The undisputed king of reggae and the ultimate Rastafarian, Robert Nesta ‘Bob’ Marley would have turned 70 this year. As the rest of the world celebrates Bob Marley Day on February 6, we look at the man, his music and his moments.
Marley was born on February 6 to Norval Sinclair Marley and Cedella Booker (pictured) in Nine Mile, Jamaica. Life took a tragic turn for young Marley when he lost his father. Later on, his mother moved to Trenchtown in Kingston, the Jamaican capital. The then Robert Marley is pictured in Trenchtown circa 1964 with his mentor, Jamaican producer Clement Coxsone Dodd. Living in the same house, Marley and his childhood friend Neville Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer) began their musical explorations. The union created a bedrock that later allowed Marley to construct some of his biggest-selling reggae songs.
Marley and his band The Wailers arrived on the music scene with the hit single Simmer Down.
When love came into his life, Bob married Rita Anderson and moved to the US.
Though raised as a Catholic, Marley became interested in Rastafari beliefs in the 1960s. After returning to Jamaica, he formally converted to Rastafari.
With the new religion came a new look. His famous dreadlocks were the result of his Rastafarian beliefs, which oppose the cutting or combing of hair.
The best and the biggest hits came in 1970s when Marley moved to London. The album Burnin’ has an angry, edgy and military tone, reflecting Marley’s rebel streak. The album reached a wider audience when Eric Clapton did a cover of the song I Shot the Sheriff.
The year saw second consecutive success with Catch a Fire, establishing the band on the international music scene. The album features in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
The Wailers discontinued their decade-old association, but without any public showdown.
No Woman, No cry proved to be his first international breakthrough. The album Natty Dread was the first Marley album to make the US Billboard charts.
From an assassination bid to voicing African concerns, Marley’s last years solidified his legendary status. Marley lost his battle with cancer and died at the age of just 36. He left behind not just his family and eleven children but also a world of free will, rebel power and Rastafarian spirit.
Marley was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999 Time magazine chose his album Exodus as the album of the century.
In the 1981 Rolling Stone obituary, Bob Marley biographer Timothy White wrote, “The pervasive image of Bob Marley is that of a gleeful Rasta with a croissant-sized spliff clenched in his teeth, stoned silly and without a care in the world. But, in fact, he was a man with deep religious and political sentiments who rose from destitution to become one of the most influential music figures in the last 20 years.”
Make that 50. Marley’s stature and influence as a singer, songwriter, and international pop-culture prophet have only grown since those words were written. He is a cornerstone of 21st-century music, covered by countless singers, sampled and quoted by just as many hip-hop acts whose artistic DNA is shaped profoundly by the Jamaican music Marley defined. His artistic fearlessness and social commitment remain an inspiration to activists, musical and otherwise. His songs of freedom have become universal hymns.
“Marley sang about tyranny and anger, about brutality and apocalypse, in enticing tones, not dissonant ones,” Mikal Gilmore wrote in 2005. “His melodies take up a resonance in our minds, in our lives, and that can provide admission to the songs’ meanings… He was the master of mellifluent insurgency.”
Those melodies sing on. Here are their stories.
1. “Get Up, Stand Up” — ‘Burnin’ ‘ (1973)
“Get Up, Stand Up” may be the most potent song ever about human rights and the fight to secure them. Marley and Peter Tosh were often at odds about the Wailers’ music (for instance, how many Tosh songs should be featured on their albums), but the co-written “Get Up, Stand Up” was a case of two minds thinking as one. Marley had taken a trip to Haiti and witnessed its poverty firsthand, and Tosh was similarly attuned to oppression, particularly in the music business. “I am doing something,” he said, “because I see the exploitation.” The song’s direct, chant-style chorus was further enhanced by the Wailers themselves; unlike its predecessor, Catch a Fire, which used overdubs by U.S. musicians, Burnin’ presented the Wailers’ sound undiluted, propelled by bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother, drummer Carlton Barrett. But the group worked hard to nail the definitive album version. One alternate take from the Jamaican sessions had more of a soul groove; another, cut in New York in the summer of 1973, when they were in town to play Max’s Kansas City with Bruce Springsteen, had a busier vocal arrangement. An instant signature, it was a highlight of 1975’s Live! (where Marley added the indelible “wo-yo-yo-yo” chant), and frequently led the battle-hardened troika that capped many of Marley’s late-Seventies concerts, appearing alongside “War” and “Exodus.” It has since been reworked by everyone from Tosh (on his 1977 solo set Equal Rights) to Public Enemy, from Springsteen to Rihanna. In the words of Chuck D, “This song is a battle cry for survival.”
2. “No Woman, No Cry” — ‘Live!’ (1975)
It’s rare that a live recording becomes the definitive one. But this performance from London’s Lyceum Theatre in July 1975, captured in high-def by the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, takes Marley’s great reggae-blues ballad from 1974’s Natty Dread to church and beyond. It’s said to have been written on a plane ride from Jamaica to London by Marley, who gave writing credit to Vincent “Tartar” Ford, a friend who fed Marley in his public kitchen “in the government yard in Trench Town” when Marley was a poor teen. Invoking “good friends we lost along the way” over an indelible melody, the specifics of Marley’s struggle became a universal prayer. The more uptempo Natty Dread version was likable but can’t touch the one that appears on Live!. Few moments in pop are as spine-tingling as the opening, where the audience chants the chorus over billowing organ and harmonies from the I-Threes (the vocal trio that included Marley’s wife, Rita) before Marley has sung a note. Recalled Aston Barrett, “Everyone onstage [got] high from the feedback of the people.”
