Marley’s Establishes Reggae’s Popularity

Natty Dread was the first reggae album to achieve widespread popularity outside Jamaica. The album’s success brought reggae, a previously obscure musical form, to the attention of a worldwide audience, and it subsequently became a powerful tool of social and political change.

Summary of Event

The 1975 release of the album Natty Dread, by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and the tour that followed marked the first time that Jamaican reggae music achieved widespread international success and recognition. Although reggae enjoyed tremendous popularity in Jamaica, it had registered only an occasional hit, such as Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” (1969), Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” (1969), and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” (1972), on the European and American charts. Paul Simon’s Simon, Paul (musician) reggae-inspired “Mother and Child Reunion,” recorded in Jamaica in 1971, and Eric Clapton’s Clapton, Eric immensely successful 1974 cover version of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” also helped to bring reggae to the attention of a wider audience, but it was Marley’s compelling aura of moral authority, social commitment, and personal charisma, coupled with the Wailers’ masterful musicianship on Natty Dread, that first inspired a worldwide interest in the music called reggae. Reggae music
Reggae music
Marley, Bob
Marley, Rita
Blackwell, Chris
Barrett, Family Man
Barrett, Carlton
Anderson, Al
Harvey, Touter
Tosh, Peter
Livingston, Bunny

Reggae, like American blues, is “hard times” music that appeals directly to the downtrodden and disenfranchised. It is characterized by a distinctive, complex rhythm that emphasizes the first instead of the second beat; in reggae, the guitar functions mainly as a rhythm instrument, and the bass offers a melodic counterpart to the vocals. The tempo is slow, and the lyrics are often esoteric, containing references to Rastafarianism, African folktales, and Jamaican politics. Reggae’s roots are in the traditional Jamaican folk music known as mento and American rhythm-and-blues and soul music, which reached Jamaica for the first time from Miami and New Orleans in the 1950’s with the introduction of the transistor radio.

The radio, along with sound systems—huge speakers and generator-powered stereos mounted on the backs of flatbed trucks—brought the hottest new sounds, including the work of such favorite artists as Fats Domino, Johnny Ace, and Louis Jordan, to the Kingston slums. Competition for new hits was fierce; sound system disc jockeys scratched the labels off hit singles to obscure the records’ origin, and violence was routine, as disc jockeys sent gangs of thugs out to steal hits from the competition. When the supply of hot rhythm-and-blues records began to dry up in the 1960’s, Jamaican artists started to produce their own music to fuel the sound systems.

The first of this home-produced popular music was known as ska. Ska, bouncy music with the emphasis on the offbeat, enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity in Britain and was popularized in the United States with Millie Small’s recording of “My Boy Lollipop” in 1964. By 1965, ska had been replaced in Jamaica by “rock steady,” which was slower and had a heavier rhythm. Rock steady evolved into reggae, which was heavily influenced by American soul music, particularly that of James Brown. The derivation of the word “reggae” is not known, although many believe the word is simply a description of the music’s beat; it first appeared in the title of a 1968 Toots and the Maytals release, “Do the Reggay.”

Bob Marley, whose music followed the course from ska to rock steady to reggae, was born in the isolated rural parish of St. Ann’s on February 6, 1945, to nineteen-year-old Cedella Malcom Marley and Captain Norval Marley, a white Jamaican attached to the British West Indian Regiment. Captain Marley, bowing to family pressure, soon deserted his wife and son, and Cedella, tiring of country life, moved to the teeming slums of Kingston. Bob joined her there at age fourteen and, like most Kingston youths, became enthralled with the American music he heard throughout the slums. Introduced to record producer Leslie Kong by fellow musician Jimmy Cliff, Marley recorded his first single, “Judge Not,” in 1962. It attracted little attention, but a year later, Marley and his friends Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, along with vocalist Junior Braithewaite and two female backup singers, recorded “Simmer Down” for record producer Clement Dodd, Dodd, Clement and the record became a big hit in Jamaica. Known as the Wailing Wailers, Marley and his friends quickly became Jamaica’s top group, addressing themselves directly to the “rude boys,” tough ghetto youths who fashioned themselves after American gangsters.

Bob Marley.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

For the next eight years, the Wailers recorded for nearly every producer in Kingston, turning out hits but making little money until they signed with Chris Blackwell of Island Records in 1972. Blackwell, a white Jamaican with aristocratic roots and a reputation for honesty and artistic integrity, advanced the group money and allowed them the freedom to create more sophisticated and political music. The result, Catch a Fire, Catch a Fire (Bob Marley and the Wailers) the band’s first album to be released in the United States, was critically well received but did not attract a popular audience. Later in 1973, Burnin’, Burnin’ (Bob Marley and the Wailers)[Burnin (Bob Marley and the Wailers)] considered by many to represent the purest of Marley’s music, was released but also received little popular recognition.

With the release of Natty Dread in 1975, reggae found a wide international audience. Now billed as Bob Marley and the Wailers, the group no longer included Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, who had left to pursue solo careers. The Wailers in 1975 consisted of Marley, Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass, his brother Carlton on percussion, Al Anderson on guitar, Touter Harvey on organ, and the backup singers the I-Threes, including Bob’s wife, Rita. The album contained the Wailers’ most sophisticated and political music to date, including “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” a warning to Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley that “a hungry crowd is an angry crowd”; “Revolution,” a declaration of revolutionary struggle; “Rebel Music (Three O’Clock Roadblock),” a condemnation of random roadside searches by army troops; and the title track, an anthem glorifying the Rastafarian life.

