Born on February 6, 1945, Bob Marley was reggae's foremost practitioner and emissary, embodying its spirit and spreading its gospel to all corners of the globe. His extraordinary body of work embraces the stylistic spectrum of modern Jamaican music – from ska to rock steady to reggae – while carrying the music to another level as a social force with universal appeal. Few others changed the musical and cultural landscape as profoundly as he did. "He wanted everything at the same time and was everything at the same time: prophet, soul rebel, Rasta man, herbs man, wild man, a natural mystic man, ladies' man, island man, family man, Rita's man, soccer man, showman, shaman, human – Jamaican!" said U2 frontman Bono during his 1994 induction of Marley into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There’s no question that reggae is legitimately part of the larger culture of rock and roll, partaking of its full heritage of social forces and stylistic influences. In Marley’s own words, “Reggae music, soul music, rock music – every song is a sign.” His lyrics mixed religious mysticism with calls for political uprising, and Marley delivered them in a passionate, declamatory voice.
Marley was a precocious musician, forming a vocal trio in the early Sixties with friends Neville “Bunny” O’Riley Livingston (later Bunny Wailer) and Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh), who had spent their formative years in Trench Town, a ghetto neighborhood of Kingston. The trio absorbed transmissions from American radio stations, including R&B mainstays Ray Charles, the Drifters, Fats Domino and Curtis Mayfield. They took the name the Wailing Wailers (shortened to the Wailers) because they were ghetto sufferers who’d been born “wailing.”
The Wailers had their first hit in 1963 with “Simmer Down,” and they went on to record 30 sides in the “rude boy” ska style for Jamaican soundman Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One. By this time, Marley’s preoccupations were taking a spiritual turn, and Jamaican music itself was changing from the bouncy ska beat to the more sensual rhythms of rock steady. An association with Jamaican producer Lee Perry resulted in some of the Wailers’ most memorable recordings, including “Soul Rebel” and “Duppy Conqueror,” and the albums Soul Rebel and Soul Revolution. (pictured left: Bob Marley's handwritten lyrics to "Turn Your Lights Down Low" on display in the Museum's main exhibit hall.)
It was not until the group signed with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in the early Seventies that they found an international audience. Their first recordings for Island, Catch a Fire (1973) and Burnin’ (1973), were hard-hitting albums, the latter containing "I Shot The Sheriff," which Eric Clapton took to Number One in 1974. With the departure of founding members Tosh and Wailer after Burnin’, Marley took center stage as singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist. Backed by a first-rate band and the I-Threes vocal trio – which included his wife Rita – Marley rose to the occasion with 1974’s Natty Dread (his first album to chart in America) and the string of politically charged albums that followed. These included Rastaman Vibration, his highest-charting album (1976, Number Eight); the fiery, oratorical Exodus (1977, Number 20) and Uprising (1980, Number 46), which was the last studio album released during Marley's lifetime.
Although he died prematurely from cancer-related complications at age 36, the heartbeat reggae rhythms of the enormous body of music that Marley left behind have endured. Moreover, Jamaica itself has been transformed by his charismatic personality and musical output. Marley was buried on the island with full state honors on May 21, 1981. Marley’s pacifist reggae anthem, “One Love,” was later adapted as a theme song by the Jamaican Tourist Board. Meanwhile, Marley’s music continues to find an audience. With sales of more than 10 million in the U.S. alone, Legend – a best-of spanning the Island Records years (1972-1981) – remains the best-selling album by a Jamaican artist and the best-selling reggae album in history.
Marley's globe-spanning influence was addressed by Bono, who likened the tribulations and spirit of Ireland with Jamaica's history and character – and why that sense of shared experience made Marley's music resonate with him. "The voice of Bob Marley was a voice of reason," explained Bono. "So, when I heard Marley first, I not only felt it, I felt I understood it. It was '76 in Dublin, and we were listening to punk rock. It was the Clash who brought him home to us, and that [Eric Clapton] cover version of 'I Shot The Sheriff.'
"These were love songs you could admit listening to," added Bono, "songs of hurt – hard but healing, tough gong; politics without rhetoric, songs of freedom where that word meant something again, new hymns to a dancing god, redemption songs, a sexy revolution where Jah is Jehovah on street level – not over his people, but with his people; not just stylin', jammin'."
In this clip, Marley's family and friends, and Bono perform "One Love/People Get Ready" at the 1994 Hall of Fame Inductions.