ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris. From the stagger step of those first few beats, the sound and the vibe of Bob Marley's music are unmistakable. On this day, 25 years ago, Bob Marley died of cancer. He was just 36 years old. He was reggae's first international superstar.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MARLEY'S ONE LOVE)
NORRIS: His voice and his message still resonate around the globe. Marley's style is emulated by countless artists, his songs regularly covered by folk, jazz, rock, even country artists. At the close of the century, the BBC chose one of Marley's seminal tunes, One Love, as its song of the century.
That's the version of One Love we're used to hearing. But the song had a long evolution, one that tracks Bob Marley's evolution as a singer, musician and cultural icon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ONE LOVE IN 1965)
NORRIS: This is what One Love sounded like in 1965.
NORRIS: That's a young Robert Nesta Marley singing with Peter McIntosh, later known as Peter Tosh, and Nevelle Livingston, who would later go by Bunny Wailer At the time the trio was called the Wailing Wailers and in the pictures of this era the men are almost unrecognizable. It's before the dreadlocks, before the embrace of Rastafarian teachings, with their short afros and their slim cut suits, the three looked like they could show up on the cover a Motown album. Christopher John Farley is author of the new book BEFORE THE LEGEND: THE RISE OF BOB MARLEY.
CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY: It was first recorded as a ska song. It's a dance song. It was a time of a new generation of Jamaicans were sort of taking the torch away from the older generation saying this is our music, this is our Jamaica, these are our streets.
NORRIS: It's so much — the tempo — it's so much faster.
JOHN FARLEY: It's a quick pace because people there wanted to dance. So you couldn't have a song that just laid there. You had to have a song that would get people onto the dance floor, that would get hearts pumping.
NORRIS: That phrase, One Love, would later come to symbolize international tolerance. But in 1960's Jamaica, it was an expression of ethnic pride. Dera Thompkins is a reggae promoter and producer.
DERA THOMPKINS: One Love comes from one God, one aim, one destiny, which was one of the leading slogans of Marcus Darby. It's a call for unity among black people.
NORRIS: If you traveled to Jamaica or if you hang out with a lot of Jamaicans here in the US or wherever you happen to live, you'll sometimes here people say one love. Yeah, as a salutation. Almost like the way Italians say ciao.
THOMPKINS: Yes, one black love. One black heart was the slogan, was the saying when you greeted anyone. It was for the initiated and the uninitiated. Those who were initiated, it was like an acknowledgement and those who weren't, it was sort of like a sign to come in and join us.
NORRIS: The song One Love went through a number of changes over the years. By 1971, it had picked up some of the sound and vibe of Rastafari, the religion Marley adopted. Later in the 70s, Marley's sound evolved yet again. His lyrics were more overtly political and he'd added female backup singers with the I3s, including his wife Rita Marley. He also began to experiment more with funk and R&B rhythms. The version of One Love that became an international hit was subtitled People Get Ready, a tribute to the Curtis Mayfield song. Again author Christopher John Farley.
JOHN FARLEY: The first version of One Love is a version that really is local. In this final version, it's a song that's really aimed at the entire globe. He's not just playing to Jamaicans anymore, he's not just playing to Kingstonians, he's playing to mankind and it shows how big his music had become, how ambitious he'd become as a musician and it's captured in that song One Love.
NORRIS: But those ambitions led Marley to make certain compromises.
JOHN FARLEY: Bob Marley never sold out but he understood the importance of selling well. And so he didn't want his music to be taken advantage of but he certainly wanted his music to be heard.
NORRIS: To this day, some of those compromises are hard to swallow for diehard Marley fans. Dera Thompkins, for one, cringes when she hears his songs in beer advertisements or at shopping malls. And she says the college kids who still weave and bob to his rhythms often don't understand the true meaning of his music.
THOMPKINS: That song is a very precious song. It's a very precious song. It's, you know, like the South African national anthem. Like, you know, the black national anthem. It's something that's really kind of sacred and to see it on a beer commercial really was very painful.
The deep meaning of it sometimes now is lost. It's a song that everybody gets on the stage at the end and sings. And it's gotten a little sing songy and the real depth and power and blackness of it has been lost.
NORRIS: I've been listening to a lot of Marley music over the past few days, which means the people in my home have been listening too. The other day while cleaning up after Sunday supper, I watched three generations float to the kitchen stepping and snapping to Buffalo Solider, my 78-year-old father-in-law grooving like someone half his age, my nephew lost in the rhythm while drying dishes, my 5-year-old son, bopping his head and singing --
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MARLEY'S BUFFALO SOLIDER)
NORRIS: The only lyrics he could memorize on the spot. I've listened and I've talked to a lot of people. And, yes, I've heard a lot of grousing about the corrupting influence of the music marketers on Marley's legacy. For what it's worth, I've come to believe that the strength of Bob Marley's music is that it endures and that it means something different, something special to every person who hears it.
We've collected a small sampling of Marley memories from around the globe. Roger Douglas is a street musician in London. He and his 77-year-old mother Phyllis Wright both love Marley's music.
ROGER DOUGLAS: He was the only pop star, if you like, that when he died I cried. I was a teenager. I thought, I was really shocked at my feelings. But that's the God's honest truth. When he died I knew there was something the world had lost in a very serious way.
PHYLLIS WRIGHT: Yes. I'm his mum. I loved that Mr. Marley. He's with me all the time. In thoughtful words, indeed. I listen to him every day. I like the words he sang in his songs because they were really true, from the Bible. And everything he sang was from the Bible. He was good a man.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY MUSIC)
ADAM GOLD: My name is Adam Gold. I'm in Syracuse, New York. I was so surprised how funky reggae could be. An Exodus is such a huge popular track that most people do know, you know, those that aren't Bob Marley enthusiasts are still familiar with that. It's just surprising how deep and heavy the base line is and how strong the reggae feel is at the same time.
NORRIS: Finally, here's a young woman in Senegal, Africa. She proves that even if his fans don't' know everything about him, or even the proper names of his songs, Marley's appeal is universal.
ROCA ANIR: My name is Roca Anir. I 15 years old.
(Through Translator) My favorite song is Street Town Rock. When you're alone and you listen to this tune it really does something to me. I can't explain it. It's just a beautiful song. Beautiful song. I love it. I love Bob Marley's songs. Yeah, he's the king of reggae, as they say. That's absolutely right.
NORRIS: Robert Nesta Marley died 25 years ago today. You can hear more of his music and read an excerpt from the book THE RISE OF BOB MARLEY at our web site, NPR.org.