Robert Nasta Marley, O.M.1 was born on
February 6, 1945 in the hilltop hamlet of Rhoden Hall on the island of Jamaica.
The Rastafarian from Trenchtown’s ghetto actually spent his childhood
in the lush countryside of his birthplace, St. Ann, one of Jamaica’s
most beautiful parishes. He grew up in the village of Nine Miles near St. Ann’s
Bay. He led a simple, rural existence in a single parent household. His mother,
Cedella Booker, was a deeply religious woman who sang spirituals around the
home. Marley had an early gift for music, playing on a make-shift guitar given
to him by a cousin. This early seed was nurtured further by his grandfather
who owned a sound system, consisting of a turntable and huge speakers.
Marley and his mother left the country to head for the city of Kingston, Jamaica’s
capital. They settled in a low income area in the western district of the city
known as Trenchtown. The economically depressed area filled with zinc covered squatter settlements
was a high crime, downtrodden den of iniquity where only the strong survive.
Instead of turning to violence, Marley immersed himself in music, his only real interest in life. He learned the welding trade, and even though he hated
his day job, it set off a chain of events that catapulted him to superstardom.
His co-worker, Desmond Decker, introduced him to Jimmy Cliff who helped him
record his first song at the age of 15. It was only the first in a series of
flops, but Marley was neither deterred nor discouraged.
Influenced by such R&B groups like The Drifters, The Impressions and The
Moonglows, Marley got together with fellow Trenchtown youths, Bunny Wailer
and Peter Tosh in 1964. They practiced and sang non-stop, in many cases, until
they passed out from sheer exhaustion. They sang for anyone in the “yard” — the
communal cooking and washing facilities shared by Trenchtown residents — who
would listen. The youths eventually formed a group called The Wailing Wailers.
Their efforts in the recording studio produced a steady succession of hits,
some remaining on the Jamaican charts for months, others released in Britain.
These were mostly love songs emulating the many R&B groups of the time.
Marley met his future wife, Rita, who auditioned for the group and was made lead singer of another group managed by Marley until they collaborated musically with The Wailers later on. Royalty payments failed to materialize due to the many underhanded practices of the island’s music industry at that time.
It was rough going. The group was drawn to the emerging Rastafarian movement with its strong revolutionary and spiritual influences.
On the very day after marrying Rita, Marley flew to the US to join his mother who was now living in Delaware . He did odd jobs for nearly a year before returning to Jamaica. He then regrouped with his band. They formed their own label, “Wailing Souls.” Once again they produced hit after hit with chart topping releases such as “Stir It Up,” “Nice Time,” and “Bend Down
Low.” Even as owners of their own label, they still made no money competing with the big music producers in Jamaica who had a strangle-hold on the industry.
These major players made success and recognition virtually impossible for the fledgling group to achieve. Shortly, thereafter, Bunny Wailer had a brush with the law and was sentenced to one year in jail for smoking ganja; Marley had had enough
of city life and headed back home to the country to try his hand at farming.
Another hand—the hand of fate—intervened when American singer Johnny Nash paid Bob a visit. Nash signed the group to an American label and paid for Marley to go to Europe to record an album and a movie score. Very little resulted other than that the group ended up singing backup tracks for Nash’s hit album, “I Can See Clearly Now.” The group went back to Jamaica, disillusioned. They shortened their name to simply The Wailers. Marley was now an experienced songwriter seeking a new approach. Producer Lee
Perry provided the right formula with the creation of yet another new label, “The Upsetter.” Bob Marley and The Wailers produced their incredible volume of Reggae classics under extremely dismal circumstances and continued to be shortchanged financially. Amazingly, these songs are known worldwide today as collector’s items, and remain as popular now as they were when released. Even more so.
In 1970 The Wailers formed the “Tuff Gong” label. Their hits finally delivered the long-awaited reward, after so many years of hard knocks. This turning point was quite fortuitous. By 1972 Reggae had become a breakout success and enjoyed international acclaim with the release of the film, “The Harder They Come” starring Jimmy Cliff. With the help of owner/producer Chris Blackwell (Reggae’s first successful international producer), The Wailers signed with Island Records. At Island Records the group received the royal treatment along with state-of-the-art recording facilities. This big break made
The Wailers a force to be reckoned with.
By the mid-1970s, young people in both hemispheres began to embrace Rastafarian symbols as a mode of rebellion. The new Reggae sound developed a huge international audience. In 1976 Marley had a successful tour of the US and Canada. Back home in Jamaica, politics ignited. Marley played an enormous role in placating divergent forces. By the end of the decade, Marley’s message of redemption spread to the oppressed and huddled masses of the world.
On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley, the superstar, died at the age of 36. He was gone much too soon. Marley was considered not only a singer, but also a saint to the huge throngs of mourners who came to pay their final respects at his funeral in Kingston, Jamaica. The procession went on for three days. The business of the nation was postponed by the government to give the island a national period of mourning. Bob Marley was awarded the Order of Merit, the nation’s
third highest honor.
One of Marley’s heroes was Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), whose visions of social reform spawned the Civil Rights movement. Marley never lost sight of Garvey’s vision of hope.
1 The title Order of Merit is the Jamaican
government’s third highest honor.
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