Bob Marley is a hero to many, an icon of his generation. Heralded as a spiritual leader and even as a prophet to some, he transcended poverty, oppression, and discrimination to emerge as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. He achieved in a score of years what most will not in a lifetime. On May 11th, 39 years ago, he was taken from us.
Let us explore his life and what made him so transcendent by examining some well known, and also, little known facts about him.
Bob’s Early Life
Robert Nesta ‘Bob’ Marley was born to a white first generation Immigrant to Jamaica of English descent, Norval Marley (Capt.), and a black Jamaican teenager Cedella Booker. It is unclear (and unlikely) that the two were ever married. Norval left Kingston, abandoning young Cedella and infant Bob. He provided material support while he was alive, but nothing more.
Related song: Corner Stone
In the lyrics to Corner Stone, Bob admonishes his dad for rejecting him and points out his success despite the rejection. He sings;
“The stone that the builder refuse (ed)
Will always be the head cornerstone.”
Norval died of a heart attack when Bob was only ten years old. They only met once.
Bob lived in Nine Mile, St. Ann Parish, where he was born, for the early part of his childhood. By all accounts, life was tough for Cedella and Bob; this left an indelible impression on young Bob. One of Bob’s closest friends at Nine Mile was Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer). While other kids raced to the playground after school, Bob and Bunny immersed themselves in music. This was a bond that lasted a lifetime.
Little known fact:
Bob’s mum and Bunny’s dad hooked up and had a daughter, Claudette Pearl Livingston. So Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer share a sister!
Bob Moves to Trenchtown And Finds His Groove
At 12 years old Bob moved to Trenchtown in Kingston with his mother. She may have moved in with Thadeus Livingston, Bunny Wailers dad but this is unclear. At any rate, Bob and Bunny continued their musical exploits together. At this time they were heavily influenced by American R&B and the Ska movement that was popular in Jamaica at the time. While the two honed their skills, they met other aspiring local musicians Winston Hubert McIntosh (Peter Tosh), Beverley Kelso, and Junior Braithwaite. The quintet formed a harmony group that would later morph into The Wailers.
It is while hanging out with his newfound musical buddies that Bob met Joe Higgs and Roy Wilson, the performing duo known as Higgs and Wilson. The pair was more musically advanced and successful compared to Bob’s group. Nonetheless, they took Bob and his cronies under their wings and helped them develop. It is during this period that Bob started to play guitar under the tutelage of Higgs. While some people credit Tosh with teaching Bob the instrument, it is more likely they developed the skill together. Perhaps with Tosh having the edge on the ability early on.
Bob Lays Down Some Tracks
You had to be tough to navigate the streets of Trenchtown. It was a rough ‘hood run by gangs of self-proclaimed ‘rude boys.’ The Wailers’ first number 1 hit was ‘Simmer Down.’ The song is a plea to the ‘rude boys’ to squash the violence that was rife in Kingston at the time. The song, recorded under producer Clement Seymour Dodd (Coxsone), went on to sell over 70,000 copies heralding the group to new found fame and acclaim. Previous recordings produced by local producer Leslie Kong had not faired so successfully. Here is one of their earliest releases titled ‘Judge Not’.
Bob finds Love and Rastafarianism
From Bob’s early releases, you can hear the Ska influences and also some first hints of Rocksteady. Rocksteady was a genre of music that grew in popularity as Ska began to fade. Rocksteady is said to have been the precursor to Reggae, the style that propelled Bob and that Bob propelled to worldwide stardom.
Rocksteady, unlike its succesor Reggae, dealt primarily with matters of the heart. Influenced by Ska and R&B, the love theme remained for the early part of its fame. What Rocksteady had done is slow down the Ska tempo/beat allowing guitarists and pianists to experiment.
When Bob married an aspiring young Cuban-born musician named Alpharita Constantia née Anderson (Rita Marley) in 1966, he was introduced to a new conscious movement known as Rastafarianism. As Bob, Tosh, and Bunny embraced the teachings of their new found faith, their music changed too. Their lyrics become more about oppression, poverty, black consciousness, and politics. The Wailers were very aware of what was going on particularly in America with the civil rights movement and Jim Crow laws.
