Today in History: 11 May 1981 – the Legendary Bob Marley Dies at Age 36

Bob Marley live at the Crystal Palace Bowl in London in June 1980. Photo: Redferns.

By Chris Huber 11 May 1981 – Bob Marley Passes Away in Miami Florida.

When people think of reggae music, the first name that comes to mind is most often Bob Marley. Born Robert Nesta Marley in Nine Mile, Jamaica in 1945, Marley wrote undoubtedly some of the best reggae songs of all time, and is perhaps the person most responsible for bringing reggae music to the masses. This was all during a relatively short career, spanning just 13 short years in the public eye before his untimely death in 1981 at the young age of 36, after a long battle with acral lentiginous melanoma under his big toe.

While the modern pop-culture depiction of Bob Marley generally glorifies the pot-smoking, rasta-colored and laid-back side of Bob Marley, the real Bob was much more serious and would probably prefer to be remembered as an activist. Don’t get me wrong, the man did enjoy kicking back with a spliff, as evidenced by the song “Easy Skanking”, his music also contained deeply political undertones that contrast the sunny vibe present in his songs.

Marley’s ability to master this juxtaposition is part of what made him such a special talent. He managed to craft a catchy, feel-good energy in the music, but his lyrics often spoke of slavery, political turmoil, and revolution, and he really did “Stir It Up” in terms of his political persona.

There was even an assassination attempt on Marley in December 1976, just two days before he was set to perform at the Smile Jamaica Concert. He was shot twice that night and still managed to perform at the concert two days later.

Overall, Bob Marley was a total badass and an awesome songwriter. He wrote some of the most iconic, well-recognized, and influential songs of all time. Here we’ve done our best to narrow it down to just the 10 best Bob Marley songs. Read on to see how we rank them.

The Music

Buffalo Soldier 

Confrontation is final studio album from Bob Marley & The Wailers, album number thirteen and the only one to be released after Marley’s death. “Buffalo Soldier” was the single from Confrontation and it wasn’t long before it became of Bob Marley’s most popular songs. The lyrics depict the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the U.S. 10th Calvalry Regiment in the 1860s during the American Frontier Wars (important distinction: this was a peacetime regiment established before the Civil War). The catchy tune presents these Buffalo Soldiers as representative of black power and resilience, giving the lyrics a timeless message in the face of black oppression in America. It’s a prime example of what I discussed earlier; Bob Marley’s uncanny ability to serve up a serious message on a laid-back and chill platter.

Three Little Birds

Three Little Birds” is perhaps the most popular Bob Marley song, containing the iconic chorus “Don’t worry, about a thing / ‘Cause every little thing, is gonna be alright”. The song is a source of comfort on a cloudy day, and of excitement and optimism when you’re sailing along on a sunny day. In the case of “Three Little Birds” and many other Bob Marley songs, the music is the medicine, whether you need it or not.

I Shot the Sheriff 

Famous for more than just Marley’s funky reggae groove, “I Shot The Sheriff” was made ultra-famous in 1974 when Eric Clapton released a cover of it on his album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Clapton’s rendition reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and does get some credit for helping to spread the word about Bob Marley and reggae music in general. The lyrics here are about shooting the Sheriff John Brown, but later being blamed for the killing of the deputy, which Marley himself explains are about justice. This is also the final single that Bob Marley recorded with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer before each of them left to embark on their own respective solo careers.

Is this Love

Showcasing the wholesome, loving side of bob Marley is the classic love song “Is This Love”. This is one of those songs that everybody and their mother knows about. It’s also one of the few love songs about a positive, healthy relationship that isn’t total cringe. Marley really hits a full-on home-run with this song and it is always a pleasure to listen to.

Stir It Up

Stir It Up” is a laid-back love song about finding your way back into the presence of a lover whom you missed very dearly, and whom also shares those feelings. The two of you have nothing to do except sit around and “Stir It Up” together, in peaceful harmony and without paying attention to the time. It’s quite the vibe, and it features the iconic bassline that will have you swaying your hips from side to side, whether it’s your first time hearing the song or your hundredth time today.

No Woman No Cry

Originally released on the album Natty Dread, “No Woman, No Cry” was co-written by Bob Marley along with his friend Vincent ‘Tata’ Ford, who is actually the person who taught Bob Marley (plus Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) how to play guitar. The song is about a memory that Ford has of a woman crying in the street in front of his home, and the story goes that he sat under a tree in Trenchtown and strummed his guitar while writing the words to the song.

The studio version is good for sure, but the live version from the Lyceum in 1975, from the album Live! has way more guts. This is the version that has really become famous, as it is played slower and with more emotion than the studio cut. It’s the version that people know, and the one that earns this track its spot on this list.

One Love

Another Bob Marley song that has truly stood the test of time is “One Love / People Get Ready”. The tune encourages people to set aside their differences and come together in peace and harmony, or with “One Love”.

The writing credits for this one are shared between Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield, as Marley borrowed some lyrics from Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and injected them into his song. “One Love / People Get Ready” is a timeless classic and one of the most positive, loving songs of all time.

“One Love / People Get Ready” tops our list as the best Bob Marley song because it combines everything that makes Bob Marley an incredible artist: the positive message, the wonderful harmonies, and the lyrics of compassion and unity. Following the message in Marley’s music can only lead one down a path of peace and love, and that’s a path we should all be walking down.