Bob Marley’s legacy is so strong that even 36 years after he passed, the reggae performer is probably more famous than when he was alive. Who doesn’t know at least one song by the charismatic Jamaican?
Everybody has a different favourite Marley gem and there is no such thing as his ‘best’ song. They are all fabulous. Probably best known are ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘One Love’, ‘Exodus’, ‘Jammin’, ‘Three Little Birds’, ‘Buffalo Soldier’, ‘Soul Rebel’, ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’… but there are literally dozens that are globally loved. His music is so ubiquitous that it is played not just on sound systems, in homes and nightclubs, but constantly used on TV and radio ads, on film soundtracks and in restaurants, bars and cafes worldwide.
Robert Nesta Marley was born on Feb. 6, 1945 in Saint Ann. His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was a white Englishman and his mother, Cedelia Booker, is a black Jamaican. In the 36 years he lived before dying of cancer in Miami on May 11, 1981, he transcended merely being a reggae singer/song writer to become a global superstar. He certainly packed a lot into his brief spell on earth, fathering officially 12 children, four by his wife Rita.
Bob's father died when he was 10 and his mother, struggling to make ends meet in the countryside, moved with him to Kingston's Trench Town ghetto after his death. It was tough there too but at least there was community support.
As a young teen, he befriended Bunny Wailer, and they learned to play music together. At 14, Marley dropped out of school to learn the welding trade, and spent his spare time jamming with Bunny Wailer and ska musician Joe Higgs.
Marley recorded his first two singles in 1962, but neither garnered much interest at the time. In 1963, he began a ska band with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh that was originally called "The Teenagers." Later it became "The Wailing Rudeboys," then "The Wailing Wailers," and finally just "The Wailers." Their early Studio One hits, which were recorded in the popular rocksteady style, included "Simmer Down" (1964) and "Soul Rebel" (1965), both written by Marley.
Marley married Rita Anderson in 1966, and spent a few months living in Delaware cutting sugar cane with his mother. But he was homesick and hated the life in America so returned home to pursue his career as a musician. When Marley returned to Jamaica, he began practising the Rastafarian faith, and began growing his signature dreadlocks.
The Wailers' 1974 album Burnin' included "I Shot The Sheriff" and "Get Up, Stand Up," both of which created huge underground followings in US and Europe. Eric Clapton recorded a hit version of “I Shot The Sheriff” which helped catapult Marley’s cult status. The same year, however, the Wailers acrimoniously broke up to pursue solo careers.
By now Marley had made a full transition from ska and rocksteady to the latest style of reggae.
He continued touring and recording as "Bob Marley & the Wailers," though he was the only original Wailer in the group. In 1975, "No Woman, No Cry" became Marley's first major breakthrough hit song, and his subsequent album Rastaman Vibration became a Billboard Top 10 Album.
Marley spent much of the late 1970s trying to promote peace and cultural understanding within Jamaica, despite being shot (along with his wife and manager, who also survived) before a peace concert. He also acted as a willing cultural ambassador for the Jamaican people and the Rastafarian religion. He remains revered as a prophet by many, and certainly a religious and cultural figurehead by many more.
In 1977, Marley found a wound on his foot, which he believed to be a football injury, but was later discovered to be malignant melanoma. Doctors recommended an amputation of his toe, but he refused for religious reasons. The cancer eventually spread. When he finally decided to get medical help in 1980, the cancer had become terminal.
He wanted to die in Jamaica, but was too frail to make the flight home, and died in Miami. His final recording, at Pittsburgh's Stanley Theatre, was recorded and released for posterity as “Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever”.
Marley is revered the world over, both as the defining figure of Jamaican music and as a spiritual leader. His wife Rita carries on his work as she sees fit, and his sons Damian "Jr. Gong", Julian, Ziggy, Stephen, Ky-Mani, as well as his daughters, Cedelia and Sharon, carry on his musical legacy (the other siblings do not play music professionally).
Among the awards and honours that have been given to Bob Marley are a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
His songs and albums have also won numerous honours, such as Time Magazine's Album of the Century for Exodus and BBC's Song of the Millennium for "One Love".