Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Nesta Robert Marley, 6 February 1945, St Ann's Parish, Jamaica; d 11 May 1981, Miami FL) Singer, songwriter, guitarist and bandleader in the Jamaican national idiom of reggae, his greatness as a musician combining with transparent honesty and hatred of violence to make him the only world-wide superstar the genre has had. His mother was Jamaican, father English; he read palms as a child, but began singing after spending a year in Kingston at age six; he moved there permanently in 1957, growing up in the tough slum of Trench Town, where youths became street anarchists, jobless in Eden because of the island's primitive economy after more than 400 years of colonial rule. He was an ordinary mischievous child, mad about football, but unusually sensitive and possessing an innate ability to lead others which he used only unconsciously. Began playing/singing '60 with Bunny Livingston (aka Bunny Wailer: b Neville O'Riley Livingston, 23 April 1947; d 2 March 2021, Kingston) and Peter McIntosh (aka Tosh: b Winston Hubert McIntosh, 19 October 1944; d 11 September 1987); both had began playing on home-made instruments. Marley had a smoky tenor, Bunny a higher, keening voice and Tosh a powerful baritone; they were influenced by Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, the Drifters and the Impressions (with Curtis Mayfield); Marley also later cited the influence of Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, country singer Jim Reeves, plus indigenous music developing at the time (see Reggae). They took lessons from Joe Higgs, of the duo Higgs and Wilson, who was an influence not only because he insisted on correct harmonies but because he already wrote songs about ganja (marijuana) and Rastafarianism before it was fashionable; he also gave Marley tuition on guitar and songwriting.
Marley was at first turned away from Leslie Kong's recording studio, just one of a gaggle of youths hanging around, but was taken back by Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, making his first record '62 ('Judge Not', written with Higgs's help). The Teenagers, aka Wailing Rudeboys, was a group including the trio, Junior Braithwaite (shot to death 2 June 1999 in his home in Kingston) was the lead singer, though Marley led the group), Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith; Alvin Patterson played traditional Afro-Jamaican burru drums, aka 'Willie', 'Pep', 'Franceesco', later famous as Seeco, the Wailers' percussionist. Seeco was an important influence from the beginning, but was also acquainted with Clement 'Sir Coxsone' Dodd: the first track for Dodd was 'Simmer Down' '63, written by Bunny, backed by the Skatalites; Coxsone dubbed them the Wailing Wailers on the instant nation-wide hit. The ska beat was slowed down and became 'rude boy' music. Though Braithwaite was the best singer his influence waned; some of the songs were bitter and loaded with politics, but there were also interesting covers (e.g. the Beatles' 'And I Love Her', Tom Jones's 'What's New Pussycat') and adapted versions of songs by the Contours, Junior Walker, Bob Dylan and others as Marley studied songwriting and the new world-wide politics of youth at a time when Jamaica itself was a political maelstrom. Despite sometimes having several hits in the Jamaican top ten, the group was paid practically nothing by Coxsone.

In early '66 Marley married Rita Anderson, then went to Wilmington, Delaware to stay with his mother, his name changed to Robert Nesta on his passport; he returned to Kingston the same year, now under the spell of Rastafarianism. Bunny's 'Rude Boy', Rita's 'Pied Piper' and other records had been hits; ska had evolved further into 'rock-steady', relaxed and sensual, often with 'protest' lyrics as the Jamaican political scene heated still more. The Wailers had made more than 50 tracks for Coxsone, and formed their own Wailin' Soul label which failed; they recorded more than 80 demos for JAD (label operated by Danny Sims and Johnny Nash), then ten tracks for Kong '69 released as Best Of The Wailers (Bunny didn't like the title, telling Kong that he would die; a year later Kong dropped dead at age 38).

