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World Music Legends

Bob Marley

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005

Reggae

There’s no denying that Bob Marley remains the best-known name in reggae, even more than 20 years after his death. But think for a second about why he’s known—the picture with the giant spliff and dreadlocks, and a few songs like “One Love,” “Three Little Birds,” “Jamming” and, of course, “I Shot The Sheriff” (mostly for the anemic Eric Clapton version). That’s only one part of who Marley really was. It ignores his real revolutionary stance and spirit, which is what helped make him such an icon to most of the non-Western world.

            It also ignores the sheer length of his career. Marley, along with Peter Tosh and Neville Livingstone (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,” a song aimed at curbing the riots of 1966, 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, including the Soul Rebels album cut for Trojan Records in 1970, the first to present Marley to an audience outside of Jamaica. Having become a Rastafarian, his writing took a turn for the serious and conscious, with pieces like “Kaya,” “Small Axe” and “Duppy Conqueror.”

            International stardom came after, but this was the foundation. It allowed Marley to try things, to spread his wings. It might have been a low point commercially, but creatively it was a high.

            It wasn’t an easy jump to global success. The band froze for a winter in England before signing with Island Records, and even then label head Chris Blackwell sweetened up their first album before unleashing it in 1973. Their sophisticated sound, a long way from the pop reggae that hit the U.K. charts, 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 everything rode on his shoulders from that point, both as writer and frontman (a task for which his charismatic stage presence and mellifluous voice suited him). Certainly the first album completely under his own name was a classic: Natty Dread. With “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)” and “Revolution” he l

Recommended Recordings

 

Legend (PolyGram)

Live (Island)

Complete Bob Marley & The Wailers, Part 1: 1967-1972 (JAD)