In 1973, a reggae group on the verge of breaking up released an album — its second that year — filled with militant anthems inspired by life in the Jamaican slums. It turned out to be Bob Marley's big break.
Burnin' was the last album the reggae master released under the name "The Wailers," and it featured the final performances of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer with the group.
While the band was rhythmically tight, Marley dominates this album. Burnin' covers a variety of topics and moods, from the militancy of "Get Up, Stand Up" and "I Shot the Sheriff" to the heartfelt rage and poverty-induced despair of "Burnin' and Lootin'." The final track, the traditional "Rastaman Chant," sounds a more redemptive note.
The political stridency of Burnin' was informed by the slums where Marley lived. Rita Marley, his widow, sees the connection.
"We were grown and raised in the ghetto, so we knew nothing more than a ghetto life," she says.
But Burnin' was also a breakthrough for Marley — and for reggae music's acceptance in the U.S. When Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, sent the record to his contacts in the music industry, Eric Clapton heard something he liked and transformed "I Shot the Sheriff" into a No. 1 hit.
"When he recorded that song, that was probably the biggest break, really, that Bob had had," Blackwell says. "Because Eric at that time was, literally, like, you know, like God in the music business, and God had gone to Bob Marley for his material. So it pointed towards Bob and gave him the respect that catapulted him really into a whole other level of credibility."
Independent producer Ben Manilla interviewed Rita Marley, Chris Blackwell and Jim Henke, author of Marley Nation and chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, about the album.