In the years between signing with Island Records in 1973 and his death from cancer in 1981, Bob Marley became an international star, and reggae music migrated from his native Jamaica to the far corners of the world. In the early years, Marley was backed by band mates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, while, near the end of his career, he was backed by the all-female trio the I-Threes, led by his wife, Rita Marley.
Alternately political (“Get Up, Stand Up,” “Them Belly Full [But We Hungry]”), romantic (“No Woman No Cry,” “Waiting In Vain”) and religious (“Jah Live,” “So Jah Seh”), Marley’s combination of rock-steady rhythm, insightful lyrics, feel-good vibes and soulful vocals typified albums such as Catch a Fire, Natty Dread, and Babylon by Bus. On this twentieth anniversary of Marley’s death, the singer has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Island Records is re-releasing eighteen Bob Marley albums this year, with bonus tracks and B-sides. Rita Marley talked with us about her husband’s music, life and legend.
Why did you decide to reissue Bob’s albums this year?
Because the timing is right. It’s appropriate with what’s happening now. As Bob Marley said, “So much trouble in the world.” It’s so appropriate for us to do this now. The music is a salve that will heal the world eventually, so we thought that this generation that really didn’t get a chance to see Bob Marley and isn’t able to get some of his old selections will now be able to do this with the re-release. We went through all of what we thought was the best and all that we thought Bob would have liked. As Bob Marley says, “We must carry on.” So he has left us a legacy of music to carry on for generations and generations into generations.
Tell me about some of the bonus material. What’s on here fans haven’t heard?
The one that says “We must carry on when the world lets you down” [“I Know a Place”]. That is one that was never released before, and the message that it carries is so now in terms of what’s happening. That’s one that was never released before. When Bob goes into the studio, he didn’t just say, “I’m going to do one album by itself.” No, we always had leftovers and some that were what you’d call rejects we have those too. So you go back to them and you find that there was a strong effort that was made, so we need to put them out.
How did [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell’s involvement change the band?
He really didn’t change the band. Reggae is authentic to us, so he didn’t have much to do with the production. When we played the tracks, he’d say, “I like this one, I don’t like that one.”
I thought a couple of the better tracks on the new version of Catch a Fire were “High Tide or Low Tide” and “All Day All Night.” Why were those originally left off the album?
Yeah, man, that’s true, that’s very true and there’s more like that too. I guess that was Chris Blackwell’s choice. It was usually what they liked, at the end of the day. They had enough to decide what they really wanted, the concept of the album.
Was Bob hurt by Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh leaving the band?
I wouldn’t be able to say that, because it’s Bob feeling. What I know is that it didn’t stop his career. He went on, pulling in the I-Threes and really making it work. That’s the most important thing. It didn’t affect his ability to do what he had to do. And same thing for Peter and Bunny — they were able to go and do what they had to do as individuals.
Were audiences receptive to the I-Threes early on?
Oh yes. I mean, the most important thing was to have Bob Marley; it didn’t matter who was behind him or beside him. He was the star of the show. They didn’t care who else was on stage, as long as Bob was there. I think that was the main ingredient.
Was there a specific way Bob like to write songs?
He liked to work in the quiet — that’s for sure. And he liked to write what he sees, the reality of life. That’s what I know about him. Most of the stuff he writes is factual; it’s not fiction. The unique thing about Bob Marley, he writes what relates to everybody. You hear a Bob Marley song, a little piece of me is in that song, a little piece of you.
What’s the biggest misconception about Bob Marley?
That he smokes a pound of pot a day. That’s such a misconception. Bob is a normal man, just like any other man.