March 2024

Of the many figures in popular music whose careers flourished in the 1970s, Bob Marley’s appeal reaches into more cultures and continents than any other musician I can think of. His cultural appeal is also multifaceted. For many Western pop-music fans, he defines reggae music. Activists take inspiration from his songs about the struggles of people in the developing world. His advocacy for pan-Africanism, along with his messages about the plight of the victims of the African diaspora, have made him popular in Africa and in countries where people of African heritage have been relocated.

Bob Marley

He remains so popular that—more than 40 years after his death—items marketed in his name have made his estate extremely profitable. It’s possible to look at Marley the commercial phenomenon cynically, but the turntables, lighters, backpacks, pipes, cannabis, and many other things carrying his name and image keep Marley and his music in the public eye. They are a testament to his power as a symbol, representing to people everything from the struggle for equality to the desire to keep the hippie ethos alive—many Deadheads are ardent Marley fans.

Marley’s power as a symbol—political, cultural, or commercial—cannot diminish the continued force and relevance of his music. To present a comprehensive look at his life, we must look at the unique culture in Jamaica that produced him, the political and historical currents that created that culture, and the religion that grew out of all those strands: Rastafari, which Marley embraced and popularized. But ultimately, it’s his music that drives the continued interest in Bob Marley. Legend, a compilation of his music released in 1984, has sold 25 million copies worldwide.

Bob Marley

Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945, in the village of Nine Mile, in Jamaica’s Saint Ann Parish. His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was born in Jamaica to English parents, and was employed by the colonial government as a plantation overseer. The elder Marley’s biography and history vary, depending on the source, but he was in his 50s by the time he met Cedella Malcolm (even this detail changes from source to source). Malcolm, born Sidilla Editha Malcolm in Saint Ann, Jamaica, was just 18.

Norval Marley married Malcolm when she became pregnant, but he spent no time with his new wife and son. His job provided a convenient excuse for his absence. Timothy White’s Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (originally published by Henry Holt in 1983), describes how, in 1955, Cedella Marley discovered that her husband was living in a nearby village and married to another woman. She confronted the bigamist, and then unsuccessfully took legal action to force him to pay for the support of their young son.

Within a few months, Norval Marley was dead and Cedella—“Ciddy” to her friends and family—had moved to Trench Town with Thaddeus Livingston, whom she had met when he was living in Nine Mile. Trench Town is a neighborhood in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica and its largest city. Bob Marley continued living with relatives for the next couple of years; in 1957, when he was 12, he moved to Trench Town to be with his mother.

As the child of a White father and a Black mother, Marley endured some taunts in Nine Mile, but he experienced even more ostracism in Trench Town. “With his mixed-race origins clearly visible in his facial skin,” Chris Salewicz wrote in Bob Marley: The Untold Story (2010), “he was considered a White boy and was taunted for this. . . . Why was this boy from ‘country’ living down in the ghetto and not uptown with all the other lightskin people?”

Livingston’s son, Neville O’Riley Livingston—later known as Bunny Wailer—was born in Kingston in 1947, but he and his dad soon moved to Nine Mile. Wailer and Marley had become friends when the two were attending Stepney Primary and Junior High School in Saint Ann. Wailer moved to Trench Town to live with Livingston and Cedella Marley just before Marley did. In 1962, Livingston and Cedella had a daughter, Pearl, who was half-sister to both Marley and Wailer.

By that time, Marley and Wailer were in a group together making music. The two had shown an interest in music when they were in primary school, and when they got to Trench Town they took singing lessons from Joe Higgs, a local musician and teacher. They met another pupil of Higgs’s, Winston Hubert McIntosh, and soon formed a trio.

McIntosh was born in 1944 in Westmoreland, Jamaica, and landed in Trench Town in 1959 after his aunt, who had been raising him, died. McIntosh already knew his way around the guitar and keyboards, while Marley and Wailer got some help from Higgs to shore up their guitar-playing. Higgs also taught his students about Rastafari, a religious movement established in Jamaica in the 1930s. In time, Marley would become Rastafari’s most visible proponent.

Peter Tosh

Like many Jamaicans, Marley, Wailer, and McIntosh caught on to rock’n’roll and R&B through the influx to the island of inexpensive transistor radios that were able to pick up stations from New Orleans. Another important source of music was provided by Jamaica’s sound systems: deejays would load up a PA, a turntable, and a selection of records on a truck and set up street parties. Sound system gatherings featured pop music and R&B from the US, but they also became a means for local musicians to promote their records.

One of the earliest and most prominent sound system owners was Clement Seymour Dodd, aka Sir Coxsone. Dodd was a skilled cricket player in his youth, and his friends nicknamed him after English cricketer Alec Coxon. Dodd brought in other deejays to help meet demand. Two of those deejays were Lee “Scratch” Perry and Prince Buster. Dodd, Perry, and Buster would all play key roles in Jamaican music in the coming years. Sound system street parties, especially Dodd’s, became so popular that deejays had to hire security guards to turn away overflow crowds at the gate.

Dodd owned Coxsone’s Music City, a record shop in Kingston where Marley spent time listening to records played over the store’s speakers. According to Catch a Fire, Marley wanted to bring some songs he had written to Dodd’s attention in early 1962. He went to Federal Studios, where Dodd was producing records that he would promote at his shows. Marley didn’t find Dodd, but he ran into Jimmy Cliff, another singer just beginning his career. Cliff introduced Marley to Leslie Kong, who had just produced Cliff’s first single, “Dearest Beverley.”

Kong asked Marley to sing his songs for him, and immediately ushered him into the studio. Marley recorded four tunes; Kong would release two of them, “Do You Still Love Me?” and “Judge Not,” on his label, Beverley’s Records. Kong promised Marley payment of £20 and two acetates of the recordings. White wrote that the single listed “Bob Morley” as the performer. Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom, by Adrian Boot and Salewicz, edited by Rita Marley (1995), says the single was credited to “Bobby Martell.”

