Time Will Tell: 40 Songs That Shaped Bob Marley’s Legacy
It’s the 40th anniversary of the reggae king’s passing. Here are the 40 songs that turned him from a Kingston raggamuffin to a global icon.
On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley passed away at just 36 years old. Three years later, Island Records released the Legend compilation with the aim of reaching “suburban record buyers who were uneasy with Marley’s image of a perpetually stoned, politically driven iconoclast associated with violence,” according to the Village Voice. Legend is the best-selling reggae album of all time and one of the most successful compilations of any genre.
But even within Legend’s collection of supposedly “safe” Marley songs, like “Jamming” and the lullaby-like “One Love,” it is impossible to separate the appeal and power of Bob’s music from the politically driven iconoclasm, biblically referenced Rasta principles, and the ghetto “runnings” that shaped them.
Bob gave voice to the sufferers, as so much of the finest roots reggae did. As he went on in his career, he was unwilling to compromise his messages or musical excellence, but he also understood the importance of negotiating and sacrificing in other areas to advance his artistry. He fought his way through abandonment, poverty, homelessness, taunts for being mixed race, and the repeated exploitations of unscrupulous record producers. Ultimately he triumphantly placed reggae and his Rastafari way of life on an international platform and became one of the world’s most influential artists.
On the 40th anniversary of his death, here are 40 songs that chronicle the trajectory of his extraordinary, against-all-odds journey to success.
Bob Marley was just 16 years old when he made his first recording for Jamaican producer Leslie Kong’s Beverley's Records. Bob met Kong through a then relatively unknown 15-year-old Jimmy Cliff. “Judge Not” wasn’t a hit, but Bob delivers an endearing, if slightly off-key lead over a jaunty ska beat, with discerning lyrics derived from his grandfather’s teachings: “Judge not before you judge yourself / judge not if you’re not ready for judgment,” which foreshadowed even greater insights to come.
Bob and Bunny Wailer knew each other as children in rural St. Ann, Jamaica, and lived together as brothers after Bob’s mother married Bunny’s father. It was in the west Kingston community of Trench Town where they met Peter Tosh and formed The Wailers. The Wailers’ first number one hit in Jamaica in February 1964 is an effervescent ska jam with Bob on lead vocals, urging the rude boys to cool off from the crime and violence, “control yuh temper or the battle will be hotter,” with accompaniment by the legendary Skatalites, featuring a jazzy saxophone solo by Roland Alphonso.
The 1977 version of this tune has become the soundtrack to a thousand corny commercials, but in 1965 The Wailers recorded the song as an irresistible gospel-infused ska track. Striking a lyrical balance between biblical verse and uplifting ideals, “let’s get together and feel all right,” as he did here, was an essential component in the vast appeal of Marley’s music.
This obscure Wailers song (only one hundred copies were originally pressed), recorded without Bunny Wailer in 1968, stands as Marley’s most moving affirmation of his Rastafari way of life. Supported by Rita Marley and Peter Tosh’s high pitched harmonies and backed by Rastafarian Nyabinghi drum ensemble Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, the song borrows the melody from American singer Artie Glen’s 1953 no. 1 hit “Crying In The Chapel” and was produced by Rasta elder Mortimer Planno who briefly acted as The Wailers’ manager.
A return to producer Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s Records yielded this gem driven by the stunning, fluttering guitar work of Lynn Taitt, the primary creator of rock steady, which followed ska and was the precursor to reggae. Bunny and Peter’s swooping harmonies beautifully frame Bob’s emotive lead while the lyrics— reportedly written about an incident where Bob was held overnight in jail and have a much wider implication of proceeding carefully in life—punctuated by Bob’s exhortation in a somewhat Americanized voice, “Hit me from the top, you crazy muthafunkers!”
