Bob Marley (illustration by Andy Friedman)
Bob Marley was much more than just the most important figure in reggae. He was an icon across all genres of music. He was the preeminent ambassador of Jamaican life, history and culture. Along with the Wailers, he helped establish reggae’s role as a unifying and liberating influence and often shared his political ideologies through his music. He was a deeply committed individual who staunchly advocated for human rights and social change, was passionate about the plight of the oppressed, and devoted himself to the Rastafarian movement and its beliefs.
In 1978, Marley received the United Nations Peace Medal of the Third World, an honor he earned through his tireless work calling for justice and peace during a time of political unrest in Jamaica. A few years later, he would be awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit, the nation’s third highest honor.
Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945 in the village of Nine Mile, located in the parish of Saint Ann, Jamaica. He was the son of Norval Sinclair Marley, a white Jamaican originally from England, and Cedella Booker. Marley and his childhood friend Neville Livingston (who later became known as Bunny Wailer), both caught the music bug as youths growing up in Trenchtown, Kingston. In 1962, Marley made his first recordings under the guidance of legendary reggae producer and record label executive, Leslie Kong. Soon after, with Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and others alongside Marley, the Wailers were formed.
Recordings in the mid-1960s with producer Coxsone Dodd resulted in the first hits for the Wailers. Later, they would briefly team up with Lee “Scratch” Perry and his band, The Upsetters. International fame awaited the Wailers in the 1970s, arriving after the band signed a contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Their first album for Island (and fifth overall), Catch A Fire, was released in April 1973 and featured future classics “Stop That Train” (written by Tosh), “Stir It Up” and “Kinky Reggae.” The next album, Burnin’, was released later that same year and contained the standout tracks “I Shot The Sheriff” (later covered by Eric Clapton) and “Get Up, Stand Up,” as well as new versions of some early Wailers tunes.
Despite the eventual departure of both Bunny Wailer and Tosh, Marley kept the Wailers alive, hiring new bandmates and rechristening the band Bob Marley and the Wailers. With each subsequent release, Marley and the Wailers enjoyed escalating commercial success and ever-increasing critical acclaim around the globe. The albums Natty Dread, Live!, Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Kaya, Babylon By Bus, Survival and Uprising featuring seminal songs like “Lively Up Yourself,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Natural Mystic,” “Exodus,” “Jamming,” “Waiting In Vain,” “Three Little Birds,” “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Is This Love,” “Could You Be Loved” and “Redemption Song” helped establish Marley and the Wailers as reggae’s foremost entity.
In 1977, Bob Marley was diagnosed with a form of melanoma. By 1980, cancer had spread from a toe throughout his body. He died in a Miami hospital on May 11, 1981 as he was enroute to Jamaica. Thanks in part to the work of Bob's widow Rita and the next generation of Marleys, his music and message live on now thirty-five years later, remaining as vibrant — and essential — as ever.
Listeners' Essential Bob Marley Songs
from the FUV Mixtape