3. “Redemption Song” — ‘Uprising’ (1980)
Marley worked on this sparse, spiritual acoustic folk ballad for more than a year, a period near the end of his life, during which he often slept just three hours a night. (“Sleep is an escape for fools,” he said. “I must be about me father’s business.”) He held it back when previewing Uprising tracks in 1980 for Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, who then pushed him for more music. The following day Marley played him a song that wasn’t reggae music at all, but which elegiacally seemed to sum up everything the singer represented. Inspired in part by a 1937 speech by black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, its verses felt positively biblical, and lines like “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” (a direct Garvey lift) and “how long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look” would soon carry a worldwide moral weight to trump national anthems. “I carried ‘Redemption Song’ to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister or president,” said Bono of his own global activism. “It was for me a prophetic utterance.”
4. “Trench Town Rock” — Non-Album Single (1971)
“One good thing about music,” declares Marley in one of his most indelible lines, “when it hits yuh, y’feel no pain.” Though self-produced by the Wailers, this track shows the shadow of Lee “Scratch” Perry, whom the group was working with at the time. It was released in 1971 on the band’s label, Tuff Gong, and its sinewy groove ruled Jamaica for much of that year. It introduced Marley’s signature “chick-ee” guitar line, which makes its debut here and would help define the reggae sound. Played against Bunny Wailer’s and Tosh’s piercing harmonies, Marley shouts out the hard-bitten Kingston neighborhood of Trench Town, home to the Wailers and many other music legends – it is to reggae what Memphis is to rock & roll, making the song both a tribute to, and a cornerstone of, Jamaican music. Another single, “Kingston 12 Shuffle,” used the same rhythm track and featured a seminal rap by Elwart “U-Roy” Beckford in the “toasting” style that became a genre unto itself. The scorching version that opens 1975’s Live! LP is a classic too.
5. “I Shot the Sheriff” — ‘Burnin’ ‘ (1973)
One of Marley’s best-known songs, thanks largely to Eric Clapton’s hit 1974 cover, “I Shot the Sheriff” has mysterious origins. “Some of it is true, some of it isn’t, but I’m not gonna tell you which,” Marley said. Actress, documentary filmmaker and former Island Records employee Esther Anderson asserted that Marley wrote the song after discovering she was on birth control — he considered the pills sinful, and the doctor who prescribed the pills was the “sheriff.” Marley himself called it “a kind of diplomatic statement. That’s not really a sheriff; it’s just the elements of wickedness. People have been judging you, and you can’t stand it no more, and you explode. Clapton asked me about the song, because when Clapton finished the song, they didn’t know the meaning.” Its commercial success enhanced Marley’s outlaw image. “This pleased him immensely,” wrote Rita Marley. “He was happy to be known as ‘the musical revolutionist,’ fighting war with his music.”
6. “Concrete Jungle” — ‘Catch a Fire’ (1973)
The Wailers opened “Catch a Fire” with a song that told the world where they were from. The title is a colloquialism used to describe Trench Town’s Arnett Gardens housing project (which was built from cheap concrete rather than brick). But the lyrics’ sense of anger and desperation resonated globally, tapping the same ghetto angst coursing through American funk at the time. The Wailers first recorded the song around July 1971, riding a slow, miasmic groove augmented by ghostly harmonies and Vin Gordon’s haunting trombone. The sped-up version they finished the next year was one of several Catch a Fire tracks to benefit from uncredited session players like Muscle Shoals guitarist Wayne Perkins, who knew nothing about reggae when asked to join the session. “The first thing I noticed when I walked downstairs was that the basement was in a fog,” he later said, recalling the session. “Lots of [marijuana] smoke. It was too funny. I tried to get down to business.”
7. “Positive Vibration” — ‘Rastaman Vibration’ (1976)
1976’s “Rastaman Vibration” was Marley’s first commercial smash in America — the album that got him onto Billboard’s Top 10 for the first time, and a new crowning jewel in his unstoppable rise to global stardom. The first thing fans who bought the LP would have noticed was the unusual burlap-textured sleeve design, which the liner notes touted as “great for cleaning herb.” The second and more durable impression would have been the LP’s sublimely soothing opener, exhorting listeners to take it easy: “If you get down and you quarrel every day,” Marley sang brightly, “you’re saying prayers to the devil, I say.” In fact, “Positive Vibration” was recorded during a period of great turmoil in Jamaica: The Rastaman Vibration sessions were interrupted by reports — erroneous reports, according to the most devout Rastas — that the living god Haile Selassie had died in Ethiopia. Seen in this light, “Positive Vibration” is less a carefree breeze and more a moving plea for peace in troubled times.
