Last night, I went to the movies to see the recently released documentary film, Marley, exploring the life of the legendary reggae artist Bob Marley, the most famous Jamaican in the world, even though he died of cancer at the young age of 36 in 1981.
His life story, which begins in the impoverished St. Ann parish on the island of Jamaica, made me think he would make a great feature for my defunct “Being 20″ series here at Soul David. Remember back when we were all hand-wringing over David’s stalled career and how I tried to put things into a larger perspective by reminding y’all how David, at age 20, still had time on his hands? I showed this by highlighting what music legends did when they were David’s age.
Well, David is now 21 and hanging out in Chile doing his Mormon missionary thing, and I feel the need to give this series a reboot. Except, now that David is 21, I’m calling the series “Being 21.”
And since Bob Marley is still fresh in my mind, I’d like to start with what this legendary musician was doing when he was “David’s age.”
Here’s an interesting parallel to being with: when Bob Marley was 17, he recorded his very first single, “Judge Not,” with his stepbrother Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. Hmmm, kinda like how David recorded his first single “Crush” at age 17!
Afterwards, Bob Marley and his forming group, eventually to be called The Wailers, would be discovered by Kingston record producer Coxsone Dodd, who felt they weren’t ready yet to perform before live audiences. He made them practice, practice, practice for two years performing at local events – from small churches to local clubs, even to “de Duppy dem” in the cemetery (that’s ghosts for those of you who are non-Jamaican-patois-speaking). Singing in the cemetery at 2 in the morning, their producer told them, would toughen them up and help them conquer their fears about performing before a live audience!
By the time Bob was 21, The Wailers trickled down to form a trio of himself, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, and Bob’s mother encouraged him to marry his girlfriend Rita, which he did (see top photo), just before leaving for the United States in Whilmington, Delaware looking for work and other opportunities. While in exile away from Jamaica, Bob Marley worked on an assembly line for Chrysler while developing his musical skills (an obsession for him – sound familiar?). He also started becoming more religious (again, sound familiar?) and began exploring the Rastafarian religion.
Returning to Jamaica, Bob started branching out into new sounds, left his record producer and teamed up with a different studio, run by Lee “Scratch” Perry, while his wife Rita and two other women formed the back-up singing group, I-Three. This is a period that many Marley enthusiasts recognize as the finest work The Wailers ever created, and keep in mind, this is well before Bob Marley became iconic.
Things didn’t really take off until he and The Wailers toured in London and were discovered by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records (you know, that same label that features Rihanna and Justin Bieber today? Um, yeah, what a decline music has seen!). Some of the members of the band didn’t appreciate not getting paid for an extended tour in England, but Bob Marley – forever a visionary – went along with Blackwell’s plan, for he knew that exposure beats pay any day of the week. Granted, Bob Marley was never really about pay as he was about the music (again – sound familiar?).
Eventually, Blackwell enabled their international audience, and years later, Bob Marley would be able to team up with legends like Stevie Wonder. Even as Bob Marley became an international icon throughout the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa, he still needed to breakthrough in the U.S. market. He had an opportunity to do so when he “opened” (that’s right – opened!) for The Commodores at a concert in Madison Square Gardens in 1980 (see right pic). When Bob’s band thought it was an insult to be reduced to an opening act, Bob Marley remained humble and saw the opportunity to be introduced to an American audience. Sure enough, it worked! And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sadly, Bob Marley would be diagnosed with stage-4 cancer at age 35, and he died a year later. Imagine, had he kept having routine medical checkups, had he not spent so much time giving of himself, reaching an international audience, and just living his life, he’d still be with us. At the same time, look at the legacy he left behind with his short time on earth. He is survived by his wife Rita and eleven children (by seven different women altogether! Yep, he was a “chick magnet” and had a certain charisma with the ladies – like so many rock stars).
What I do see as some interesting parallels between Bob Marley and David is their musical obsessions, humility, and a deep-rooted sense of spirituality (Rastafarianism in his case, Mormonism in David’s). But more than anything, it’s fascinating to me how, when he was just 21 years old, Bob Marley was adjusting to marriage, surviving economically on menial jobs, and finding his musical identity. He had yet to become the Bob Marley we would all know and cherish 31 years after his passing on this earth. The movie was truly illuminating, and I highly recommend you go see it if it’s playing in a theater near you.
“Redemption Song” is one of Bob Marley’s last songs recorded, meditating as he does on his mortality and continuing in his consciousness-raising songwriting values: