly, a band cuts the tempo in half and this lazy, loping groove becomes known as reggae. It is reggae with which Bob Marley will become most identified. In reggae, like at least some of its ancestors, the emphasis is on the off-beat, wrong-footing western audiences unfamiliar with the tempo. Additionally, the guitar is reduced to a rhythm instrument, playing a steady ‘ch-chik’ sound and leaving the traditional rhythm instruments, bass and drums, to assume de facto leading roles in the arrangement. Crucially, Bob Marley becomes a rhythm guitarist on future recordings. For Marley, reggae, more so than ska, has additional dimensions because it “talks about blackness in a militant way” and, in advancing the message of the Rastafarian faith, it is a spiritual music.
In October 1966 Bob Marley returns to Jamaica. Reportedly, Marley leaves the U.S.A. to avoid being drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam. He reunites with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone and, as The Wailers, they work again with producer Leslie Kong. ‘Bend Down Low’ in 1967 is the first release on their own, short-lived, Wailing Soul label. Other 1967 singles are ‘Hypocrite’, ‘Mellow Mood’, ‘Stir It Up’ and ‘Bus Dem Shut’.
After Leslie Kong dies from cancer, The Wailers work with producer Danny Sims in 1968 for ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ (UK no. 42), ‘Funeral’, ‘Stepping Razor’, ‘Play, Play, Play’, ‘Mus’ Get A Beatin’’ and ‘Chances Are’. The album ‘Marley, Tosh, Livingstone And Associates’ (1968) is released. In 1968 Bob Marley is arrested by the police on charges of marijuana possession, the first of a number of similar contretemps with the law.
The Wailers continue to pump out singles in 1969 like ‘Tread-O’, ‘Black Progress’, ‘Trouble On The Road Again’, ‘Give Me A Ticket’, ‘Give Her Love’ and ‘Feel Alright’.
At the end of the 1960s Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry takes over production duties and The Wailers are backed by his ace studio musicians The Upsetters. This association yields ‘My Cup’ in 1970, which is followed by ‘Duppy Conqueror’ [A ‘duppy’ is an evil spirit or ghost] and ‘Soul Almighty’. Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, Duke Reid’s Trojan, and Prince Buster combine their organisations under the umbrella title of Big Tree. The cheeky response from The Wailers is the 1970 single ‘Small Axe’: “If you are de big tree / We are de small axe / Chopping to cut you down.” The group’s independent stance has a price though, as funds start to run low. Bob Marley decides to try approaching the Jamaican building company run by the Marley family, the relations of his white father. They are uneasy about this half-caste Rasta and rebuff his requests for finance. The event inspires the 1970 single ‘Cornerstone’: “The stone that the builder refuse will always be the head cornerstone.”
In 1970 The Wailers enlist the rhythm section from The Upsetters to work with them on a full-time basis. This means that, for the first time, The Wailers become a functional band, not just a vocal group. The line-up is: Bob Marley (vocals, guitar), Peter Tosh (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Bunny Livingstone (vocals, percussion), Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (bass) and his brother, Carlton Barrett (drums).
The Wailers release the albums ‘Soul Rebels’ (1970) and ‘Soul Revolution’ (1971). Bunny Livingstone is sent to prison for a year following a drugs bust. Naturally, this curtails the group’s activity. African-American singer Johnny Nash visits Jamaica on a talent scouting trip. He meets Bob Marley and cuts a 1971 hit version of Marley’s ‘Stir It Up’ from 1967. Another Marley song, ‘Guava Jelly’, is included on Nash’s next album. The proceeds from these songs allow Marley to found his own record label, Tuff Gong, in 1971. This label issues the single ‘Trench Town Rock’ and the albums ‘African Herbsman’ (1972) and ‘Rasta Revolution’ (1972). The latter includes ‘Cornerstone’.
By this time The Wailers are cultivating a more international outlook. All their recordings up to this time have only really been popular in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Bob Marley’s experience with Johnny Nash and the group’s continual battle to earn a living makes the prospect of an overseas breakthrough enticing.
