Bob Marley remains the best-known name in reggae, even more than 20 years after his death. His real revolutionary stance and spirit helped make him an icon to most of the non-Western world.
Marley, along with Peter Tosh and Neville Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer), made up the Wailers, who scored their first Jamaican hit in 1963, and kept going from there. Even before most of the world had heard of them, they were already major stars who’d gone through some serious musical growth, from the lovely “Stir It Up” through the more politically aware “Simmer Down,” to the quantum leap of sound once they joined up with producer Lee Perry and his house band (who basically stayed with the Wailers permanently).
Many of Marley’s classic songs came from the fertile couple of years he worked with Perry. Having become a Rastafarian, his writing took a turn for the serious and conscious, with pieces like “Kaya,” “Small Axe” and “Duppy Conqueror.”
It wasn’t an easy jump to global success. The band signed with Island Records in 1973, and their sophisticated sound found sympathy with some rock fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
To many, Marley’s talent flowered fully after Tosh and Bunny Wailer quit the band. Certainly Natty Dread, the first album completely under his own name, was a classic. These were the songs that resounded around the Third World and made Marley into a hero. He was articulating the feelings of the downtrodden across the globe.
If he was a hero to many, at home he attained almost godlike status. He was perhaps the only man in Jamaica who could bring peace in the December 1976 general election, and that was what he tried to do. The night before his peace concert, however, he was the victim of an assassination attempt. The next day, his arm in his sling, he still speared onstage before leaving Jamaica for a year.
It would be 1979 before Marley made his most explicit public statement with Survival. “Africa Unite” and “Zimbabwe” showed he was thinking internationally, something few artists did, and the album was, at heart, a call to arms for Africa. He followed it in 1980 with a tour of Africa that cemented his legendary status there, and with Uprising, whose closing “Redemption Song” is still about a wonderful an epitaph as a man can hope to have.
Marley, of course, died of cancer in 1981, at the age of 36, in a life cut far too short. His legacy is still enormous.
Complete Bob Marley & The Wailers, Part 1: 1967-1972 (JAD)