The songs Marley recorded for Kong were in a style of music popular in Jamaica at the time. Ska emphasizes the off beat and combines American R&B with calypso, mento, and other Caribbean styles of music. Marley was pleased to hear his music on jukeboxes, although he was the only one paying to hear them. The singles he recorded for Kong didn’t get much attention, and Kong never paid him the promised £20.

Marley continued working with Wailer and McIntosh, who by then had started calling himself Peter Tosh. Higgs coached the trio. They added a fourth singer, Junior Braithwaite, and the group named themselves The Teenagers. They soon changed the name to The Wailing Rudeboys, then to The Wailing Wailers, and, finally, to The Wailers. In late 1963, Dodd auditioned the Wailers for his Studio One label. He heard potential and signed them to a management and recording contract. The next day, he recorded three songs with them at his recently established studio, using renowned Jamaican session players The Skatalites to fill out the song arrangements.

One of the songs, “Simmer Down,” was Marley’s and became popular at sound system shows. He wrote the song to advise the “Rude Boys”—groups of disaffected Kingston youths—to back away from the violence and crime that had come to define them. Marley’s mother was concerned that he was spending too much time with those young malcontents, and he wrote the song to assuage her concerns.

“Simmer Down” was soon selling 1000 copies a week. There had been topical singles in Jamaica before, but “Simmer Down” was unique because it addressed poor Jamaicans in their own dialect. Marley’s lyrics were written in a Jamaican patois that people in Kingston’s ghettos and other members of the country’s underclass could understand. “The people who ordinarily had no voice in creole society,” White wrote in Catch a Fire, “who were not spoken of in polite circles . . . were now a force in the local arena of ideas.”

Dodd recorded other songs with the Wailers, advising them to choose a front man. Wailer and Tosh had songs of their own that they wanted to sing, but they reluctantly designated Marley as the main voice on their singles. Dodd had been impressed by the group’s feel for American R&B, but when “Simmer Down” hit, he decided they should continue to record ska tunes. Dodd promoted their live appearances and gave them an advance against royalties to buy matching suits to wear onstage.

Braithwaite had left the band in late 1964 to move to the US, but the remaining Wailers recorded for Dodd until the summer of 1966. Some of the band’s songs reflected their love for American R&B. “I’m Still Waiting,” a popular song in the group’s live shows, was patterned after the great soul singer Billy Stewart. R&B vocal groups, especially The Impressions, also found their way into the group’s songs. Most Wailers songs were done in the ska style, however, and many reflected the interests and concerns of Jamaicans. “Rude Boy” added to the mythology of the Jamaican subculture. On the other hand, “One Love” reflected Marley’s interest in ideas of universal love and brotherhood.

Studio One

In early 1966, Marley married Alvarita Anderson, a Trench Town woman he had fallen for. Anderson was a singer herself, and had formed a group, the Soulettes, with her friends. Marley had arranged for the Soulettes to audition for Dodd and began working with Anderson and her group in the studio. She and Marley married on February 10, and the next day he was on a plane to the US. His mother had moved to Wilmington, Delaware, and he was fulfilling a promise to visit her.

In April, Rita Marley was among the many people in the crowd at Kingston’s Palisadoes Airport that greeted Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Selassie was an important spiritual figure for Rastafarians in Jamaica. Rita Marley had been a regular churchgoer and a Sunday school teacher, but musicians at Studio One were Rastas and talked about their faith and Selassie’s importance to it. She decided to investigate their claims for herself, and her experience converted her to Rastafari. She told people that as Selassie passed by her in a motorcade and waved, she saw the stigmata in his palm.

Haile Selassie

Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom claims that Marley encouraged his wife to be there when Selassie landed in Kingston to see for herself, because Marley was becoming more interested in the faith. Catch a Fire, on the other hand, says Rita Marley’s conversations about her conversion experience at the airport, including seeing the stigmata in Selassie’s hand, pushed Marley into investigating further a way of life that had already piqued his curiosity.

Any understanding of Marley’s thought and the ideas embodied in his music demands a look at Rastafari and the culture that produced it. Keep in mind that this essay only gives a summary view of Rastafari, which, like all religions, has an elaborate theology.

Several sources I consulted credited the ideas of Marcus Garvey as forming the basis, or at least laying the groundwork, for Rastafari. Garvey, born in Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, in 1887, was the son of a printer and became active in trade unionism. He was a skilled orator, and traveled to Costa Rica, Panama, and England. His activities with unions and his travels to other countries made him aware of the exploitation and poor working conditions of workers, especially those who came from the generations of enslaved Africans.

Garvey soon developed ideas of Black pride and Black separatism and encouraged the descendants of the African diaspora to return to their ancestral home. He established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, and opened a branch of the organization in New York City four years later. UNIA membership grew—especially in the US—and in August 1920, a UNIA convention drew enough people to fill rallies at Madison Square Garden. A UNIA declaration adopted “The Universal Ethiopian Anthem” as “the anthem of the Negro race.”

In a speech, Garvey told the crowd: “Look to Africa, when a Black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.” As with all religious histories, apocrypha and complexity enter. The quote has also been attributed to Rev. James Morris Webb, an associate of Garvey’s. At any rate, when Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, the prophecy was fulfilled in a country whose spiritual significance to Africans is embodied in passages in the Old and New Testament. The new emperor took the name Haile Selassie, which means “Power of the Trinity.”

Rastafari grew out of these foundational ideas in the 1930s. Jamaica, already desperately poor, was especially hard hit by the Great Depression and open to many of Rastafari’s messages. The faith is Abrahamic, and Rastas call their god “Jah.” Selassie is believed to be the fulfillment of various Old and New Testament passages, and is the second coming of Christ, or perhaps God incarnate in some other fashion (it varies). Africa is Zion, the Promised Land, and Babylon is the colonial West that has exploited and subjugated Africans.