[Danny Sims (b 9 November 1936, Hattiesburg MS; d 3 October 2012, Los Angeles) and Johnny Nash had become partners in a record label in New York in the 1960s. Sims deserved more credit that he ever got for discovering and promoting Marley. Their relationship was contentious -- Sims didn't like the revolutionary stuff -- but was renewed when he became Marley's manager not long before his death.]  

Marley worked in the USA for a few months in 1969, returned again; the group recorded for Lee Perry late '69-early '70, some sides issued on their own Tuff Gong label (Marley's street nickname). Perry's label Upsetter had the Upsetters as the house band, led by bassist Aston Francis Barrett (b 1946, aka 'Family Man' or 'Fams') and his brother, drummer Carlton Lloyd 'Carly' Barrett (b 1950; shot to death 17 April 1987 in Kingston, his widow and another charged with murder), eventually merging with the Wailers as rock-steady became reggae, still slower, steeped in Rasta and ganja, its hypnotic beat and powerful politics appealing around the world. Many fans felt that the records made with Perry were the best of all: Tyrone Downie (b 1956) played keyboards on 'Trench Town Rock', no. 1 for five months '71.
Meanwhile Marley went to Sweden '70 with Nash to work on a soundtrack (film/record never released), then to London, joined by the Wailers, to play backup on the Nash album I Can See Clearly Now, with four songs by Bob. The LP did well but Marley's single 'Reggae On Broadway' flopped. At the end of '71 the trio was broke, depressed, cold, homesick and in trouble with the government over work permits; Marley went to Chris Blackwell at Island Records and offered to make an album: he gave them £8,000. Even then, Blackwell later recalled, it was not a lot of money for an album, but it was all gambled: he had no idea whether they could do it or not, but he knew who Marley was, having released his first UK single, 'One Cup Of Coffee', leased from Kong. The band went home and made Catch A Fire, released late '72 UK, early '73 in USA (by Capitol, who did not promote it). Marley reserved Jamaican distribution for his own Tuff Gong label. Released as Michael Manley became Prime Minister of Jamaica by a landslide (despite censorship of true Jamaican music on the radio, all the artists supporting Manley), and as produced by Blackwell, it changed the direction of reggae, giving rock fans something new to dance to and a new kind of lyrical consciousness. Earl Lindo (b 1953; aka 'Wire', pronounced 'Wya') replaced Downey on keyboards; sextet included the trio and the Barretts. Next LP Burnin' '73 (originally called 'Reincarnated Souls' but Bunny's title track was dropped) included 'I Shot The Sheriff', covered by Eric Clapton (no. 1 USA, 9 UK '74; other Marley songs covered included Taj Mahal's 'Slave Driver', Barbra Streisand's 'Guava Jelly'). African Herbsman '73 compiled Perry tracks included 'Trench Town Rock' on Trojan, a label formed by Blackwell with Lee Goptal and retained by Goptal when they split up.