The song ‘One Drop’ is named after the Jim Crow law that states that one drop of black blood is all it takes to classify someone as black. The opening line, “Feel it in the one drop,” is a reference to his blackness. Self-perceived or imposed by society standards, he was black.
‘Crazy Baldhead’ is a song that addresses racism.
Shortly after Marrying Rita, Bob moved to the States briefly (Delaware) and saw first hand, the atrocities being committed to and the disenfranchisement of, the black race. He started growing his dreadlocks after that short stay in the States.
Little known facts:
When Bob briefly moved to the States, The Wailers replaced him with a singer called Constantine “Vision” Walker. Ms. Walker was a cousin to Rita and a member of their former group The Soulettes. You can listen to The Soulettes sound here led by soon to be Rita Marley.
Little Known Fact:
Rita Marley had replaced Peter Tosh in the band while he served time for possessing a joint. Bob Marley was also arrested while in London for possessing a joint.
Bob Finds A New Sound
Marley and his band parted ways with Coxsone amid a financial dispute and linked up with producer Rainford Hugh Perry (Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry). Perry had been an apprentice of Bob’s first producer Leslie Kong (remember him?). Perry was heavily influenced by African culture and music owing to his close ties to his Yoruban ancestry which his mother instilled in him. This influence translated to the addition of African drums in his music, a staple in Reggae music to this day. This influence, coupled with his innovative approach to music made him an early pioneer in the development of the new sound that would later be called Reggae. You can listen to an example of his innovative approach to sound Here.
Bob Marley and his band recorded with Perry and his studio band called The Upsetters into the early 70s. It is here where the group created some of their most memorable work. Titles such as ‘Small Axe,’ ‘Put It On,’ ‘African Herbsman,’ and ‘Soul Rebel,’ were released. It is arguably the Wailers most solid endeavor musically and very significant to Reggae as a genre. It marked a break from Rocksteady and saw the band transition to Reggae. The union did not last long; a year later they parted ways with Perry amid song rights contestations.
Bob was still determined to continue recording in the new style and sort after Leslie Kong. As we had said earlier, Kong was instrumental in developing Perry and was himself at the cutting age of this unique sound. ‘The Best Of The Wailers’ was the resulting album from this partnership.
Before these fruitful alliances, the band was linked with numerous producers including U.S. singer Johnny Nash and eventually to Mr. Nash’s manager, the mobster Danny Sims. Mr. Sim is said to have signed the band to a deal that gave Nash’s label (JAD) exclusive publishing rights to songs (which songs they got is unclear). The Wailers are said to have only received a few dollars and recording time in exchange. In later years JAD released recording sessions recorded by The Wailers during this time. The releases were stripped down versions of the actual songs.
Bob Finds Fame
In 1972, while on a London tour with the aforementioned John Nash, the band requested a meeting with Chris Blackwell of Island Records. Remember Perry? the producer they had parted with “…amid song rights contestations.” Well, It turns out that Perry had sold/licensed the band’s music to Chris Blackwell and Island Records. Now, the group were in London and aimed to right the wrong that Perry had done them by demanding royalties or some form of payment. Chris had other ideas. Ironically, the piracy that had caused a rift between Perry and the group, had introduced the group to a powerful music mogul that would propel them to superstardom.
By the end of their meeting with Chris, The Wailers had signed a deal to record an album with a £4000 advance. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Bob Marley and the Wailers returned to the studio with the full backing of music label that could accord them the same advantages as rock star bands of their time. They could record with a full-size orchestra if they so wished! A first for a Reggae band. The resulting album was aptly named ‘Catch A Fire,’ the album was hot. Unfortunately, it did not sell well.
Chris had hoped to replace the void left by his cash cow, Jimmy Cliff with Bob Marley but this had been met with skepticism. Rock fans did not immediately warm to the new Reggae vibe while Jamaicans were not too sure of the new, ultra-produced Reggae sound.