Ganja (marijuana) plays a mystical role in Rastafari, and Rastas grow their hair into dreadlocks as both an outward statement of faith and a shield against Babylon. Marley had already been moving in the Rastafari direction (especially when it came to ganja) before he went to Delaware. In the 2012 documentary Marley, Ibis Pitts, a young neighbor of Cedella Marley’s in Wilmington, recalls that Marley “had a row of herb plants. I couldn’t believe it. ’Cause at that time in Wilmington, Delaware, man, they were kicking people’s doors in for a little joint.”

Marley eagerly returned to Jamaica in October. “Everything too fast,” he had told his mother. “Why dem run so?” Rita Marley had visited him in Wilmington two months earlier and told him about seeing Selassie. When Marley arrived back in Jamaica, he had two aims: to learn more about Rastafari, and to start his own record label. The Wailers had a backlog of recordings that Dodd was releasing, keeping them in the public ear, and Dodd had continued to record Tosh and Wailer with a third vocalist, Constantine “Dream” Walker, who was Rita Marley’s cousin.

By the time Marley returned from Delaware, the dominant music in Jamaica was rocksteady, which slowed down the ska beat and moved bass lines to the fore in song arrangements. The slower tempo allowed musicians to experiment with rhythmic accents and counter-rhythms. The Wailers recorded some tunes in the new style for Marley’s new label, Wail ’n Soul ’M Records, including “Nice Time” and “This Train.” Tunes by Wailer, Marley, and Tosh were also released on the label.

Marley, Tosh, and Wailer were working again as the Wailers, but their label affiliation in the late ’60s was fluid. They had fallen out with Dodd, and while the records on Wail ’n Soul ’M were popular, distribution was spotty. Bunny Wailer was out of commission for 14 months in late 1967 and into 1968 because he was in jail for marijuana possession. The Wailers would record with several producers and labels over the next few years. In 1968, Marley made an important business decision when he signed a management contract with an American, Danny Sims.

Sims was managing Johnny Nash, an American singer who’d had some hits in the US and had recently relocated to Jamaica. “Sims had moved to Jamaica after discovering he could record American music far more cheaply in Kingston,” Salewicz wrote in Bob Marley: The Untold Story. Nash recorded his 1968 hit “Hold Me Tight” at Federal Studios in Kingston, and he was becoming more interested in Rastafari. Nash heard Marley play at a Rastafari gathering and told Sims about him.

Sims signed a five-year contract with Marley, promising to promote him as a songwriter and performer. He brought the Marleys and Tosh to New York City to provide input on a recording Marley was working on. While in New York, Tosh went to a music shop and picked up various pedals and effects that, as Salewicz noted, “greatly enhanced his guitar-playing, leading to the distinctive sound he developed.”

Salewicz also pointed out: “Danny Sims did not have an exclusive deal with the Wailers and they were free to record for whomever they liked in Jamaica.” They recorded for JAD Records, a label that Nash, Sims, and Arthur Jenkins started the previous year. Wailer was out of jail, and the Wailers would record steadily for JAD over the next four years. Those recordings do not seem to have been widely distributed before appearing much later on compilations.

The Wailers also recorded an album with Leslie Kong in 1970, featuring songs by Marley and Tosh, who sang lead vocals on the tunes he wrote. Kong released the album as The Best of the Wailers, even though the recordings and songs were new. The Wailers didn’t like the title, which they thought was misleading, and Wailer told Kong he would regret going against their wishes. Kong died of a heart attack soon after the album’s release.

During a brief return visit to Wilmington in 1969, Marley heard songs that espoused Black pride and self-determination. He was hanging out with friends in Wilmington’s Jamaican community when he heard “Watch This Sound” by the Uniques, a Jamaican group. Marley was taken with the bass line and thought it would fit with “Black Progress,” a song he had patterned after James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

The bassist on “Watch This Sound” was Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who played with sessions groups the Hippy Boys and the Upsetters, along with his brother Carlton, who was a drummer. Both were Rastas and fans of the Wailers. One of the producers they worked for was Lee “Scratch” Perry. Like many producers in Jamaica, Perry was a label owner who also had a record shop.

Marley and the Wailers had worked with Perry when he was with Dodd and Studio One. By the time Marley reconnected with him, Perry was working on a modification of Jamaican music that would move from rocksteady into an even more languid groove. “He started dabbling with a musical pace that made you feel as though you were stepping in glue,” Salewicz wrote. Kong had already been moving Jamaican music in that direction with “Do the Reggay,” a hit for The Maytals that gave the new music its name. There were plenty of slow-tempo rocksteady tunes, but reggae moved at an even slower pace while still grooving.

In the documentary Marley (2012), drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis described one of reggae’s unique characteristics: “What really changed it to reggae was the riff, the guitar. It’s just basically a rhythm change in terms of what the guitar, it just appear like ‘chuck, chuck’ and then it start playing ‘chucka . . . chucka . . . chucka.’ Sometimes some of these things happen out of maybe accident.”

Another important aspect of reggae was the use of tape delay in the studio. Dodd had introduced the effect, but Perry fully integrated it into his recordings. Singer Bob Andy described the effect in Marley: “So when you make one strum, it comes back at you at the same time.” The echo effect added another rhythmic dimension to reggae.

The Wailers recorded two albums of material with Perry in 1970, around the same time that they were recording with Kong. Perry had a firm production hand on the resulting albums, Soul Rebels (1970) and Soul Revolution Part II (1971), which firmly established the Wailers as a reggae group. The Wailers also created yet another record label, Tuff Gong.

Soul Revolution

Both albums with Perry were the blueprints for the Wailers and Bob Marley albums that would follow. The guitar lines are firmly stated, the bass is forward in the mix and rhythmically flexible, and the drums carry the songs along with a steady, bouncy exuberance. Marley would return to several of the songs on those albums, including “Kaya” and “Duppy Conqueror,” on later recordings.

