Bob Marley didn’t invent reggae music, but he put it on the map for millions of listeners.
When Marley first formed the Wailers in the 1960s with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, they played what was then the most popular music style in Jamaica: ska, characterized by high vocal harmonies, unison horn parts, and brisk tempos that sound even faster because of a heavy emphasis on off beats—in other words, the “and”s in one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four-AND. Here are the Wailers in their ska period with a 1965 recording of Marley’s song “One Love.” (Actually, it’s not all Marley’s song; several bits—for example, the lyric “Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner,” along with the accompanying melody—are borrowed from “People Get Ready,” written by one of Marley’s prime American inspirations, Curtis Mayfield, and originally performed by Mayfield’s group the Impressions.)
Marley re-recorded “One Love” in a reggae style more than a decade later. This far more famous version appeared on the 1977 album Exodus; you can hear it in our February Hear the Music playlist. Although the high harmonies and emphasis on the offbeats are still present, the horns are gone and the tempo has slowed way down. There seems to be a much greater space between the notes, a fundamental trait of reggae.
For the rest of his life, Marley continued to work in this basic style. Here he is with the Wailers at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1975, performing another of his most well-known songs, “No Woman No Cry.”
As the ’70s continued, Marley’s popularity quickly grew in America. Soon he was playing to large crowds in amphitheaters and stadiums, as you can see in this clip from a 1979 Boston concert; the song is “Positive Vibration.”
“Redemption Song,” the closing track on the 1980 album Uprising, suggested a new musical direction for Marley. There was no band, just one voice and one acoustic guitar (both Marley’s). Sadly, we’ll never know how he might have developed this more folk-like approach. Uprising was the last album released before his death from cancer in 1981.