“Just listen to a song like ‘No More Trouble,’ or ‘So Much Trouble in the World,’” says Rita Marley, wife of the late Bob Marley. “The lyrics to those songs fit the times, fit what’s happening.”
How true. If art can be measured by its ongoing relevance, then Bob Marley ranks among the most important artists of all time. Three decades after his death, the reggae icon’s songs continue to resonate in ways that cut across ethnic, social and political boundaries.
As Marley’s spouse, Rita Marley watched her husband emerge from Jamaica’s ghettos to become a legendary force in music and in human rights. Since Marley’s death in 1981, she has carried the torch for his message and served as custodian of his work. Following in her husband’s tradition, she continues to “enlighten, educate, and entertain” with her own music, as well.
Bob Marley would have turned 65 on February 6. The images we carry of him, however – Les Paul slung high, dreadlocks flying, hand raised upward – will forever be youthful.
In 2007, we spoke with Rita Marley for a feature commemorating the 30th anniversary of the landmark album, Exodus. To mark Bob Marley’s 65th birthday, we’re pleased to present that interview in its entirety.
What was it like working with Bob in the studio?
It was fun, but we didn’t joke around. It was a commitment, and it was work Bob felt he had to do to the best of his ability. He would make sure every note, and every sound, was as perfect as it could be. It was like, “Let’s do the absolute best we can, and after that we can laugh and have a smoke.”
What was he like as a bandleader? Was he strict?
He was very strict and extremely disciplined. Everything was very “on time,” and very professional. When we were doing concerts, for instance, if we were told the bus would pick us up at 7:00, Bob would be there fifteen minutes early. That was the beauty about Bob and his work. He never took anything for granted.
But he also never stopped to think, “Okay, I’m Bob Marley,” where he took himself too seriously. He was Robert – or “Robbie” - before he was “Bob,” and “Robbie” is what we were always calling him. The name “Bob,” to him, was like “Elvis Presley.”
He obviously listened to a lot of American soul music. You can detect a heavy James Brown influence in the early Wailers songs.
Oh, that’s all we used to listen to. That was like our food, in terms of thinking that, one day, we would be played on those radio stations, and believing that, one day, our music will be played [in America]. In the early ’60s, that was our dream. When we were at Coxsone Dodd’s studio, Coxsone would bring us all the American records. My group, the Soulettes, tried to model ourselves on the Supremes. And Bob Marley and the Wailers would listen to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and James Brown. Every night, they would listen to those guys and try to sound like them.
Later Bob teamed up with legendary producer Lee Perry. What was the relationship like between them?
They were great friends. Lee knew Bob to the “T.” I remember watching them work on “Mr. Brown,” the duppy song, about a ghost. I watched them go through that production, and I was cracking up. Lee took Bob to the Ark, which was Lee’s studio, and they started coming up with those lines: “Mr. Brown is in town / And he’s a ghost / And he rides through town in a coffin.” Watching those brothers put those lyrics together was fantastic. (laughs) It also broke the mood a bit, because Bob is very serious. He doesn’t usually go for gimmicks, but this one was cracking everybody up. And they ended up with a hit song.
Did you detect a change in Bob’s songwriting after the attempt on his life, in 1976, when he felt forced to relocate to England?
Yeah, man. You could see it, and you could feel it. This wasn’t part of the plan, to go to London. It was a compulsory move. Exodus really was the movement of Jah people. We had to move. After the assassination attempt, we got scared, for real. And it was obvious in the songs Bob wrote. There was a hurt, and a feeling – not about the brothers [who pulled the triggers], but about the ones who set them up. There’s that line in “Time Will Tell”: “They think they’re in heaven, but they’re living in Hell.”
Guitarist Junior Marvin came into the band just before the making of Exodus. Did that change the dynamic of the band in a way that you could detect?
I think so. That was Bob’s choice, in terms of “I need a guitarist who’s gonna rock me.” Junior was that kind of person, especially on-stage, although we wanted to change his hairstyle very quickly. The way he played guitar could make you cry sometimes.
Were there ever periods in which Bob found it difficult to write?
Not that I recall. There was always something to write about. Bob’s method was to write about reality, or what was happening at the time. What’s on the news? What’s in the headlines? He didn’t have to dig to any great depth for ideas.
He would sit with his guitar, and say, “Hey, listen, something is coming.” Then he would call on someone to add to it, whether it was me or Familyman [Barrett] or Tyrone [Downie] or whoever. He would say, “Listen to this. Give me a line here. Write this down for me. Is this spelled right? Let’s get a dictionary.” It was learning and earning at the same time -- not earning money, but earning the position of “Hey, we’re doing it!”
Bob was incredibly generous with people, particularly during the times spent at the family house on Hope Road. Do you think he sometimes tried to do too much, for too many people?
You could say that. And it’s true with the children, as well. I think it runs in the family, and we’re trying to curb that, a bit. From the experience of Bob, we’ve learned that sometimes you give your all, and you lose your all. You have to learn to reserve a little for yourself – not materially, but spiritually and physically.
Interest in Bob’s music has never diminished. Do you think that would surprise him?
No. I think he worked hard for this moment. I think he put this moment down pat, in terms of, “I don’t know what I will be, but I know I’m doing the best I can. And I know what I’m doing isn’t just something I – Bob Marley – am doing. It’s prophetic, and it’s an assignment.” That’s how Bob viewed his work. He did it with a really serious commitment, as if he knew he wasn’t going to be around, physically, for very long. It was as if he knew he needed to get it right, now. He was on a mission.