Well aware of The Wailers local reputation, Chris Blackwell offers them a recording contract with Island Records. For the first time, a reggae act is given access to world-class recording studios and the sort of treatment that is customary for Blackwell’s other (white) Island Records acts such as Traffic, featuring Steve Winwood. The resultant album is ‘Catch A Fire’ (1973) (US no. 171) released in April. It includes a new recording of ‘Stir It Up’, the 1967 song that was a hit for Johnny Nash in 1971. “Your recipe darling / Is so tasty,” Bob Marley observes on this sensuous, languorous piece. Also present is ‘Kinky Reggae’ and ‘Concrete Jungle’, which mourns “No sun will shine in my sky today.” Chis Blackwell ‘subtly overdubs and remixes the original Jamaican [recording] sessions for international ears.’ The Wailers tour both the United Kingdom and the United States of America to promote this album.
As the buzz about reggae spreads through rock music circles, Trojan Records gives an international release to the group’s previous albums ‘African Herbsman’ and ‘Rasta Revolution’ in 1973 and 1974 respectively.
The Wailers’ second album for Island is ‘Burnin’’(1973) (US no. 151), issued in October. Peter Tosh co-writes ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ and shares the lead vocal with Bob Marley. It’s a tough call for action: “Stand up for your rights…Don’t give up the fight.” ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ (UK no. 67) more obliquely tackles the issue of oppressive authorities, trying to justify violence in terms like “always hated me” and “it was in self-defence.” Still, for all that the narrator acknowledges “I shot the sheriff / But I did not shoot the deputy”, he also dramatically cries “If I am guilty I will pay” and this is underlined with a blast of echo. British bluesman Eric Clapton has a hit the following year with a cover version of ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ introducing many new listeners to reggae. When asked about foreign versions, Marley later says “It can be copied [outside Jamaica]. Them know it, but they can’t do it.” Or at least not to a standard that will impress an authentic reggae artist. ‘Burnin’’ also includes new recordings of 1970’s ‘Duppy Conqueror’ and ‘Small Axe’. Earl ‘Wya’ Lindo plays keyboards on the album. Though he is absent from the next few albums, he returns to The Wailers recordings from 1979.
‘Burnin’’ is the last album to feature Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone. Both depart under a cloud, though in different circumstances. Peter Tosh feels marginalised by Island and Chris Blackwell (whom he insists on calling Chris Whitewell). He does not think he is granted sufficient recognition and respect and the more pliable Bob Marley is favoured. Bunny Livingstone is not happy about playing clubs that don’t fit with the Rastafarian faith. When he takes a stand on the issue, his ‘brothers’ don’t support him. To his surprise, Bunny is the odd man out and feels obligated to resign.
In 1974 the act is reconstituted as ‘Bob Marley And The Wailers’ rather than ‘The Wailers’. The new line-up is: Bob Marley (vocals, guitar), Al Anderson (guitar), Bernard ‘Touter’ Harvey (keyboards), Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (bass) and Carlton Barrett (drums). They are augmented by The I-Threes, a trio of female backing vocalists consisting of Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths.
‘Natty Dread’ (1974) (US no. 92, UK no. 43) is the first album credited to Bob Marley And The Wailers (though reissues of some older albums show this new sobriquet rather than the original credit of, simply, The Wailers). This disc is home to ‘Lively Up Yourself’, ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’, ‘So Jah She’ and the original version of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ (more on that song shortly).
Don Taylor, an African-Jamaican, signs on as the manager of Bob Marley And The Wailers at this point. He shepherds the act to greater fortunes internationally.
On 18 July 1975 Bob Marley And The Wailers put on a concert at the Lyceum in London, England. Chris Blackwell regards this show as the tipping point in Marley’s career. From a local star he graduated to a curiosity on the international stage, but now everyone knows his name and he is massive. The concert is captured on the album ‘Live!’ (1975) (US no. 40, UK no. 38). The best known moment is the live version of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 97), a song that is perhaps closer to soul than reggae. A churchy organ introduces the piece and the I-Threes coo invitingly. Marley declares, “I remember when we used to sit / In the government yard in Trench Town [Jamaica’s ghetto].” This lovely, moving composition is Bob Marley’s work but, officially, it is credited to Vincent Ford. This individual runs a backyard soup kitchen and, by assigning Ford the song’s royalties, Bob Marley helps to keep Ford’s operation running.
