We are thrilled to offer our readers and exclusive excerpt from Richie Unterberger's upcoming Bob Marley and The Wailers: The Ultimate Illustrated History. The book, published by Voyaguer Press and available on September 1st, is a visual history of the legendary reggae star. The infamous and still unsolved 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, that wounded the singer, his wife Rita, and manager Don Taylor, is excerpted below. We are also giving away a copy of the book with a signed plate by the author here.
“Once word got out that he was going to do a free concert, it seemed like everything just went haywire, just out of control,” Donald Kinsey told Chris Heim of Option magazine almost a dozen years later. “People in the band were getting nervous. Some of the girls left the island, said that something ain’t right and they weren’t going to do it.”
Despite general unease about whether the situation could rile the JLP or others, rehearsals for the concert went ahead. After a rehearsal at Bob’s house at 56 Hope Road on December 3, he was getting something to eat in the kitchen when a gunman entered and began shooting.
“We were rehearsing at his house about nine o’clock two nights before the concert,” Kinsey continued. “We had just taken a break, so people were moving around. Good thing, because if everybody had been in the same room, it would have been a real massacre. I was in the kitchen getting something to drink. Bob was in the kitchen and his manager was in the kitchen, and we started hearing gunshots go off. I didn’t know what was happening. There was a back door to go outside and as soon as I thought about going out that door, this gun came up inside and started shooting. We couldn’t go anywhere.”
Miraculously, Marley was not seriously wounded. The only bullet that hit him grazed his chest and left arm. Kinsey, also in the room, managed to avoid getting hit by any shots. Bob’s manager, Don Taylor, wasn’t so lucky. He took several bullets in his midsection. Had Chris Blackwell not been elsewhere waiting around for Lee Perry to finish a mix, he might have been caught in the gunfire too, as he was planning to visit the house that night.
The would-be assassin in the kitchen wasn’t the only gunman who’d barged into the premises. A couple others took aim at Rita Marley as she started up her Volkswagen outside. As she drove off, a couple bullets entered the car, one of them grazing the top of her head. Bleeding from her wound, Rita might have been finished off had she not stopped the car and played dead.
After the gunmen fled, Bob, Rita, Don Taylor, and a friend of the Wailers who had also been wounded were sped to the hospital. Incredibly, the bullet that had caused Rita’s bleeding had lodged between her scalp and skull without seriously endangering her. Taylor had lost a lot of blood, however, and nearly died before surgery. It now seemed uncertain whether the Smile Jamaica concert would take place, or whether Bob would even stay in the country.
No one could have blamed Marley for canceling his appearance, or for leaving Jamaica altogether, with worries that another attempt on his life might take place. The next day, however, PNP housing minister Tony Spaulding urged Bob to play, as a demonstration that Marley wouldn’t be cowed into reclusion. Despite understandable reservations, Rita confirmed she’d support Bob if he decided to go ahead with the event.
Courageously, Marley went to National Heroes Park to perform in front of nearly one hundred thousand fans, playing for ninety minutes. Rita Marley was onstage singing with him, still in her hospital gown. At one point, Bob even pulled up his sleeve to show the crowd his wound, declaring “Bang-bang — I’m okay.” More than two hundred people surrounded Bob onstage, helping to ensure that shots weren’t fired. “When I decided to do this concert two and a half months ago, there were no politicians involved,” he told the crowd. “I just wanted to play for the love of the people.”
“I talked to Bob by walkie-talkie the night of the concert [because people feared phone lines might be tapped],” Kinsey told Option . “All the rest of the acts said they weren’t going to do nothing if we didn’t show up. He asked me if I would do it. I just felt God was with us because we survived that night, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ Boy, we did it! You talk about a mystic night, ooh, it was mystic.”
Doing his full set at Smile Jamaica was an important symbolic gesture for Bob, one that let the world know he wouldn’t be intimidated for singing and speaking his mind, even at risk of his life. He wasn’t so foolish or heedless, however, to tempt fate by sticking around longer than necessary. Right after the show, he flew on a chartered Learjet to the Bahamas, where he stayed at a Nassau house owned by Blackwell and was joined by other family, friends, and Wailers. Blackwell also paid for Taylor to be flown to Miami where an operation was performed. Marley didn’t return to Jamaica for more than a year.
As in many successful or attempted assassinations, much mystery remains as to who shot Marley and their motivations. The gunmen have never been publicly identified, let alone brought to trial or imprisoned. Many felt the JLP had something to do with it, angered by Marley’s perceived support of the rival PNP. Some feel the CIA was behind the attempt, a theory that gained more believers when it emerged that a cameraman for the unreleased film of the event was the son of a former director of the agency. There’s also been speculation that it was retribution for a supposed botched fix of a horse race by one of Bob’s associates at a nearby track.
Even a major Jamaican newspaper, the Gleaner, viewed the shooting as politically motivated. “Whether he chooses to think so or not, Marley is a powerful political voice in Jamaica,” it pronounced. “And it’s this, together with his Rastafarian beliefs and his criticism of his country that instigated ‘the incident’ last December.”
Keeping an open house for help and handouts was also putting Bob into contact with dangerous characters from several sides of the political spectrum. “At home he was seen as ‘the voice of the people,’ and the ghetto youth were very aware of this,” noted Rita Marley in her memoir. “Despite his move uptown, they still regarded him very highly. The biggest murderers, the biggest gunmen, would come to him for help. Hope Road became a welfare center—there was no night there, 24 hours a day they’d arrive demanding to see him.
“He’d become more important than the prime minister. It began to seem as if he had to live for them. Added to this, he was subjected to certain pressures from one party or the other, and it was risky to be in the middle. He was living a very dangerous life, simply because he had brought all this attention to the island of Jamaica through his music.”
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