He was also an ambassador for socially deprived people in Jamaica, highlighting issues through his music.
After his untimely death from cancer at the age of just 36, he was given a state funeral in Jamaica, with Prime Minister Edward Seaga delivering the eulogy and thousands of mourners turning out to pay tribute to his life. He was buried with his famous Gibson Les Paul guitar in a chapel near his birthplace in Kingston.
© Debbie Ann Powell / Shutterstock.com
Meeting the Wailers
Born on February 6 1945, in the impoverished area of Nine Mile, in Saint Ann Parish, Marley went on to become a phenomenon in the music world, enjoying a meteoric rise to fame. He first played music with his schoolfriend Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingston – who later went on to become the musician Bunny Wailer – at Stepney Primary and Junior High School.
They moved to Trenchtown, where they met other like-minded musicians and formed a group in the early 1960s, when Marley learned to play guitar. The group also included Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, Peter McIntosh and Cherry Smith.
This was the beginning of Bob Marley and the Wailers, although initially, in 1963, the band was called the Teenagers. They went through several name changes, including the Wailing Rudeboys and the Wailing Wailers, before settling on The Wailers. In February 1964, their first number one hit single in Jamaica was Simmer Down on the Coxsone label.
Various line-up changes took place, with Kelso, Braithwaite and Smith leaving the band. Remaining members Marley, Livingston and McIntosh added a rhythm section made up of two brothers, drummer Carlton and bass guitarist Aston Barrett.
First UK hit
They recorded continually in Jamaica and enjoyed huge success there. This led to the UK-based Island Records signing them up. Their first mainstream hit album was Catch a Fire in April 1972, with a supporting tour throughout the UK and the USA. This was followed by Burnin’ in November of the same year.
The group line-up continued to change, with McIntosh and Livingston both departing. New members were brought in, including keyboard player Bernard Harvey, lead guitarist Al Anderson and backing singers the I-Threes, consisting of Bob’s wife Rita (whom he had married in 1966), Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt.
Over the next 15 years, Marley introduced reggae to the global market, becoming a figure of massive inspiration and influence to young people. The beautiful melodies of his music, coupled with the reggae rhythm and lyrical messages made him the first reggae artist to achieve international commercial success.
In 1972, the first mainstream hit album, Catch a Fire, had a supporting tour throughout the UK and the USA. Other major artists recorded his songs – notably Eric Clapton’s version of I Shot the Sheriff in 1974 – further enhancing Marley’s reputation.
Marley received many music industry awards, some posthumously following his death in 1981. His first major award came in 1976, when Bob Marley and the Wailers were voted Rolling Stone Band of the Year. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 1994 and his album, Exodus, was voted Time Magazine’s Album of the Century in 1999.
In February 2001, Marley was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Rolling Stone voted him number 11 of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004 and in the same year, he was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, while the BBC named One Love the Song of the Millennium.
Not all of Marley’s accolades were for music – he also won humanitarian awards, after turning the world of the ghetto of his youth into meaningful songs that transformed the way people felt about themselves. His songs spoke of oppression, poverty and justice, calling for dignity and hope and making each listener feel worthwhile and unique.
He was awarded the United Nations’ Peace Medal of the Third World in 1978 and Jamaica’s top honour, the Jamaican Order of Merit, in February 1981. He achieved the rare position of becoming a popular figure in mainstream culture, while never losing sight of his roots or compromising his credibility as a spokesman for millions of young people.
Death of a legend
Marley wasn’t officially a political figure, although his lyrics touched upon meaningful issues and the songs from his album, Uprising, were played at rallies for the People’s National Party. In December 1976, Marley was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt, following his appearances at the then prime minister Michael Manley’s rallies.
He survived the shooting and later described it in the song, Ambush in the Night, but he left Jamaica for a while. In 1978, he returned for an anti-political warfare concert in Kingston. A year later, he performed at Reggae Sunsplash at Montego Bay.
Sadly, cancer claimed the life of the reggae legend, after he was initially diagnosed with melanoma – a type of skin cancer – in 1977. Examinations of a foot injury that he sustained while playing football revealed an acral lentiginous melanoma on his toe and doctors suggested amputation. However, Marley refused, believing it went against the teachings of his Rastafarian faith.
He had a skin graft instead but by the summer of 1980 the cancer had spread, and he collapsed in Central Park while out jogging. After playing his final gig in Pittsburgh in September 1980, he cancelled his remaining tour dates and flew to Germany for a diet-based cancer treatment, but it was unsuccessful and eight months later, he took a flight home to Jamaica.
His health worsened and he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on landing in Miami, where he died on 11th May 1981, aged only 36. Today, the international musical superstar is still massively popular across the world and remains one of the most iconic figures of the music industry.
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