Aston and Carlton Barrett played on the sessions as part of Perry’s studio band, the Upsetters. They would soon be the permanent rhythm section for the Wailers, who were playing regularly in Jamaica in 1971. They appeared at a gathering in support of People’s National Party candidate Michael Manley. They were also starting to get some exposure outside of Jamaica. Marley took a brief trip to Sweden to record with Johnny Nash and to work on a soundtrack for a film starring Nash’s wife. The Wailers were popular enough with expatriate Jamaicans in the US that they played shows in New York City in December and January.

After a brief return to Jamaica, Marley flew to London, England, in February 1972. Sims had arranged for him to meet with CBS Records executives there, and he also wanted Marley to play on sessions with Nash, who was recording in London. Marley settled into an apartment with Nash, Sims, and keyboard player John “Rabbit” Bundrick, an American who was also playing on the sessions. Nash recorded several of Marley’s songs for I Can See Clearly Now, released in July 1972.

CBS released one of those songs, “Stir It Up,” in April, and it was Nash’s first hit in three years. The Wailers had recorded the song in 1967 and released it as a single in Jamaica, but Nash’s version was Marley’s first international success. Nash made sure Marley met music journalists, DJs, and other musicians while he was in London. “If any one individual introduced Bob Marley to the world,” Nash’s publicist, Paul Merry, told Salewicz, “it was Johnny Nash.”

At around the same time “Stir It Up” charted, Sims brought Tosh, Wailer, and the Barrett brothers over to England to join Marley and open for Nash on a UK tour. The Wailers only played one show with Nash, but Marley played solo for several appearances with the singer. The Wailers spent their time in England rehearsing and recording several tunes for CBS. There were frustrations in England. The group was arrested for marijuana possession, and at one point they discovered that Sims had mistakenly taken their passports with him when he left England for the US.

Marley was disgusted that his career didn’t seem to be moving forward, despite Nash’s hit with his song. The group’s tour with Nash didn’t materialize, and CBS wasn’t promoting their music. Even with extensive recordings in Jamaica that kept him and the group in front of Jamaican music fans, they were barely scraping by. Marley spoke to Brent Clark, a Jamaican living in London who worked in record promotions. Marley asked Clark to put him, Tosh, and Wailer in touch with Chris Blackwell, who owned Island Records.

Blackwell was born in England in 1937 to a wealthy family, and moved to Jamaica when his father was serving in the Jamaica Regiment. Blackwell returned to England at age eight to attend school, but went back to Jamaica when he was 18. He tried his hand there at real estate and other ventures, including managing juke boxes, which put him in contact with Jamaican record companies and musicians. He started Island Records in 1958, and Leslie Kong was an early investor.

Island’s first releases were by Caribbean artists, most of them Jamaican. In 1962, Blackwell relocated Island Records to London. He had licensed recordings from Dodd’s Studio One and Kong’s Beverley’s Records and planned to market them to England’s growing number of Caribbean expatriates. In 1964, Blackwell produced a single for Millie Small, a Jamaican singer he was managing. “My Boy Lollipop” became an international smash and solidified the financial status of Island, which co-released the song with larger, more established labels.

Blackwell soon branched out into English pop and rock music, first with the Spencer Davis Group and then with Traffic. By the early 1970s, Island Records had an impressive and successful roster of rock acts that included Free, Cat Stevens, and King Crimson. Blackwell had a vision that Jamaican music could reach the massive rock following. He hoped to promote Jimmy Cliff, a Jamaican singer already on the label, who had starred in the Jamaican film The Harder They Come. Blackwell was an investor in the film, which would become popular with midnight movie audiences in the US and UK. Cliff’s character in the movie embodied a rebel image Blackwell thought would appeal to rock fans.

The Harder They Come

Cliff decided instead to sign with another label in early 1972. Two weeks later, Blackwell met with the Wailers. “[Marley] came in right at the time when in my head there was the idea that this rebel type of character could really emerge,” Blackwell told Salewicz. “And that I could break such an artist. I was dealing with rock music, which was really rebel music. I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed somebody who could be that image.”

Blackwell advanced the Wailers £4000 to record an album in Jamaica, and promised an additional £4000 when they delivered the tapes to him. He advised Marley, Tosh, and Wailer to put together a band and rehearse it into a tight touring unit. The Wailers recorded tracks in three studios in Kingston, with the Barrett brothers providing the rhythm section. Marley played guitar, Tosh played guitar and keys, and Wailer provided percussion. The backing vocals by Rita Marley and Marci Griffiths added richness and filled out the arrangements. Blackwell attended the sessions at one point and was impressed enough with what he heard to offer the Wailers a contract with Island.

Roughly half the songs on the tapes the Wailers sent to Blackwell in London were re-recordings of tunes they had released in other versions. As Salewicz notes, this practice was “part of an established tradition: in Jamaica, artists often release different versions of the same song—‘do-overs’—time and time again, until they finally hit.” Blackwell set to work making the recordings more palatable to a wider audience.

“I was trying to get across that this was a Black rock act,” Blackwell said in Marley. “That’s how I wanted it to be perceived. My sense is that Bob was ready to give it a try, and that the others weren’t that keen. The first record is easily the most, for want of a better word, pasteurized.” Blackwell brought in keyboard player Rabbit Bundrick and guitarist Wayne Perkins to overdub parts on what would be the first Wailers album on Island Records: Catch a Fire.

Catch a Fire

Catch a Fire

During the remix sessions, Blackwell supervised the editing of the songs. He thought some were too long, and added instrumentation to make them more appealing to rock fans. Perkins’s lead guitar lines and Bundrick’s clavinet on “Concrete Jungle” give the song a rock undercurrent (although the sound of the latter has more in common with Stevie Wonder’s use of the instrument than with rock), but the chunky guitars and “Family Man” Barrett’s bass lines are pure reggae.

