Born in Nine Miles, St. Ann to a white father, Norval Marley (who never really knew his son because of white upper classes' disdain for Norval's affair with Marley's mother), and a black mother, Cedella Booker, on February 6, Marley started in ska and gravitated towards reggae, playing, teaching and singing for a long period in the 1970s and 1980s; Marley is perhaps best-known for work with his reggae group The Wailers, the backbone of which were two other celebrated reggae musicians, Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh. Bunny and Peter then left the group and became successful solo artists. Much of his early work was produced by Lee Perry, although the pair split in acrimony over the assignment of recording rights.
Marley's work was largely responsible for the mainstream cultural acceptance of reggae music outside of Jamaica. He signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records label in 1971, at the time a highly influential and innovative label. Island Records boasted a stable of both successful and diverse artists including, amongst others, such nascent luminaries of the music scene as Genesis, John Martyn and Nick Drake. He was very devoted to his faith in Rastafarianism. Toward the end of his life he was also baptised into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with the name Berhane Selassie.
Bob Marley was shot in 1976 inside his home. It is generally believed he was shot for political motives, with Jamaican politics being somewhat violent in that era. He was scheduled to perform at a concert that was perceived to be in support of the progressive prime minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley, and had been receiving death threats after it was announced he was going to perform there. It is generally believed he was shot by a supporter of the conservative political party of Jamaica, the Jamaica Labour Party. However, there is little evidence for this, and Marley devotees emphasize that no one knows which side was responsible. Rita Marley was also shot in the head at the time, and recovered.
In July 1977, Bob Marley injured his foot while playing soccer, and the injury became cancerous. Doctors told him to get his toe amputated but he wouldn't because Rastas believe that doctors are samfai, confidence men who cheat the gullible by pretending to have the power of witchcraft. Marley based this refusal on his Rastafarian beliefs, saying, "Rasta no abide amputation. I and I don't allow a mon ta be dismantled." [Catch a Fire, Timothy White] He did have surgery to try to excise the cancer cells.
Because of this, the cancer spread to his brain and his lungs. In the summer of 1980, he collapsed during a series of shows at Madison Square Garden. He sought help, mostly from the controversial cancer specialist Josef Issels, but it was too late. A month before his death, he was awarded Jamaica's Order of Merit. He wanted to spend his final days in Jamaica but he became too ill on the flight home and had to deplane in Miami. Sadly, he passed away at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, Florida on May 11, 1981. His near-royal funeral in Jamaica combined elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy and Rastafarianism. He is buried in a crypt at Nine Miles, quite near his birthplace. He was recently rewarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys.
Bob Marley's rewards and honors include:
- 1976 Band of the Year (Rolling Stone)
- Awarded the Peace Medal of the Third World from the United Nations (June 1978)
- Awarded Jamaica's highest honor, the Order of Distinction (February 1981)
- A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- 1999 Album of the Century (Time Magazine)