Bob Marley is one of the best-known musicians in history. Even if you’ve never listened to a reggae tune, you probably know who he is. His big dreadlocks and bigger energy are iconic. During his relatively short life, Marley and his band made music that would resonate through the years. Today, his fanbase is wide and varied. Serious music historians, reggae enthusiasts, and suburban skater kids with Visine in their pockets love his music. This is because the spirit of his music transcends all barriers.
Today, Bob Marley would have been seventy-six years old. To celebrate his birthday we are looking back at some of the greatest moments of his short but impactful career.
The Wailing Wailers Release Their First Album
After changing the band’s name several times, they landed on The Wailing Wailers. The lineup featured two men who would go on to be legends in reggae: Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. They were bound for greatness.
The group topped the reggae chart in 1964 with “Simmer Down.” The song was a plea to rudeboys to calm down. Whether or not the violent discontented youth heeded the plea or not, the song was a major hit.
With a number-one reggae tune under their belts, it was time to put out a full-length album. Luckily, they had been steadily cutting songs for the past few years. Producer Clement Coxsone Dodd gathered their recordings, picked the best ones, and pressed the album. The self-titled album dropped in 1965.
The album contained the enduring reggae hit “One Love.” That song is still a favorite of Bob Marley fans today. The album also contained another youth culture anthem, “Rude Boy.” With a mainstream hit and one for the street culture, the Wailing Wailers became leaders in the reggae world.
Marley Goes to America
If you look at the earlier Wailers albums, you see sharp-dressed short-haired young men. Their music is closer to rocksteady or ska than the kind of roots reggae that Bob Marley is known for today. The change in direction didn’t come until Bob Marley left the Wailers for a short time and came to the United States.
One year after the release of the Wailing Wailers album, Bob Marley left the band and got married. He then traveled to Delaware to spend time with his mother. Marley worked at DuPont Labs and Chrysler Motors while he was in the States. It was in New England that Marley would find his Rastafari roots.
He started growing his dreadlocks and practicing his new-found faith as much as he could in Delaware. At the same time, he continued to write songs, some of which would end up on his later albums. Bob Marley had undergone a spiritual awakening and a musical transformation. Upon returning to Jamaica, Marley would restart his musical career and focus on making soulful roots music.
Bob Marley and the Wailers Catch Fire
Marley rejoined the Wailers and the name changed once again. They were now Bob Marley and the Wailers. They signed to Island Records and dropped one of the most influential reggae records of all time in 1972. “Catch a Fire,” may be the most aptly-named album of all time. With major-label backing, the band was able to tour Europe. The tour launched the album and the band to international success.
Bob Marley was now a mainstream star. They had effectively introduced their sound to a whole new audience. This record changed the face of music and Marley’s life forever.
Bob Marley survived an assassination attempt in 1976. At the time, his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica was in turmoil. Gangs aligned with two opposing political movements fought for control of the streets. These new gangsters moved away from the gravity knives and knuckle dusters of the rudeboys. There was gunfire on the streets of Kingston.
To address the unrest, Bob Marley wrote “Smile Jamaica.” He hoped the song’s message of unity would help to cool tensions on the streets. He had a platform and was going to use it for the betterment of his city.
Hoping to get that message out to as many locals as possible, Marley planned a free concert. The Smile Jamaica Concert took place on December 5, 1976, at National Heroes Park in Kingston. Two days later, a group of gunmen rushed in on Bob, his wife, and his manager. All three were shot, Bob was hit multiple times, but no one died.
The concert went almost as planned. Bob Marley planned to only perform one song for the 80,000 people gathered for the show. When he took the stage, he defiantly displayed his bandages and bullet wounds. He would not be silenced by violence. What followed was a 90-minute set containing some of Marley’s best material.
Bob Marley’s Death and Legacy
Bob Marley received a cancer diagnosis in 1977. He died from the disease in 1981 and fans around the world mourned his loss. Marley died but his music, influence, and spirit lived on.
Three years later, the greatest hits album “Legend” hit the shelves. It quickly became the best-selling reggae album of all time. Since his death, Marley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and named number 11 in Rolling Stone’s “Greatest Artists of All Time”
More important than his accolades, his influence can be seen over a large portion of the modern music world. Fans all over still put on Bob’s tunes when they need to relax. In fact, before we go, I want to recommend one of my favorite Bob Marley tunes for your Saturday afternoon.