8. “Buffalo Soldier” — ‘Confrontation’ (1983)
Marley started writing and recording this song around 1978, inspired by the true story of African-American soldiers who served in the Civil War and were then ordered to fight Native Americans out West when the war was over. (The Indians dubbed the troops “buffalo soldiers” for their dark, kinky hair.) Marley clearly related to the cruel irony of black men forced to fight another oppressed group: As he bitterly sang, “There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of America/Stolen from Africa, brought to America . . . fighting for survival.” The chanted hook in the chorus bears an uncanny resemblance to the Banana Splits’ insanely hooky 1968 song “The Tra-La-La Song,” but during his lifetime, Marley never admitted to any connection. (His songwriting collaborator was actually N. G. Williams, a.k.a. Jamaican DJ King Sporty, with whom he cut a rough demo of the song.) The finished version he recorded with the Wailers in 1980 wasn’t released until the first posthumous Marley collection, 1983’s Confrontation.
9. “Natural Mystic” — ‘Exodus’ (1977)
“Natural Mystic” opens the 1977 album Exodus with a perfect thematic touch: a long, slow fade-in that almost makes the song seem as if it’s coming at you from a vast horizon, like an oasis in the desert. Chris Blackwell, who produced the track, suggested the studio trick “because I loved the idea of it coming out of the air, building up.” But the song didn’t always sound as mystical as its title. Marley first recorded a more upbeat version of the tune with Perry in 1975, which the latter orchestrated as a roots-reggae song with backup vocalists and a horn section. Perry has since said the horns “sounded better to me,” and he has taken credit for the track’s “machine pop drum,” which he wrote on a drum machine. The Exodus version benefits greatly from lead guitarist Junior Marvin’s quixotic blues phrases, which seem to flit playfully around Marley’s portentous lyrics (“If you listen carefully now, you will hear/This could be the first trumpet, might as well be the last,” he sings), and the sparse horns make it even more ominous and chilling — the perfect counterpoint to lighter Exodus tracks like “Waiting in Vain,” “One Love” and “Three Little Birds.”
10. “Soul Rebel” — ‘Soul Rebels’ (1970)
Another of reggae music’s defining early songs, this track also helped define Marley, the man. The title cut of the Wailers’ first LP with superproducer Perry, it rides a bulbous lead melody played on bass by session man Lloyd Parks and a sly one-drop groove from Wailer drummer Carlton Barrett and percussionist Uziah “Sticky” Thompson. “Not living good,” the still-struggling lead singer testifies, finally resolving, “I’ve got work to do,” with Tosh and Bunny providing high harmonies, all run through Perry’s soon-to-be-signature psychedelic haze of reverb. The song itself dates to 1968, when Marley first recorded it with American producer and label owner Danny Sims and uncredited session players that likely included funk drummer Bernard Purdie and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. It was soul music with a proto-reggae undertow that Perry would help turn into a tidal wave. “What I heard,” Sims said years later, “was the next Bob Dylan.”
11. “Roots, Rock, Reggae” — ‘Rastaman Vibration’ (1976)
Chris Blackwell signed Marley to Island Records in 1972 with the hope of bringing his music to American radio and turning him into “a black rock star as big as Jimi Hendrix.” Marley never topped the U.S. charts the way Hendrix did, but “Roots, Rock, Reggae” rang with the confidence of self-fulfilling prophecy nonetheless: “We’re bubblin’ on the Top 100, just like a mighty dread!” Marley sang, foreshadowing years of rappers’ Billboard boasts. “Roots, Rock, Reggae” turned out to be his only song to crack the Top 100 of the U.S. pop charts in his lifetime. Lyrically, its booming sense of optimism and confidence bore similarities to a song called “Rainbow Country” that Marley recorded with Perry. On the version that appeared on Rastaman Vibration, Marley sings, “Play I some music,” and the I-Threes chime back, “Dis a reggae music,” as if they’re introducing the new sound to American listeners. Wisely, Marley made sure to sugarcoat the message with crossover elements like roiling rock guitar and smooth pop saxophone.
12. “Stir It Up” — ‘Catch a Fire’ (1973)
This seductive vamp is arguably Marley’s most popular love song. “Stir It Up” was written for his wife, Rita, in 1967, the year after they were married. It’s a testament to Marley’s guilelessness that he could get away with borderline-cheesy lines like “I’ll push the wood, I’ll blaze your fire/Then I’ll satisfy your heart desire.” The Wailers released a version of the song on their own Wail ’N Soul ’M label and re-recorded it in London in 1972. Thanks to instrumental overdubs by outside players, including guitarist Wayne Perkins and future Who keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, the version cut for Catch a Fire was extended by two minutes on the finished album. (Both versions are available on the deluxe edition of Catch a Fire.) The song also gave Marley his first taste of widespread commercial success, when Jamaican pop-soul singer Johnny Nash, of “I Can See Clearly Now” fame, covered “Stir It Up” and took it to the Top 20 in both the United States and England.
13. “Lively Up Yourself” — ‘Natty Dread’ (1974)
Prophet, mystic and sex symbol, the singer was at his sensual best with “Lively Up Yourself,” gleefully extolling the joys of a little morning romance. The version cut with Perry in 1971 glides along on a sparse, airy backing highlighted by Bunny’s high harmonies. Redone three years later at Harry J Studio in Uptown Kingston as the opening track for Natty Dread, the carefree song became more carnal, as Marley kicks things off with a wild yowl. Stretched out to almost twice the length of the early version, the new track augmented the original with a series of mini-climaxes: a bumping horn-section riff, Al Anderson’s insinuating guitar licks and Tommy McCook’s tenor-sax solos. If the first iteration was languid country sex, the later one is steamy urban heat. Marley, for his part, was never a choosy lover. “If it was just about who he had sex with,” said his heroically accommodating wife, Rita, “he could have sex with the whole world if that was what he wanted.”
