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How Did Bob Marley Die?

How did Bob Marley die? The man was a music legend, born in Jamaica and yet bringing the sounds of reggae around the world as the music’s first ambassador. He was also an outspoken adherent of the domestic Jamaican religion of Rastafari and also spread awareness of this across the globe. But Bob’s most well-known message was one of brotherhood, equality, and One Love.

There are almost as many stories out there about how Bob Marley died as there are stories about his colorful life. Some think he was murdered, while others think he died in an accident. The truth is that he died of cancer at the far too young age of 36. 

So, let’s take a look at this great man’s life and clear the air about the cause of Bob Marley’s death while we’re at it.

Who Was Robert Nesta Marley ?

How Did Bob Marley Die

Bob Marley, also known as just “Bob,” was born Robert Nesta Marley on the 6th of February, 1945. Yes, during WWII, if you can believe it. His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was English, while his mother, Cedella Malcolm, was Jamaican. Not to be confused with Eminem, Bob Marley was born in Nine Mile, a village in rural Jamaica.

Bob’s mother, aka Mama Marley, was a singer and songwriter, and it’s from her that he gained his love of music. Facing poverty after his father died of a heart attack, Bob and his mother moved to the slum of Trenchtown in Kingston, along with Neville Livingston (aka Bunny Wailer). Bob and Bunny began to play music together and eventually started a band with Peter Tosh – The Wailers.

This band played ska and then reggae music…

And they ended up becoming one of the biggest acts of their time. Eventually, they split up in 1974 as Bunny and Peter wanted to explore solo careers, while Bob kept The Wailers’ name for his backing band.

Bob Marley put out 12 studio albums during his lifetime, and one more was released after his death. He is known as a legendary singer, guitarist, and personality within reggae music. As well as a proponent of peace and political reconciliation. Even decades after his death, Bob Marley’s music lives on, and he is one of the most-loved musicians of the 20th century.

How Did Bob Marley Die? – Debunking the Rumors

Numerous stories have circulated around the death of Bob Marley. After all, he passed away in 1981, when the news of the world still traveled slowly enough to be easily mixed up and embellished on the way.

People attributed his death to all sorts of things – tragic accidents, conspiracy, murder, and even natural disasters. However, there are two main stories that you can still find running around out there. I’m going to debunk these for you now, and then we’ll follow up with the actual, well-recorded details of the real reason Bob Marley died.

“Bob Marley Was Shot and Killed”

No, he wasn’t. Well, he wasn’t killed, anyway. The truth is that Bob “Tuff Gong” Marley was shot, on December 3rd, 1976, to be exact. Why? Well, by 1976, Bob Marley was already a global star. His song “No Woman, No Cry” was an international hit, and he recorded in London and successfully toured the USA. Back home in Jamaica, he was massive.

During this period in Jamaica’s history…

There was a lot of political tension that led to crime and fighting as different sides tried to push for power. Bob Marley was scheduled to perform at the Smile Jamaica Concert in support of an end to violence on the 5th of December. While he was declared neutral, many saw this concert as support for the government (the People’s National Party).

At 8:30 pm, a group of seven assailants entered Marley’s home and attacked him, his wife, his manager, and a band employee. All four were shot, with Rita Marley receiving a head wound. Bob himself was shot in the arm and chest. And yet, miraculously, no one was seriously hurt in the incident.

The gunmen escaped but were later identified. Some of the gunmen were captured, tried, and later executed. The trial brought out suggestions that they’d been hired by the rival Jamaican Labour Party to do the shooting, or even by the C.I.A.

But Bob refused to be intimidated…

Just two days later, he performed the scheduled concert as promised, hoping that it would be an act that would reject violence and bring about peace in Jamaica. Since he was injured, he only managed to play one song with his band (who played a full 90-minute set). But, it was enough to make his point.

Headlines at the time may have led to the confusion that Bob had died in the shooting. However, it could also be because of another tragic tale. Peter Tosh, Bob’s old bandmate and a reggae legend in his own right, was shot in a home invasion in 1987.

He was attacked during a botched robbery by a man he had once tried to help and was shot twice in the head and killed. This tragic story may have been confused with Bob Marley’s.

“Bob Marley Died of an Infection in His Foot”

This story is a whole lot closer to the actual reason why Bob died, but it’s still false. Bob was a big soccer fan and was often seen playing Association Football or just pick-up games anywhere he could.

He was a big fan of Pele as well as a supporter of the English Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur. He even became an accidental brand ambassador for Adidas, whose sports clothing was popular in Jamaica at the time.

As anyone who plays soccer knows…

…that you get kicked and stepped on all the time. This can lead to cuts, bruises, and, even worse, injuries. Bob actually downplayed what was later found to be cancer as a bruise from playing soccer. At one point in May 1977, he had to cancel two concerts planned in London after receiving a serious toe injury playing soccer with some French journalists.

So, this also likely contributed to the rumor that he died from a soccer injury. But he didn’t die of an infected toe, as many people believe. Instead, he died of complications due to cancer.

How Did Bob Marley Die? – The Truth

The Truth

The true and sad story is that Bob Marley didn’t die from any sort of accident or violent attack. Instead, he had cancer, and it eventually killed him. In 1977, he was diagnosed with a type of skin cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma or ALM. ALM is a rare form of skin cancer, but it’s much more prevalent in people of color.

