Bob Marley, hitting us with music

By Sergio Ariza

"One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.... / Hit me with music now, oh now, hit me with music now / One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain, so hit me with music now."  

By the time Western ears began to be delightfully hit by Bob Marley's music, he had been recording in Jamaica for more than ten years, and had completed his musical journey from the ‘mento’ he listened to as a child to the reggae he became a leading ambassador of, through ska, rocksteady - and even flirting with dub alongside the legendary producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry.

Robert Nesta Marley
, born on 6 February 1945, became the first Third World star and his death, and the release of Legend, elevated him to the altars of popular music alongside its most significant figures, Elvis, the Beatles, Bowie, Stevie Wonder… Not bad for a boy who was born in a ghetto in a peripheral country, the fruit of a ‘forbidden relationship’ between a white Englishman and a black Jamaican woman, who was abandoned by his father at birth and grew up in one of the poorest places in Jamaica, Nine Mile, where he was contemptuously called "white boy".


But that boy was able to overcome all obstacles through music. With no money to own his own instrument, his first approach was vocal, joining his childhood best friend, Neville Livingstone, who the world would come to know as Bunny Wailer, trying to emulate the records of his favourite band: Curtis Mayfield's Impressions. When they migrated to Trenchtown, Kingston, they were joined by another tough kid called Peter Tosh. The first name they gave to the band they formed, The Teenagers, made their tender age clear, but they eventually changed it to The Wailing Rudeboys, The Wailing Wailers and, finally, The Wailers. Marley was the lead singer and songwriter, and it was he who first signed and recorded for producer Leslie Kong: his recording debut coming in February 1962, at the age of 17, with the song Judge Not. Soon after came the first record deal for his group, which by that time, in addition to Marley, Wailer and Tosh, consisted of Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith. In February 1964, when Marley turned 19, their song Simmer Down, recorded with the legendary Skatalites, became his first number one in Jamaica.

By the time the West learned of his existence eleven years later, when The Wailers recorded the wonderful Catch A Fire in England, Marley had already written, and recorded, many of the songs that would bring him fame (One Love was first released in 1965, Bend Down Low appeared in 1967, as did the first version of Stir It Up, Kaya and Satisfy My Soul (as Don't Rock My Boat) in 1971...). That fame would mean that Marley became a household name but it also brought the end of the group, after the appearance of the great Burnin'. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer embarked on solo careers and Marley did so as well; although he kept the name Bob Marley & The Wailers, and accompanying musicians such as the fundamental rhythm section formed by the Barrett brothers, stayed with him.


In that time Marley made reggae known all over the world, a music of which he was at once its populariser, its poet laureate and its best known figure; something like the Holy Trinity in person, as if in rock we had mixed Elvis Presley,
Bob Dylan and the Beatles in one.

It is true that for those of us who enjoy this wonderful genre it is a shame that Marley is the only reference for the general public, and that people like Toots & The Maytals, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Culture, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Dennis Brown are not better known, but no one can doubt that Marley and the Wailers are the best gateway to the genre. It could be said that the music he delivered in the 70s can only be compared to Bowie in that decade.


But from Guitars Exchange we don't want to forget that Bob Marley, apart from being a unique singer and a spectacular composer, was also a fantastic rhythm guitarist, but a very great one, who from simplicity became the rhythmic heart of the song he played. His sense of beat was impeccable and he never deviated from what was most essential. That almost hypnotic rhythm that he achieved can be heard perfectly in the version of Stir It Up that appears on Catch A Fire, and if we trust his appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973, it is played on one of his Stratocasters, before shortly afterwards (he bought it on that trip to England), he went on to play the guitar for which he is best remembered, the Gibson Les Paul Special from the 70s that appears on the cover of the legendary Live! from 1975; the album that included the version of No Woman No Cry that became his first hit outside Jamaica.

His first steps with the instrument were not easy and his first guitar, on display in his museum in Kingston, was ramshackle - almost a handmade instrument with which he learned the rudiments necessary to start playing. Other six-stringers would follow, such as the Guild Madeira A-9 that he always kept in his house and with which he composed many of his songs. This guitar attested to his growing Rastafarian faith as it had a picture of Haile Selassie and a sticker in the shape of Africa on it that read "Africa must be free by 1983".


Although if there is a mythical acoustic guitar in his career, it is the Ovation Adamas with which he recorded one of his last cuts, Redemption Song. In 1979 Bob Marley had been diagnosed with cancer and the first Third World superstar had to deal with his own mortality. This song was his musical as well as spiritual testament, Marley bidding farewell to the world by affirming that all he had was just that, songs of freedom, songs of redemption, stripping his music completely bare and abandoning reggae, for once, to deliver a heartfelt folk ballad with acoustics, "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds", Marley said goodbye by the big door quoting Marcus Garvey and left a void so big that it could only be filled with songs as big as this one.

Bob Marley had a career that barely lasted twenty years, as he finally left this world on 11 May 1981, shortly after the release of Uprising, the twelfth studio album of his career. He was only 36 years old, but he left behind an incredible legacy of redemption songs and songs of freedom that continue to ‘hit us’ hard.