Remembering Bob Marley with Chris Blackwell

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Chris Blackwell with Bob Marley and others

Bob Marley and others with Chris Blackwell in the late 70s.

Tonight at the New York Public Library‘s main branch, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell is scheduled to speak on the topic of Bob Marley to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of his passing. Blackwell is not a big public speaker, so it will probably be more like a public interview, but as one of the most erudite and tasteful music men ever, it is sure to be “a lesson and a blessing.”

One famous story about the death of Bob Marley is that in the same week, Cat Stevens, another popular Island artist at the time, changed his name to Yusef Islam that week and retired from making music, so Blackwell suffered a double blow. Of course, Stevens’ conversion was not nearly as significant an event, but Blackwell also probably didn’t predict that Bob Marley in death would be thousands of times as popular than he was during life.

A few things that Blackwell did had a big influence on Marley becoming massive. In 1983, when the first compact discs were being created at a slow enough pace that even a Bob Marley compilation would be of interest, Island released “Legend,” the first Bob Marley cd. To even the most hardcore fans, the greatest hits album was a vital piece of material. Early copies include the “King Tubby” version of “Buffalo Soldier,” incidentally. “Buffalo Soldier” itself helped things along with its MTV video and Banana Splits-inspired chorus. As a previously unreleased song of quality, it produced a strong burst for Legend, which would soon become the token reggae album in everyone’s collection.

And Legend was easy listening too. As restaurants, hotels and other passive environments were programmed, the album was a key element. Blackwell deserves credit for making the album lean toward the sentimental and uplifting Marley songs and less toward politically challenging messages.

In today’s world, where would Bob Marley stand? When radio stations were soliciting me for suggestions on what songs to play after 9/11, I recommended “One Love,” but also warned against songs like “Talking Blues” or “We and Dem” written from the perspective of the “third world.” It will be heartbreaking if Blackwell details the long, lingering football injury that led to Marley’s death from cancer at 36. Bob Marley wanted to live very badly even if he knew his words and songs would never die.

I will be there tonight to thank Chris Blackwell again for sharing his vision of music with the world.

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