After growing up poor in a Jamaican slum, Bob Marley went on to become not only reggae's most famous musician, but also a figure revered throughout the word for the political and social activism he urged in his music.
His group, the Wailers, had a major impact on the direction of rock music in the 1970s. Such major stars as Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, and the Rolling Stones recorded his songs or otherwise sang his praises.
Robert Nesta Marley was born in the village of St. Ann, Jamaica, on February 6th, 1945. His father was a British Army captain, Norval Marley, whose wife, Cedella, was only 17 years old when Bob was born. The marriage broke up when Bob was eight, and he and his mother moved to a house in Kingston's Trench Town slum area.
Cedella did domestic work to earn enough money to send Bob to private schools. The Marleys shared their home with the Livingston family. Bob formed a series of singing groups with his best friend Bunny Livingston and another friend Peter Tosh. The group finally settled on the Wailing Wailers as a name.
Eventually shortening their name to the Wailers, the group had its first hit in 1964 with "Simmer Down," a song Bob wrote as a warning to rowdy Jamaican youths.
After a brief stay in the United States to be with his mother, who was living in Delaware, Bob returned to Jamaica, where he fell in with the Rastafarian religious sect.
Rastas worship the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as a god and draw inspiration from Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement. Bob grew his hair in long dreadlocks and started singing about Rastafarian beliefs.
The Wailers' first album was Catch a Fire. Released in 1973, its songs decry the evils of Trench Town and the harassing tactics of the Jamaican Army, and promote Rastafarianism. The Wailers' mixture of hypnotic reggae rhythms with serious subject matter influenced rock acts, including the Rolling Stones and Linda Ronstadt, to add elements of reggae to their music. In 1974 Eric Clapton had a major hit with a note-perfect version of Bob's "I Shot the Sheriff."
The Wailers began to tour the world in the mid 1970's, helping to turn reggae from an indigenous Jamaican style of music into an internationally appreciated sound. In 1974 Livingston and Tosh left the group for solo careers after recording Natty Dread, but the Wailers continued with Bob as the undisputed star.
On December 3, 1976, gunmen broke into Bob's Kingston house where he and his group were rehearsing for a Smile Jamaica concert sponsored by the Jamaican government. Bob and his wife, Rita, were wounded in the cross fire. A few days later a triumphant Bob Marley appeared in front of 80,000 fans at the concert, showing the world that even a politically motivated attempt on his life could not slow him down.
A string of successful albums, including Rastaman Vibration and BabyIon by Bus, brought the Wailers into the late 1970s. In 1979 Bob was given a citation by the United Nations for his work on behalf of Third World nations. In April of the following year, the newly created African nation Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) invited Bob to the state-sponsored independence day ceremonies. Bob called this "the greatest honor of my life".
After collapsing onstage at a Wailers concert in Pittsburgh in the fall 1980, Bob entered New York's Sloan-Kettering Hospital for cancer treatment. He later transferred to an experimental clinic in West Germany. On his back to Jamaica to receive the Order of Merit from Prime Minister Edward Seaga, Bob was hospitalized at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami. He died there in his sleep on May 11, 1981, from the combined effects lung, liver, and brain cancer. He was 36 years old.
Jamaica gave Bob Marley a state funeral 10 days later. It was attend by 100,000 people, including the prime minister.