14. “No More Trouble” — ‘Catch a Fire’ (1973)
Few tracks demonstrate Marley’s interest in ominous American funk and R&B more clearly than “No More Trouble,” which rolls forth on a foundation of doomy piano chords, a siren’s chorus of backing vocals and a creeping drum pattern from Carlton Barrett. Bundrick later laid down burbling clavinet overdubs at Island studios in London. Dense and disturbed, the song, which Erykah Badu has since memorably covered, holds its dramatic own with the likes of Sly Stone’s dread-infused There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But where early-Seventies Sly seemed resigned, Marley keeps pushing toward positivity, singing, “Look down if you are above/Help the weak if you are strong.” Troubling as the song sounded, though, Marley often returned to its message of resilience as a more optimistic counterbalance to his combative rallying cry “War,” which appeared on 1976’s Rastaman Vibration, frequently pairing the two songs as a yin-yang live medley.
15. “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” — ‘Natty Dread’ (1974)
The Wailers went through several defections and lineup changes over the years. But one of the group’s constants was the rhythm section of the Barrett brothers, who both signed on in 1970 and backed Marley until his death in 1981. A fine fruit of Marley’s partnership with Carlton Barrett was “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” on which the drummer gets a co-writing credit. The song starts with a groove that abandons the mellow rim clicks synonymous with reggae time-keeping in favor of bashing the snare and hi-hat with the fury of contemporary funk bands like Funkadelic and Cymande. Between the hard drums, hard message (“a hungry mob is an angry mob”) and lyrics about dancing in the face of hard times, no wonder the song is beloved by rockers and hip-hoppers concerned with social justice: It’s been sampled or rewritten by Poor Righteous Teachers, Dead Prez and Rage Against the Machine.
16. “Kaya” — ‘Soul Revolution’ (1971)
A gorgeous love song to a particular variety of excellent ganja, “Kaya” is perhaps Marley’s finest tune about the mind-expanding substance with which his music has become inextricably linked. “Kaya” was conjured by Marley and Perry in 1971, during a trip to visit the latter’s mother in Jamaica’s rural Hanover Parish. Inspired by the herb and indulging in the freedom afforded him outside Kingston, Marley came up with a dreamy ode to getting “so high/I even touch the sky” and “feeling irie.” Lyrical allusion to needing Kaya because “the rain is fallin’ ” was inspired by Marley and Perry running out of weed just before a storm (they sent Perry’s little brother on his bike to get them more). In the studio, Perry dappled the edges of the track, recorded at Vincent “Randy” Chin’s Kingston studio, with glinting acoustic guitar licks. The song was later rerecorded in London in a less spaced-out fashion as the title track to 1978’s Kaya, though Tyrone Downie’s squelching synth offers its own smoker’s delights. In either form, the song’s sweet, stoney charm proves that while Marley used the plant to “aid [his] meditations on de truth,” he also just really liked to get lifted.
17. “Small Axe” — ‘African Herbsman’ (1973)
“Small Axe” is one of Marley’s most potent metaphors for anti-colonial struggle. But in writing the song, he was actually thinking more locally than globally; when he sang, “If you are the big tree/We are the small axe,” listeners throughout Jamaica heard a clear allusion to the Big Three labels that dominated the country’s music business (Studio One, Dynamic and Federal), making “Small Axe” an anthem of independence from the established music industry. Marley wrote the song with Perry, who produced it; the two had been at the brink of a serious falling-out around that time because Marley was making moves to swipe Perry’s backing band, the Upsetters. According to Marley biographer Timothy White, Perry even made threats on Marley’s life. But they resolved their differences and channeled their ire into this cutting track. A more soul-influenced version of “Small Axe” appears on Burnin’, with a looser groove and lovely harmonies from Tosh.
18. “Burnin’ and Lootin’” — ‘Burnin” (1973)
Songs like “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Redemption Song” were inspirational and universalist. “Burnin’ and Lootin’ ” offered a darker, more dangerous vision of political action. Marley sings about oppression boiling over into violent revolution and offers a biblical vision of long, desperate struggle: “How many rivers do we have to cross before we can talk to the boss?” he sings in a line that has resonated for generations with protest movements around the world. Slow and mournful, with haunting harmonies on the chorus, it seemed to foretell revolution as a kind of fatalistic promise. The lyrical allusions to imprisonment and brutality were literal; the police had responded to youth violence in Trench Town by sealing off Marley’s neighborhood, leaving him stranded in his own home. The song also played on ruling-class fantasies of underclass resistance: “Dat song about burnin’ and lootin’ illusions,” he said a few years later in an interview, “the illusions of the capitalists and dem people with the big bank accounts.”
