How Bob Marley Conquered the Suburbs

Categories: Longform

Robert Nesta Marley was born on his grandfather's farm in the Jamaican countryside in 1945. His father, Norval Marley, was white, of British descent. He was largely absent from his son's life, and died when Marley was ten. Two years later his mother, Cedella Booker, an African Jamaican, moved the family to Trench Town, a poor, artistically fertile neighborhood in Kingston.

A budding musician, at age sixteen Marley scored an audition with a not-yet-famous Jimmy Cliff, then a label scout.

William Richards
Aston "Family Man" Barrett, Marley's bass player, contines to perform with his version of the Wailers.

"My first impression of him was he was a poet and he had a great sense of rhythm," says Cliff, now 66 and on tour himself this summer. "And I think he carried that on throughout his career."

In 1962, Cliff's label, Beverley's, released Marley's first single, "Judge Not," a ska shuffle. Soon after, Marley formed the Wailing Wailers (later shortened to the Wailers) with a core group of musicians that included Neville Livingston (a.k.a. Bunny Wailer) and Peter Tosh. All three men practiced Rastafari, a religion and way of life that emphasizes the spiritual qualities of marijuana.

"We didn't use no drugs; we only used herb," says Aston "Family Man" Barrett, a bass player, long-time Marley collaborator and current leader of the Wailers. "We use it for spiritual meditation and musical inspiration."

The band released two albums for Island Records that merged reggae with rock & roll. The initial printing for the first LP, 1973's Catch a Fire, opened on a hinge to look like a Zippo lighter, at a time when Americans could do hard time for possessing even a single joint. Burnin', also from 1973, featured the Marley composition "I Shot the Sheriff," a song about police brutality, which became a hit for Eric Clapton. On the back cover of the LP, Marley is smoking a fatty.

When Livingston and Tosh left the band, in 1974, Marley continued on as Bob Marley and the Wailers. He also became entrenched in Jamaica's often violent political wars. In 1976 he and several members of his entourage were shot two days before he performed at the Smile Jamaica Concert, an event intended to help ease tensions ahead of an election. The gunmen were never found.

In 1980 Marley visited Cliff at a studio in Kingston. By this time both men were internationally recognized reggae stars; Cliff had broken through with the 1972 movie The Harder They Come and its corresponding soundtrack. Though Marley had been treated for a malignant melanoma on his toe in 1977, Cliff noticed nothing out of the ordinary about his health as Marley embarked on a tour in support of his latest album, Uprising.

Al Anderson, a guitarist with Bob Marley and the Wailers, remembers the Uprising tour as "an amazing time," with the band picking up momentum. But when the tour got to Ireland, Anderson says, Marley mentioned that he was having trouble singing and performing. "He knew he wasn't well," adds Anderson.

On September 20, 1980, following a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden, Marley went for a jog in Central Park. He collapsed, had what appeared to be a seizure, and was rushed to a hospital. There, doctors told him that cancer had spread throughout his body. His next show would be his last.

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