When the band dropped their second album, Burnin’, it was make-or-break for them. One of the songs on the album was ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ which was covered by Eric Clapton. The Clapton cover went on to become number one, his first in years and legitimized Bob and his band to American audiences. They had arrived. Their message, swag, and unapologetic approach to issues resonated with rock fans worldwide. The band is said to have been so big that they got fired as open acts in the US for being more popular than the acts they were opening for. They were superstars!
Bob Flies Solo
The Wailers disbanded soon after the release of ‘Burnin’. Amid rising tensions within the band and allegations of favoritism, Bunny, Tosh, and Bob decided to pursue solo careers. Truth be told, Island Records had been primarily interested in the star power of Bob Marley alone and had probably leaned towards his whims over the other band members. Tosh and Bunny were immensely talented musicians and found success individually, but none that could rival their childhood friend Bob Marley.
Bob continued to tour and make music as Bob Marley and the Wailers. Tosh and Bunny were replaced by a triplet of female back up singers known as the ‘I Three.’ The trio comprised of Bob’s wife Rita, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths.
The song ‘Three Little Birds’ is about the I Three (usually miswritten as the I Threes).
The newly formed group had their first international hit in ‘No Woman, No Cry’ from the ‘Natty Dread’ album. A song he wrote for Rita, encouraging her to be strong in adversity and in his absence. His next album Rastaman Vibrations was a commercial and critical success reaching Billboard’s Soul top 50.
Despite Bob being a bonafide international superstar with hits across the world, he stayed true to his roots. He preached humility, love, and respect and gave most of his earnings away to less fortunate Jamaicans. Here is Bob commenting on what riches meant to him.
Bob Is Shot At
A couple of days before Bob was to participate in a concert organized by the then Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley; he was shot at while at his house on 56 Hope Rd. The shooting was a blatant attempt at his life and resulted in serious injury to his wife, and manager Don Taylor. Bob, was shot in the arm and chest but not seriously injured.
In our recent visit to the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Rd., we saw the holes left by the bullets of this attempted assassination. Why would anyone shoot a seemingly peace-loving musician?
Well, Jamaica had been politically unstable at the time with opposing political factions engaging in open combat. The concert, named ‘Smile Jamaica’, was an attempt at bring peace to the warring factions. The problem was, Bob Marley’s willingness to perform at a state-organized event was viewed as an endorsement for the incumbent. This made him a rival to all other factions and a thus a political target.
Bob’s Sojourn to London
After the attempt of his life, Bob moved to London in a self-imposed exile for two years. During this time, he released hits such as “Exodus,” “Waiting in Vain,” “Jamming,” and “One Love” from his album Exodus. He was a hit-making machine!
Little known fact:
Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions – ‘People Get Ready’ Was a huge inspiration to Bob, listen here to the song by Curtis. Starting at 1:28 the lyrics are very familiar to those that know Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ hit. You can listen to it here, try spot the similarities.
On his return to Jamaica, Bob performed at another unification concert in which he famously got Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, fierce political rivals, to join hands on stage.
Bob was a renowned woman’s man. He is a father to Sharon Marley Prendergast (adopted), Cedella Marley, Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley, and Stephanie (possibly adopted) with his wife, Rita Marley. He also had seven illegitimate children Rohan (b. 1972) with Janet Dunn/Hunt, Robbie (b. 1972) with Pat/Lucille Williams, Karen (b. 1973) with Janet Bowen, Julian Marley with Lucy Pounder, Damian Marley with Cindy Breakspeare, Ky-Mani Marley with Anita Belnavis and Makeda Jahnesta who was born to Yvette Anderson/Crichton 11 days after he died in 1981.(IMDB)
Bob wrote ‘Turn The Lights Down Low’ while courting Cindy Breakspeare at 56 Hope Rd., where they both resided. Cindy was the reigning Miss Jamaica and Bob’s longest lasting relationship outside of Rita.