In the late '60s, The Wailers (and Bob’s wife, Rita) signed to an American label, JAD Records. One of the strongest efforts for the label was “Soul Rebel.” To enhance the song’s appeal among an intended American audience, overdubs of horns and other instruments were done in New York; singer/songwriter/musician Jimmy Norman provides a baritone voice reminiscent of The Temptations’ Melvin Franklin. The Wailers would revisit “Soul Rebel” in a rootsier fashion as the title track for their acclaimed debut album for producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, the first collaboration between The Wailers and brothers Carly and Aston “Family Man” Barrett on drum and bass, respectively, who would record and tour the world with Marley for the duration of his career and were architects of the band’s sound. Carly was murdered in 1987; in 2006 Family Man sued the Marleys and Universal/Island Records, claiming that neither he nor his brother had received any royalties since Marley's death. The lawsuit was dismissed, but Family Man’s impact on the Marley legacy was undeniable.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” is one of the most repeated phrases in the New Testament and Marley adapts it—“the stone that the builder refused”—as a metaphor for the rejection he faced from his father and the white side of his family. As his half-sister Constance Marley, the daughter of English naval captain Norval Marley (Bob’s father) commented in the Marley documentary upon hearing the song, “How true that is. Because Bob put the Marley name in the world, he filled the world with Marleys, with his music and his children. And now he becomes THE Marley, nobody knows what happened to the rest, isn’t that amazing?”
In 1971, The Wailers topped the Jamaican charts for five weeks with their production “Trench Town Rock,” a rousing tribute to the struggling ghetto community where they met and refined their talents under the tutelage of Joe Higgs. Marley reminds us not to separate the music from the people of “Kingston 12,” urging, “Don’t turn your back, give the slum a try, never let the children cry.” Marley’s vocals are exquisite here as are Bunny and Peter’s high-pitched harmonies while the Barrett brothers “brutalize” with their rock solid drum and bass driven one-drop rhythm. “Trench Town Rock” was a showstopper whenever Marley performed it, but the original version stands as a benchmark in The Wailers catalog.
From the 1971 album Soul Revolution II, produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry, this is a cover of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions’ 1964 hit. Mayfield wrote many songs that became anthems of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the '60s and exerted a profound influence on The Wailers and other Jamaican vocal groups of the era as they developed more substantial lyrics and more sophisticated harmonies.
Recorded in 1971, at a time in Jamaica when even possession of a single marijuana seed could mean a significant jail sentence, “Kaya” (Jamaican slang for ganja) is as revolutionary an ode to the plant as it is ethereal (“I feel so high I even touch the sky above the falling rain”). From their earliest days Bob, Bunny, and Peter championed ganja with Bunny serving a 14-month prison sentence for possession and Peter repeatedly beaten by authorities for his unrepentant usage. Bob re-recorded “Kaya” as the title track to his 1978 album.
He would remake the song with slightly different lyrics as “Satisfy My Soul” on 1978’s Kaya. But this organic rendition features a beautifully unfettered arrangement, anchored in Family Man’s pulsing bassline, and Bob’s relaxed, sometimes scatted vocals. It is a real delight.
First recorded by The Wailers in 1967, this playful expression of sexual desire was Marley’s first song to chart outside of Jamaica. American singer Johnny Nash cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with his rendition in 1973 and he invited the Wailers to tour the UK with him, then left them stranded there. The Wailers re-recorded the song for their breakthrough Catch A Fire album and performed it on their UK television debut on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test. Bob’s vocals are sensual and soulful, and Peter and Bunny’s harmonies are outstanding, as is the entire band.
The opening track from Catch A Fire—The Wailers’ debut album for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records and reggae’s first concept album—was unlike anything most people had ever heard. The extended intro features American guitarist Wayne Perkins’ sinewy lead, followed by a one drop reggae beat that ushers in Bob’s arresting lyrics: “No chains around my feet/But I’m not free/I know I’m bounded in captivity.” Bob’s emotive lead and Bunny and Peter’s equally impassioned harmonizing delivers the haunting cry of Jamaica’s persecuted that is deeply felt by the oppressed everywhere.
From The Wailers’ 1973 album Burnin’, Bob’s ecclesiastical lead is supported by Bunny and Peter’s celestial harmonies and Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus drummers on this traditional, stirring Rastafarian invocation to exorcise evil and oppressive forces.