19. “Sun Is Shining” — ‘Soul Revolution’ (1971)
The highlight of Marley’s second full-length album with Perry was written by Marley in 1967 after he moved from Kingston back to his rural hometown of St. Ann’s, joined by wife Rita and his bandmates, to plant yams and cabbage and live off the land. “Sun Is Shining” is said to have come to him after repeated listens to “Eleanor Rigby,” and indeed the song bears a faint echo of that Beatles melody. Tosh provides the haunting melodica, and Carlton and Aston Barrett give the slow-motion, zero-gravity drum-and-bass groove. Marley’s brilliant delivery goes from utterly laid-back — the sound of being stoned in the sunshine — to that of a superhero loverman. “To the rescue,” he declares, “here I am!” Marley would rerecord the song in 1977 for Kaya, minus Tosh and Bunny, with the I-Threes’ sweet harmonies and new guitarist Junior Marvin’s piercing blues leads. But it’s the Soul Revolution version that remains most striking.
20. “Slave Driver” — ‘Catch a Fire’ (1973)
Incisive and damning, Marley’s condemnation of the slave trade offers its subject no quarter: “Slave driver, the table is turn,” he sings, “catch a fire, so you can get burn.” Tosh and Bunny offer doo-wop-steeped harmonies over a stretched-out groove and slow-churn keyboards from Earl “Wya” Lindo, and Marley’s lyrics connect historical oppression to contemporary injustice like poverty and illiteracy. Chris Blackwell later said “Slave Driver” was one of the first songs that caught his ear after meeting the Wailers. “I just loved the groove of it,” he said. “It was from ‘Slave Driver’ that I got the idea for the title: ‘Slave driver, the tables have turned, catch a fire and you’re gonna get burned.’ I thought Catch a Fire was such a great title for a launching of a new movement.” He was right. It was the hardest-edged track on the Wailers’ debut album, and artists ranging from reggae singer Dennis Brown to bluesman Taj Mahal have covered the song.
21. “Selassie Is the Chapel” — Non-Album Single (1968)
The first song Marley released that openly expresses his Rastafarian beliefs, “Selassie Is the Chapel” has roots in a surprising source: the Fifties ballad “Crying in the Chapel,” a track previously recorded by Elvis Presley, the Orioles and Ella Fitzgerald. Marley’s version changed the lyrics to pay tribute to Ethiopian emperor and Rasta deity Haile Selassie I, whose 1966 visit to Jamaica caused a national sensation (Rita was among the 100,000-plus who turned up to witness his arrival). Against soft guitars, slow processional drumming and vintage Wailers harmonies, Marley sang, “Take your troubles to Selassie/He is the only king of kings.” The song is one of the best examples of the claim made years later by a New York club manager that the Wailers were “the Drifters with raised consciousness.” But despite his passionate performance, only 26 copies of the recording were initially pressed to vinyl, making it the rarest of Marley collectors items.
22. “Put It On” — ‘Soul Revolution’ (1971)
One of Marley’s most rerecorded songs, “Put It On” was first cut by the Wailers in a ska version (as “[I’m Gonna] Put It On”) for Studio One producer Clement Dodd in 1965. It was reprised three years later by Marley, Tosh and wife Rita (filling in for Bunny, then in jail for ganja possession), with a soul arrangement for producer Danny Sims. And it was revived again as full-on roots reggae on 1973’s Burnin’. But this 1971 Perry production trumps all the others, with the original Wailers trio harmonizing “I rule my destiny” over a tiptoeing dub strut and bluesy sax.
23. “African Herbsman” — ‘Soul Revolution’ (1971)
This adaptation of Richie Havens’ funky “Indian Rope Man,” from the soul folkie’s futurist 1969 LP Richard P. Havens, 1983, has Marley revising lyrics to conjure a similar sort of mystic figure over a sprightly Perry-produced groove. “African herbsman, seize your time,” Marley sings. “I’m takin’ illusion on the edge of my mind.” The song reappeared on a 1973 British compilation LP of the same name, which featured the Wailers’ best work with Perry. And a killer instrumental dub version turned up on the Perry-helmed Upsetter Rhythm Revolution.
24. “Duppy Conqueror” — ‘African Herbsman’ (1973)
Perry initially attempted this track with the Soul Syndicate rather than the Upsetters, as the latter were mad at the producer’s penny-pinching ways. But when the replacements struggled to capture the song’s magnificent spectral grace, Perry cajoled his house band back into the studio, where Alva Lewis added Steve Cropper-esque guitar interjections, and Tosh and Bunny supplied the animal-noise backing chirps that flutter around Marley’s defiant vocals (in Jamaican folklore, duppies are evil spirits). The rerecorded Burnin’ version is slower, but just as entrancingly eerie.
25. “Crazy Baldhead” — ‘Rastaman Vibration’ (1976)
As Marley’s international popularity grew, he wisely kept packing his albums with exotic allusions to Rasta culture. “Baldhead” was Rasta slang for dreadlockless oppressors, particularly predatory capitalists. And on this stark, penetrating chant-along song, pushed forward by a hypnotic Aston Barrett bass line, Marley’s lyrics are some of his most directly confrontational: “We’re gonna chase those crazy baldheads out of town.” “That’s about the system,” Marley said around this time. “Enough of that shit. Because we plant the corn, we build the cabin and we build the country.”
26. “Simmer Down” — Non-Album Single (1963)
The Wailers’ first hit began as an afterthought. In 1963, the young band had an audition for Studio One producer Coxsone Dodd, who wasn’t sure he wanted to record the Wailers. The bandmates insisted he let them play one more tune before leaving, and they broke out “Simmer Down,” a buoyant ska jam with an anti-violence message. Dodd agreed to cut the track, with the help of top-shelf musicians the Skatalites on horns and Ernest Ranglin on guitar. By early 1964, it had become a Number One hit.
