For a lot of people, Bob Marley is reggae music. More than any other artist, Marley embodied the political righteousness and defiant joy inherent to the genre. The dreadlocked troubadour rose from the slums of Kingston, Jamaica to become a global superstar in the 1970s and an eternal ambassador of Jamaican culture. Nearly 40 years after his death in 1981, Marley remains one of the most iconic musicians in the world. To honor what would’ve been his 75th birthday (on February 6, 2020), here are 10 things you might not know about the reggae godhead.
1. Bob Marley was biracial.
Given Marley’s anti-colonial lyrics and strong Rastafarianism faith, many people assume the singer was black. In fact, he was the child of an Afro-Jamaican mother, Cedella Booker, and a white father, Norval Marley. The details of Norval’s life are sketchy. According to the BBC, he listed his birthplace as Sussex, England, when he enlisted in the Army in 1916. Due to medical issues that included urinary incontinence, Norval spent World War I serving in the Labour Corps. He later worked in Nigeria before arriving in Jamaica, where he met Booker while employed as plantation supervisor. Norval was about 60 when he and 18-year-old Booker married. The couple separated soon after Bob’s birth, and Norval died of a heart attack when the future superstar was just 10 years old.
2. Bob Marley got his start as a ska musician.
No, not like Reel Big Fish. When Marley started singing in the early 1960s, Jamaica was grooving to ska, the island’s first indigenous form of popular music. (Ska later evolved into rocksteady, which in turn became reggae.) Marley made his debut with a series of ska recordings for producer Leslie Kong’s Beverly label, including “One Cup of Coffee” and “Jude Not.”
3. Bob Marley lived in America for a while.
In 1966, after he’d begun recording with The Wailers, but before he made a name for himself outside of Jamaica, Marley went to visit his mother in America. She’d immigrated to Wilmington, Delaware, where Bob stayed for about eight months. During that time, he worked as a lab assistant for DuPont and toiled on a Chrysler assembly line. According to some, he lived in Delaware on and off through 1977, and the city of Wilmington hosts an annual People’s Festival 4 Peace to honor its one-time resident.
4. A Texas hitmaker helped to introduce BOB Marley to the world.
Johnny Nash, the Texas singer-songwriter behind the 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now,” played a major role in bringing Marley’s music to the masses. In 1965, Nash moved with his manager, Danny Sims, to Jamaica. In 1966 or ‘67, Nash heard Marley sing at a Rasta celebration and convinced Sims to sign the young Jamaican. Marley traveled to London in February 1972 to help record Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now album. Nash included three Marley originals on the LP, plus one song he wrote with Bob. When Nash left London to promote the album, Marley and The Wailers found themselves stranded in the U.K. During this time, they met Island Records head Chris Blackwell, who signed them to a career-making (and world-changing) deal.
5. Bob Marley wasn’t the first reggae hopeful on Island Records.
When Marley first showed up on Chris Blackwell’s radar, Island Records had recently parted ways with singer Jimmy Cliff, star of the 1972 reggae film The Harder They Come. Cliff wasn’t happy with his progress on Island, so he jumped ship for EMI. Blackwell was reportedly "devastated" by Cliff’s departure, but when he met Marley, he found another rebel-type character he could sell to white audiences.
“I was dealing with rock music, which was really rebel music, and I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music,” Blackwell said. “But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in, he really was that image.”
6. Bob Marley once opened for Bruce Springsteen—and stole the show.
In July 1973, Bob Marley and The Wailers played 14 shows at the famed New York City hipster hangout Max’s Kansas City. The headliner was a scrappy New Jersey guitar slinger named Bruce Springsteen. It sounds like an odd pairing, but Marley and the gang evidently had no trouble adjusting to their surroundings. Reviewing the show for Billboard, writer Sam Sutherland credited The Wailers with “neatly eclipsing” the future rock superstar.
7. Bob Marley survived an assassination attempt—then played a show two days later.
On December 3, 1976, seven gunmen stormed Marley’s home in Kingston and started shooting. Marley’s wife and manager were wounded, and the singer was shot in the chest and upper arm. The attack came two days before the Smile Jamaica Concert, which Marley had organized to ease political tensions in Jamaica. Marley wasn’t looking to endorse a candidate, but the ruling People’s National Party rescheduled the national election to capitalize on the event. As a result, Marley appeared to be supporting the PNP, and that likely led to the shooting. Nevertheless, an injured Marley took the stage on December 5—just two days after he was attacked—and played a now-legendary 90-minute set. Due to the risks associated with surgery, a bullet remained lodged in Marley’s arm until his death in 1981.
8. Bob Marley never really had a hit in America.
You’d think someone as popular and influential as Bob Marley would’ve scored at least a couple Top 40 pop hits. Alas, the closest Marley ever came was the 1976 single “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” which peaked at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not that Marley was incapable of writing hits: The aforementioned Johnny Nash reached #12 with the Marley-penned “Stir It Up,” and British rocker Eric Clapton famously took “I Shot the Sheriff” all the way to #1 in 1974. It should be noted that Marley’s posthumous 1984 collection Legend is the best-selling reggae album of all time, with more than 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone.
9. Bob Marley had a lot of kids.
Bob Marley had many virtues, but fidelity was not one of them. He regularly cheated on his wife Rita during their marriage, which spanned from 1966 to Bob’s death in 1981 and produced three children: Cedella, David a.k.a. Ziggy, and Stephen. Bob also adopted two kids that Rita had with other men (Sharon and Stephanie). Officially, Marley is said to have fathered six more children outside of his marriage to Rita (Robert, Rohan, Karen, Julian, Ky-Mani, and Damian), all with different women. But many sources say he had at least two other kids, Imani and Madeka, who haven’t been acknowledged on Marley’s website.
10. Marley’s untimely death has sparked conspiracy theories.
Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981, of lung and brain cancer. The disease had spread from a malignant melanoma in his toe first detected in 1977. Doctors advised Marley to have the toe amputated, but apparently due to his Rastafarian beliefs, he refused. It’s a sad yet medically plausible story that not everyone accepts.
According to conspiracy theorists, the CIA injected Marley’s toe with cancer by giving him a booby-trapped shoe. This dubious story picked up steam in November 2017, when the website Your News Wire published an article about a 79-year-old CIA agent named Bill Oxley who supposedly confessed to killing Marley. Snopes did some digging, and it turns out there’s nothing to corroborate the story—or even the existence of Oxley. But the theory lives on, and in 2018, rappers Busta Rhymes and T.I. posted about the debunked story on Instagram.