Back in Jamaica, Bob Marley buys Island House from Chris Blackwell. The building at 56 Hope Road in Kingston used to be the record company’s local headquarters. It becomes home to Bob Marley, his family, The Wailers, and, thanks to an open door policy, a shifting entourage of friends and hangers-on. Aside from ingesting massive amounts of herb, the crew indulge in Marley’s other great pastime: soccer. “I tend to, like, play [soccer] everywhere,” the dreadlocked singer advises, and adds with a laugh, “Anywhere it is possible.” In airports and on tour, in their matching tracksuits, The Wailers often look more like a soccer team than a band of musicians.
‘Rastaman Vibration’ (1976) (US no. 8, UK no. 15), released in April, sees Donald Kinsey fill-in on guitar while Tyrone Downie (keyboards, percussion, backing vocals) is added to the group as Touter exits. The disc is described as ‘the clearest exposition yet of Marley’s music and beliefs.’ The track listing includes ‘Johnny Was’, ‘Roots Rock Reggae’, ‘Positive Vibration’ and ‘War’, a song whose lyrics are based on a speech Haile Selassie gave at the United Nations building in 1963.
While Jamaica itself is not exactly at war, there is significant political unrest and violence in the streets. The left wing People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) which, despite the connotations of its title, is a centre-right conservative organisation, are at odds. “When you have political violence, the youth fighting against the youth, for the politicians, then I really feel sick,” says Bob Marley. “See, I find none of them really do anything good for the people. It’s divide and rule.” As perhaps Jamaica’s most famous son, Marley tries to unite the country with the ‘Smile Jamaica’ concert. This leads to an assassination attempt on the singer on 3 December 1976. Wounded but undaunted, Marley goes ahead with the show. Thereafter, he leaves Jamaica for some time, soured by the shooting.
While playing soccer, someone steps on Bob Marley’s toe with their spiked boots. The injury becomes infected. In 1977 Marley is diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, apparently as a direct result of the infected toe. The obvious option would be to amputate the cancerous toe, but that does not happen. The reason for this is a bit murky. There is a view that Marley is receiving poor advice from those around him, suggesting his whole leg would be amputated. Another view is that the operation is refused on religious grounds. For the same reason that Rastafarians plait their hair rather than cut it, the removal of a toe may be thought of as against the will of God. Whatever the reason may be, Bob Marley does not have the surgery and trusts that he can surmount this problem.
‘Exodus’ (1977) (US no. 20, UK no. 8) is recorded in London, England, and Miami, U.S.A. Donald Kinsey is gone and Julian ‘Junior’ Marvin is added as guitarist. The strident title track, ‘Exodus’ (US no. 103, UK no. 14), envisions the repatriation of blacks to Africa: “We’re leaving Babylon [the western world] / We’re going to our fatherland.” ‘Waiting In Vain’ (UK no. 27) pictures a would-be lover yearning for his object of desire, yet strangely satisfied just to be in her orbit. The rattling drums and swaying piano of ‘Jamming’ (UK no. 9, AUS no. 99) don’t disguise its religious allusions: “We’re jamming in the name of the Lord…Holy Mount Zion…It rules all creation e’erwhere.” ‘One Love / People Get Ready’ (UK no. 5) co-credits The Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield (an early influence for The Wailers) because his gospel-flavoured ‘People Get Ready’ is buried in this song’s D.N.A. – but if it was not acknowledged, it would be difficult to discern. This song dates back to the ‘Wailing Wailers’ (1965) album, but its message of peace is still relevant: “One love / One heart / Let’s get together / And feel alright.” The story behind ‘Three Little Birds’ (UK no. 17) is that, when Marley sat on his back step in Kingston smoking herb, he would take the marijuana seeds from the plant and scatter them to the “Three little birds / Sat by my doorstep / Singing sweet songs / A melody pure and true / This is my message to you.” It becomes a reassuring nursery rhyme: “Don’t worry / About a thing / ‘Cos every little thing / Gonna be alright.”
