How Bob Marley Conquered the Suburbs

Categories: Longform

It's not that Bob Marley didn't have white fans when he was alive. Caucasian college students in the United States — particularly those around Midwestern schools like the University of Michigan, Prevost says — constituted a large percentage of his base. But in order for the compilation to meet Robinson's lofty sales goals, those students' parents had to buy the album, too.

Robinson had a hunch that suburban record buyers were uneasy with Marley's image — that of a perpetually stoned, politically driven iconoclast associated with violence. And so he commissioned a London-based researcher named Gary Trueman to conduct focus groups with white suburban record buyers in England. Trueman also met with traditional Marley fans to ensure that the label didn't package the album in a way that would offend his core audience.

Less than a decade before violence and drugs became a selling point for gangsta rap, the suburban groups told Trueman precisely what Robinson suspected: They were put off by the way Marley was portrayed. They weren't keen on the dope, the religion, the violent undertones or even reggae as a genre. But they loved Marley's music.

"There was almost this sense of guilt that they hadn't got a Bob Marley album," Trueman says. "They couldn't really understand why they hadn't bought one."

Courtesy Island Records
For Legend, Dave Robinson chose a cover in which Marley appears more reflective than rebellious.

At home one night, Trueman mentioned to his wife, Sue, that many of the respondents referred to Marley as a "legend." He said he was going to recommend the title The Legendary Bob Marley. She shot back: "No, just call it Legend: The Best of Bob Marley."

An Island employee named Trevor Wyatt, known as the label's reggae guy, gave Robinson an initial list of songs, which were played to focus groups for feedback. Robinson spent months arranging the order of the tracks. At the time, his wife was pregnant; they'd go for drives, listening to different sequences of the album on cassette. Robinson swears that his unborn son would "kick his mother to pieces" when he liked what he heard.

"The running order is so crucial," Robinson says. "Some people like to do it chronologically, and I think that's all rubbish. When you're doing a greatest-hits, you have to get it to work. It has to get to the end and you want to put it back on again."

Perhaps most critically, Robinson softened Marley's image. He chose a cover photo in which Marley appears more reflective than rebellious. He tapped Paul McCartney to make a cameo in the music video for the album's first single, "One Love," which portrayed Marley as a smiling family man. He even chose not to use the word "reggae" to promote the record in a marketing campaign that included radio and television commercials — a novel and expensive idea at the time, but one Robinson felt was necessary.

Released three years after Marley's death, Legend was an immediate, unqualified hit in the UK. In the sprawling U.S., success didn't come as quickly. Prevost says Island spent $50,000 on TV commercials that didn't move the needle. But the album sold gradually and relentlessly. SoundScan didn't start tracking album sales in the U.S. until seven years after Legend's 1984 release, yet it's still one of the top ten sellers in the SoundScan era, with more than 11 million albums sold. Universal Music Group, which is now Island's parent company, says that worldwide, more than 27 million copies of Legend have been shipped.

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