In my case, reggae is a bit like jazz: I don’t dislike it but listen to it infrequently. When I do, the artist I keep coming back to is Bob Marley. My best friend who I’m fortunate to still call that way to this day got me into Marley with Babylon by Bus. It must have been around 1980 when he bought that excellent live album by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I recorded the double-LP right away on music cassette and it quickly became a favorite. Since I didn’t throw out my MCs and don’t think I ever will, the tape must still be floating around somewhere.
Bob Marley was born as Robert Nesta Marley on the farm of his maternal grandfather in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica on February 6, 1945. While his father Norval Sinclair Marley provided financial support, Bob rarely saw him. Two years after Norval’s death, his mother Cedella Malcolm moved with then 12-year-old Bob to Trenchtown, a low-income community in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. There, Cedella had a daughter with Thadeus Livingston, the father of Neville Livingston who later became known as Bunny Wailer.
In the late 1950s, a new music genre called ska became popular in Jamaica, combining elements of Caribbean music with American jazz and R&B. By the mid-’60s, ska evolved into rock steady, the predecessor to reggae. The main characteristic feature all three music styles share is the rhythmic accentuation on the offbeat. Based on my understanding, one difference is tempo. While ska generally is fairly upbeat, rock steady has a slower beat, which tends to be further slowed down in reggae. It is that laid back groove of the latter I particularly dig.
In 1963, Bob Marley and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) started taking vocal lessons with local singer Joe Higgs who introduced them to Winston Hubert McIntosh, who became known as Peter Tosh. Higgs also taught Marley how to play the guitar. The trio formed the core of what would become The Wailers. They were soon joined by Junior Braithwaite (vocals), as well as backing vocalists Cherry Smith and Beverley Kelso.
In December 1963, The Wailers released their first single Simmer Down, backed by ska group The Skatalites. By February 1964, the tune had hit no. 1 in Jamaica. The band’s debut album The Wailing Wailers appeared in late 1965. Only released on the island, it essentially was a compilation of tunes previously recorded in 1964 and 1965. The Wailers’ first album released outside of Jamaica was their sophomore Soul Rebels from December 1970.
Following the depature of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1974, Marley continued as Bob Marley and the Wailers, with Marley on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. The Wailers at that time featured Aston Barrett (bass), Carlton Barrett (drums, percussion), Bernard Harvey (piano, organ), Jean Roussel (keyboards) and Al Anderson (lead guitar), along with the so-called I-Threes, a backing vocal trio consisting of Marley’s wife Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths – quite an army!
In July 1977, a malignant melanoma lesion was found under one of Marley’s toe nails. Due to his Rastafari beliefs and out of concern it would disrupt touring, Marley did not follow the medical advice to have his toe amputated and instead chose less invasive treatment. Unfortunately, it is safe to assume his decision most likely cost him his life less than four years later. On May 11, 1981, Marley passed away at a U.S. hospital in Miami at the age of 36. The cancer had spread throughout his body.
Altogether, Marley released 11 studio and two live albums during his lifetime. His posthumous greatest hits compilation Legend from May 1984 became the best-selling reggae album of all time, with sales in the U.S. and worldwide exceeding 15 million and 28 million copies, respectively. At an estimated total of more than 75 million sold records, Marley also ranks as one of the best-selling artists. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at no. 11 on their 2007 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Let’s get to some music!
I’m skipping Marley’s early stage, since I’m not well familiar with it. Instead, I’d like to kick things off with Stir It Up, a Bob Marley tune that was included on The Wailers’ fifth studio album Catch a Fire from April 1973. It proved to be a good title – together with a supporting tour of England and the U.S., the record helped put the band on the map internationally.
In October 1973, The Wailers released their sixth studio album Burnin’, the last with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. The lead single was the Marley-penned I Shot the Sheriff, which reached no. 67 in the UK and didn’t chart in the U.S. at all – that is until 1974, when Eric Clapton scored a major international hit with a great cover version. It topped the charts in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand, and was a top 10 in the UK and various other European countries. Similar to Cream and The Rolling Stones, who elevated African-American blues artists in the ’60s, Clapton’s cover significantly raised Marley’s international profile.
One of Marley’s best-known tunes is No Woman, No Cry, which he initially recorded for Natty Dread, the first album released as Bob Marley and the Wailers in October 1974. According to Rolling Stone, which included the song at no. 37 in their 2011 list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Marley gave the official songwriting credit to his friend Vincent Ford to help keep Ford’s Kingston soup kitchen running. The most popular version of that song appeared on Live!, the first live album by Marley and the band from December 1975, which captured a gig in London in July that year. That version also came out seperately as a single and peaked at no. 7 on the UK Singles Chart, marking the band’s first top 10 hit in Britain.
Rastaman Vibration was Bob Marley’s first album to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200, climbing to no. 8. Released in April 1976, it reached no. 15 in the UK and no. 26 in New Zealand. Here’s the opener Positive Vibration, another tune credited to Marley’s friend Vincent Ford.
After an assassination attempt in Jamaica in December 1976, which wounded but did not kill him, Marley relocated to London where he recorded his ninth album. Exodus, released in June 1977, elevated Marley to international stardoom and received Gold certifications in the UK, U.S. and Canada. Here’s the infectious Jamming, which also became one of the album’s six singles.
Next up: A fantastic live version of Is This Love from the aforementioned Babylon by Bus, released in November 1978. Marley and his band first recorded the tune for their 10th studio album Kaya from March 1978. Similar to No Woman, No Cry, I think the live version of Is This Love is superior to the initial studio recording. It has always been one of my favorite tracks on Babylon by Bus.
At the end of 1978, Bob Marley made his first visit to Africa, including Kenya and Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafari. He subsequently became a supporter of Pan-African solidarity. This is reflected on his 11th studio album Survival that came out in October 1979. One of the songs, Zimbabwe, celebrates the liberation of the country formerly called Rhodesia.
One of the grooviest Bob Marley tunes is Could You Be Loved, which blends reggae with dance music. It became one of his highest-charting singles in the UK where it peaked at no. 5. While in the U.S. it missed the Hot 100, it reached no. 6 on the Dance Clubs Songs, another Billboard chart. Could You Be Loved was included on Uprising from June 1980, the final album released during Marley’s lifetime.
I’d like to wrap up with two more tunes that came out after Marley’s death. The first is Buffalo Soldier from Confrontation, a studio album that appeared in May 1983. The record was a compilation of unreleased material and singles recorded during Marley’s lifetime. Buffalo Soldier is co-credited to Marley and Jamaican DJ, musician and reggae producer Noel George Williams, who was known as King Sporty. The tune became Marley’s highest-charting UK single peaking at no. 4. It was even more successful in New Zealand where it reached no. 3.
This bring me to the final tune and one of by favorites by Bob Marley: Iron Lion Zion. Originally, Marley wrote and first recorded that song in 1973 or 1974. But it was not released until October 1992, when it first appeared on a four-disc box set called Songs of Freedom. The version I’m featuring here is a remix that was included on Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On, an addendum to the 1984 compilation Legend.
Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Marley website; Rolling Stone; YouTube