“Concrete Jungle” paints a grim picture of life in the inner city. Kingston may have been Marley’s template, but he describes the desolation of many urban landscapes, including that of the areas of London settled by the Caribbean diaspora in the decades following WWII:

Must be somewhere to be found
Instead of concrete jungle
Where the living is hardest
Concrete jungle
Man, you’ve got to do your best

“Slave Driver” uses the Impressions-style three-part harmony that helped define many of the Wailers’ earlier recordings. The lyrics reflect the influence of Rastafari and Marcus Garvey, especially its description of the sins of slavery:

Every time I hear the crack of a whip
My blood runs cold
I remember on the slave ship
How they brutalize our very souls

“Slave Driver” also promises a reckoning:

Slave Driver (Slave driver)
The table has turned, y’all (Catch a fire)
Catch a fire
So you can get burned (Catch a fire)

Tosh’s “400 Years” and “Stop that Train” also echo the themes of African displacement and exploitation, and both issue calls to action. The songs are as strong as the seven tracks by Marley, and highlight both Tosh’s skills on the organ and his singing. They are also relatively straightforward in presentation, with less postproduction “sweetening” than some of the other songs.

Perkins’s slide guitar on “Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock It Baby)” is fine, but perhaps too much for the song. His contributions on “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up,” on the other hand, are effective because they’re understated. His wah-wah lines in “Stir It Up” stay with the spirit of the song and help make it more buoyant. Bundrick’s keyboard touches are subtle, too, and give the tracks more sonic depth.

Marley guided the musicians, especially Bundrick, in order to get the sounds he wanted. Salewicz quotes music journalist Jonh [sic] Ingham, who sat in on some of the sessions. “I do question this belief that Bob was somehow a pawn without a voice,” Ingham told Salewicz. “I watched him doing overdub sessions with Rabbit Bundrick, and he was directing every note.” The playing on the Jamaican recordings that formed the basis for Catch a Fire was very solid, and gave Perkins and Bundrick a firm foundation for their overdubs, which Blackwell hoped would help ease rock fans into reggae.

Island released Catch a Fire in the UK in late December 1972 and in April 1973 in the US. The original cover was in the shape of a Zippo lighter, hinged to mimic the lighter’s flip-top. This expensive cover soon gave way to a cheaper replacement, which featured a picture of Marley smoking a spliff—a cigar-sized marijuana cigarette. The group did a small tour of the UK to promote the album, but sales were light, despite enthusiastic press on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Wailers spent the spring months of 1973 in the studio at Harry J’s in Kingston, recording a follow-up to Catch a Fire. Island released Burnin’ in October. Bundrick overdubbed keyboards in London, but the basic tracks were played by the Wailers with help from the Barrett brothers and keyboard player Earl Lindo. The illustration on the rear cover of Burnin’ showed Marley in profile, once again smoking a spliff. The gatefold included photos of life in Jamaica.



Burnin’ is as polished as Catch a Fire, but it feels more firmly rooted in reggae, with fewer concessions to rock music. “Get Up, Stand Up,” which Marley wrote with Tosh, is a call to action (“Get up, stand up / Stand up for your right”), but also a specific pitch for Rastafari (“We know when we understand / Almighty God is a living man”). “I Shot the Sherriff” describes the tensions between poor citizens in Jamaica and the police. The narrator says he acted in self-defense, but declares: “If I am guilty I will pay.” Eric Clapton cut an astonishingly bland version of the song in 1974, and it is his sole number 1 in the US.

Like “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Burnin’ and Lootin’” is an impassioned plea for fighting against the forces of oppression. “Small Axe” continues that theme, with the weak overcoming their oppressors (“If you are the big tree / We are the small axe.”) Bunny Wailer’s sweet tenor takes the lead on “Hallelujah Time” and “Pass It On,” both of which list his wife as the songwriter. Tosh is featured on his song “One Foundation,” and he shares vocals with Marley on “Get Up, Stand Up.”

The Wailers as a group are razor-sharp on the album, with Carlton Barrett’s drums creating intricate counter-rhythms to the lines played by the guitars. Family Man’s bass grooves and slides throughout the record, adding both a rhythmic underpinning and a beguiling countermelody to the songs. Marley, Tosh, and Wailer sing in beautiful harmonies that connect them to their influences in the US, but the album is Jamaican and Rastafarian to its core.

The Wailers began touring the UK and US in support of the album, but Wailer stopped touring with them before they left for the US. In Marley, Wailer says he wanted money from Island for the tour. In Salewicz’s book, Blackwell explained that the label was bankrolling the shows as a promotional tool. Another, more important issue was that Wailer and Tosh both objected to the Wailers playing for hippies, especially in the US. Blackwell described the venues they’d be playing as “freak clubs,” using a then common term that referred to hippies. Salewicz wrote: “Bunny interpreted this as meaning they would perform in clubs full of Babylonian degenerates.”

The group toured the US with Joe Higgs substituting for Wailer on vocals. Their live shows were so incendiary that they were dropped by some of the acts they were opening for. “After [a show in Las Vegas, opening for Sly and the Family Stone] the Wailers were thrown off the tour,” White wrote in Catch a Fire. “They had made far too big an impression on the crowd for a warm-up act. ‘Sly don’t dig that,’ said the Family Stone’s manager.” Keep in mind that Sly and his band were a formidable live act in their prime.

By the time the Wailers were in the studio in 1974 to record again, Wailer and Tosh were no longer in the group. Both had been frustrated with the focus on Marley, which resulted in fewer of their songs appearing on the first two albums on Island. Both blamed Blackwell, but Marley tunes had dominated Wailers releases from the beginning. Sessions for Natty Dread started in Jamaica in the spring of 1974, with Marley, the Barrett brothers, and keyboard player Bernard “Touter” Harvey. The group rehearsed extensively before going into the studio.