The Wailers toured the UK, appeared on TV's Old Grey Whistle Test; on returning to Jamaica, Bunny left: a strict Rasta, he had lost weight and was terribly homesick on tour, never toured with the Wailers again. They toured the USA '73, Higgs subbing for Bunny, opening at Max's Kansas City in NYC for a new talent called Bruce Springsteen; they worked hard but met lack of understanding and not much money; they were sacked while opening for Sly and the Family Stone. They toured the UK '73 without Higgs; Marley and Tosh quarrelled and Wire left to join Taj Mahal: the first edition of the Wailers was almost finished. Natty Dread '74 was a minimalist album, powerful and full of moral authority; it included Marley, Carly, Fams, Bernard 'Touter' Harvey on organ (too young to tour), harmonies by Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, and Lee Jaffe on harmonica, a fast friend of Marley who had taken 'Sheriff' to Clapton's bassist Carl Radle and who was the only white person ever to play as a Wailer. The girl trio was called the I Threes by Marley; Griffiths had single/LP Young, Gifted And Black on Harry J with husband Bob Andy, a hit in Europe. Early versions of Marley's 'Road Block' and 'Knotty Dread' were issued on Tuff Gong in Jamaica and huge hits but not played on Jamaican radio, historically operated by foreigners totally out of touch with the island's music. Blues/rock guitar lines were dubbed in UK by Al Anderson (b 1953, NJ), who had worked with Island artist John Martyn; he first heard reggae played for him by Free's Paul Kossoff and played lead for the Afro-rock band Shakatu, left to join new Wailers. The original trio performed together May '74 in Kingston, opening for Marvin Gaye, with Downey on keyboards: it was his first appearance with the band outside the studio, and he joined the new lineup. Marley produced Escape From Babylon '75 by Martha Valez on Sire. A Tuff Gong series of spots was a landmark in Jamaican radio. A USA tour in June included Anderson, Downey, Jaffe and the Barretts plus Rita and Judy (as the I Twos: pregnant Marcia stayed home). Their popularity was growing. The first reggae on US network TV was 'Kinky Reggae' on a Manhattan Transfer TV show. They were asked to open for a Rolling Stones tour, but refused; in London in July Lyceum concerts sold out, recorded as the fiery Bob Marley And The Wailers Live! Bunny, Tosh and Marley last played together at Stevie Wonder benefit for blind Jamaican children October '75.
The gentle Bunny changed his name to Bunny Wailer and went his own way: his albums included Blackheart Man '76, Protest '77, Sings The Wailers '81 on Mango; the more volatile Tosh's output included ganja anthem 'Legalize It', title track of an LP '76, then Equal Rights '77 on CBS, who then dropped him; he toured opening for the Stones, released Bush Doctor '78 and Mystic Man '79 on their label, then Wanted: Dread And Alive '81 on EMI. He was murdered by robbers in his home in Kingston as his last album No Nuclear War '87 was released on Parlophone. Marley became a superstar '76, in constant demand for concerts, endlessly interviewed by journalists flooding into Kingston. Anderson and Jaffe defected to Tosh (whose Legalize It also included the rhythm section of Sly and Robbie). Rastaman Vibrations '76 included Earl 'Chinna' Smith on rhythm guitar, a session player with his own Kingston band the Soul Syndicate. Don Kinsey replaced Anderson: he was from Indiana, had toured with Albert King, recorded on Island in trio White Lightning with brother Woody on drums, Buster Cherry Jones on bass. The new album disappointed hard-core reggae fans but was his biggest hit ever; his only top ten LP in the USA (included 'Roots, Rock, Raggae', his only USA Hot 100 hit). He had got out of a contract with Sims when signing with Island by yielding his publishing to Sims's Cayman Music; now he did not take credit for all his songs, but spread them among band and friends to keep money from Cayman. Asked if the Manley government would try to use him he'd said that only Rasta had the truth; now 'Rat Race' from the LP sent up the politicians and was a hit on Tuff Gong. A date of 5 December 1976 was set for a free concert in Kingston: Tosh, Bunny and Burning Spear were asked to join the bill; the Manley government, whose socialism was floundering as the island continued to heat up, announced an election for December hoping to cash in. Manley's People's National Party was opposed by the Jamaica Labour Party, led by anthropologist, folklorist, former record producer Edward Seaga. On 3 December gunmen shot up Marley's home, wounding several people including Bob, Rita and Kinsey, manager Don Taylor most seriously; miraculously no one was killed. Reasons mooted for the attack were political jealousy, one of sidekick Skill Cole's scams gone wrong, Taylor's gambling or Marley's scandalous affair with the light-skinned Miss World, Cindy Breakspeare; but the incident was never explained. Marley, Rita and Kinsey appeared in concert as scheduled two days later, with Downey, Carly, Cat Coore from Third World on bass, horns, and drummers from Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. Marley went to London to record; Blackwell had recruited Anderson and Kinsey, now found Julian 'Junior' Marvin (born in Jamaica, raised in UK and USA; aka Junior Kerr, Junior Hanson), who had played with T-Bone Walker, Billy Preston, Ike and Tina Turner and Wonder, and made two LPs with his own band, Hanson. Exodus '77 and Kaya '78 were recorded, the former including four-to-the-bar 'rockers' drumming (militant style the rage then in Jamaica) and three songs about the attempted murder. Kaya was more mellow, with dance and love songs. On a European tour '77 the Wailers played football with French journalists; Marley injured his foot, the toenail came off and cancerous cells were found: urged to have the toe amputated, he refused, had minor surgery and seemed to recover.