27. “Bad Card” — ‘Uprising’ (1980)
Kingston music-business man Don Taylor became Marley’s trusted manager in 1974 and even took a bullet for the singer in 1976. But in 1980, they had a physical brawl after Taylor allegedly stole $20,000 out of Marley’s pay from the Wailers’ first African concert. In response, Marley wrote the spooky “Bad Card,” a venomous screed against a friend who reveals himself to be a sneaky con man. Released in an election year, the song immediately took on political overtones and was quickly adopted as a campaign song by the incumbent People’s National Party.
28. “One Love” — ‘The Wailing Wailers’ (1965)
Marley’s heartfelt message of unity, peace and religious devotion, “One Love” has become his most enduring hit. The song was released three different times. In 1965, the Wailers cut the first version as a wonderfully upbeat ska number with a light Rastafarian message for their debut LP, The Wailing Wailers (it also appears on the Songs of Freedom box set). “We were not really trained singers, y’know, we were just, like, singing . . . learn harmony,” Marley said of that rendition. The song stayed in their live sets, and Marley decided to try it again more than a decade after its original release, when Chris Blackwell suggested he revisit some of his older tunes for 1977’s Exodus. With a new headspace, Marley slowed down the tempo and turned up the drums; he also added “People Get Ready” to its title. Blackwell had noticed the similarity to the Impressions’ 1965 single “People Get Ready,” and, in an effort to protect Marley legally, suggested, “Why not just give Curtis Mayfield half?” Although it came out as a single in the Seventies, it took on a new life after Marley’s death, when it was rereleased with a video featuring cameos by Paul McCartney and members of Bananarama, to accompany the massively successful 1984 greatest-hits album, Legend. The single reached Number Five on the British chart that year. In 1994, the Jamaica Tourist Board adopted the track as its theme song and, in 1999, the BBC chose “One Love” as its official anthem on Millennium Eve, honoring it with another new recording — featuring Marley’s son Ziggy joined by the Gipsy Kings and the Boys’ Choir of Harlem.
29. “Natty Dread” — ‘Natty Dread’ (1974)
“Natty Dread” — a heroic portrait of a rasta as a folk hero — is as warm and welcoming as revolutionary Marley ever got, a reminder that fire doesn’t just burn, it cleanses. The song is borne aloft by the winsome backing coos of the I-Threes and the sunburst brass parts, provided by members of Jamaica’s heralded Zap Pow band. The snaky guitar licks are played by Marley himself, rather than Al Anderson, the American musician who played on Natty Dread. “It gladden I heart,” said Marley, “to see Natty Dreadlock him everywhere growin’ strong.” Marley had more than a little to do with that.
30. “Nice Time” — Non-Album Single (1967)
In 1967, after returning home from a brief sojourn in Delaware (where he worked in an auto plant), Marley was hungry for new opportunities. The singer built a record stall in Trench Town; he did some farming; and he recorded several singles with the Wailers for his Wail ’N Soul ’M label. The best of the bunch was this sweet R&B-tinged pledge, recorded that fall with producer Clancy Eccles. “Long time, we no have no nice time,” Marley sang over an easy brass swing. It’s one of the best examples of a form in which he excelled: a blissful-sounding melody about a feeling of pain and frustration.
31. “Waiting in Vain” — ‘Exodus’ (1977)
The yearning in Marley’s voice on the tender “Waiting in Vain” allegedly came from a very real place. When he wrote the song, he had been dating the Jamaican beauty queen Cindy Breakspeare, who would later give birth to Bob’s youngest son, Damian. Marley shows a rare romantic vulnerability on the song, which he’s said to have struggled with vocally in the studio, and Junior Marvin plays a stellar guitar solo. Breakspeare was in the studio the night it was mixed: “It was something I had to live with,” Rita later said of Bob’s infidelity. “Even if I was jealous, I had to just be cool about it.”
32. “Exodus” — ‘Exodus’ (1977)
“Open your heart and look within,” Marley sang on the epic, seven-minute title track from his 1977 album. “Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” The song was a call to arms for disenfranchised Rastas to make changes in their lives. Musically, Marley drew inspiration from the soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s 1960 film Exodus, but what he came up with had its own, thrusting, almost disco-like rhythm and funky bass line. It helped secure Marley his only Top 20 R&B single; ironically, a song about spiritual dissatisfaction gave him one of his biggest hits.
33. “Is This Love” — ‘Kaya’ (1978)
A song of devotion, presumably for Rita: “I wanna love ya, every day and every night,” Marley sang over one of his slinkiest melodies. (In Rolling Stone, critic Lester Bangs wrote that those lines made Marley “the Barry White of Montego Bay.”) Like most of Kaya, “Is This Love” had been cut at the same time as Marley’s previous album, Exodus, but held for subsequent release. Rita recalled that phrase popping into her mind the first time she kissed Marley: “I’m thinking, ‘Is this love?’ And the song with that title hadn’t even been written yet!”