‘Kaya’ (1978) (US no. 50, UK no. 4), released in March, is the best album by Bob Marley And The Wailers. It is perhaps their least political album but its emphasis on sweet, romantic songs gives it a warm thematic cohesion – though there are also ‘homages to the power of ganja.’ ‘Is This Love’ (UK no. 9, AUS no. 11) sports a happy, cantering rhythm as Marley sings “We’ll be together / With a roof right over our heads / We’ll share the shelter / Of my single bed.” It’s an enchanting piece. ‘Satisfy My Soul’ (UK no. 21) has a lazy rhythm with a lowing horn section. “I’m happy inside all the time,” the vocalist proclaims, radiating a glow of love. He goes on to exult “You make me feel like a sweepstakes winner.”
Bob Marley returns to Jamaica and, on 22 April 1978, performs at the One Love Peace Concert. In a show of solidarity, the singer has both PNP Prime Minister Michael Manley and JLP Opposition Leader Edward Seaga onstage and raises their clasped hands.
Another live album, ‘Babylon By Bus’ (1978) (US no. 102, UK no. 40), follows in November 1978.
At the end of the year, Bob Marley visits Africa for the first time. After a stopover in Kenya, he goes on to Ethiopia, the Rastafarian spiritual homeland. He is not playing any shows; it is more like a holy pilgrimage.
‘Survival’ (1979) (US no. 70, UK no. 20) sees Earl Lindo (keyboards) and Al Anderson (guitar) return to the fold. The cover image is a mosaic of flags and, as if in reaction to ‘Kaya’, the content is more political. ‘So Much Trouble In The World’ (UK no. 56) and ‘Survival’ are joined by ‘Zimbabwe’, a tribute to the new African nation the formerly white-controlled Rhodesia is becoming.
On 4 January 1980 Bob Marley And The Wailers play their first concert in Africa. It is in the French-speaking country of Gabon. The group are there at the invitation of Pascaline Bongo Ondimba, the daughter of Gabon’s President (and dictator), a young woman who is in love with Marley. The band are not fully aware of the country’s political situation until it is too late and they are already there and committed. The tour also causes a split between Marley and manager Don Taylor who is dismissed for charging too much for concert tickets. Marley regards it as such an honour to play in Africa for the first time, he wants the prices reduced to a bare minimum. Subsequently, Danny Sims (who worked with the singer back in 1968) and his business partner Allan ‘Skill’ Coe take on management duties for Bob Marley And The Wailers.
On 17 April 1980 the group plays a concert at the Independence Day ceremonies in Zimbabwe. Bob Marley’s song ‘Zimbabwe’ earned him a place as an official guest to witness the swearing in of Premier Robert Mugabe. Marley later describes the whole occasion as “the greatest honour of my life.”
‘Uprising’ (1980) (US no. 45, UK no. 6) in June features the percolating, unstoppable groove of ‘Could You Be Loved’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 95). “I am the darkness that must come out the light,” Bob Marley sings in this track. This album also contains Bob Marley’s finest individual recording: ‘Redemption Song’. It’s an unusual track as it features only Marley’s voice and an acoustic guitar. Yet it is this same spartan quality that lends the song such power. “Old pirates yes they rob I / Sold I to the merchant ships,” he begins. As the song progresses, without any additional instrumentation it still swells as Marley pronounces “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / For none but ourselves can free our minds.” It may seem odd to nominate a plaintive tune like this as a reggae artist’s best work. While it may not be Marley’s most representative performance, such is its simple strength that it is his most impressive.
A continual concern of Bob Marley’s is his difficulty in connecting with African-American audiences. Compared to his success in other countries, he has only a cult following in the U.S.A. Undeterred, Bob Marley And The Wailers continue to tour the U.S. During a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 8 October 1980, Bob Marley collapses on stage. The cancer that started in his toe is now all over his body. He is taken to Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City, but is told that the disease is too far advanced for treatment and he cannot be helped.
Bob Marley is taken to Ethiopia, the Rastafarian homeland, to get some rest. The decision is made for him to seek treatment for the cancer at the Josef Issels Clinic in Bavaria. While in Europe, Marley’s condition deteriorates. The chemotherapy is causing his hair to fall out and he is so weak his neck can barely support his head under the weight of his dreadlocks. Regretfully, Rita Marley, Cindy Breakspeare and his women folk shear off the dreads, the symbol of Marley’s identity as a Rastafarian. The singer suffers a stroke on his left side. Marley records a message for radio broadcast: “I understand that writers and people in the press are very concerned about my health. I want to say thank you for your interest and that I’ll be alright and I’ll be back on the road again in 1981, recording, performing, with the fans we love. Beautiful. You know, Bob talking to you. Don’t have no doubts. Seen? Good.”
