The iconic singer-songwriter, Bob Marley, brought reggae music to international audiences and spread the word of the Rastafarian faith from his native Jamaica far across the world. He spoke up for the impoverished people of his birthplace, raising awareness of Jamaica’s social issues through his music.
Despite attaining superstar status, Marley never forgot his roots. Born in February 1945, in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, he formed his first amateur band with schoolfriend Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingston while they were pupils at Stepney Primary and Junior High School.
Marley left school at 14 and moved to Kingston to pursue a career in music, taking lessons from tutor Joe Higgs, who was a dedicated Rastafarian. Higgs’ faith first introduced Marley to the Rastafari movement and he became a devout follower himself for the rest of his life.
Birth of the Wailers
Moving to Trenchtown, Marley and his childhood friend Livingston, who became known as Bunny Wailer, formed a band in the early 1960s. Marley had learned how to play the guitar and was the guitarist and lead vocalist.
Their fellow band members were like-minded musicians Junior Braithwaite, Peter McIntosh, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith. They had several name changes, initially being called the Teenagers and later the Wailing Rudeboys.
In 1963, the band had another name-change to Bob Marley and the Wailers. They became known for reggae – a genre which had its roots in the music of the Rastafari faith, known as Nyabingi.
Traditional Nyabingi music was a combination of gospel music and drumming, with members of the congregation chanting to enhance their feelings of inclusion in the religious community.
The transition into reggae music was largely attributed to the influence of Jamaican band leader and drummer Count Ossie. He developed the rhythmic drumming patterns that typified reggae in the 1950s and played them during live gigs.
His performances spread the reggae style throughout the Rastafarian community. He produced the unique sounds by using three different types of drum: the repeater (known as the peta), the bass and the fundeh. These are traditional Nyabinghi drums.
The bass drum is also called the thunder and is a double-headed drum, while the fundeh (sometimes called the funde) is the middle drum that maintains the pulsing, heartbeat rhythm. As the highest-pitched and smallest drum, the peta is said to put the fire into the music.
Throughout the 1960s, an increasing number of Jamaican musicians began playing reggae and ska music and Ossie’s band was frequently asked to play percussion on their recordings.
Success in the ’70s
Bob Marley and the Wailers enjoyed their first number one hit single in Jamaica, Simmer Down, in February 1964. Promoting reggae music and the Rastafari faith, the band continued to record in Jamaica throughout the 1960s and was hugely successful.
Marley married Rita Anderson, a fellow Rastafarian, in 1966 and their social and religious beliefs were reflected in the music of the Wailers. Marley’s hard-hitting lyrics spoke out against the inequalities that existed towards the black community.
Their first major hit outside Jamaica was Catch a Fire, released in April 1972, when they were signed to UK-based record label Island Records. After Bob Marley and the Wailers embarked on a tour of the UK and the US to promote their hit record, they were suddenly catapulted to international fame.
Marley’s lyrics promoted the beliefs of the Rastafarian movement and he is largely credited with introducing the faith across Europe, the United States, Canada, Africa and Australasia.
The Wailers split up in 1974, although the exact reason why has remained unclear. It was suggested Bunny Wailer and fellow band member Peter McIntosh were unwilling to embark on any more gruelling tours, although it was later said it was a case of the band members going in “three different directions”, rather than formally splitting up.
Despite the nucleus of the band disintegrating, Marley continued to use the name The Wailers. His incredible success throughout the 1970s led to him being labelled a prophet and a poet in Jamaica.
He had a number of massive hits in the ’70s, including No Woman No Cry in 1975, Exodus, Waiting in Vain and One Love in 1977 and Is This Love and Satisfy My Soul in 1978.
Tragically, the great Bob Marley lost his four-year-battle against cancer on 11th May 1981, at the age of only 36. He had first been diagnosed with a type of skin cancer, melanoma, in 1977. Sadly, it had spread throughout his body and he collapsed in the summer of 1980, while jogging in Central Park, America.
Despite his deteriorating health, he played a final gig in Pittsburgh in September 1980, but eight months later he was admitted to Miami’s Cedars Of Lebanon Hospital, where he lost his fight for life.
Marley’s previously unreleased material was released posthumously following his death, including Three Little Birds (a number 17 hit in the UK) in 1980 and one of his most famous hits, Buffalo Soldier, in 1983, which charted in New Zealand, the UK, the US and Australia.
Written by Marley and Noel “King Sporty” Williams, it related to the black US cavalry regiment of the mid-1800s – the 10th Cavalry Regiment, who were known as “Buffalo Soldiers” (a term they embraced because of the buffalo’s fighting spirit and fierce bravery).
However, Marley linked the Buffalo Soldiers’ fight to the black community’s fight for survival, making it a symbol of resistance.
Several of Marley’s descendants have become reggae stars themselves, including Bob and Rita’s son, Ziggy, who was born in 1968. He formed the band Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers with his siblings, Stephen, Cedella and Sharon, while their father was still alive.
One of their songs, Children Playing in the Streets, had been written by Bob Marley and they donated all the royalties to the United Nations’ appeal in the United Year of the Child. Ziggy is a solo recording artist today, having released seven albums, the latest being Rebellion Rises in May 2018.
Bob Marley’s youngest son, Damian, 40, has been performing as a reggae artist since the age of 13, when he formed his first band, the Shephards. He has recorded four studio albums to date, the most recent being Stony Hill, released in July 2017.
Bob Marley’s grandson, Skip Marley, 22, is a Kingston-born reggae singer-songwriter, born to David Minto and Cedella Marley. He signed to Island Records in 2017 and co-wrote and featured on Katy Perry’s single, Chained to the Rhythm, released in 2017.
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