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On This Day In Music… May 11, 1981: Reggae Pioneer and Activist Bob Marley Dies

Marley advocated for democratic social reform and the legalization of cannabis.

Source: Public Domain

From Trenchtown to Global Icon: Bob Marley's Reggae Revolution.

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Bob Marley knew that he would not make it home. On a flight from Germany where he was undergoing alternative treatments for cancer, the plane had to detour to Miami, Florida. Taken to the University of Miami Hospital, his condition progressively worsened. As his family gathered around him, his final words to his son Ziggy were uttered: "On your way up, take me up. On your way down, don't let me down." He died on May 11, 1981 at the age of 36.

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Source: ℗ © Blue Mountain Music/Bob Marley/YouTube

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Jammin'

During his lifetime, Marley rose from the poverty of Kingston, Jamaica to worldwide critical and commercial success as the icon of the repressed, the sign of spiritualism through his belief in the Rastafarian religious and social movement, and through his songwriting style and distinctive vocals, first heard on his work with the Wailers: "Stir It Up," "I Shot The Sheriff" (reinterpreted by Eric Clapton into a Number 1 hit in 1974) "Could You Be Loved" and "No Woman, No Cry."

Marley's was colorful, complicated and at times dangerous. Although he was in a vocal group in Jamaica with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh as early as 1963, he married Rita Anderson in 1966, moved into his mother's residence in Wilmington, Delaware and worked as a lab assistant at DuPont and then at a Chrysler plant in Newark, New Jersey. However, it was his intense interest in the Rastafari culture that pulled him back to his homeland.

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Source: Eddie Mallin/CC BY 2.0

Marley onstage at Dalymount Park, Dublin, July 1980.

Marley was among the first musicians to bring attention to the ideology of democratic social reform and the legalization of cannabis. His outspoken viewpoints went against the grain of his record company CBS where he had been since 1972. While on a tour of the U.K., he met and befriended Chris Blackwell from Island Records. Looking to fill the gap left by the departure of fellow Jamaican Jimmy Cliff, Blackwell offered his services as a label founder. Catch A Fire was released in Aprl 1973.

But it was the October 1973 release of Burnin' and "I Shot The Sheriff" with the subsequent cover by Clapton, focused on Marley's stance in not condoning gun violence, but in respect to his right to self-defense. As he said at the time, "I want to say I shot the police but the government would have made a fuss so I said 'I shot the sheriff' instead… but it’s the same idea: justice."

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Source: ℗ © Blue Mountain Music/Bob Marley/YouTube

I Shot The Sheriff [Live] (1975) - Bob Marley & The Wailers

After the rapid-fire successes of the Clapton cover, the 1974 release of Natty Dread (his first without the Wailers) and 1975's Live!, Marley's real prominence in the U.S. came with his first Billboard Top Ten album, Rastaman Vibration, in 1976 and, his first singles chart success with "Roots, Rock, Reggae." However, on December 3, Marley, Rita and manager Don Taylor were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen who tore through Marley's Kingston home. Believed to have been brought on by tensions within political parties during a general election, Marley and his wife nonetheless performed at the previously scheduled "Smile Jamaica" free concert on December 5. It was soon after that, that Marley left Jamaica for London for a self-imposed exile, off and on, for the next two years.

During this critical timeframe, Marley recorded Exodus, released in July 1977. The album yielded four UK Official Chart hits: "Exodus," "Waiting in Vain," "Jamming" and "One Love." Unfortunately or humorously, in March of 1977 Marley and bassist Aston Barret were arrested for possession of cannabis and fined £50.

Marley's illness and the urban legend surrounding that narrative were seeded in a grim July 1977 visit after seeking medical treatment for what he believed to be an injury from playing soccer. He was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) a rare form of cancer that had been found on his big toe. Refusing to take advice from his doctor on amputation, he continued his exhaustive schedule into 1978, releasing Kaya in March.

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Source: Screenshot via 'Marley'/YouTube

Marley at the One Love Peace Concert with Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, April 22, 1978.

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Realizing he needed to make his presence felt at home, Marley came back to Jamaica. On April 22, he played the "One Love Peace Concert." During a period of violence and political strife in the country, Marley famously brought up Michael Manley (leader of then-ruling People's National Party) and his political rival Edward Seaga (leader of the opposing Jamaica Labour Party, who won the election in 1980) at the end of his set. He took both their hands, brought them together, and raised them above his head, symbolizing unity.

Source: Island/Tuff Gong

'Survival' (1979) | 'Uprising' (1980)

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Survival, released in October 1979, was by far Marley's most politically charged and urgent statement to date. With the inclusion of such songs as "Africa Unite" (declaring Pan-African solidarity) and "Zimbabwe," a hymn dedicated to that country's independence (which was formally recognized on April 18, 1980), Marley was unknowingly entering the final chapter of his legacy.

The album Uprising was the last album released during his lifetime, on June 10, 1980. With the success of the May single release "Could You Be Loved," Marley and his band headed to Europe and played one of their biggest concerts ever, playing to 120,000 people at San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy on June 27.

He made his way back to the U.S. and played in Boston, Providence, Rhode Island and two shows at Madison Square Garden as the opener for the Commodores on September 19 & 20. During a jog in Central Park, he collapsed and was taken to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where doctors discovered his cancer had spread to his brain, lungs and other organs. In an interview with The New Yorker, Marley’s manager Danny Sims recalled one doctor saying he had "more cancer in him than I’ve seen with a live human being." Marley was given just a few months to live.

Source: Public Domain/Google Culture

Bob Marley backstage at the Stanley Theater, Pittsburgh, Penn., September 23, 1980.

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Marley played his final concert at The Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Penn. on September 23, 1980. He canceled the remainder of his tour and began chemotherapy. His road manager Allan Cole had gotten word that Dr. Josef Issels, a German doctor whose controversial and holistic methods for treating melanoma included a non-toxic diet-based approach, might hold the answer for Marley's condition.

When it became clear that his cancer was not responding in any way, he elected to stop treatment and fly home to Jamaica. But during the flight, his condition worsened and the detour to Miami was his final stop.

In the 2012 documentary Marley, Rita Marley recalled that she brought not only her children, but also: "I brought up all the kids who was in Jamaica. Some of them not my kids, some from other mothers. So I gathered everyone and said, 'Come. Daddy wants to see you all.' "

Source: ℗ © Blue Mountain Music/Bob Marley/YouTube

Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N'Dour - Get Up, Stand Up (Live)

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Marley was honored with a state funeral in Jamaica on May 20, 1981. After a private church service for his family, thousands of mourners gathered to pay their final respects at the National Arena in Kingston, the Jamaica Observer reported. Rita performed "Fly Away Home," and Prime Minister Edward Seaga gave the eulogy.

Michael Manley and Seaga met each other again at that state funeral for Bob Marley; the man who brought them together the first time was there with them at the end.


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