Despite increasing violence he returned to Kingston early '78; a peace concert had been organized, possibly by racketeers to calm down the slum youths so that they could get back to business. Tosh was backed by World Sound and Power, with Sly and Robbie. Ras Michael performed; Marley got Manley and Seaga to shake hands on stage, but they were uncomfortable. He then went on the most strenuous tour so far: the USA (filled Madison Square Garden), Europe, Canada and West Coast USA, with Marvin, rehired Wire and Anderson, Downey, Seeco and the Barretts; Tosh guested in L.A.. The tour album was two-disc Babylon By Bus; he toured Asia, returned to Jamaica to record new songs. He visited Ethiopia late '78, began working on song 'Zimbabwe'; played Boston benefit '79 for Amandla (amandla ngawetu, 'freedom for the people') for African freedom fighters; his masterpiece Survival '79 included 'Zimbabwe', widely covered in Africa. His health began to fail; he caught cold in NYC, felt better on West Coast; visited Africa early '80, the trip marred by the discovery that Taylor was a thief: Marley had never made a profit on tour because Taylor skimmed it to finance his gambling. Last album Uprising '80 gave up horns and rock sound in favour of an African flavour; before its release the Wailers played for Zimbabwe's independence celebrations in April, perhaps the high point of his life. He was warned not to return to Jamaica, where civil war seemed imminent, because he was still seen as a Manley supporter and the CIA was supporting Seaga; he toured Germany, but his health worsened: he died of cancer without seeing his home again.

Like Bob Dylan, he never sold that many records, though five LPs were top ten in UK including the posthumous Confrontation '83 (tracks not previously released outside Jamaica, released on the second anniversary of his death) and Legend '84, the last at no. 1); compilations and reissues of early work have appeared on CBS, WEA labels, others; Chances Are included 'Reggae On Broadway'. A new edition called Legend '90 entered the UK charts on CD and stayed there for years; it compiled his pop hits, and was followed by companion Natural Mystic '95, with stronger political stuff; and there was a four-CD limited edition Songs Of Freedom '92, all on Tuff Gong/Island. The Real Sound Of Jamaica on Milan had '69-72 tracks by the original trio recorded by Perry, some songs that became famous later but the originals never bettered for power and beauty. Dreams Of Freedom '97 on Axiom/Island had eleven tracks remixed by Bill Laswell, supposed to be Marley-in-dub, but surprisingly insubstantial.
Marley made millions, but a lot was stolen and he gave a lot away; he was criticized for driving an expensive car, but he could park it in any slum in Kingston and no one would touch it. He is still loved by millions; he preached, among other things, that the only way black people could be superior to whites was by refusing to practise their racism. With no father and separated from his mother as a child, he had suffered loneliness as well as poverty, but he wore no mantle later: 'I and I don't have to suffer to be aware of suffering. So is not anger and alla dat, but is just truth, and truth haffa bust out of man like a river' (quote from Bob Marley by Stephen Davis '83, a good biography). His sons Ziggy Marley (b 17 October 1968) and Damian (b 21 July 1978) both became successful reggae artists.

After many years of reproduction of Bob Marley's likeness apparently for free all over the world, Hilco Consumer Capital and the Marley estate announced House of Marley LLC in February 2009, to push for licensing of his likeness, trademarks etc on consumer products.