According to Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh came up with the concept for the song and Bob wrote the lyrics to The Wailers’ and Lee Perry’s fearless challenge to Jamaica’s top record labels of the late '60s: Treasure Isle, Federal Records, and The Wailers’ former home, Studio One, referred to as the big three. But its lyrics are also applicable to any courageous, righteous battle: “If you are the t’ree, we are the small axe, sharpened to cut you down.”
From Burnin’, the song’s intriguing lyrics could be heard as a recounting of the harassment meted out by police towards Jamaica’s poor, Rastas in particular. But Wailers’ bassist Family Man said the song was influenced by country music gunslinger ballads by the legendary Marty Robbins, while Bob’s former girlfriend Esther Anderson said it expresses Bob’s displeasure with her using birth control (“every time I plant a seed they say kill it before it grows”). In a 1974 interview with Jamaican broadcaster Dermot Hussey, Bob said the song was about dissension between him, Bunny, and Peter: “How you think mi write “I Shot the Sheriff"? Just the fight mi get in my own group, mi have to shoot all sheriff,” quipped Marley. Eric Clapton’s 1974 version was his only U.S. no. 1 and brought greater attention to reggae overall and Marley in particular. Burnin’ was the final album Bob, Bunny, and Peter would record together; frustrated by the attention Blackwell placed on Bob, both left the group in 1974.
“It takes a revolution to make a solution,” sings Bob on the track from 1974’s Natty Dread album. It’s a provocative statement that caused great concern at the time of its release, for both the ruling People’s National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party. The incendiary line “never let a politician grant you a favor, they will want to control you forever” would presage a turn of tumultuous events in Marley’s life in December 1976 (see no. 24 “Smile Jamaica.”)
One of Bob’s most insurgent songs employs stark lyrical imagery, from the cold ground that was his bed to the frustration of lying preachers that made him “feel like bombing a church.” The I-Threes’ gospel-infused backing vocals give the song a deeper soul grounding. And the lyric “your feet is just too big for your shoes” feels like an old blues lament.
The 1975 recording included on Live! (recorded at London’s Lyceum Theater) became Marley’s first UK hit and perhaps the ultimate rendition of this masterpiece. Marley excels as a storyteller here with references to cooking cornmeal porridge on an open fire in the government yards of Trench Town. Superb accompaniment by the Wailers—especially Tyrone Downie on the Hammond organ—is further embellished by the I-Threes’ poignant backing vocals.
Another strong affirmation of Marley’s Rasta way of life, and his stark, hypnotic response to reports of the death of Rastafarian deity, Ethiopian Emperor Halie Selassie I on August 27, 1975. “Fools say in their heart, Rasta yuh God is dead,” sang Marley, expressing the sentiments of Rastafari detractors, “but I and I know it shall be dreader dread.” It was initially reported that Selassie died of natural causes before evidence emerged suggesting he had been murdered by the military government that had deposed him in 1974. In 1992 his remains were discovered under a concrete slab on the grounds of his former palace. Some Rastas believe Selassie is still alive.
From 1976’s Rastaman Vibration, the song was written by Marley about his job driving a forklift in a Delaware Chrysler parts warehouse in the late '60s. Marley is also said to have worked as a DuPont Co. lab assistant, using the pseudonym Donald Marley.
Marley was courting an African American audience, as he commands here, “play I on the R&B, I want all my people to see.” Marley also projected “we bubblin on the top 100, just like a mighty dread,” an ambition that was realized shortly after the song’s release in 1976 when “Roots Rock Reggae” became the only Bob Marley single to reach the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 51.
Marley’s rebel yell opens the track, decrying the presence of the military on Jamaica’s streets but also attacking the island’s oppressive class system. As Marley so compellingly sings, “build your penitentiary, we build your schools, brainwash education to make us your fools / hate is your reward for our love, telling us of your God above / we gonna chase those crazy baldheads out of town.”
