How did Bob Marley die? Inside the life of reggae star before his tragic death


Bob Marley left behind an inescapable mark on music and popular culture before he passed away at the age of 36.

By the time of his tragic death in 1981, Marley had become one of the most recognisable figures in pop music, despite only having a relatively short time in the spotlight.

Marley helped to popularise Jamaican culture in the mainstream, including the reggae genre of music, previously obscure to white audiences, as well as his religion of Rastafarianism, a unique type of Christianity, in the Western world. At the same time he managed to score numerous top 10 UK hits, and put out multiple critically acclaimed albums, creating a cottage merchandise industry that still exists to this day.

The star has so far sold 75 million records worldwide, and has been included on numerous best artists of all time lists by publications including Rolling Stone and he even received an award from the UN for his work on bringing world peace.

Marley’s life is still being immortalised in film and television. One Love, a new biopic movie based on his life, is out in UK cinemas now. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Marley’s real life come to screen, in 2020 the BBC captured a unique slice of the star’s life, a 1972 visit to a school in Peckham, south London, in When Bob Marley Came to Britain.

We’ve also seen hit West End musicals dedicated to star’s life. Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Story, began its run in 2021 in the newly refurbished Lyric Theatre, and it still plays off and on in London, with actor Arinzé Kene often reprising the main role.

Where was Bob Marley born?

Marley was born 1945 in the Jamaican countryside to an English father and Jamaican mother, in town of Nine Miles in the district of St. Ann. This means it would have been his 75th birthday in 2020.

Little is known about Marley’s father, but Norval Marley was an ex-officer in the British Army and had a baby with his mother Cedella, who was aged just 18, at the age of 65.

His father was working as a manager on a sugar plantation where his mother worked.

Though his father did support the young family financially, he saw them relatively little. His biological father died while Marley was just 10, and his mother would later remarry, giving him two half-brothers.

Marley’s childhood was also a formative time for Marley’s music. Growing up in Nine Elms is where he would meet his later collaborator Bunny Wailer, who played with him as part of his group The Wailers.

But the rural part of Marley’s upbringing was only temporary, he would soon move with his mother to the Jamaican capital of Kingston. Here he would meet his later collaborator and bandmate Pete Tosh, and they started playing music together while still in secondary school.

How many children did Bob Marley have and was he married?

Many of the reggae stars’ children have gone on to have remarkable careers on their own terms, in fields as diverse as fashion, business, authors, sports and music. He married Rita Marley, also a reggae musician in her own right, in 1961 and had seven seven children with her.

Outside his marriage to Rita, Marley had another five known children by six different mothers.

Some of his children that have gone on to find fame on their own terms, including Damian Marley, mainly known for his mid 2000’s Grammy award smash hit “Welcome to Jamrock”, which Pitchfork Media named as one of the best songs of the 2000s. He also went on to produce an album with acclaimed rapper Nas.

Stephen Marley would go on to mainly find fame as a music producer, working with artists such as Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Guru, Busta Rhymes, MC Lyte, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Chuck D, and The Roots, winning four Grammy Awards for his work.

What were Bob Marley’s most iconic songs?

Marley’s back catalogue included all different types of songs, from ballads such “Redemption Song”, which explored some of the more troubling aspects of black history, to catchy, more groove-based songs such as “Stir it up” and “Jamming”.

“No Woman, No Cry” has remained one of Marley’s most popular songs, and has sold 600,000 units in the UK alone and peaked at Number 2 in the UK charts.

The song prompted different interpretations from listeners over the years, depending on how you interpret Marley’s Jamaican patois. The live version of the song, recorded at the Lyceum Theatre, was ranked number 37 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

A Bob Marley greatest hit album, Legend, spent 1,119 weeks in the top 100 of the UK Albums Chart, the third-longest run in that chart’s history, and has sold more than 3.3 million in the UK alone.

Though Marley didn’t perform the version himself, Eric Clapton’s performance of “I Shot the Sheriff” reached Number One in US chart in 1974.

How did Bob Marley die?

Marley died in 1981 from a rare form of skin cancer just under his right toe at the age of 36. He first noticed the injury after being injured in a football match in Paris, and the injury refused to heal, a common symptom of melanoma.

According to some sources, Marley refused to get the toe amputated due a mixture of his religious beliefs and his desire not to impact his performance on tour.

He was operated on, but the operation didn’t work, and the cancer would later spread throughout the rest of his body, and at one point his famed dreadlocks became too heavy for his feeble frame.

The illness never stopped him from touring. According to some oral histories, one doctor told him he had “more cancer in him than I’ve seen with a live human being” and that “he might as well go back out on the road and die there” seeing as he just had a few months to live.

He played his last show on 23 September, 1980, in Pittsburgh.

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