Natty Dread

“Lively Up Yourself” is the sort of party tune Blackwell thought would reach American hippies, even though the lyrics contained some Jamaican patois that needed explanation. “Skank,” for example, was a type of dance performed to reggae and ska music. Many of Marley’s lyrics use Jamaica’s language, a mixture of English, French, various African languages, and more. Context and the emotions Marley conveys usually make the meaning of his lyrics clear to international audiences.

“No Woman, No Cry” became a staple of Marley’s live shows and is an encouragement and tribute to Jamaican women. Marley’s commitment to social issues continued on Natty Dread. “A hungry mob is a angry mob,” he sings in “Them Belly Full (but We Hungry).” He points to Jah as a source of relief and salvation; a beacon of hope for the oppressed and a warning to the powerful. “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock),” “Natty Dread,” “Revolution,” and many of the other tracks on the album extol the virtues of Rastafari and the need to cast off the forces that were pushing down so many of Marley’s countrymen.

The playing on Natty Dread is stellar. Aston and Carlton Barrett were possibly the finest rhythm section in popular music at that moment, and Harvey’s keyboards solidify the song arrangements. Al Anderson’s guitar obligatos flow easily and serve as a key ingredient on the tracks, and Marley’s rhythm guitar is the glue that holds the songs together. An uncredited horn section adds a Stax/Volt spark to “So Jah Seh,” “Natty Dread,” and “Revolution.” The most important contribution might be the backing vocalists: the I–Threes. Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths more than compensate for the loss of the vocal harmonies that Tosh and Wailer had provided.

Natty Dread hit shops in October 1974, and was the first Wailers album to break into the top 100 in the US charts. All three of the Island LPs released so far did reasonably well in the UK, hovering in the neighborhood of the 40s on the LP charts. A tour in support of Natty Dread included two nights in July 1975 at the Lyceum in London. Both shows sold out, with audiences comprising Jamaican Wailers fans and the growing English fan base. Island recorded the shows, and Live!, released later that year, catches an exceptional band in a great performance. The album went to number 90 in the US, and number 38 in the UK.

Marley and company spent late 1975 and early 1976 recording at Harry J’s again, and at Joe Gibbs Studio in Kingston. If there was any question about the level of quality in Jamaican studios, Rastaman Vibration settled it. The album is beautifully recorded, with layers of instrumental detail. Earl “Chinna” Smith, a popular session guitarist in Jamaica, joined the group on the sessions, and American guitarist Donald Kinsey took Anderson’s place.

Rastaman Vibration

The album is fuller-sounding and more rhythmically layered than its predecessors. Marley and Smith set the tempo for the songs and Carlton Barrett’s cross accents on hi-hat and various percussion instruments give the songs tremendous rhythmic depth, especially on “Positive Vibration,” “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” and “Want More.” On the latter, Smith plays a percussive line on muted strings, with a wah-wah pedal adding a unique texture to the arrangement.

While it’s tempting to say that the polished sound on Rastaman Vibration signaled a move in the direction of pop, the music is still steeped in the rhythmic density of reggae. Marley’s full-throated screams aimed at the “baldheads” (non-Rastas) he addresses on “Crazy Baldhead” must have been unsettling to anyone playing the album for the first time. They still are.

All of Marley’s touring over the previous few years, along with an aggressive marketing campaign for Rastaman Vibration, paid off. The album reached number 15 on the charts in the UK, and number 8 in the US. Many of the songs on Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration list writers other than Marley. Most sources say the songs were Marley’s but that he spread the credit around because of a contract dispute over song publishing.

Rastaman Vibration shows Rita Marley as the writer of “Johnny Was,” a song that describes a death caused by a stray bullet: “Woman hold her head and cry / As her son had been shot down in the street and died / Just because of the system.” The consensus is that the song is Bob Marley’s. Marley was building a significant international audience, but he was still recording in Jamaica, and his music and its concerns flowed out of life there and in other developing countries. “War” adapted and set to music the words of a speech Selassie made to the UN in 1963: “Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all / Without regard to race / Dis a war.”

Political tensions had risen dramatically in mid-1970s Jamaica. Michael Manley, the country’s fourth prime minister since achieving independence from the UK in 1962, was a member of the socialist People’s National Party (PNP). He enacted economic reforms, which were opposed by the conservative Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), led by Edward Seaga. Support by Jamaicans for both parties often led to violence, especially in urban areas.

Marley was aware of those tensions. “Rat Race,” the closing song on Rastaman Vibration, paints a vivid picture of the mood in Jamaica: “Political violence fill ya city, ye-ah! / Don’t involve Rasta in your say say / Rasta don’t work for no CIA.” Manley called for an election in December 1976, but that announcement did little to quell violence. Both parties wanted Marley’s support, but while he leaned toward Manley, he and Rita Marley chose to remain neutral.

Marley decided to organize a concert featuring the Wailers and other reggae acts in Kingston before the election. He wanted “to spread the message of love and peace during the tumultuous time,” in the words of Pubali Dasgupta, who wrote a detailed history of the event and its fallout for Far Out magazine. The PNP decided to move the election to December 15, soon after the date for the Smile Jamaica Concert, which Marley planned for December 5. That decision made it appear that Marley was supporting the PNP in the election, a position he took pains to avoid.

Two evenings before the concert, seven gunmen entered Marley’s house in Kingston and shot him, Rita Marley, his manager, Don Taylor, and Louise Griffin, an employee of the band. The Wailers were rehearsing, but other band members and staff hid to avoid the gunfire. Rita Marley’s head wound was the worst injury, but she survived. A bullet grazed Marley’s torso and arm. White’s and Salewicz’s biographies of Marley present evidence that the JLP was behind the shootings, with aid from the CIA.