Written and released in 1976, Marley’s lyrics encourage healing at a time of violent political fractiousness on the island. Bob bravely, defiantly headlined a concert of the same name on December 5 that year with a 90-minute set. It was just two days after gunmen burst into his Kingston home and sprayed bullets in an attempt to kill him. A bullet grazed Bob’s chest and remained lodged in his arm for the rest of his life; his wife Rita, manager Don Taylor, and friend Lewis Griffith were also shot in the melee. Prime Minister Michael Manley, the head of the People’s National Party, called for an election a few days after the concert was announced so Marley appeared to have a partisan bias. In many interviews, Marley has emphatically stated that he was apolitical and he only supported Rastafari.
Following the assassination attempt at his Kingston home, Bob went into exile in London, his 18-month sojourn coinciding with the height of the British punk rock explosion. Reportedly, after hearing punk superstar band The Clash cover reggae singer Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” he and Lee Perry cut this song. English punk bands The Damned, The Clash, The Jam, and punk precursors Dr. Feelgood are all mentioned, as are the commonalities then experienced by punks and Rastas: “Rejected by society, treated with impunity.” “Punky Reggae Party” is a significant reciprocation of the adoration punk bands including The Clash, The Slits, and The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten had shown reggae.
Marley recorded the Exodus album (named the album of the century by the BBC) in London, its title track inciting the “movement of Jah people,” towards spiritual salvation. From the opening wah-wah guitar effects, robust keyboards, and stately horns to the fade-out reverberated chant of “move,” throughout its 7:42 minute duration “Exodus” is as epic as its biblical namesake suggests.
Bob’s performance of this exquisite song in his headlining set at 1978’s One Love Peace concert, his triumphant return to Jamaica, is not only his defining moment onstage as an influential artist and peacemaking emissary, but it also stands as one of the most affecting moments in all of popular music. Seemingly channeling divinely inspired energy, Bob steps to the microphone, his eyes closed. “I’m not so good at talking but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say, could we have up here onstage Prime Minister Michael Manley and Mr. Edward Seaga. We just want to shake hands and show the people we’re gonna make it right, we’ve got to unite, gonna make it right, we’ve got to unite.” Lightning strikes in the background as Marley clasps his hand in the hands of Jamaica’s warring political party leaders and raises them overhead, as the I-Threes intone, “I wanna jam it with you.”
An often talked about aspect of Bob Marley’s life was the many women with whom he was involved; he had 11 legally recognized children with seven women, despite being married to Rita until his death. The achingly expressed longing in “Waiting in Vain” was reportedly written about the many times Bob approached Cindy Breakspeare (a former Miss World, Bob’s girlfriend for several years, and Damian Marley’s mom) before she yielded to his advances. It’s also worth noting that Rita once said in an interview that she didn’t want to sing backup on the sultry R&B jam “Turn Your Lights Down Low” because she believed Bob also wrote that for Cindy.
Many of the songs from Bob’s 1978 album Kaya were recorded at the same sessions that yielded its predecessor, Exodus. From Kaya, the haunting “Running Away” addresses the criticisms Bob faced when he moved to London following the shooting at his Kingston home. “You must have done something wrong,” sings Bob in the voice of an accuser.
As the song fades, Bob’s spoken-word delivery explains it all: “I’m not running away, I’ve got to protect my life and I don’t want to live with no strife / it’s better to live on the housetop than to live in a house full of confusion so I made my decision and I left ya.”
Co-written with Lee Perry, featuring remarkable backing vocals by The Meditations, and anchored in Family Man’s rugged bass line, Bob implores his Rasta brethren and sistren to steadfastly embrace their faith, “grow your dreadlocks, don’t be afraid of the wolfpack.” The song also has wider implications to stand against the political corruption and violence that gripped Jamaica at the time and nearly cost Marley his life.
Performed at Harvard Stadium, July 21, 1979.
The Amandla Festival of Unity, held at Harvard Stadium outside of Boston, was a world music festival that Marley headlined in support of the liberation of South Africa from its oppressive Apartheid regime and to raise consciousness about racism in America, specifically in the greater Boston area. Festival organizers sought out Marley as “a black international superstar with progressive politics.” Marley’s performance here is considered one of the finest of his entire career and it is crowned by his spellbinding rendition of “War,” based on a 1963 speech against racial discrimination by Emperor Haile Selassie I to the United Nations General Assembly and summed up by the lyric, “until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes, mi say war.”