Word reaches the ailing singer that he is to be presented with the Order of Merit, Jamaica’s third highest honour, for his ‘outstanding contribution to the county’s culture.’ Arrangements are made for Bob Marley to fly to Jamaica for the presentation with a stopover in Miami, Florida, U.S.A. to visit his mother. He dies on 11 May 1981 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, Miami, without ever seeing Jamaica again. The death is attributed to a brain tumour. Bob Marley was 36. Ten days after his demise, the late singer is given an official funeral by the people of Jamaica and the Order of Merit is posthumously presented. His body is laid to rest in a mausoleum near his birthplace.
‘Confrontation’ (1983) (US no. 55, UK no. 5) is the last album of original material by Bob Marley And The Wailers issued by Island Records. The highlight of this posthumous release is ‘Buffalo Soldier’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 18), a song co-written by Bob Marley and Noel George Williams. “Boof-alo Solja” (as Marley renders it) is ‘the cruelly ironic story of black men being conscripted into the ranks of the [Civil War era American] Union Army to kill Indians.’ Braying horns accompany this history lesson of a “dreadlock Rasta…stolen from Africa…in the war for America.”
Bob Marley’s life was cut short, not by an assassin’s bullet, but by disease. “What is to be must be,” he said. Would Marley feel like he had achieved his goals? “I don’t really have no ambition, you know,” he once said. “I only have one thing I’d really like to see happen…I’d like to see mankind live together. Black, white, Chinese, everyone. That’s all.” At his best, Bob Marley’s songs are simple enough for universal acceptance and comprehension. It’s not just a Rastafarian preaching his gospel; it’s a man expressing thoughts and feelings common to all human beings. Bob Marley was ‘the first Third World superstar.’ ‘Since his death, his dreadlocked image has become an icon of Third World liberation, black self-determination and the island of Jamaica in general.’
- ‘Like It Is’ (U.S. television program, WABC-TV) – Bob Marley interview conducted by Gil Noble (September 1980)
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 263, 283, 311, 317
- berklee/edu/br/152/bob_marley.html (2013)
- ‘Marley’ (2012) – A documentary film directed by Kevin MacDonald (Shangri-La Entertainment LLC & Tuff Gong Pictures)
- ‘The Australian Contemporary Dictionary’ – Editor J.B. Foreman, M.A. (1965) p. 358
- allmusic.com, ‘Bob Marley’ by Jason Ankeny as at 12 June 2013
- wikipedia.org as at 13 May 2013
- Bob Marley video interview conducted in Aotearoa, New Zealand by N.Z. rock journalist Dylan Taite (1979)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 138, 139
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Reggae’ by Ed Ward (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 587, 588, 590, 593
- ‘The Atlas of Man’ – Edited by John Garsford (Rigby Limited, 1978) p. 56
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 98
- biography.com as at 14 June 2013
- ’60 Minutes (Australia)’ (Australian television program, Nine Network) ‘Reggae Rebels’ – Bob Marley interview conducted by George Negus (late 1979) – as per facebook.com
- ‘Legend – The Best Of Bob Marley And The Wailers’ – Anonymous (Timothy White?) sleeve notes (Island Records, 1984) p. 3, 4, 5, 6, back cover
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 13 June 2013
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 148
- discogs.com as at 12 June 2013
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 51, 55, 56
- ‘The Independent’ (U.K. newspaper) – Obituary of Don Taylor (independent.co.uk) (16 November 2009)
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 179
- thewailingwailers.free as at 18 June 2013
Song lyrics copyright Rondor Music (Australia) P/L with the exceptions of ‘Stir It Up’, ‘Small Axe’, ‘Cornerstone’, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ (all Leosong Music P/L), ‘One Love / People Get Ready’ (Leosong P/L / Warner Chappell Music) and ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ (Leosong P/L / Rondor Music (Australia) P/L)
Last revised 19 November 2013