Marley appeared at the concert, but left Jamaica at the end of December for the Bahamas, where Blackwell owned Compass Point Studios. Two weeks later, Marley moved to London. He had begun recording a follow-up to Rastaman Vibration before leaving Jamaica, but the Wailers did most of the work on Exodus (1977) in London. The lead guitarist for the sessions was Junior Marvin, who was born in Jamaica but moved to London with his family when he was a child.


Given what had just happened to Marley, it’s surprising that Exodus is not an angry album. “Natural Mystic” opens it on a calm note, with Marley’s guitar establishing the beat, accompanied by Carlton Barrett on drums. Aston Barrett’s bass glides and simmers through the tune, which carries a feeling of calm and reserve.

That tone contrasts with the apocalyptic lyrics: “Many more will have to suffer / Many more will have to die.” Marley clearly feels some ambivalence about being the voice of a prophet: “Though I’ve tried to find the answer to all the questions they ask / Though I know it’s impossible to go living through the past.” Marley tells his supporters not to expect him to have all the answers. “Don’t ask me why,” he sings.

“So Much Things to Say” has a sweet soul vibe, but Marley reminds listeners of the price paid by those who have fought oppression in the past, including Jesus Christ, Garvey, and Paul Bogle, a Baptist deacon who led a protest against the colonial government in Jamaica in 1865. “Guiltiness” criticizes and warns “downpressors,” and “The Heathen” encourages the fight for a “sweeter Jah victory.” The title track closes side 1 on a triumphant note—the grand and forceful arrangement of the song bringing home the message that Jah will “set the captives free.”

In contrast with the reaffirmation of faith and activism on the first side of Exodus, the songs on side 2 are about romance and celebration. “Jamming” encourages people to enjoy themselves, but Marley does mention Jah and Zion. “Waiting in Vain” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” are about romantic love, and “Three Little Birds” counsels us: “Don’t worry about a thing.” “One Love (People Get Ready)” is a plea for universal love, with a strong religious undertone. Marley’s inclusion of the lyrics and melody of “People Get Ready” showed his abiding affection for The Impressions and Curtis Mayfield.

A month before the release of Exodus, Marley and the Wailers were beginning a tour in Europe. Marley injured a toe on his right foot during a soccer game with the rest of the band and some local journalists in Paris, France. The toe was treated but would not heal. A month later Marley saw a specialist, who told him he had malignant melanoma and should have the toe removed. Marley at first refused, but after consulting another doctor when the tour was in Miami, he had surgery and recuperated for a week.

The Wailers had recorded enough material during the sessions for Exodus for another album, and Island released Kaya in March 1978. Kaya picks up the themes of side 2 of Exodus: romance and enjoyment. “Excuse me while I light my spliff,” Marley sings on “Easy Skanking.” Skanking is usually a fast and intense dance style, and Marley wants to take things easier. Kaya is Jamaican slang for marijuana, and the title track extols the liberating effects and spiritual qualities Marley finds in the drug.


Marley had previously recorded “Kaya” and “Sun Is Shining” with “Scratch” Perry, but the other songs were new. “Is This Love” became one of Marley’s most popular tunes, and along with some other tunes on the album, such as “Satisfy My Soul” and “She’s Gone,” created the impression for some critics that Kaya was lightweight, and even a bid for a broader market. Attentive listeners will hear Marley returning to his familiar themes. “Crisis” gives praise to Jah while pointing out that many in the world live in deprivation, and “Time Will Tell” promises a reckoning with nonbelievers and with those who tried to kill Marley.

Marley also wrote about the assassination attempt on “Running Away,” and explains: “I am not (running away), no, don’t say that—don’t say that / Because I am not running away, I have got to protect my life / And I don’t want to live with no strife (running away).” Kaya appeared in stores in March 1978, and a month later, Marley returned to Jamaica to perform at the One Love Peace Concert, which he helped fund. The idea for the concert came from two “enforcers” from opposite ends of Jamaica’s political spectrum: Claudius Massop was active for the JLP, and Aston “Bucky” Marshall for the PNP.

Both men had spent time in jail together, and seem to have been sincere when they proposed that a concert of Jamaican music would help bring the country together. When they were released from prison, they flew to London and approached Marley with the idea. He agreed to appear and donated $50,000. Sixteen reggae acts appeared at the concert, and the show opened with a message from Asfa Wossen, the crown prince of Ethiopia. That message signaled the importance of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica at that time.

Marley asked Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, leaders of the two Jamaican parties, to join him onstage, and he put their hands together in a handshake and raised them above his head. “Both politicians looked uncomfortable in the other’s company,” Salewicz wrote. Tosh performed with his band and took his time onstage as an opportunity to upbraid Manley and Seaga for not helping Jamaica’s poor, and for not legalizing ganja.

Marley appeared at the One Love Peace Concert just before the Wailers began a tour of the US and Europe. A second Wailers live album, Babylon by Bus, featured the group’s appearances in Paris and London. Babylon by Bus, like Live before it, proved what a potent live band Bob Marley and the Wailers was.

Babylon by Bus

The group was back in Jamaica in early 1979 to record the follow-up to Kaya. Perhaps to answer the critics who unfairly said that album watered down Marley’s message, Survival, released in October 1979, is a much firmer statement of solidarity with the developing world, and with Africa in particular. The cover shows the flags of 49 African countries, and the illustration at the top containing the title is a line drawing of the stowage section of a slave ship.

“So Much Trouble in the World” criticizes the West for pursuing its own interests and ignoring the pain it causes in Africa and elsewhere. “Zimbabwe” calls for Black majority rule and independence of the former British colony of Rhodesia, and “Africa Unite” is an appeal for the unification of all Africans. “Babylon System” takes capitalism to task for exploitation and oppression, and the title track encourages activism from Africans the world over. Marley is asking his listeners to think about the issues he’s presenting to them, and the album presents his ideas clearly. The critics of Kaya may have been mollified, but the songs on that album were good. The songs on Survival, on the other hand, were not as memorable.

