The White Album: How Bob Marley Posthumously Became a Household Name

Categories: Longform

For Legend, Island Records' Dave Robinson chose a cover photo in which Marley appears more reflective than rebellious.
At the time of his death, in May 1981, Bob Marley was 36 years old, reggae's biggest star, and the father of at least eleven children. He was not, however, a big seller.

For Dave Robinson, this presented an opportunity.

Two years after Marley's passing, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Marley's label, Island Records, brought Robinson in to run his U.K. operation. Robinson's first assignment was to put out a compilation of Bob Marley's hits. He took one look at the artist's sales figures and was shocked.

Marley's best-selling album, 1977's Exodus, had only moved about 650,000 units in the U.S. and fewer than 200,000 in the U.K. They were not shabby numbers, but they weren't in line with his profile.

"Marley was a labor of love for employees of Island Records," says Charly Prevost, who ran Island in the United States for a time in the '80s. "U2 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Robert Palmer is what paid your salary."

Blackwell handed Robinson — the cofounder of Stiff Records, famous for rock acts such as Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello — an outline of his vision for the compilation, which Blackwell says presented Marley as somewhat "militant."

"I always saw Bob as someone who had a strong kind of political feeling," he says, "somebody who was representing the dispossessed of the world."

Robinson balked. He'd seen the way Island had marketed Marley in the past and believed it was precisely this type of portrayal that was responsible for the mediocre numbers.

"Record companies can, just like a documentary, slant [their subjects] in whatever direction they like," Robinson says. "If you don't get the demographic right and sorted in your mind, you can present it just slightly off to the left or the right. I thought that was happening and had restricted his possible market."

Robinson believed he could sell a million copies of the album, but to do it he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs but Marley himself.

"My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view," Robinson says, "was to sell him to the white world."

The result of that coolly pragmatic vision was Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers, an album that became one of the top-selling records of all time, far exceeding even the ambitious goals Robinson had set for it. Unlike the Backstreet Boys' Millennium, 'N Sync's No Strings Attached and many other best-selling albums in recent decades, Legend isn't a time capsule of a passing musical fad. Selling roughly 250,000 units annually in the U.S. alone, it has become a rite of passage in pop-music puberty. It's no wonder that on July 1 Universal released yet another deluxe reissue of the album, this time celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Few artists have hits collections that become their definitive works. But if you have one Bob Marley album, it's probably Legend, which is one reason members of his former backing band, the Wailers, are performing it in its entirety on the road this summer. Legend also defines its genre unlike any other album, introducing record buyers to reggae in one safe and secure package. In fact, it has been the top-selling reggae album in the U.S. for eight of the past ten years.

"It doesn't just define a career, it defines a genre," says SoundScan analyst Dave Bakula. "I don't think you've got another genre where you've got that one album."

Robert Nesta Marley was born on his grandfather's farm in the Jamaican countryside in 1945. His father, Norval Marley, was white, of British descent. He was largely absent from his son's life and died when Marley was ten. Two years later, his mother, Cedella Booker, an African Jamaican, moved the family to Trench Town, a poor, artistically fertile neighborhood in Kingston.

A budding musician at age sixteen Marley scored an audition with a not-yet-famous Jimmy Cliff, then a label scout.

"My first impression of him was he was a poet and he had a great sense of rhythm," says Cliff, now 66 and on tour himself this summer. "And I think he carried that on throughout his career."

See also: "Beyond the Mascot, The Man (and His Faults) in Marley"

In 1962, Cliff's label, Beverley's, released Marley's first single, "Judge Not," a ska shuffle. Soon after, Marley formed the Wailing Wailers (later shortened to the Wailers) with a core group of musicians that included Neville Livingston (a.k.a. Bunny Wailer) and Peter Tosh. All three men practiced Rastafari, a religion and lifestyle that emphasizes the spiritual qualities of marijuana.

"We didn't use no drugs; we only used herb," says Aston "Family Man" Barrett, a bass player, long-time Marley collaborator and current leader of the Wailers. "We use it for spiritual meditation and musical inspiration."

The band released two albums for Island Records that merged reggae with rock & roll. The initial printing for the first LP, 1973's Catch a Fire, opened on a hinge to look like a Zippo lighter, at a time when Americans could do hard time for possessing even a single joint. Burnin', also from 1973, featured the Marley composition "I Shot the Sheriff," a song about police brutality, which became a hit for Eric Clapton. On the back cover of the LP, Marley is smoking a fatty.

When Livingston and Tosh left the band, in 1974, Marley continued on as Bob Marley and the Wailers. He also became entrenched in Jamaica's often violent political wars. In 1976 he and several members of his entourage were shot two days before he performed at the Smile Jamaica Concert, an event intended to help ease tensions ahead of an election. The gunmen were never found.

In 1980 Marley visited Cliff at a studio in Kingston. By this time both men were internationally recognized reggae stars; Cliff had broken through with the 1972 movie The Harder They Come and its corresponding soundtrack. Though Marley had been treated for a malignant melanoma on his toe in 1977, Cliff noticed nothing out of the ordinary about his health as Marley embarked on a tour in support of his latest album, Uprising.

Al Anderson, a guitarist with Bob Marley and the Wailers, remembers the Uprising tour as "an amazing time," with the band picking up momentum. But when the tour got to Ireland, Anderson says, Marley mentioned that he was having trouble singing and performing. "He knew he wasn't well," says Anderson.

On September 20, 1980, following a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden, Marley went for a jog in Central Park. He collapsed, had what appeared to be a seizure, and was rushed to a hospital. Doctors told him that cancer had spread throughout his body. His next show would be his last.

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