Few popular musicians have inspired the kind of long-lasting devotion and admiration as Jamaica-born singer, musician and songwriter Bob Marley. From his formative years spent in spirit-breaking poverty to his later worldwide success as leader of the influential 1960s and 70s reggae band The Wailers, Marley’s life has become the stuff of legend. Crossing over into mainstream success, his hits “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Stir It Up,” and especially his autobiographical anthem “No Woman No Cry” have become among the most revered rock and roll songs of all time.
Marley ranks among its most beloved images of youth and regeneration alike. His image has become synonymous both with spirituality and freedom, becoming an icon of “cool” appearing on everything from posters to murals to handmade jewelry.
Robert Nesta Marley was born in the Jamaican village of Nine Mile in 1945, the son of a Caucasian ex-soldier and plantation manager and an Afro-Jamaican woman. But his father died when Marley was ten, and he and his mother struggled with racism and disdain because of his mixed-race heritage. He left school at the age of fourteen to focus on his musical career, playing with Joe Higgs and Bunny Livingston (later Bunny Wailer) and recording his first two singles just three years later.
Beginnings of his musical career
In 1963 Marley, Livingston, Peter Tosh, and others formed a rocksteady and ska band. Originally known as “The Teenagers,” the young band underwent several name changes before settling on “The Wailers” when signing with producer Coxsone Dodd. By 1966 the group had dwindled to Marley, Livingston, and Tosh. Marley married Rita Anderson that same year, and the young couple relocated to his mother’s residence near Wilmington, Delaware. For a time Marley worked in the States under the alias Donald Marley, at a variety of jobs including lab assistant and assembly line worker at a Chrysler Motors factory. Upon his return to Jamaica he joined the Rastafarian religious movement, growing the dreadlocks that in time he would popularize the world over.
The reunited Wailers released their debut album Catch A Fire in 1973 but broke up just a year later. British guitarist Eric Clapton enjoyed a worldwide hit with his cover of “I Shot The Sheriff,” giving the band international attention and allowing Marley to continue recording. Marley continued touring with a band of his own as “Bob Marley & The Wailers. In 1975 the new band had a massive hit single with “No Woman, No Cry,” based in part on Marley’s childhood experiences in the Kingston, Jamaica ghetto of Trenchtown. In 1976 Marley recorded the Exodus album in England, where it stayed on the British hit album charts for more than a year. Subsequent albums, including Babylon By Bus and Survival heightened the group’s popularity.
Illness and death
Marley was diagnosed with a form of malignant melanoma in 1977. He refused amputation in accordance with the Rastafarian belief against removing parts of the body. Unfortunately, the cancer soon spread to the rest of his body In 1980 Marley performed his final concert, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Finally hospitalized in Miami, he died the following May. His last album, Confrontation, was released two years later.
Legacy and Stature
Marley’s reputation, both as a peacemaker and spiritual teacher, has only grown after his death, and his efforts to bring peace to the warring political factions that plagued Jamaica during his lifetime are viewed today as shining examples of public activism. Marley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Time magazine voted the Exodus album the greatest album of the 20th Century. He was also awarded the distinguished Jamaican Order of Merit citation.