It is significant to note that Rita was aware of Bob’s infidelities and tolerated them to a point. She controversially claimed to have refused sexual intercourse with Bob due to his philandering ways, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Marley’s mother went on to marry Edward Booker, a civil servant from the United States, giving Marley two step-brothers: Richard and Anthony.
We can write an entire article on Bob’s final two albums. If the singles The Wailers released while working with Perry and The Upsetters were a watermark for the birth of Reggae, the album ‘Survival’ was a line in the sand in the fight for African oppression and exploitation by the west. Tracks like ‘Zimbabwe’, and ‘Africa Unite’ implored and galvanized his African people to fight together to overcome the incumbrances placed on them by slavery, colonialism, and apartheid.
His final studio album ‘Uprising’ is more religious and retrospective, it’s almost foreboding. With tracks like ‘Redemption Song’ and ‘Forever Loving Jah,’ it’s possible that Bob was coming to terms with his mortality.
Three years prior, Bob had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma under a toenail in his right foot. Several legends exist regarding the source of this melanoma. One story, the most prevalent one is that he sustained an injury while playing football (soccer; for our American peeps). Bob was a competitive soccer player and friended (and later employed) Jamaica’s professional footballer Alan Cole (Skill) and competed avidly with him. Legend has it that an untreated injury sustained during these competitions led to cancer.
Others blame American intelligence agencies for deliberately infecting Bob with a cancer-causing infection. The CIA is said to have presented Bob with a pair of shoes as a gift that some claim were laced. This is a less credible possibility but not discounted. After all, Bob had become a popular champion of human rights and equality, not unlike Martin Luther King who was slain under suspicious circumstances in the States. The CIA was implicated in that murder too.
Bob once sang;
“How long shall they kill our prophets
while we stand aside and look”
He may have been predicting his demise.
Sadly, Bob’s life could have been saved had he agreed to have the infected toe amputated. Citing religious beliefs (Rasta don’t believe in invasive medicine) and recognizing that he would be unable to perform (dance) like he usually did, he opted not to undergo surgery. Performing was a huge part of Bob; his concerts were experiences second to none and his love for the art was evident. This quote sums him up;
“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.” – Prime Minister Edward Seaga
To cut off his foot would have been death to him.
In 1980 while jogging in central park, Bob collapsed and was rushed to hospital where he learned that cancer had spread to his entire body and head. It is remarkable that Bob had been performing and living actively up until this point.
Little known fact:
Bob’s recording studio ‘Tuff Gong’ was named after Bob. His friends called him Tuff Gong for his physical strength and endurance despite his small stature. He was five foot, seven inches on his tallest day.
Shortly after the diagnosis, his health deteriorated.
Bob Marley Died on May 11th, 1981. He was 36 years old. He is buried in a crypt at Nine Miles, near his birthplace, with his Gibson Les Paul Guitar, a soccer ball, a cannabis bud, and a Bible. (IMDB)
His posthumously released anthology collection “Legend” is one of the highest selling “greatest hits” recordings by a solo artist.
He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994.
He was voted the 11th Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Artist of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
His album ‘Exodus’ was chosen by Time magazine as the greatest album of the 20th century.
Was voted the third greatest lyricist of all time by BBC News Online users, following Bob Dylan and John Lennon (May 2001).
The City of New York renamed a portion of Church Avenue from Remsen Avenue to 98th Street in Brooklyn Bob Marley Boulevard (2006).
Was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2001). The Grammy is displayed at his former residence at 56 Hope Rd.
He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 7080 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
He was awarded ‘The Order of Merit” the fourth-highest honor awarded by the nation of Jamaica. The Order of Merit is conferred upon Jamaicans or distinguished citizens of other countries who have achieved eminent international distinction in the field of science, the arts, literature or any other endeavor. The award can be held by no more than 15 living persons. It is not given to more than two people in any one year.
We love hearing from you. Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. What are some of your favorite Bob Marley Songs?