Sometimes, it takes just one person to change the world’s musical landscape.
Take, for example, the story of Bob Marley, the man most responsible for bringing the rocking rhythms of Jamaica to the masses.
Marley, who died 30 years ago today, was born to a white father and black mother in a hybrid nation of British Imperialism and former slaves. Marley’s Caribbean background would help him blend the music and religion of many lands into a new style of music that would make him the Third World’s first superstar.
Marley’s father was a British navy man who provided financial support to Bob and his mother, but was seldom home. After he died of a heart attack when Bob was 10, the family moved from the north of the island to Kingston, settling in the slums of Trenchtown.
It was here that Bob and his friend Bunny Wailer (born Neville O’Riley Livingston) became fast friends, listening to rock and roll drift in across the waves from a New Orleans radio station. The duo soon found another friend in Peter Tosh (formerly Macintosh), and soon the three would become the backbone of the group, The Wailing Wailers.
Bob dropped out of school to pursue music and married a girl named Rita Anderson in 1966. His mother had remarried and moved to Delaware and sent for the couple to join her. Marley ended up staying in America for only eight months, during which he helped assemble Chryslers and worked as a lab assistant at DuPont.
He returned to Jamaica and began writing songs with more social and spiritual themes, which reflected his newfound commitment to the doctrines of Rastafarianism.
Marley, Wailer, and Tosh got back together under the name The Wailers, and were joined by bass and drumming brothers Ashton and Carlton Barrett.
The band found themselves stranded in London in 1971 where Marley walked into the offices of Chris Blackwell of Island Records and walked out with a sizable advance to cut a record for the label.
The album was Catch A Fire, which incorporated elements of blues, funk, and rock and roll with the established Jamaican reggae of the group. The album sold well enough to secure a tour of Britain and America, where they opened for a young Bruce Springsteen and later for Sly and the Family Stone (where they were kicked off the bill for being too good).
The band’s single I Shot The Sheriff, from their 1973 follow-up album Burnin’, was made into a worldwide hit by Eric Clapton. Soon after, Tosh and Wailer quit the group to pursue solo careers and the band was renamed Bob Marley and the Wailers.
The hits kept coming for the rest of the decade, and Marley came to be looked on as the single most important figure in Jamaican music, religion, and politics. To help quell violence between rival gangs in the slums of Kingston, Marley proposed a free concert at a city park. On the eve of the concert, gunmen who didn’t like Marley’s politics, broke into his house and shot Bob and his wife, who both survived the attack. More violence was threatened during the concert, but in defiance of the gunmen, Marley still appeared on stage.
Accolades began to be heaped on Marley, who was increasingly seen as the Third World’s musical messiah.
The band played in Africa in April 1980 at Zimbabwe’s independence ceremony. Later that same year, after playing two shows at Madison Square Garden, Bob took ill from the effects of an injured toe he suffered three years earlier that had become cancerous.
Marley was treated for the cancer in Germany, but the disease continued to spread through his body. He decided to fly home to Jamaica to die, but his condition worsened to the point of having to enter a Miami hospital en route. It was here that he died on May 11, 1981, leaving his wife and twelve children behind.
Three years later, the compilation album Legend was released, which brought Marley’s music to a whole new audience. Since its debut, it has sold over ten million copies in the United States and over 25 million worldwide.