Jamaica has produced an artist who has touched all categories, classes, and creeds through innate modesty and profound wisdom. Bob Marley, the Natural Mystic who introduced reggae to European and American fans still may prove to be the most significant musical artist of the twentieth century. Bob Marley gave the world brilliant music and established reggae as major forces in music that is comparable with the blues and rock&rolls. His work stretched across nearly two decades and still remains timeless.
Bob Marley & the Wailers worked their way into all of our lives. He’s taken his place with James Brown and Sly Stone as pervasive influence on r&b”, said Timothy White, author of the Bob Marley biography “Catch A Fire”. It is important to think of the roots of this legend: the first superstar from the Third World, Bob Marley was one of the most charismatic and challenging performers of his time. His music reflects only one source: the street culture of Jamaica. Later, in 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. Tafari claimed to be the 225th ruler in a line that went back to Menelik, the son of Solomon.
The Garvey followers in Jamaica, who consulted their New Testaments for a sign, believed that Haile Selassie was the black king that Garvey had said would deliver the black race. It was the start of a new religion called Rastafari, which Bob was into heavily. Fifteen years after, in Nine Miles deep within Jamaica Robert Nesta Marley was born. His mother Cedella Booker was an eighteen-year-old black girl while his father was Captain Norval Marley, a 50-year-old white man working for the Jamaican Forestry Commission. The couple married in 1944 and Norval left Cedella to legitimize their unborn child. Then Bob was born on February 6, 1945.
Norval’s family applied constant pressure to Bob and, although he provided financial support, Norval seldom saw his son who grew up in St. Ann to the north of the island. Bob Marley, barely into his teens, moved to Kingston (Trench Town) in the late Fifties. His friends Were other street youths, also not happy with their place in society. One friend Neville O’Riley Livingston was known as Bunny, Bob met Bunny when his mom took work taking rooms behind a rum bar owned by Toddy Livingston Bunnys father. Bob took his first musical steps with Bunny. They were fascinated by the music they could pick up from American radio stations.
Especially Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Curtis Mayfield, and Brook Benton. Bob and Bunny also paid close attention to vocal groups, such as the Drifters, who were popular in Jamaica. Bob quit school and seemed to have one ambition, music. He took a job in a welding shop, but spent all his free time with Bunny working on their vocal abilities, with the help of one of Trench Town’s famous residents, singer Joe Higgs. Higgs held informal lessons for aspiring vocalists. At one of those sessions Bob and Bunny met Peter McIntosh, who also had musical ambitions. In 1962 Bob Marley auditioned for Leslie Kong.
Impressed by the quality of Bob’s vocals, Kong took Bob into the studio to cut some tracks; the first was called “Judge Not” and was released on Beverley’s label. It was Bob’s first record. The other songs – including “Terror” and “One Cup of Coffee” – received no airplay and attracted little attention. However, they confirmed Bob’s ambition to be a singer. The following year Bob had decided to form a group. He joined Bunny and Pete to form The Wailing Wailers. The new group had a mentor, a Rastafarian hand drummer Alvin Patterson who introduced them to Clement Dodd, a record producer in Kingston.
In the summer of 1963 Dodd auditioned The Wailing Wailers and pleased with the results, agreed to record the group. The Wailing Wailers released their first single, “Simmer Down”, during the last weeks of 1963. The following January it was number one in the Jamaican charts, where it stayed for the next two months. The group – Bob, Bunny and Peter together with Junior Braithwaite and two back-up singers were big news. “Simmer Down” caused a sensation in Jamaica and The Wailing Wailers began recording regularly. The groups’ music identified with the Rude Boy street rebels in the Kingston slums.
Jamaican music had found a tough, urban stance. Despite their popularity the group broke apart and Bob’s mother remarried. She then moved to the U. S and wanted Bob to come to start a new life, but before they left Bob met a girl named Rita Anderson and they wed on February 10, 1966. Marley joined up with Bunny and Peter to re-form the group, now known as The Wailers. Rita, too, had started a singing career, having a big hit with “Pied Piper”, a cover of an English pop song. Jamaican music however, was changing. The bouncy ska beat had been replaced by a slower, more sensual
Rhythm called rock steady. The group formed their own record label, Wail ‘N’ Soul; however, the label folded in late 1967. The group however survived as songwriters for Johnny Nash who had an international hit with Marley’s “Stir it up”. The Wailers also met up with Lee Perry, whose genius transformed recording studio Techniques into an art form. In 1970 Barrett and his brother Carlton joined the Wailers. Working with the Wailers on those groundbreaking sessions they were unchallenged as Jamaica’s hardest rhythm section.