Reggae became closely associated with Rastafarianism, Rastafarianism
Religious groups;Rastafarians a religious movement founded in Jamaica and based on the belief that the former Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was god, or “Jah,” on Earth and that he would arrange for the return of all people of African ancestry to Africa. Rastas shun alcohol, tobacco, meat, and shellfish, outlaw the combing or cutting of their hair (thus the “dreadlocks,” the long matted plaits of hair worn by most Rastas), and consider the smoking of marijuana, or “ganja,” to be a religious rite.

From 1976 on, Marley’s concerts were sellouts throughout the world; he toured Canada, the United States, France, England, Italy, West Germany, Spain, Scandinavia, Ireland, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Ivory Coast. He sold more than $240 million worth of albums, including Bob Marley and the Wailers Live! (1975), Rastaman Vibration (1976), Exodus (1977), Kaya (1978), Survival (1979), and Uprising (1980). Marley died from cancer in 1981 at the height of his popularity and influence, leaving an enormous legacy of music and political and social change.


After the release of Natty Dread, reggae found an audience outside Jamaica, particularly in Europe, South America, and Africa, and became a powerful tool of social and political change in Third World countries. Bob Marley became an influential figure not only in the music world but in the realms of politics and religion as well. More than a rock star, Marley was a hero of almost mythic proportions in the Caribbean and Africa. Reporters from around the world made the trek to Kingston to interview Marley, who used the opportunity as a kind of ministry to expound on his religion and philosophy and the plight of his country, bringing the tenets of a previously obscure religion and a small developing country to the attention of the world.

Marley’s musical success allowed him to become an extremely successful spokesman for the Rastafarian faith. Largely as a result of the missionary zeal with which Marley and the Wailers spread the message through their music, Rastafarianism grew from a fringe cult in Jamaica to a widely practiced belief. Songs such as “Natty Dread” portrayed Rastas as cultural heroes rather than as dangerous “crazies” and did much to change the public perception of the religion. Marley himself was thought by many Jamaicans to be a “mylaman,” or holy man, with the power to banish or destroy evil spirits.

Marley’s political influence was equally great, although he often disavowed any interest in politics or politicians. He was sometimes aligned with Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP), and his words were carefully heeded by Edward Seaga and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) as well, for both politicians were keenly aware of the massive sway Marley held over the Jamaican people. On December 3, 1976, Marley and his friends and family were targets of an assassination attempt only two days before Marley was to give a free concert in Kingston in an attempt to bring warring factions together. Although injured, Marley performed the concert as planned, singing before fifty thousand people; Rita Marley performed in her hospital robe and bandages. The assassins were never apprehended or identified, but the attempt testifies to Marley’s immense political and social influence in Jamaica.

Marley’s reputation as a black freedom fighter and reggae’s powerful message reached much farther than Jamaica. In 1980, he was invited to perform at the official Independence Day ceremonies of the new nation-state of Zimbabwe to celebrate the end of British rule. Marley’s appearance created such hysteria that the ceremonies had to be stopped for forty-five minutes until the crowd could be controlled.

Reggae achieved its peak of worldwide popularity from 1975 to 1980. The success of Natty Dread paved the way for other Jamaican artists such as Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals to reach a wider audience. Former Wailers members Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, both of whom had successful solo careers in Jamaica, also began to reach a wider audience. Burning Spear (Winston Rodney, also born in St. Ann’s Parish), whose music continues the Marley tradition of reggae concerned with political oppression and mystical transcendence, remained popular into the twenty-first century. Several of Marley’s children performed and recorded as the Melody Makers, and Bob’s son, Ziggy, went on to a successful solo career.

Many other bands were strongly influenced by reggae, including the English punk bands of the 1970’s; in particular, the adventurous and critically praised band the Clash, who had several songs produced by Jamaican record producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, drew from reggae sources. The success of reggae also inspired a brief revival of ska in Britain, performed by such bands as the Specials and the English Beat. The most successful pop band to incorporate reggae was the Police, who used a reggae beat in such hit songs as “Roxanne” and “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Many other popular musical artists and groups, including Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Blondie, the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder, Joan Armatrading, the J. Geils Band, and the Rolling Stones, incorporated reggae influences into their music. Reggae music

Further Reading

  • Davis, Stephen. Bob Marley. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. A thorough biography that covers in detail all aspects of Marley’s life, including his childhood, his youth in the Trenchtown slums, and his career as a musician. Includes pictures, an excellent bibliography, and an index.
  • McCormack, Ed. “Bob Marley with a Bullet.” Rolling Stone, August 12, 1976, 37-41. Examines the Kingston scene after Natty Dread’s success. Author visits Kingston slums, spending some time with a group of Rastafarians, and informally interviews Marley.
  • Marley, Rita, and Hettie Jones. No Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley. New York: Hyperion, 2004. Biography from Bob Marley’s wife, Rita, a musician in her own right and witness to her husband’s development into an international star. An insightful look into the band’s early days as well as the couple’s troubled relationship.
  • Thomas, Michael. “The Wild Side of Paradise: Steaming with the Rude Boys, the Rastas and Reggae.” Rolling Stone, July 19, 1973, 44-50. Article evokes the atmosphere of Kingston in the early 1970’s, before reggae became an international phenomenon. Discusses the music scene, the life of the Rastas and the rude boys, and Jamaican politics. Discusses Marley at length, as well as other Jamaican musicians.
  • White, Timothy. “Bob Marley.” In Rock Lives. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. Recounts a conversation the author had with Marley in September of 1975 at Marley’s home in Kingston. Marley discusses his musical influences, his children, his religion, the future of reggae, and the history of the Wailers. Very helpful in understanding Jamaica, Marley, and his music.
  • _______. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley. 1983. Rev. ed. New York: Owl Books, 2006. A valuable source for background material on the social, cultural, political, and religious milieu that shaped Bob Marley, as well as an engrossing biography. Contains pictures, a bibliography and index, and an extensive discography.

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