How Bob Marley was sold to the suburbs

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Illustration by Yann Legrandre
At the time of his death, in May 1981, Bob Marley was 36 years old, reggae's biggest star, and the father of at least eleven children. He was not, however, a big seller.

For Dave Robinson, this presented an opportunity.

Two years after Marley's passing, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Marley's label, Island Records, brought Robinson in to run his U.K. operation. Robinson's first assignment was to put out a compilation of Bob Marley's hits. He took one look at the artist's sales figures and was shocked.

Marley's best-selling album, 1977's Exodus, had only moved about 650,000 units in the U.S. and fewer than 200,000 in the U.K. They were not shabby numbers, but they weren't in line with his profile.

"Marley was a labor of love for employees of Island Records," says Charly Prevost, who ran Island in the United States for a time in the '80s. "U2 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Robert Palmer is what paid your salary."

Blackwell handed Robinson -- the co-founder of Stiff Records, famous for rock acts like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello -- an outline of his vision for the compilation, which Blackwell says presented Marley as somewhat "militant." "I always saw Bob as someone who had a strong kind of political feeling," he says, "somebody who was representing the dispossessed of the world."

Robinson balked. He'd seen the way Island had marketed Marley in the past and believed it was precisely this type of portrayal that was responsible for the mediocre numbers.

"Record companies can -- just like a documentary -- slant [their subjects] in whatever direction they like," Robinson says. "If you don't get the demographic right and sorted in your mind, you can present it just slightly off to the left or the right. I thought that was happening and had restricted his possible market."

Robinson believed he could sell a million copies of the album, but to do it, he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs, but Marley himself.

"My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view," Robinson says, "was to sell him to the white world."

The result of that coolly pragmatic vision was Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers, an album that became one of the top-selling records of all time, far exceeding even the ambitious goals Robinson had set for it. Unlike the Backstreet Boys' Millennium, 'N Sync's No Strings Attached and many other best-selling albums in recent decades, Legend isn't a time capsule of a passing musical fad. Selling roughly 250,000 units annually in the U.S. alone, it has become a rite of passage in pop-music puberty. It's no wonder that on July 1 Universal will release yet another deluxe reissue of the album, this time celebrating its thirtieth anniversary.

Few artists have hits collections that become their definitive work. But if you have one Bob Marley album, it's probably Legend, which is one reason that members of his former backing band, the Wailers, are performing it in its entirety on the road this summer. Legend also defines its genre unlike any other album, introducing record buyers to reggae in one safe and secure package. In fact, it's been the top-selling reggae album in the U.S. for eight of the past ten years.

"It doesn't just define a career, it defines a genre," says SoundScan analyst Dave Bakula. "I don't think you've got another genre where you've got that one album."


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