If Legend was intended to soften Marley’s image, then 1979’s Survival is its antithesis as his most overtly socio-political work. Bob wrote “Ambush In The Night” about the assassination attempt on his life: “This ambush in the night all guns are aiming at me/they opened fire on me/Ambush in the night, planned by society/ambush in the night, they tryin' to conquer me.” Over an indestructible one drop groove, Bob attributes his survival of that harrowing incident to “powers of the Most-High.”
A blast of majestic horns opens this strongly articulated call to unity and indictment on corrupt leaders and their divisive tactics: “They don’t want to see us unite, all they want us to do is keep on fussing and fighting / they don’t want to see us live together, all they want us to do is keep on killing one another, top rankin’ are you skanking?” The song’s plea for harmony resonates just as powerfully today.
Bob not only wrote this song in solidarity with the freedom fighters in the southern African nation (formerly the white minority-ruled British colony Rhodesia), he paid for all the necessary equipment sent to Zimbabwe from London so he and The Wailers could perform the song at independence celebrations there in April 1980. That performance was intended for invited guests only, but when Marley and The Wailers started playing, thousands broke down the gates. Police let off teargas and most of the band exited the stage, but Bob remained. When they returned, according to I-Three Marcia Griffiths, Bob commented with a lyric from the song, “now we find out who are the real revolutionaries.”
Released in 1982 as a 12” single with an extended dub mix and included on the posthumous Confrontation album, Bob revisits Kingston 12 where “they say we’re the underprivileged people so they keep us in chains” but “we free the people with music.” As the song winds down, Bob rhetorically asks “can anything good come out of Trench Town?” As the birthplace of reggae and the community where Bob and Bunny met Peter, the answer is a resounding yes!
Bob’s ambition to reach an African American audience was fulfilled with this funky, disco-tinged 1980 hit that advocated love of self, love of one’s people, and love of Jah. Thanks to influential program director Frankie Crocker, “Could You Be Loved” received regular rotation on New York City’s popular urban station WBLS FM. Representing a full circle moment in Bob’s career, “Could You Be Loved” incorporates lines from Bob’s very first single, “Judge Not,” sung by I-Threes: “the road of life is rocky and you may stumble too / so while you point a finger someone else is judging you.”
According to Timothy White’s celebrated 1983 Bob Marley biography, Catch A Fire, when Chris Blackwell initially heard the songs that Bob submitted as the Uprising album (the final album released in Marley’s lifetime), he told Marley he had something more to give to the project. Marley returned the next day with two additional compositions, “Coming in From The Cold” and “Redemption Song,” which provide Uprising’s dramatic opening track and its haunting conclusion.
“Coming In From The Cold” proves that despite having achieved global superstar status Marley remained a credible, deeply insightful voice for the sufferers, wherever they might be.
On the acoustic “Redemption Song,” Marley alternates between plaintively addressing his audience about his imminent departure and reflecting on how his time on earth was spent. “How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?” he asks the listener, while the contemplative “all I ever had redemption songs, these songs of freedom,” sums up the greatest wealth he had always possessed.
Following his collapse while jogging in Central Park, the subsequent diagnosis of cancer, and the decision to end the Uprising tour, Bob chose this reflective song for a three-hour sound check in Pittsburgh, ahead of the final concert of his career. Initially released by The Wailers’ on their Wail N Soul M imprint in 1968 (with Rita and Peter Tosh on background vocals), the song addresses fleeting joy in younger years: “When I was just a little child/happiness was there a while/then from me, yeah, it slipped one day/happiness, come back, I say.” It is absolutely heartbreaking in this context.
From the 2010 Live Forever album, which captures Bob’s final concert at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater on September 23, 1980. This enduring anthem, co-written by Marley and Peter Tosh and first recorded by The Wailers in 1973, encourages staying resolute in claiming one’s rights and has fittingly been adapted as a struggler’s anthem throughout the world. There are many versions of this song by Marley and Tosh that are worth hearing, but the historical significance of this haunting rendition—as the last song Bob ever performed—provides the proper finale for an artist who never gave up the fight and continues to inspire so many to do the same.