There can be no doubt that Bob Marley has become an icon, and not just to Rastafarians and the kind of Jamaican music aficionados who also worship at the altar of Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby and Augustus Pablo. No. Marley, as “the third world’s first global pop star”, has become a symbol of hope, positivity and, yes, getting high as fuck to people around the world, from disenfranchised populations locked in political struggle (or merely those sympathetic to such struggle. “I feel the songs as much as anyone else” says a Japanese fan in a 2005 New York Times piece) to privileged American frat boys.
But the process of becoming an icon, by its very definition, necessitates the stripping away of nuance and the simplification of a complicated individual into a pat idea. Much like Che Guevara, Marley’s face has been plastered on so many t-shirts and dorm room posters that the man has been subsumed by the image. Sadly, this simplification extends to his recorded body of work as well, with many seemingly happy to believe that his discography begins and ends with Legend, the 1984 best-of compilation that went platinum ten times over in the U.S. alone, while in reality, the story of Marley and his band The Wailers in many ways is the story of Reggae music itself, from its earliest stirrings to its rise to global prominence.
Born on February 6, 1945 in rural Jamaica, Marley left home at the tender age of 14, chasing his musical ambitions to the rough and tumble streets of Kingston, recording his first single “Judge Not” in 1962 under the supervision of producer and impresario Leslie Kong. A year later, after parting ways with Kong over money, Marley assembled the Wailers and signed with Coxsone Dodd, a mainstay of Jamaican music and founder of the famed Studio One record label. If a supergroup denotes famous musicians joining together, The Wailers (originally known as both The Teenagers and The Wailing Rudeboys) were the reverse of that, a band of unknowns, including Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, and Junior Braithwaite, many of whom would go on to be established stars in their own right.
This incarnation of The Wailers specialized in the homegrown Ska genre as well as doo-wop, soul and R&B, American forms which often go unrecognized as foundational elements of what was to become Reggae. In 1966, a scant three years after forming the group, Marley disbanded the Wailers and moved to (of all places) Newark, Delaware, where his mother had relocated a few years before. Finding work in a factory, Marley placed his music on the backburner for nearly a year after being, as Time Magazine put it, “stung by the corruption of the Jamaican music industry” A tape from this period, however, featuring him jamming in a Bronx apartment, later sold for $26, 290.
Returning to Jamaica later in the year, Marley set about reforming The Wailers, once again enlisting Tosh and Livingston, founding (and then folding) their own label Wail ‘N’ Soul ‘M. It was during this period that Marley committed himself to the teachings of Rastafarianism. Marrying the religion’s ideals of spiritual purity and the struggle against the oppression of Babylon with the infectious skank of rocksteady and ska, The Wailers pioneered Roots Reggae and, invigorated by the creative breakthrough, entered into a prolific period that would continue unabated for years to come.
This fruitful period was kick-started in large part by their working relationship with producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, the eccentric and sometimes troubled musical genius with whom they produced the sparse, earthy Soul Rebels (1970) and Soul Revolution (1971), which brought the group their most significant exposure to international audiences to date. Their growing popularity also piqued the interest of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who produced the 1973 LP Catch a Fire, which, true to its title, spread reggae to audiences in every corner of the globe, turning The Wailers into global celebrities in the process. In contrast to the shifty, often criminal exploitation musicians suffered at the hands of the Kingston musical establishment, working with Island was a breath of fresh air. Writing in Rolling Stone in 1976, Ed McCormack observed, “Until a few years ago the rip-off on the grand scale was standard practice in Kingston, with greedy shyster producers paying musicians $10 or $15 for a session and pocketing the royalties themselves. Blackwell is credited with almost singlehandedly changing all that; he at least pays his artists advances and gives them a fair share of the royalties, and the precedent he set forced other labels to follow suit.”
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the international platform their music and message now enjoyed, Tosh and Livingston left to pursue solo careers, forcing Marley to build a new backing band which included The I-Threes, a vocal group consisting of Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Marley’s wife Rita. Even with the upheaval in the lineup, The Wailers’ star continued to rise, helped in no small part by Marley’s charismatic-bordering-on-messianic live performances (just check the video). But if the scope of their audience was continually growing, there was some debate as to whether it was made up of the “right” people. According to Time Magazine, “In 1973, while on tour…he found that some white audiences wouldn’t open up to his radical message, while black fans weren’t even showing up for his concerts.”, going on to quote Marley from a 1976 High Times interview: “Well, I hear dat we not gettin' through to black people. Well, me tell de R. and B. guy now, he must play dis record because I wan' get to de people."
Of course now, 30 years after his death at the age of 36, it seems inconceivable that anyone, especially the far-flung children of the African diaspora, would remain immune to the charms of Marley’s music. Over time that would be rectified by the remarkable string of Island albums that preceded his untimely demise, including 1974’s Natty Dread, 1977’s Exodus, and 1980’s Uprising which spawned hit after hit and crystalized the sound that Legend would so effectively encapsulate. Looking back on a fascinating career, it becomes apparent that, while Marley is completely deserving of his icon status, it nonetheless remains somewhat unfortunate; his oeuvre breathes and swings in a way that symbols can’t.