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

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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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The "White" album pretty much sums it up.

The whole world is viewed through a White prism, nothing has any real worth until the White world is unto it, and when it is, just as the article makes clear, it will be White people who benefit from the sales and riches.

Bob's case is classic, White people get involved and split the movement, and in the end hide behind White court systems and keep all the profits.

I see a commentator calling "male chauvinist", the real chauvinist was a well to do White man, who took advantage of a young "country girl" then leave her to struggle with child and no support.

The real chauvinists are a race who promote marriage yet have the highest pern capita head of second wives, in the form of prostitutes, who they pay for sex.

Rastafari is a faith not a religion, it's more than just ganja, just as the catholic church is more than just holy wine.

Three pages and I don't see the name Africa used once, yet Rastafari and Africa was at the heart of what Bob Marley and the whole movement was about.

Did the writer forget the social background of the world at the time ? 

various types of racial apartheid, black people, not only in the west and Africa but worldwide were facing, open racism,

Zimbabwe was an extremely poignant victory against racism and colonialism, and Bob opened the country as the flag of colonialism came down.

If the promoters, those who now "owned" the music ever gave it a thought, there was a much bigger audience for Bob's music outside of the narrow confines of Europe and America.


How about the male chauvinist image that got stripped? I have loved this dude’s music since I was 12 years old but then I found out what ridiculous views he had about women based on his religious beliefs. Beliefs that he expressed openly and practiced to keep women in their place. This is clearly not unique and I see this behavior in all forms form subtle to outrageous. But to have my conception of Bob Marley not even come close to reality brings me way down and again makes me think about the sources of information I consider to be trustworthy and free of spin. Some may say it does not take away from the genius of his music but how can it not. No women no cry. Was she crying about the fact he considered her less than not equal to. Sometimes reality sucks but it’s all we got. 

cformusic topcommenter

i disagree that the stoner part of his image was stripped..many unfortunately only associate his music with weed smoke topcommenter

Great piece.  I'll quibble on two points. 

The author made a point of telling us Bunny Wailer's real name, but didn't do the same for Peter McIntosh. 

Referring to the wider audience as "white" implies Bob Marley previously had a stronger following among the black audience.  I don't think that was the case.    

"Legend" gave Bob Marley a larger audience, posthumously.  But, I don't believe it was any whiter than before.

Ash Rai
Ash Rai

Buying this album is a rite of passage for many and a sure sign of musical maturity for most.


@NaatTurner  how is the irony lost on you that after seeing his mother treated this way and all that she did for him as most mother do as if it was as automatic as breathing, he chooses to see women as less then? And the fact that the first injustice get your notice because the person was white is very telling of your thought process. And then you ramble on and on about the white race. There is one race and its human wake up take your head out of your ass and open your eyes.


@ctpierce What you are debating with yourself, 

from your White point of view is 

how Black males and females should behave,

in White eyes.

Despite all of our White slavers attempt to denude us of every aspect of our culture, they failed,

Polygamy predates both Arab and Europeans and their incursion into our continent and 

our mass murder and kidnap.

That we still practice it within the western confine is reason for consternation of Westerners, who like to pronounce on what they know not.

Do you also take that Black Woman, (not young vulnerable "country girls") who were consorting with Bob were somehow stupid or ignorant ?

Regarding rich (slave monied families) White males in the Caribbean and Africa taking advantage of vulnerable young women,

that is a story well known among X slave populations.

Screech as much about one humanity as you like, 

one branch slaved us and continues to exploit, oppress and racially abuse us to this day.

As for your typical White insult, keep it too yourself.


@NaatTurner @ctpierce In the light of so many words and so little reason I can only restate my position and apologize for not making myself clear. Please take your head out of your ass. It is clearly deeply embedded and my require my help. Let me know if I can help.  I hope this motivates you. 


@ctpierce @NaatTurner

Little degenerate racist,

this is your level of argument as you pretend to defend the dignity of woman,

your only quest is to attack Black people.

Keep looking in the mirror as you belch out your bile,

you will see who deserves your words.


@NaatTurner @ctpierce Never said I was a saint. I just use my common sense and reason to cut through your bullshit. Best case scenario is I will try to defend all against the ignorance that race, sex, religion or how you love is dictated to us from the divine and not of our own making. You are lost my friend and the metaphor I use is I grant you for my enjoyment in antagonizing dolts like you and I am working on that. But you get my point don’t you. I am sure you type your words with such conviction and have all of your "facts” at the ready. You do not have a clue, a sniff or any insight to offer on the true nature of reality. You are a common run of the mil redneck and it has been fun to poke you with sticks but I have to get up for school tomorrow and my mom shuts down the wifi 8:30 pm sharp. Stay stupid. Peace and love peace and love. 



Seems I've inspired you,

school or not,

you're not 12 anymore,

so get over it....

Didn't you know ?

Thor is now being cast as a woman !

The Norse Germanic concept of the God of Thunder known as Thor,

is based on the African Egyptian God named Menes aka Narmer,

In Niger and also along the Nile he is known as Shango,

however in about 2500 BC the God of Thunder was depicted as a woman,

named Candace, Queen of Kush / Ethiopia.

Read on



Seems I've inspired you,

school or not,

you're not 12 anymore,

so get over it

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