34. “Could You Be Loved” — ‘Uprising’ (1980)
Ear candy ornaments nearly every second of “Could You Be Loved”: Keyboard filigrees duel in both speakers, the guitar bounces off the rhythm section and the I-Threes repeat the song title like a radio jingle. It was so catchy that it became Marley’s only single to make Billboard’s Dance chart, thanks in part to its burbling disco-tinged groove. After his death, the song was one of several Marley classics whose sheet music the Jamaican government emblazoned on its postage stamps, and it was universal enough that artists ranging from Toto to Lauryn Hill have covered it.
35. “Three Little Birds” — ‘Exodus’ (1977)
One of Marley’s brightest, prettiest melodies was literally inspired by little birds — a group of canaries that often congregated outside the window of his house. It was also a dedication of sorts to the I-Threes; “Bob would always refer to us as the Three Little Birds,” Marcia Griffiths later recalled. The meat of the song (including its easeful, immediate keyboard line) was originally recorded in Jamaica around the time of Rastaman Vibration, with overdubs added later during the Exodus sessions in London. The results were, in Chris Blackwell’s words, “so light, very poppy.”
36. “Stand Alone” — ‘Soul Revolution’ (1971)
Hidden inside the Wailers’ Soul Revolution album, “Stand Alone” is a sheer little love song. It’s just a single repeated lovelorn verse and chorus, displaying the influence American soul was having on Jamaican music around that time, as well as showing off Marley’s seemingly automatic ability to write Motown-worthy melodies. The tune stuck with Marley: In 1975, when he produced American singer Martha Velez’s reggae-pop album Escape From Babylon (on which she was backed up by the Wailers Band), they included a slick remake of “Stand Alone,” retitled “There You Are.”
37. “Jamming” — ‘Exodus’ (1977)
Though beloved for its feel-good groove, “Jamming” actually came from a place of pain. Marley wrote the song in exile in Nassau after the 1976 attempt on his life, undercutting its lighthearted track with lines like “No bullet can stop us now, we neither beg nor we won’t bow.” “All those ‘Jamming’ lyrics are coming from the attack on his person,” said Exodus cover artist Neville Garrick. “[He] was very hurt behind that.” Three years later, Stevie Wonder repurposed Marley’s song for “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” and took it to the top of the R&B charts.
38. “Caution” — ‘The Best of the Wailers’ (1971)
In early 1969, the Wailers were under contract to Johnny Nash’s JAD Records, but worked out a deal by which they could record other music for Caribbean release only. The menacing “Caution,” one of the first Marley songs to give lead guitar a major role, was produced by Lesley Kong, who’d recorded Marley’s first single seven years earlier; it’s not likely that Marley’s croon of “hit me from the top, you crazy mother-funky” would have flown outside Jamaica, but it shows the clear influence of James Brown, and it was a highlight of The Best of the Wailers, the misleadingly titled album released by Kong in 1971.
39. “Guava Jelly” — Non-Album Single (1971)
During the same summer 1971 session that produced the ghetto-life anthem “Trench Town Rock,” Marley took a lighter direction. Over this sizzling groove, he consoles a weeping lover with a simple plea: “You said you love me/I said I love you/Why won’t you stop your crying?” He asks her to move past her anger with him and invitingly compares sex to a popular Jamaican dessert. “Come rub up on my belly/Like guava jelly,” he sings. The song wasn’t a hit, but it was later covered by fans ranging from Marley collaborator Johnny Nash to Barbra Streisand to Sublime.
40. “So Much Things to Say” — ‘Exodus’ (1977)
In Vivien Goldman’s The Book of Exodus, producer Terry Barham recalls Marley breaking out in laughter late one night, marveling at how easy the words of “So Much Things to Say” arrived. A tribute to standing tall in the face of religious persecution, the song name-checks Jesus and Jamaican revolutionary heroes Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle over a cool groove. Marley was searching for fresh sounds at the time, and keyboardist Tyrone Downie found them with synths, Moogs and keyboard experimentation. “The treated piano makes the basic skank sound fatter,” Barham said. “It sounds brilliant.”
41. “Bend Down Low” — Non-Single Album (1966)
“Bend Down Low” was the first single to roll off the line after Marley and Rita started their Wail ’N Soul ’M label in 1966. Recorded at Studio One with a lean Wailers lineup, it’s a loose, buoyant jam with a rocksteady groove. The song also sees the student of Rastafari combining a light spiritual message over a sexy dancehall come-on; he assures a loved one he’ll be faithful without judgment, regardless of sin. He returned to the song eight years later on Natty Dread, with the I-Threes’ harmonizing in place of the Wailers, warmly replying to his sensual mood.
42. “Zimbabwe” — ‘Survival’ (1979)
Written by Marley during an Ethiopian pilgrimage in 1978, this anthem of revolutionary Pan-African unity was inspired by the freedom fighters seeking to liberate Rhodesia from white British rule. They succeeded in 1979, the year the song was recorded. “Every man got the right to decide his own destiny,” Marley testifies over a tight groove echoing “Get Up, Stand Up.” Poignantly, Marley performed the song at the initial Independence Day ceremony in the new nation of Zimbabwe in 1980 — after being inauspiciously tear-gassed in a crowd-control attempt by government troops.
