Marley, Rita (Contemporary Musicians)
Singer, songwriter, producer
"Queen of Reggae" is a title often used to describe Rita Marley. Even if she had never sung a note in her life, few would question her right to be so called, for she is the widow of the late reggae master Bob Marley and mother of all the members of the Grammy Award-winning reggae quartet the Melody Makers. But Rita Marley's own musical achievements are as impressive as those of her family tree. During the 1960s she achieved stardom in her own right as a solo artist (sometimes singing under the pseudonyms Esete and Ganette) and as a member of the Soulettes; after marrying Marley, she co-wrote many of his best-loved songs and shared the world stage alongside him as a member of his backing group the I Threes; after his death, she took her solo career to new heights and helped guide the Melody Makers to their triumphs.
Born in poverty in Cuba, Rita Marley was raised from early childhood in Trenchtown, a Kingston, Jamaica, ghetto that nurtured many of reggae's greatest musicians. But the music called "reggae" had not yet emerged when Rita first met the young man who would develop into its greatest proponent, Robert Marley. Their paths crossed in the mid-1960s. She was eighteen years old, the mother of an illegitimate child, living with her aunt in a shack made of sheet metal. He was a couple of years older than she, and along with his friends Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, he was enjoying the first flush of fame with his musical trio, the Waiters.
The Waiters captured Rita's attention as they passed by her house every day on their way to rehearse at Coxsone Dodd's recording studios. Rita, a Sunday school teacher in the Christian church at the time, found their tough appearance somewhat intimidating; but the sweet sound of their music convinced her that they could not be as bad as they looked. She gathered her courage to call out to them, begging them to arrange an audition for her at Dodd's.
They did, and Dodd liked what he heard. He set Rita up in an all-female trio called the Soulettes and gave Bob Marley the responsibility of developing their sound. He proved to be a stern taskmaster, but his hard-driving ways soon paid off; the Soulettes quickly became almost as popular as the Waiters. Their early hitserformed in the light "ska" style that preceded the development of the reggae soundncluded "Pied Piper" and "I Love You Baby," arranged by Bob Marley. His attitude toward the Soulettes remained professional, critical, and distant, so Rita was astonished when Bunny Wailer delivered a handwritten note to her from Bob, in which he declared his love for her. The two were married in 1966.
Rastafarianism, the religion that holds that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the risen Christ who would lead blacks the world over to freedom, was beginning to exert a powerful influence in Kingston during the late 1960s, but Rita Marley remained skeptical. When Selassie visited the island, she turned out with thousands of others to see him for herself, hoping for a sign. As his motorcade passed her, he waved and nodded to her; in his open palm, she believed she saw the nail prints of the crucifixion, and from that moment on, her faith was unwavering. Her conversion deeply impressed her husband and influenced him to study and accept the Rastafarian beliefs that became so essential to his music and philosophy.
By the early 1970s, the Wailers had begun to reach an international audience, but the alliance of the original members was drawing to an end. Haile Selassie died just after Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer went their separate ways. The emperor's death stunned the Rasta world.
Within days of the announcement, Marley had written "Jah Live," a single that affirmed the Rasta faith and insisted that their God lived on. To back him up as he recorded the song, he called together his wife and two more of the country's favorite female vocalists, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt. (The Soulettes had disbanded some time before.) The collaboration of Rita, Griffiths, and Mowatt was so successful that they continued to work together as the "I Threes." Popular in their own right, they also became an integral part of Marley's reorganized band, Bob Marley and the Wailers. Touring the world with the Wailers, the I Threes were a mesmerizing part of every performance, contributing their perfect harmonies, graceful choreography, and regal bearing.
Rita Marley was at work on her first solo album when, in 1981, her husband succumbed to cancer. In the wake of his death, she released the album, which yielded the top-selling reggae single in history, "One Draw." But although that album, Who Feels It Knows It, and its follow-up, Harambe, were critical and popular hits, Marley soon set her own career aside. Nurturing her husband's children (seven by other women, as well as the four they'd had together), working to keep his cultural legacy strong, and grappling with the monumental legal problems associated with his multimillion dollar estatee died leaving no willccupied her time for most of the 1980s. She performed occasionally in Jamaica, both as a solo artist and with the I Threes, but her main musical focus was producing and managing the fledgling Melody Makers.
By the late 1980s, most of the children were grown, the Melody Makers were a firmly established success, and the years of legal feuding over the Marley estate were drawing to a close, with the Jamaican Supreme Court ultimately ruling, in 1991, that control of the estate should go to the Marley family. The time was finally right for Rita Marley to resume her solo career. In 1990 she released We Must Carry On, and it was as well received as all of her previous musical efforts had been. The album embraced political and social messages as well as songs of love and relationships and included four compositions by Bob Marley, two of them previously unreleased.
Affirming her deep faith in the power of music to Christian Science Monitor correspondent Amy Duncan, Marley declared that music's "main purpose is to bring about changes in the system, in the society." Quoting the lyrics to her song "There Will Always Be Music," the singer concluded: '"All things shall perish from under the sky but music alone shall live.' Whatever time we're passing through, there will always be music."
Who Feels It Knows It. Shanachie, 1982.
Harambe, Shanachie, 1983.
We Must Carry On, Shanachie, 1990.
Davis, Stephen, Bob Marley, Doubleday, 1985.
White, Timothy, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, Holt, 1983.
Billboard, August 15, 1992; September 12, 1992.
Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 1991.
Jet, December 30, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1990; July 16, 1991.
Newsweek, April 8, 1991.
Washington Post, August 25, 1991.