This type of skin cancer, or melanoma, isn’t normally something that leads to death. At least, not in the last several decades of cancer treatment. However, Bob Marley made some choices with his treatment that would affect the outcome in a very negative way.

After his diagnosis with cancer in his big toe…

Doctors recommended that he have the toe amputated to prevent the cancer from spreading into his foot and the rest of his body. However, the singer refused, though the reason isn’t entirely clear.

Some people believe that he refused the amputation because it was against the teachings of the Rastafari religion. According to Rastafarian beliefs, the body is a sacred thing and should not be mutilated, disfigured, or altered in any way. So, that might be why he refused to have his toe amputated.

On the other hand…

There is also some suggestion that he simply hoped it would heal on its own and was worried about losing his small appendage. A big toe is pretty important for playing soccer. People who knew him also mentioned that he may have worried that losing his toe would affect his ability to dance and perform, which was, after all, his livelihood.

One final reason some people suggest is just simply denial. Many people who receive cancer diagnoses, especially at a young age when it is unexpected, initially experience denial. Or a refusal to believe that it is an extremely serious situation happening to them. This can often make them delay treatment, and this wastes valuable time.

So he didn’t have his toe amputated, but likely should have…

You already know this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Bob eventually had the toenail and nail bed amputated, but this wasn’t effective as the cancer had already spread further into his foot. He then traveled to Germany several times to receive alternative treatment.

The Issels Treatment, created by Doctor Josef Issels, claims to cure cancer by having patients follow several strict lifestyle rules. For example, they have to follow a very specific diet avoiding things like caffeine and alcohol, have any teeth with metal fillings removed, and take dietary supplements like vitamins, enzymes, and chelation therapy, which helps remove heavy metals from the body.

While it sounds positive, the American Cancer Society reports that this treatment is ineffective against cancer.

It certainly was in Bob Marley’s case…

It has been reported that eventually, Bob had radiation treatments; however, it was too late to be useful. By 1980, his cancer had metastasized, meaning it moved through his bloodstream to several other parts of his body. He became weak and affected by multiple tumors, and was unable to perform any longer. Bob Marley performed his last concert in September 1980 in Pittsburg.

Following that, he continued alternative treatment, but it wasn’t effective. In May 1981, he tried to fly to Jamaica, hoping to die at his home. However, he nearly died on the plane, which was re-routed to Miami. His mother, wife, and eldest son were with him at the hospital when Bob Marley died on the 11th of May, 1981.

What Were Bob Marley’s Last Words?

The widely believed final words of Bob Marley were long believed to be, “Money can’t buy happiness.” While this is a true and universal message that was certainly credible, his son Ziggy has reported that this isn’t the last thing he said.

Instead, Ziggy has posted on Instagram that his father’s last words were more specifically directed at him. “On your way up, take me up. On your way down, don’t let me down.”

Ziggy explained that this was his father’s way of telling him to take responsibility for his life and the family. He even wrote a song about his father’s last message to him – his 1999 song “Won’t Let You Down.”

Bob Marley’s Legacy

Bob Marley's Legacy

Bob was an incredible man who was more than just a musician. He was a music legend, singer, guitarist, and songwriter. He was also a political figure and a voice for peace during a time of trouble and violence in his native Jamaica. And he was also an important religious figure, bringing the Rastafari movement into the spotlight through his music and example.

Bob’s Family

As a family man, Bob’s legacy is just as large. He had 11 children that he and his estate officially recognize. Two of these were the children of his wife, Rita, who he adopted even though he was not the father.

Together, they had three children, and Bob had at least six other children by other women. These children include Sharon, Cedella, Ziggy, Stephan, Julian, Ky-Mani, and Damian, who all became singers and musicians following in Bob’s footsteps.

Bob’s Music

Bob released 13 studio albums of Ska and Reggae music, as well as two live albums during his career and numerous compilation albums (Legend being the best-known). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

In 1999, Time magazine named his Exodus the Album of the Century, and “One Love” was named Song of the Millennium by the BBC. And his songs have been listened to and loved by millions of people around the world.

Bob’s Awards

Outside of music, Bob Marley was also recognized for being a promoter of peace, love, unity, and equality. He was awarded the Peace Medal of the Third World in 1978 by the UN. In 1981, just before his death, he was honored with the Jamaican Order of Merit for all he had done for his home country.

And he has been immortalized with statues, streets named after him, and artwork with his words and image all around the world.

Interesting in More Music Influenced by Bob Marley and Reggae?

If so, check out our thoughts on the Best Reggae Songs Ever, the Best Sublime Songs of All Time, the Best 311 Songs of All Time, the Top 10 Barenaked Ladies Songs, and the Top 10 Dropkick Murphys Songs for more great song selections.

How Did Bob Marley Die? – Final Thoughts

Bob’s body died in May 1981, but his spirit lives on in his children and his music. This brilliant entertainer was taken too young. But just look at everything he was able to accomplish in his 36 short years. He had a host of hit songs that spread reggae around the world, as well as his passion for the Rastafari religion. He also fathered a huge family that continues his musical and spiritual legacy.

Next time you have a chance to hit the beach, check out a reggae bar and see how long it is before you hear a Bob Marley song playing. I doubt it will take more than half an hour. His chilled-out, peace-loving vibe is something that will live on for decades more to come. So, in that way, he’s still here with us. One love!

Until next time, happy listening.

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