The Wailers played a concert in Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980, the day the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Marley was disillusioned to find that he was playing to the country’s elite, and that soldiers used tear gas outside the stadium to control the protests of people who were hoping to get into the concert. Further violence occurred as the protests intensified.

Island released Uprising in June 1980. Once again, Rastafari, exploitation of the developing world, and tensions between nations were Marley’s themes. Thematically, Uprising is similar to Survival, but the songwriting is stronger. “Coming In from the Cold” injects some American gospel music into reggae, and “Real Situation” marries a message of the world’s self-destruction to a bouncy, happy beat and melody. Marley advises his listeners that one way to avoid the coming apocalypse is to board the “Zion Train.”

“Could You Be Loved,” one of Marley’s most popular songs, pulls together his desire for people to live together in peace with a wish, just as strongly stated, that they should resist the forces of oppression. The buoyant melody and energetic arrangement account for the song’s appeal, but close attention to the lyrics reveals something deeper.

Uprising closes with “Redemption Song.” Marley accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, and the song is closer to folk music than to reggae. It’s a personal statement, a distillation of the things Marley had been saying since he began writing songs. He returns to the plight of Africans taken from their homeland and enslaved:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit

Marley encourages hope, which for him stems from his faith:

But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation

He states his life’s purpose, and asks us to join him:

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
’Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

There’s so much in this simple song, and it’s all stated with great power and purpose:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds

The Wailers began a five-month tour in support of Uprising in May 1980. As the tour went on, Marley was becoming weaker. On September 19 and 20, the Wailers played two shows at Madison Square Garden. They were opening for the Commodores, hoping to attract more African Americans to their music. On September 20, Marley went for a run in Central Park and collapsed. He consulted a doctor, who told him the cancer had spread to his brain and other organs.

After playing a final show in Pittsburgh on September 23, Marley underwent controversial treatment in Germany. He seemed at first to be rallying, but by early May 1981 it was clear that he was not going to survive. Marley boarded a plane to Jamaica on May 11, but, his vital signs getting worse during the flight, he and his entourage landed in Miami. Bob Marley died at Cedars of Lebanon Medical Center, now University of Miami Hospital. He was 36. His body was returned to Jamaica, and on May 21 he was buried after a state funeral. Jamaicans mourned him as they would have a beloved leader.

Confrontation, the last Wailers release, appeared in 1983. Composed of unreleased songs Marley had written and recorded over the years, it includes “Buffalo Soldier,” which would become one of his most popular tunes after its appearance on Legend (1984). The album includes other good tracks, including “Trench Town” and “Mix Up, Mix Up,” that are reminders of Marley’s songwriting skill and craftsmanship.


Ironically, Bob Marley’s popularity in America was largely among White rock fans, but he also reached people in other parts of the world who wouldn’t normally have bothered with reggae. Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers, a single-LP compilation released by Island Records in May 1984, contributed to that success. “I wasn’t terribly keen on putting together a Best of Bob,” Blackwell told Salewicz. By 1984, Dave Robinson was running Island, and he oversaw all aspects of Legend, including choosing the cover photo of Marley. “As Dave Robinson had astutely observed,” Salewicz wrote in the final chapter of Bob Marley: The Untold Story, “what the mass public wanted was a record that was essentially Bob Marley Lite.”

In his book Reggae & Caribbean Music (2002), Dave Thompson takes a dim view of Marley’s posthumous image: “Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern culture.” He goes on to point out that while Marley often called for direct action to correct society’s ills, his image became one of “smiling benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy from a gumball machine. Of course it has assured his immortality. But it has also demeaned him beyond recognition.”

Marley sang about world peace, just as he sang about revolutionary action, sometimes in the same song. Legend does, in fact, present some of Marley’s convictions and his intensity in expressing them on “Buffalo Soldiers,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” and “Redemption Song.” The four-CD Songs of Freedom (1992) presents a fuller picture of Marley’s accomplishments and begins with his earliest work. All his Island Records recordings remain in print, so it is still possible to hear his message in full.

It’s easy to conclude that the albums Bob Marley and the Wailers made with Island Records were not, somehow, pure reggae. Only assumption or inattentive listening leads to that conclusion. As soon as you hear Aston Barrett’s floating bass lines, Carlton Barrett’s layered percussion, and Marley’s rhythmically intense guitar, you know you’re hearing reggae. Aston “Family Man” Barrett died last month after a long and productive career, outliving his brother, who was murdered by his wife and her lover in 1987.

Peter Tosh, who was murdered only six years after Marley died, made more intense recordings and was more insistent in his Rastafari message. Both he and Bunny Wailer, who recorded extensively after leaving the Wailers, should perhaps have been more popular. Wailer died in 2021, at age 73. Just because Marley sold many more records than them or other well-regarded artists, such as Jimmy Cliff or Toots and the Maytals, doesn’t mean Marley’s music was any less Jamaican or that it wasn’t reggae.

It’s true that Island Records packaged Bob Marley and the Wailers and sold the band to rock fans. It’s also true that Blackwell had some influence on the sound of the group’s early records, but Marley and the Wailers produced everything from Rastaman Vibration on. Marley certainly benefited, even while he was still alive, from Blackwell’s marketing skills, but he knew how to draw people to him on record and during performances. Bob Marley and the Wailers became as precise and exciting in the studio and onstage as James Brown’s great bands of the ’60s.

From the beginning of the Wailers’ career, producers chose Marley’s songs and voice as the focus for the group. Coxsone Dodd, Leslie Kong, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Chris Blackwell knew the sound of greatness when they heard it. Bob Marley deserved the popularity he achieved, just as he deserves continued adulation.

. . . Joseph Taylor