There are few more recognisable figures in the world of music than Bob Marley. Step foot down Camden Market and you’ll be greeted by his face emblazoned on T-shirts, lighters, or anything else that a resourceful mind has unofficially printed. There’s something inimitable about Marley and his strong outlook on the world, which means that even 40 years after his death, his philosophy and approach to life is still as vital as ever.
Not only does Marley’s music occupy a precious place in the heart of millions, but the way that he found success by staying true to his Jamaican roots make him a cultural icon who opened the doors of reggae to a worldwide audience. The genre was born out of the island in the late 1960s, and Marley, along with his merry men the Wailers, played a pivotal role in establishing a sound that would become idiosyncratic with Jamaica.
When Marley formed the Wailers in the early 1960s alongside Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, reggae didn’t even exist. The band’s early material was reflective of the popular sounds that filled up the streets of Kingston of that time, and they played an instrumental part in expanding that into something fresh and exciting.
The early music they created saw them forge what was to be known as ska. While the group certainly got toes tapping, Marley was still only a teenager who was yet to discover his musical identity during the infancy of his career. His journey to stardom was far from an overnight success, and it would take a decade before the Wailers would land their big break.
With reggae taking over Kingston in the late 1960s, and by the time the new decade rolled around, there was no group more equipped to conquer the world than the Wailers. Jamaican-born Island Records relocated to London in 1962, and they kept a keen eye on the trends that were going on back home, carrying the movement over to the United Kingdom with Marley soon catching their eye.
Marley’s first reggae album, Soul Rebels, was released in 1970, and although it didn’t break him out into superstardom internationally, it continued to enhance his reputation on the island. Not only did his brand of music sound delightful, but there was a vital societal message at the heart of his work, and his gift for storytelling made Marley stand out from the rest of the pack.
After Island Records lost Jimmy Cliff in 1972, they needed a new star to build, and founder Chris Blackwell knew that Marley was the man they needed to pin their hopes on. “I was dealing with rock music, which was really rebel music,” he later commented. “I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image.”
The following year, they made sure that as many people knew about Marley as possible, The Wailers released two albums and got their name out there in the UK. Despite their best efforts, people were still hesitant about the otherworldly sounds and stories they were offering up, which failed to trouble the charts.
Although the tracks didn’t find their way onto mainstream radio, they did reach the ears of Eric Clapton. In 1974, Slowhand recorded a cover of ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, which soon became a huge hit and incorporated the reggae essence of the original.
Soon enough, people wanted to find out more about the man who wrote ‘I Shot The Sherriff’, and Marley became an overnight star. Rock audiences started to fall in love with their rebellious spirit, and their new slant on the genre made them one of the hottest tickets around.
The band were booked to support Sly and The Family Stone on a mammoth tour of the States, but after just four dates, the Wailers were instructed to leave after overshadowing the headliners.
The original members of The Wailers would leave the group following the tour later in 1974. Marley didn’t let the split break his stride, however, and he continued the group with a new line-up and would release eleven studio albums as Bob Marley & The Wailers before his death in 1981. Marley became an internationally revered artist in his own right over this time and the first to make America fall in love with reggae.
While he wasn’t the founder of the genre, Marley was a pioneering figure who brought it to more people than anybody could have imagined, and as the decades have gone on since his passing, his iconic status has only grown. The songs he gave the world have only resonated more, and undoubtedly in another 40 years, Marley’s legacy will somehow evolve even further as the poignancy of his work continues to touch more generations.