By Sue Rochman
The Beat Lives On
Almost 30 years after Bob Marley died of metastatic melanoma, new research is shedding light on the disease
By Sue Rochman
No one could have predicted that the music that mirrored and shaped the counterculture spirit of the 1970s would emerge from the Trench Town ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica. Yet that’s where the rhythmic, body-rocking music known as reggae was both born and would find a worldwide messenger in the charismatic, dreadlocked Rastafarian Nesta Robert “Bob” Marley.
The son of a white English Jamaican father and an Afro-Jamaican mother, Marley was born on Feb. 6, 1945, in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica, and raised alongside the Jamaican struggle for independence. A Caribbean island that passed from Spanish to British rule, Jamaica remained controlled by others until 1962, when it achieved the right to self-governance.
By then, Marley was living in Trench Town, where he and his mother had moved after his father’s death in 1955, spending his days in jam sessions with other young Jamaican musicians. As a teenager, Marley, along with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, formed a ska and rocksteady band called the Teenagers.
As the Wailers, they recorded their first album, Catch a Fire, in 1972. By this time, the band had expanded to include backup vocalists known as the I-Threes—Rita Marley (Bob Marley’s wife), Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths.
In 1974, the group released the hit single “No Woman, No Cry.” The next year, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer quit the band—leaving Bob Marley to recruit new musicians. But that didn’t stop him. In 1976, the Bob Marley and the Wailers’ album Rastaman Vibration hit the top 10 on the Billboard charts.
The world was ready for reggae, and reggae was ready for the world. “Reggae was two parts Jamaican popular music”—which, at the time, was ska and rocksteady—“and one part American pop, which was the music that was heard on the radio on the island,” explains David Moskowitz, the author of the book Bob Marley: A Biography and a musicologist at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. “It’s a distinct rhythm hybrid that’s slow enough so that the words don’t get lost but fast enough to dance to.” Importantly, he notes, it was also a counterculture product, with lyrics that celebrated the Rastafarian religion and its belief in marijuana as sacrament.