Early life and career
Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945 on the farm of his maternal grandfather in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica. His parents are to Norval Sinclair Marley & Cedella Booker. Norval Marley was a European-Jamaican of British heritage (Heather Marley once stated that he may have had distant Jewish Syrian ancestry). Norval claimed to have been a captain in the Royal Marines, though at the time of his marriage to Cedella Booker, an African-Jamaican then 18 years old, he was employed as a plantation overseer. Though Bob Marley was named Nesta Robert Marley, a Jamaican passport official would later reverse his first and middle names. Norval provided financial support for his wife and child but seldom saw them as he was often away. Bob Marley attended Stepney Primary and Junior High School which serves the catchment area of Saint Ann. In 1955, when Bob Marley was 10 years old, his father died of a heart attack at the age of 70.
Marley and Neville Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer) had been childhood friends in Nine Mile. They had started to play music together while at Stepney Primary and Junior High School. Marley left Nine Mile with his mother when he was 12 and moved to Trenchtown, Kingston. Cedella Booker and Thadeus Livingston (Bunny Wailer’s father) had a daughter together whom they named Pearl, who was a younger sister to both Bob and Bunny. Now that Marley and Livingston were living together in the same house in Trenchtown, their musical explorations deepened to include the latest R&B from American radio stations whose broadcasts reached Jamaica, and the new Ska music. The move to Trenchtown was proving to be fortuitous, and Marley soon found himself in a vocal group with Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Junior Braithwaite. Joe Higgs, who was part of the successful vocal act Higgs and Wilson, resided on 3rd St., and his singing partner Roy Wilson had been raised by the grandmother of Junior Braithwaite. Higgs and Wilson would rehearse at the back of the houses between 2nd and 3rd Streets, and it wasn’t long before Marley (now residing on 2nd St), Junior Braithwaite and the others were congregating around this successful duo. Marley and the others didn’t play any instruments at this time, and were more interested in being a vocal harmony group. Higgs was glad to help them develop their vocal harmonies, although more importantly, he had started to teach Marley how to play guitar — thereby creating the bedrock that would later allow Marley to construct some of the biggest-selling reggae songs in the history of the genre.
Bob Marley and the Wailers
1962–1972: Early years
In February 1962, Marley recorded four songs, “Judge Not”, “One Cup of Coffee”, “Do You Still Love Me?” and “Terror”, at
Federal Studio for local music producer Leslie Kong. Three of the songs were released on Beverley’s with “One Cup of Coffee” being released under the pseudonym Bobby Martell.
In 1963, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith were called The Teenagers. They later changed the name to The Wailing Rudeboys, then to The Wailing Wailers, at which point they were discovered by record producer Coxsone Dodd, and finally to The Wailers. Their single “Simmer Down” for the Coxsone label became a Jamaican #1 in February 1964 selling an estimated 70,000 copies. The Wailers, now regularly recording for Studio One, found themselves working with established Jamaican musicians such as Ernest Ranglin (arranger “It Hurts To Be Alone”), the keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and saxophonist Roland Alphonso. By 1966, Braithwaite, Kelso, and Smith had left The Wailers, leaving the core trio of Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh.
In 1966, Marley married Rita Anderson, and moved near his mother’s residence in Wilmington, Delaware in the United States for a short time, during which he worked as a DuPont lab assistant and on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant, under the alias Donald Marley.
Though raised as a Catholic, Marley became interested in Rastafarian beliefs in the 1960s, when away from his mother’s influence. After returning to Jamaica Marley formally converted to Rastafari and began to grow dreadlocks. The Rastafarian proscription against cutting hair is based on the biblical Samson who as a Nazirite was expected to make certain religious vows including the ritual treatment of his hair as described in Chapter Six of the Book of Numbers:
All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.
After a financial disagreement with Dodd, Marley and his band teamed up with Lee “Scratch” Perry and his studio band, The Upsetters. Although the alliance lasted less than a year, they recorded what many consider The Wailers’ finest work. Marley and Perry split after a dispute regarding the assignment of recording rights, but they would remain friends and work together again.
Bob Marley’s flat in 1972 at 34 Ridgmount Gardens, Bloomsbury, London.
Between 1968 and 1972, Bob and Rita Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer re-cut some old tracks with JAD Records in Kingston and London in an attempt to commercialise The Wailers’ sound. Bunny later asserted that these songs “should never be released on an album … they were just demos for record companies to listen to”. In 1968, Bob and Rita visited songwriter Jimmy Norman at his apartment in the Bronx. Norman had written the extended lyrics for Kai Winding’s “Time Is on My Side” (covered by the Rolling Stones) and had also written for Johnny Nash and Jimi Hendrix. A three-day jam session with Norman and others, including Norman’s co-writer Al Pyfrom, resulted in a 24-minute tape of Marley performing several of his own and Norman-Pyfrom’s compositions. This tape is, according to Reggae archivist Roger Steffens, rare in that it was influenced by pop rather than reggae, as part of an effort to break Marley into the American charts. According to an article in The New York Times, Marley experimented on the tape with different sounds, adopting a doo-wop style on “Stay With Me” and “the slow love song style of 1960’s artists” on “Splish for My Splash”. An artist yet to establish himself outside his native Jamaica, Marley lived in Ridgmount Gardens, Bloomsbury, during 1972.
1972–1974: Move to Island Records
In 1972, Bob Marley signed with CBS Records in London and embarked on a UK tour with American soul singer Johnny Nash. While in London the Wailers asked their road manager Brent Clarke to introduce them to Chris Blackwell who had licensed some of their Coxsone releases for his Island Records. The Wailers intended to discuss the royalties associated with these releases instead the meeting resulted in the offer of an advance of £4,000 to record an album. Since Jimmy Cliff, Island’s top reggae star, had recently left the label, Blackwell was primed for a replacement. In Marley, Blackwell recognized the elements needed to snare the rock audience: “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 someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image.” The Wailers returned to Jamaica to record at Harry J’s in Kingston which resulted in the album Catch a Fire.
Primarily recorded on an eight-track Catch a Fire marked the first time a reggae band had access to a state-of-the-art studio and were accorded the same care as their rock ‘n’ roll peers. Blackwell desired to create “more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a reggae rhythm”, and restructured Marley’s mixes and arrangements. Marley travelled to London to supervise Blackwell’s overdubbing of the album which included tempering the mix from the bass-heavy sound of Jamaican music and omitting two tracks.
The Wailers’ first album for Island, Catch a Fire, was released worldwide in April 1973, packaged like a rock record with a unique Zippo lighter lift-top. Initially selling 14,000 units, it didn’t make Marley a star, but received a positive critical reception. It was followed later that year by the album Burnin’ which included the song “I Shot the Sheriff”. Eric Clapton was given the album by his guitarist George Terry in the hope that he would enjoy it. Clapton was suitably impressed and chose to record a cover version of “I Shot the Sheriff” which became his first US hit since “Layla” two years earlier and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on 14 September 1974. Many Jamaicans were not keen on the new reggae sound on Catch a Fire, but the Trenchtown style of Burnin found fans across both reggae and rock audiences.
During this period, Blackwell gifted his Kingston residence and company headquarters at 56 Hope Road (then known as Island House) to Marley. Housing Tuff Gong Studios, the property became not only Marley’s office, but also his home.
The Wailers were scheduled to open seventeen shows in the US for Sly and the Family Stone. After four shows, the band was fired because they were more popular than the acts they were opening for. The Wailers broke up in 1974 with each of the three main members pursuing solo careers. The reason for the breakup is shrouded in conjecture; some believe that there were disagreements amongst Bunny, Peter, and Bob concerning performances, while others claim that Bunny and Peter simply preferred solo work.
1974–1976: Line-up changes and shooting
Bob Marley & The Wailers live at Crystal Palace Park during the Uprising Tour
Despite the break-up, Marley continued recording as “Bob Marley & The Wailers”. His new backing band included brothers Carlton and Aston “Family Man” Barrett on drums and bass respectively, Junior Marvin and Al Anderson on lead guitar, Tyrone Downie and Earl “Wya” Lindo on keyboards, and Alvin “Seeco” Patterson on percussion. The “I Threes”, consisting of Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, and Marley’s wife, Rita, provided backing vocals. In 1975, Marley had his international breakthrough with his first hit outside Jamaica, “No Woman, No Cry”, from the Natty Dread album. This was followed by his breakthrough album in the United States, Rastaman Vibration (1976), which reached the Top 50 of the Billboard Soul Charts.
On 3 December 1976, two days before “Smile Jamaica”, a free concert organised by the Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley in an attempt to ease tension between two warring political groups, Marley, his wife, and manager Don Taylor were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen inside Marley’s home. Taylor and Marley’s wife sustained serious injuries, but later made full recoveries. Bob Marley received minor wounds in the chest and arm. The attempt on his life was thought to have been politically motivated, as many felt the concert was really a support rally for Manley. Nonetheless, the concert proceeded, and an injured Marley performed as scheduled, two days after the attempt. When asked why, Marley responded, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” The members of the group Zap Pow played as Bob Marley’s backup band before a festival crowd of 80,000 while members of The Wailers were still missing or in hiding. Marley left Jamaica at the end of 1976, and after a month-long “recovery and writing” sojourn at the site of Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, arrived in England, where he spent two years in self-imposed exile.
1977–1978: Relocation to England
Marley performing in Dalymount Park in the late 1970s
Whilst in England, he recorded the albums Exodus and Kaya. Exodus stayed on the British album charts for fifty-six consecutive weeks. It included four UK hit singles: “Exodus”, “Waiting in Vain”, “Jamming”, and “One Love” (a rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s hit, “People Get Ready”). During his time in London, he was arrested and received a conviction for possession of a small quantity of cannabis. In 1978, Marley returned to Jamaica and performed at another political concert, the One Love Peace Concert, again in an effort to calm warring parties. Near the end of the performance, by Marley’s request, Michael Manley (leader of then-ruling People’s National Party) and his political rival Edward Seaga (leader of the opposing Jamaica Labour Party), joined each other on stage and shook hands.
Under the name Bob Marley and the Wailers eleven albums were released, four live albums and seven studio albums. The releases included Babylon by Bus, a double live album with thirteen tracks, were released in 1978 and received critical acclaim. This album, and specifically the final track “Jamming” with the audience in a frenzy, captured the intensity of Marley’s live performances.
“Marley wasn’t singing about how peace could come easily to the World but rather how hell on Earth comes too easily to too many. His songs were his memories; he had lived with the wretched, he had seen the downpressors and those whom they pressed down.”
– Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone
1979–1981: Later years
Survival, a defiant and politically charged album, was released in 1979. Tracks such as “Zimbabwe”, “Africa Unite”, “Wake Up and Live”, and “Survival” reflected Marley’s support for the struggles of Africans. His appearance at the Amandla Festival in Boston in July 1979 showed his strong opposition to South African apartheid, which he already had shown in his song “War” in 1976. In early 1980, he was invited to perform at the 17 April celebration of Zimbabwe’s Independence Day. Uprising (1980) was Bob Marley’s final studio album, and is one of his most religious productions; it includes “Redemption Song” and “Forever Loving Jah”. Confrontation, released posthumously in 1983, contained unreleased material recorded during Marley’s lifetime, including the hit “Buffalo Soldier” and new mixes of singles previously only available in Jamaica.