Print this page

How Did Bob Marley Become The King Of Reggae?

How Did Bob Marley Become The King Of Reggae?

Bob Marley topped the hit parade in his home country.

But at the glitzy Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Del., he was a janitor.

This was in 1966. Marley took the job to make extra money.

He was sick of being poor. A front man for his band, the Wailers, he'd gulped water when he was little to stave off gnawing hunger.

Music was supposed to be his ticket out of the slums.

It wasn't. The group's weekly pay from Kingston's Studio One records was the equivalent of just $25 today.

"They were called the Jamaican Beatles," Roger Steffens, who was a Marley friend and onetime co-host of a reggae radio show in Los Angeles, told IBD. "At one point, they had five of the top 10 records at once in Jamaica."

It was painful. So Marley (1945-81) moved in with his mom in the States and got grunt jobs.

He struck gold that winter, though, figuring out how much he was willing to do for his music. After each shift, he did nothing but sit in his basement, practicing riffs on his guitar and writing songs.

Lesson: Get hungry for your true calling.

Rich With Melodies

Marley went on to be a multimillionaire.

His biggest hits: "One Love" — named song of the millennium by the BBC — "Stir It Up," "No Woman, No Cry," "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Jamming."

When he died at just 36, Marley was worth an estimated $30 million, or $75 million today.

The money keeps rolling in.

His albums have sold more than 75 million. Last year the Marley name earned $17 million.

Marley's greatest hits album, "Legend," has sold more than 250,000 copies a year since it was released in 1984. It's the second-longest charting album in the history of the Billboard charts.

"It's an annuity for his children, 30 years later," said Steffens.

Marley was born in Nine Mile, Jamaica. His dad, Norval, was a land surveyor who left Bob's mom, Cedella, soon after birth.

From the start, Robbie had a sweet singing voice. As he grew, it gained a bit of an edge.

At age 5, Bob went to Kingston, the country's capital, to live in shaky conditions.

"Bob was on his own," said Mike Watson, founder of Midnight Raver, a website that promotes reggae music. "There was nobody to look after him."

"That," said Steffens, "can turn you really bad really fast or do what it did to Bob."

He made music out of it all.

His new neighborhood, Trench Town, was called the Jamaican Motown. Marley bathed in a rich gumbo of Caribbean beats. By radio, he caught Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. Soon Bob begged to be let into a small recording studio. In 1962, the 16-year-old cut his first record, "Judge Not."

Not indeed; the song got almost zero airplay.

Undeterred, Marley thought he'd try a band. So he created the Wailing Wailers with buddies Neville Livingston — known as Bunny — and Peter Tosh in 1963.

Their sound was part doo-wop, part Caribbean, all catchy.

"Music had been a hobby for Bunny, but Bob took it seriously," wrote Christopher John Farley in "Before the Legend." "He saw it as a career, a way out."

To help strengthen their melodic punch, Marley asked veteran singer Joe Higgs to coach the band. The guru's pitch to get perfect: 10,000 hours of practice.

That meant marathon rehearsals. "More than two or three hours," Watson said. "Sometimes, it could have been part of a day, outside, under a tree, very hot. Constant repetition. Grueling repetition."

The Wailers recorded "Simmer Down," scoring their first big local hit in 1964.

Over the next few months, Marley and the gang refined and slowed their style into what's now known as reggae. Their moniker became the Wailers. "His music stood for something," Steffens said. "It was message music."

A string of Studio One records rocked the dance halls.

Downside: The pay was peanuts.

By 1965, the hit man of Jamaica was homeless, sleeping on the floor of the studio storage room.

What finally put Marley on a cash quest: love.

He married Rita Anderson, a vibrant singer who would become a key member of the band, in 1966. That same week, Marley left to hunt for jobs in Delaware.

"He knew he had the talent, he knew he had the drive," said Watson. "But he had to go make money."

Less than a year later, Marley was back on the Caribbean island and on a mission. "They used to call him the Skipper," Watson said. "He was like an immovable rock. He was not going to budge on something he felt was right."

To gain more direct access to the market, Marley launched a record company.

The going was tough. Everyone hustled to get the songs out. Right up there was Rita, hitting the streets of Kingston on her bicycle to distribute records feverishly.

Marley's luck finally turned when record producer Chris Blackwell offered his band a deal with Island Records, the future U2 label.

Marketed as a rock phenomenon, Bob Marley and the Wailers released their first international album, "Catch a Fire," in 1973.

From the start, Blackwell could tell Marley had star potential.

"When it was finished and coming out, I was really excited," Blackwell said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last year. "I felt it would be a really important album. I thought very early that it would sell a million copies."

The band later went on a worldwide tour.

Livingston and Tosh hated road life. They quit the band.

Marley kept on grooving, adding the I Three, a dynamic trio of backup singers that included Rita.

The new group was all about live performances. No spangles for the king of reggae, though. He didn't need them. Swaying in street clothes in his characteristic long locks, he mesmerized.

Band members could expect to be prepared for tunes to last anywhere from three to 20 minutes.

Marley had a vision for each show. No two were the same.

"He knew how to play all of the instruments," Steffens said.

Rohan Marley, CEO of Marley Coffee, recalls his dad didn't have to raise his voice to make folks pay attention. "All he had to say was, 'Hey boy, come here, sit down,' and I would start crying," he told IBD.

By 1976, he was playing huge shows. Two nights before the much-buzzed-about Smile Jamaica concert in Kingston, thugs unleashed a spray of bullets on Marley while he was rehearsing. His arm was hit. Rita was rushed to the hospital with a skull wound.

The Comeback

Both were shaken but survived. There was no way Marley could play guitar with a bullet in his arm. But he could still peal out the lyrics.

Marley's desire was to promote peace in his country. He knew 80,000 people were coming to receive the message. "He considered for two days what he should do," said Watson. "What he did was he went out there and went onstage. He gave the greatest performance I've ever seen."

The band was committed to the show. Rita, released briefly from the hospital, performed with her head bandaged. She had surgery the next day. The crowd went wild, and the venues got bigger.

In 1980, a throng of 100,000 came to see Marley play in Milan, Italy. The U.S. leg was next. But Marley couldn't complete that tour.

In September, the superstar was told cancer had invaded his body. He died eight months later in a Miami hospital.

He left behind the best part of himself: songs to inspire. "Hundreds of years into the future," wrote Steffens, "Marley's melodies will be as prevalent as those of any songwriter who has ever lived."

Reggae141.com 2016