The first major rock artist to come out of a Third World country, Bob Marley did more than anyone else to popularize reggae around the globe.
He was a gifted songwriter who could mix protest music and pop as skillfully as Bob Dylan, and his songs of determination, rebellion, and faith became important parts of the rock and pop canon.
Thirty years after Marley’s death, hits like “No Woman No Cry” and “Is This Love” sound as vibrant as ever.
Marley left his rural home for the slums of Kingston, Jamaica at age 14. When he was 17, Jimmy Cliff introduced him to Leslie Kong, who produced Marley’s first single, “Judge Not,” and several other obscure sides. In 1963, with the guidance of Jamaican pop veteran Joe Higgs, Marley formed the Wailers, a vocal quintet, with Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone, Junior Braithwaite, and Beverly Kelso. Their first single for producer Coxsone Dodd, “Simmer Down,” was one of the biggest Jamaican hits of 1964, and the Wailers remained on Dodd’s Studio One and Coxsone labels for three years, hitting with “Love and Affection.”
When Braithwaite and Kelso left the group around 1965, the Wailers continued as a trio, Marley, Tosh, and Livingstone trading leads. In spite of the popularity of singles like “Rude Boy,” the artists received few or no royalties, and in 1966 they disbanded. Marley spent most of the following year working in a factory in Newark, Delaware (where his mother had moved in 1963). Upon his return to Jamaica, the Wailers reunited and recorded, with little success, for Dodd and other producers. During this period, the Wailers devoted themselves to the religious sect of Rastafarianism.
In 1969, the Wailers began their three-year association with Lee “Scratch” Perry, who directed them to play their own instruments and expanded their lineup to include Aston and Carlton Barrett, formerly the rhythm section of Perry’s studio band, the Upsetters. Some of the records they made with Perry, like “Trenchtown Rock,” were locally very popular, but so precarious was the Jamaican record industry that the group seemed no closer than before to establishing steady careers. It formed an independent record company, Tuff Gong, in 1971, but the venture foundered when Livingstone was jailed and Marley got caught in a contract commitment to American pop singer Johnny Nash, who took him to Sweden to write a film score (and later had moderate hits with two Marley compositions, “Guava Jelly” and “Stir It Up”).
In 1972, Chris Blackwell—who had released “Judge Not” in England in 1963—signed the Wailers to Island Records and advanced them the money to record themselves in Jamaica. Catch a Fire was their first album marketed outside Jamaica, which featured several uncredited performances such as Muscles Shoals’ guitarist Wayne Perkins playing lead on “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up.” (They continued to release Jamaica-only singles on Tuff Gong.) Their recognition abroad was later abetted by Eric Clapton’s hit 1974 version of “I Shot the Sheriff,” a song from their second Island album, 1973’s Burnin’. They made their first overseas tour in 1973, but before the end of the year, Tosh and Livingstone (who later adopted the surname Wailer) left for solo careers.
Marley expanded the instrumental section of the group and brought in a female vocal trio, the I-Threes, which included his wife, Rita. Now called Bob Marley and the Wailers, they toured Europe, Africa, and the Americas, building especially strong followings in the U.K., Scandinavia, and Africa. They had U.K. Top 40 hits with “No Woman No Cry” (1975), “Exodus” (1977), “Waiting in Vain” (1977), and “Satisfy My Soul” (1978); and British Top 10 hits with “Jamming” (1977), “Punky Reggae Party” (1977), and “Is This Love” (1978).
In the U.S., only “Roots, Rock, Reggae” made the pop chart (Number 51, 1976), while “Could You Be Loved” placed on the soul charts (Number 56 R&B, 1980), but the group attracted an ever larger audience: Rastaman Vibration went to Number Eight pop and Exodus hit Number 20. In Jamaica the Wailers reached unprecedented levels of popularity and influence, and Marley’s pronouncements on public issues were accorded the attention usually reserved for political or religious leaders. In 1976 he was wounded in an assassination attempt.
A 1980 tour of the U.S. was canceled when Marley collapsed while jogging in New York’s Central Park. It was discovered that he had developed brain, lung, and liver cancer; it killed him eight months later. In 1987 both Peter Tosh and longtime Marley drummer Carlton Barrett were murdered in Jamaica during separate incidents. Rita Marley continues to tour, record, and run the Tuff Gong studios and record company.
Marley was a pioneer not only because he single-handedly brought reggae to the world, but because his passionate, socially observant music has become a yardstick against which all reggae will forever be measured.