In the summer of 1971 Bob accepted an invitation from Johnny Nash to accompany him to Sweden. While in Europe Bob got a recording contract with CBS, which was also Nash’s company. In spring of 1972 the Wailers were in London promoting their single “Reggae on Broadway” when CBS dumped them. As a last attempt Bob Marley walked into the Studio of Island Records and asked to see its founder Chris Blackwell. The company had been the reason behind the rise of Jamaican music in Britain. Blackwell knew of Marley’s Jamaican reputation. The group was offered a deal unique in Jamaican terms.
The Wailers were advanced $4000 to make an album and for the first time a reggae band had access to the best recording studios and were treated in the same way as their contemporaries. Before this reggae sold only on singles and cheap compilation albums. The Wailers’ first album “Catch A Fire” broke all the rules. It was beautifully packaged and heavily promoted. Although “Catch A Fire” was not an immediate hit, it made a considerable impact on the media. Marley’s hard rhythms and his lyrical stance came in complete contrast to most of mainstream rock. Island decided The Wailers should tour both Britain and America.
During the American tour they supported the young Bruce Springsteen. With the demand for an autumn tour, one was arranged with seventeen dates as support to Sly & The Family Stone. Four shows into the tour, however, The Wailers were taken off the bill. It seems they had been too good because support bands should not detract from the main attraction. In 1973 The Wailers released their second Island album, “Burnin” that included new versions of some of the band’s older songs for instance, “Small Axe” and “Put It On” – together with such tracks as “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot The Sheriff”(which was a massive worldwide hit for Eric Clapton. By the summer of 1975, the band was on the road again. The shows were recorded and the live album together with the single “No Woman No Cry” made the charts. Bob Marley & The Wailers were taking reggae into the mainstream. By November, when The Wailers returned to Jamaica to play a benefit concert with Stevie Wonder, they were obviously the country’s greatest superstars. Its international success helped Marley’s growing political importance in Jamaica, where his Rastafarian stance found a strong home with the youth.
To thank the people of Jamaica Marley decided on a free concert, to be held at Kingston’s National Heroes Park on December 5, 1976. The idea was to emphasize the need for peace in the slums of the city, where gang war had brought turmoil and murder. Just after the concert was announced, the government called an election for December 20. The campaign was a signal for renewed ghetto war and on the eve of the concert gunmen broke into Marley’s house and shot him. In the confusion the would-be assassins only wounded Marley. He was taken to a safe haven in the Hills surrounding Kingston.
For a day he decided on playing the concert and then, on December 5 he came on stage and played a brief set in defiance of the gunmen. It was to be Marley’s last appearance in Jamaica for nearly eighteen months. Immediately after the show he left the country and lived in London where he recorded his next album “Exodus. ” Released in the summer of that year, “Exodus” properly established the band’s international status. The album remained on the UK charts for 56 weeks straight and its three singles – “Exodus”, “Waiting in Vain” and “Jammin” – were all massive sellers.
The band also played a week of concerts at London’s Rainbow Theatre; their last dates in the city during the seventies. At the start of the following year – a new decade – Bob Marley & The Wailers flew to Gabon where they were to make their African debut. They heard they were playing in front of the country’s young elite. The group, nevertheless, was to make a quick return to Africa, this time at the official invitation of the government of liberated Zimbabwe to play at the country’s Independence Ceremony in April 1980.
It was the greatest honor ever for the band, and one, which underlined the Wailer’s importance in the Third World. At the end of the European tour Marley and the band went to America. Bob played two shows at Madison Square Garden but immediately afterwards was taken away seriously ill. Three years earlier, in London, Bob hurt a toe while playing football. The wound had become cancerous and was treated in Miami but not right away, yet it continued to fester. By 1980 the cancer, in its worst form, had begun to spread through Bob’s body.
He fought the disease for eight months, taking treatment at the clinic of Dr. Joseph Issels and for a time Bob’s condition seemed to stabilize. Eventually, however, the battle was too much and at the start of May Bob Marley left for his Jamaican home, a journey he did not complete. He died in a Miami hospital on Monday May 11, 1981. The previous month, Marley had been awarded Jamaica’s Order Of Merit, the nation’s third highest honor, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the country’s culture.
He was thought of as a prophet of hope by the downtrodden and oppressed by supporting populist political movements. On Thursday May 21, 1981,Robert Nesta Marley was given an official funeral by the people of Jamaica. Following the service – attended by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition – Marley’s body was taken to his birthplace at Nine Mile, on the north of the island, where it now rests in a mausoleum. Bob Marley died when he was 36-years-old. But as Elton John would say “His candles burned out long before his legend ever would. “