Behind the 1981 Death of Bob Marley

I don’t believe in death, neither in flesh nor in spirit—Bob Marley.

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On May 11, 1981, reggae pioneer, songwriter, and storyteller Bob Marley died. He was 36. Just one day after he and the Wailers played two back-to-back shows at Madison Square Garden with The Commodores, September 19-20, 1980, Marley collapsed while he was jogging in Central Park in New York City. 

Still in poor health, Marley powered through and played another show at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Sept. 23, 1980, which would be his final live performance.

At this point, cancer had already spread to his brain. Less than a year after his final concert, Marley died at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami Beach, Florida.

[RELATED: The Sympathetic Meaning Behind the Song That Keeps on Giving— “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley]

Marley had a number of health issues throughout his life, but the one that would ultimately claim his life first became visible in 1977 when he noticed a dark spot appeared under his toenail. Though he attributed it to a soccer injury, the spot was a rare, aggressive form of skin cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), which ultimately cut his life short.

ALM typically starts with a black or brown discoloration that appears on the sole of the foot or palm of the hand, according to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It may resemble a bruise or stain, but over time it grows in size. It is also the only form of melanoma that is not associated with sun exposure.

Sadly, if Marley’s cancer had been detected early, it could have been treated and possibly cured. Instead, it metastasized and spread to his lungs, liver, and brain.

Born on February 6, 1945, Marley started his career in 1963, performing as a teen with future Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in The Teenagers. Their name soon switched to The Wailing Rudeboys, then The Wailing Wailers around their 1965 self-titled debut. 

By the release of The Best of the Wailers in 1970 and subsequent Soul Rebels—the first of two albums (the other Soul Revolution Part II in 1971) produced by the late Lee “Scratch” Perry with his band The Upsetters—they were rooted as The Wailers and went on to produce soul-stirring “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Simmer Down” and “War,” among many other classics.

Marley and the Wailers transitioned through earlier ska and into the mid-’60s rocksteady and reggae, from Catch a Fire and its simmering “Stir It Up” to their epic Exodus, and other releases. They would release 12 albums together before Marley’s death. His final release with the Wailers was Uprising in 1980 with its Marley classic “Could You Be Loved” and closing apex “Redemption Song.”

[RELATED: Breaking Down Bob Marley’s Musical Family Tree]

Confrontation was the 13th and final album recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers, released posthumously in 1983.

Throughout his short life, Marley left behind loving, empowered, joyous, and emancipating stories in song.

Upon his death, his final words to his son Ziggy were “Money can’t buy life.”

Photo by Pete Still/Redferns

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