Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Jim Morrison—the list of musicians who died too young stretches for miles, and the man from the tiny Jamaican village of Nine Mile, Bob Marley, will always be included on that tragic list. Born Robert Nesta Marley on February 6, 1945, he faced a difficult childhood as a child of a white father and a black mother. Though he came from humble beginnings, recording his first two singles as Bobby Martell in 1962, the local lad would make good, becoming a member of the Rastafari movement and forming a musical group that eventually became known as the Wailers.
With his band in tow, Marley would go on to become the most famous reggae artist of all time, almost single-handedly bringing Jamaica's mellow, funky music (derivative of rocksteady and R&B) to foreign shores. Throughout his career, he crafted an impressive catalog of hit songs and classic albums. Tracks like "No Woman, No Cry," "One Love," and "I Shot the Sheriff" remain some of the best-loved anthems in music history. Along with the Wailers—consisting of Bunny Livingston, Peter McIntosh, Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith, which eventually whittled down to Livingston and McIntosh— Marley enjoyed success with their first two major label releases, which he largely penned: Catch a Fire (Tuff Gong/Island, 1973) and Burnin' (Tuff Gong/Island, 1973).
The Wailers split up in 1974, when McIntosh and Livingston opted to go it alone. Under the names Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, both men achieved considerable success as solo artists. Marley kept the name, performing and recording as Bob Marley & the Wailers with a new group of musicians. The new group continued to release popular records through the '70s, including 1975's Natty Dread, which scored them a Top 40 hit in the UK with "No Woman, No Cry", the following year's Rastaman Vibration, which reached the Top 10 album charts stateside, and Exodus (Tuff Gong/Island, 1977), which TIME magazine named the greatest album of the 20th century. Their run lasted until Marley's untimely death in 1981. Marley died from cancer, discovered in 1977, that had sprouted in his big toe. Marley refused to have the toe amputated due to his Rastafarian religious beliefs, and by 1980 it had spread to his brain, liver, lungs, and stomach. Marley performed his last concert in 1980 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and died in Miami, Florida on May 11, 1981. He was 36 years old.
Since his death, he has received myriad awards, including inclusion to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. In 1984, Tuff Gong (the Wailers' label) and Island released Legend, a compilation of Marley's most popular work, which would become the highest selling reggae album of all time, moving over ten million copies stateside, and over two million more worldwide. Marley will always be known as the Godfather of Reggae, due to his brilliant catalog, his belief in the ideals for which he stood, and his dedication to human rights.