43. “Fussing and Fighting” — ‘Soul Revolution’ (1971)
This stirring track, produced by Perry with sky-high falsetto backing vocals by Tosh and Bunny, searing organ and heraldic sax (the latter played by Jamaican session vet “Deadly” Headley Bennett), rides a superfat rub-a-dub-style bass line from “Family Man” Barrett. “We should really love each other, in peace and harmony/Instead of here, fussing and fighting, like we ain’t supposed to be,” shouts Marley. A plea for peace to his long-suffering wife, Rita? One of his frustrated girlfriends? His sometimes-estranged fellow Wailers? The endlessly warring world as a whole? Probably a bit of all of the above.
44. “Kinky Reggae” — ‘Babylon by Bus’
Tucked away on side two of Catch a Fire, “Kinky Reggae” is a laid-back, cheerful song about a guy who can’t settle down — it almost sounds like a more irie take on Dion’s “The Wanderer.” But the song blazed into new life on the essential live double LP Babylon by Bus, recorded mostly at a stand of shows Marley did in Paris to promote Kaya in June 1977. As the band slides into a warmer, looser groove than the one on the original, Marley makes the song feel like a spiritual celebration. It’s yet another piece of evidence that, as powerful as he could be in the studio, the stage was his true home.
45. “War” — ‘Rastaman Vibration’ (1976)
Co-credited to Marley’s friend Allan Cole and Carlton Barrett, “War” is in fact constructed around the words from a speech Haile Selassie gave at the United Nations in 1963, which Cole had recently shown to Marley. Marley’s version is every bit as provocative as the original text: Selassie noted that until his litany of human-rights demands were met, “the African continent will not know peace.” Marley splits the text into verses and ends each one with a declaration that there’s war everywhere, adding another layer to the message. There aren’t many singers who could make a speech sound so smooth.
46. “Night Shift” — ‘Rastaman Vibration’ (1976)
“Night Shift” is a rewritten version of the Wailers’ 1970 song “It’s Alright.” The original was a sticky, soulful vamp, with Marley in Otis Redding mode. Six years later, the sound was more wide open. He begins both songs with a paraphrase from Psalm 121, then recalls the period in the mid-Sixties when he moved to the U.S. and worked at a Chrysler factory. For “Night Shift,” he sharpened the lyrics, adding workplace detail and changing the lines “I work for my pay/Night and day” to the more accusatory biblical “By the sweat of my brow/Eat your bread.”
47. “Midnight Ravers” — ‘Catch a Fire’ (1973)
The closing track on the Wailers’ first international album sounds like the kind of party that goes all night, but its lyrics are a vision of apocalypse straight out of the Book of Revelation — “10,000 chariots . . . without horses.” It might be a song about the nightlife scene Marley had experienced in London: In part, it’s a conservative rant from someone who “can’t tell the woman from the man,” but it’s also longing to be part of the “musical stampede, where everyone is doing their thing.”
48. “Punky Reggae Party” — Non-Album Single (1977)
Don Letts, a friend of Marley’s and the house DJ at the legendary punk club the Roxy in L.A., recalled the origins of “Punky Reggae Party”: “Punk rock caused an argument between us,” he said 20 years later. “One day, I went around his house, and I had on my bondage trousers, and he said, ‘Don Letts, what are we dealing with, mountaineering?’ and I said, ‘No. Bob, this is the thing now. It’s punk rock.’ And he said, ‘Naw, get out of here.’ And, sure enough, three months later, he made a record called ‘Punky Reggae Party.’ ” What happened, probably, is that Marley heard the Clash’s version of ‘‘Police and Thieves,” by Jamaican singer Junior Murvin. White English kids had been into Jamaican ska and rocksteady since the Sixties, when waves of Caribbean immigrants were arriving in the U.K., and the burgeoning punk scene had been quick to glom onto reggae’s exotic realness and tough sound. But “Punky Reggae Party” was the first time a major reggae artist had returned the love. Marley first attempted the song in London with a band of top-flight musicians from Aswad and Third World, but the results were too smooth-sounding, so Perry finished the song in Jamaica with the Upsetters, giving it “a rebel feel, like a warrior.” Marley added his vocal in Miami. What emerged may not be as hard as the Clash, but it’s still a blast, with a bubbly rhythm and a kind melody. “It couldn’t have happened in London,” Perry said. “It did have to happen in Jamaica, because that’s where the energy came first.”
49. “Lick Samba” — Non-Album Single (1971)
Marley and the Wailers weren’t shy about showing their affection for American soul and rock & roll. But they were also fans of other strains of global music. That’s evident on this 1971 single, produced by the group with an engineering assist by Perry — there are hints of calypso and other kinds of Afro-Caribbean pop all over it. The lyric is too overtly sexual to even pretend to be a double-entendre, but the Wailers (and a group of backup singers including Rita) dive into it with relish.
50. “Rebel Music (Three O’Clock Roadblock)” — ‘Natty Dread’ (1974)
As legend has it, Marley and some friends were driving at 3 a.m. when policemen stopped them at a roadblock and searched for guns and ganja. He wrote this funky and freewheeling song about the experience, right down to the spoken-word line “Ain’t got no birth certificate on me now.” With the escalating political violence in Jamaica fresh in people’s minds, it was timely enough to top the radio charts in Kingston in 1974.
Rolling Stones originally published the list on March 28th, 2014. It republished it in honour of what would have been Bob Marley’s 75th birthday, February 6th, 2020.