Bob Marley, with his band the Wailers, brilliantly combined reggae with ska, rocksteady, and British rock to make music beloved around the world. Marley is the best selling reggae artist of all time, and his 1977 album “Exodus” is considered one of the best albums ever produced. The album includes classic songs “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Waiting in Vain,” “Three Little Birds,” and “Jamming.” Marley was just 36 when he died of cancer in 1981. We’re remembering the reggae icon on what would have been his 75th birthday.
Marley was born Feb. 6, 1945 in Jamaica to a white father and black mother. When Bob was 10, his father Norval died. His mother Cedella began a relationship and had a child with the father of Bob’s friend Neville Livingston. The blended family moved in together and Bob and Neville (who’d later be known as Bunny Wailer) began to make music. They formed a vocal group that included Peter Tosh. Marley learned to play the guitar (some say Tosh taught him). And in 1964, the group known as The Wailers released their first single “Simmer Down.” It was a No. 1 hit in Jamaica.
The big three of The Wailers: Bob Marley (1945–1981), Peter Tosh (1944–1987), and Bunny Wailer. In their early years before they became Rastafarians, the band styled themselves like an R&B group.
In 1966, Marley married Rita Anderson and moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where his mother was living. He worked for a while on an assembly line at a Chrysler plant. He came back to Jamaica in 1967 and re-joined The Wailers. Born Catholic, he converted to Rastafari and grew dreadlocks.
The Wailers continued to release albums with success in Jamaica but were not very known outside of their home country. That would change with the 1973 album “Catch a Fire.” After finishing a tour in the U.K., The Wailers didn’t have enough money to get back home. Producer Chris Blackwell agreed to give them an advance on their next album and flew them back to Jamaica to record. Blackwell finished producing the album in London. Their first release on Island Records, “Catch a Fire” propelled the group to international stardom. The album includes the song “Stir It Up,” first recorded by The Wailers in 1967 and re-recorded for “Catch a Fire.” Marley’s first song to perform well outside of Jamaica, “Stir It Up” came close to the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Catch a Fire” is No. 126 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time.
Chris Blackwell produced a quick follow-up to “Catch a Fire.” “Burnin'” was released only six months later and includes the classic “Get Up, Stand Up,” written by Marley and Tosh. The anthem was inspired by Marley’s trip to Haiti and the poverty he saw there. Later, Marley, Tosh, and Bunny Wailer would release versions of the song on solo albums. The song is featured on the Bob Marley and the Wailers 1975 album “Live!” and was the last song Marley ever performed live on stage (Sept. 23, 1980 at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh).
“Burnin'” also includes “I Shot the Sheriff,” a song Marley wrote about justice. An early version used “police” instead of “sheriff.” Not wanting to upset the Jamaican government, Marley changed the lyric. Eric Clapton (who’d been given “Burnin'” by his guitarist George Terry) liked “I Shot the Sheriff” and decided to cover the song. Clapton’s version was a No. 1 hit in the fall of 1974.
After “Burnin’,” The Wailers broke up and the big three went on to solo careers. Marley put together a new backing band and called the group Bob Marley & The Wailers. Their 1974 album “Natty Dread” featured his biggest hit to date, “No Woman, No Cry.” But it was a live version of the song, released on the 1975 album “Live!,” that would become a smash. Rolling Stone ranked the live version No. 37 on it’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Songwriting credit went to Vincent Ford, who ran a soup kitchen in Kingston ghetto Trenchtown, where Marley grew up. Some say Marley wrote the song but wanted the royalties to go to Ford to help keep the soup kitchen open.
Bob Marley & The Wailers released the hugely successful “Rastaman Vibration” in 1976. The album was his first to reach the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, and the single “Roots, Rock, Reggae” was his first to make the Billboard Hot 100. Vincent Ford received writing credit for that song and one other. After Marley died his family sued, saying Marley wrote the songs and gave credit to his friend to avoid commitments made in a previous contract. A 1987 court decision agreed and gave the rights to the songs to the Marley estate.
On Dec. 3, 1976, two days before he was to perform at the Smile Jamaica concert to promote peace in Jamaica, Marley, his wife Rita, and manager Don Taylor were victims of an assassination attempt by unknown gunmen in his home. Marley received minor injuries; his wife and manager were wounded more seriously but recovered. Undeterred, Marley went ahead and performed at the concert. Shortly after, he moved to London for two years, and while there recorded “Exodus.” The album was on the British charts for over a year and yielded multiple hit singles. The popular song “Jamming” is still a regular on radio.
The 1978 album “Kaya” had a more laid-back sound than previous releases, with many of the songs about marijuana. “Is This Love” was featured on the album and reached No. 9 on the U.K. charts. Marley and the band made a music video for the track, filmed at Keskidee Arts Centre in London.
In 1978, Marley returned to Jamaica and participated in the One Love Peace concert, an effort to stop escalating political unrest. Bob Marley & The Wailers performed “War.” At the end of their performance, Marley brought up the leaders of the two political parties, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, and they shook hands.
His 1979 album “Survival” was more political than the previous release “Kaya.” In 1980, Marley released his final album before his death, “Uprising.” Perhaps fittingly, the album was Marley’s most religious with the songs addressing his Rastafarian beliefs. The song “Could You Be Loved” was a Top 10 hit on the U.K. singles chart.
Marley died from cancer on May 11, 1981. Two years later, “Confrontation” by Bob Marley & The Wailers was released, an album compiled from previously unreleased demos and singles. “Confrontation” includes “Buffalo Soldier,” a song about the black cavalry units that fought in the Indian Wars.