No Woman no Cry: When Bob Marley met Rita

A new movie, One Love, has shone the spotlight on the life of reggae singer Bob Marley and Rita, his beloved wife of 15 years until his untimely death from cancer in 1981.

The singer, songwriter and guitarist was considered a pioneer of reggae music who helped spread the genre globally – he was a legend in his lifetime.

© / Alamy Stock Photo

During his career, which spanned two decades, he elevated to the lofty position of Rastafarian icon, infusing his songs with a feeling of spirituality. Rita was always by his side, becoming a talented singer and musician in her own right.

Following Bob’s untimely death, she has spent her life preserving his legacy, including founding the Bob Marley Foundation and transforming his former home into a museum.

Bob Marley childhood

Born in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica, in February 1945, Bob started playing music while a pupil at Stepney Primary and Junior High School with his classmate Neville Livingston, who later became musician Bunny Wailer.

Two years after the death of his father, Norval Marley, when Bob was only ten, he and his mother, Cedella, moved to Trench Town in Kingston.

Livingston later shared a house with 16-year-old Bob in Trench Town, and they formed a band with fellow reggae musician Peter Tosh in 1962. Bob learned how to play guitar and they went into Federal Studios to record four songs: Do You Still Love Me, One Cup of Coffee, Judge Not and Terror. Three of the songs were released under the pseudonym Bobby Martell on the Jamaican record label, Beverley.

The band had various name changes, including the Wailing Rudeboys and the Wailing Wailers, before becoming simply the Wailers.

In February 1964, their single, Simmer Down, on the Coxsone label, reached number one in the Jamaican charts. This led to the band recording regularly at Studio One with established Jamaican musicians, setting them on the road to the superstardom they enjoyed in the 1970s.

How did Bob Marley meet Rita?

Born in July 1946 in Santiago de Cuba, Rita Anderson moved to Kingston, Jamaica, with her parents Leroy and Cynthia, when she was only three months old. She was brought up in Trench Town in the same neighbourhood as Bob, but they didn’t meet as kids.

Rita would sing in church and then founded a girl group, the Soulettes, with her cousin Constantine Walker and their friend Marlene Gifford. They released several records including Time for Everything, Friends and Lovers and One More Chance.

Bob and Rita met for the first time at Studio One, where their respective bands were recording. As famous meetings go, this one was interesting, as the Wailers initially sang backing vocals on the Soulettes’ single, That Ain’t Right.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Rita said Bob would send notes through his friends saying how much he liked her and wanted to talk. He began coaching her vocals and they were soon drawn to each other. Romance blossomed in the recording studio and Bob and Rita married in 1966.

They went on to tour the world together as Bob Marley and the Wailers, with the roles reversing and Rita becoming one of Bob’s backing singers, The I-Threes, with Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt.

They had three children together: Cedella, Ziggy and Stephen. Bob adopted her daughters from other relationships, Stephanie and Sharon.

Bob Marley: No Woman No Cry

The band’s international breakthrough finally happened in 1975, with the release of No Woman No Cry, a reggae song from the album Live. It made the top 50 of the notoriously hard to crack US Billboard Soul Chart and number eight in the UK chart, selling 600,000 copies. It also achieved gold status in Brazil, Spain and Italy.

Bob Marley and the Wailers released 11 albums to great critical acclaim including perhaps their most famous, Exodus, in June 1977, which contained four UK hit singles: Jamming, Waiting in Vain, Exodus and One Love.

His live performances were legendary, but particularly Jamming, which had the audience up and dancing in a frenzy.

Bob’s many awards included 1976 Rolling Stone Band of the Year, the United Nations Peace Medal of the Third World in 1978 and the Jamaican Order of Merit in February 1981.

Bob Marley: Cause of death

Tragedy struck at the young age of only 32, when Bob was diagnosed with a rare skin cancer in July 1977.

A malignant acral lentiginous melanoma was diagnosed on his right big toe. This type of cancer occurs in places where it’s easily missed such as under the nails or on the soles of the feet, rather than in areas exposed to the sun.

Bob had an area of skin and his nail removed and continued touring. He was planning a 1980 world tour when his health deteriorated, as the cancer had unfortunately spread.

After playing his last live concert at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh on 23rd September 1980, he went for eight months of cancer treatment in Germany. However, on boarding a plane to return to Jamaica, his health deteriorated rapidly – the cancer had spread to his brain and lungs.

He was flown to the United States instead for urgent treatment at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he passed away on 11th May 1981, at the age of just 36.

Bob Marley’s legacy

Rita began managing Bob’s record label Tuff Gong Studios. She needed broad shoulders, as she faced criticism of her leadership skills in the early years. However, she persevered and succeeded, saying she felt like she was still working with Bob, rather than being his widow. She finally retired at 76 and passed the reins on to their oldest daughter Cedella.

A music legend in her own right, Rita recorded several solo albums including We Must Carry On, Who Feels It Knows It and her most recent, Sunshine After Rain, which was part-produced by her son Stephen.

She launched the Rita Marley Foundation in 2014 – a charity that aims to alleviate poverty in Jamaica and Ghana and support female empowerment. She has also founded the Bob Marley Foundation to preserve her late husband’s legacy.

His foundation aims to alleviate poverty among vulnerable communities in Jamaica to bring about a lasting change. Rita has also expanded the family’s empire to include merchandise lines and record stores.

In an interview in February 2024, their son Ziggy said Rita was “the backbone of everything”. He believed Bob’s career would not have been the same without her, adding, “You need someone like that by your side.”

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