No Woman No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley
by Rita Marley with Hettie Jones
Published by Hyperion
224 pages, 2004
Rita Marley grew up in Trench Town, a slum in Kingston, Jamaica, and was raised by her beloved Aunty. Music ran in their family, and even as a child Rita possessed a talent for singing that was remarked upon. Nevertheless, by the time she was 18, she had become an unwed mother, and it seemed as if her musical career was going nowhere. It was then that Rita met Bob Marley, literally on the road in front of her house. Later, after being reintroduced at a local recording studio, they became close friends and fell in love. Soon, Rita was singing backup for the Wailers, Bob's reggae group. When he was 21 and she 19, they married.
Emotionally, though, life was still rough for Rita. Bob conducted liaisons with other women publicly. At his manager's urging, he allowed the press to report that he was single, to preserve his "image." Yet throughout it all, Rita managed to preserve her self-respect, even helping some of Bob's girlfriends to raise their children by him. She also brought up her own children and embarked on an international career as a soloist. Bob and Rita never separated or divorced, and when he became ill with cancer, she did not leave his side until his passing in 1981.
Written with author Hettie Jones, No Woman No Cry is a no-holds-barred account of the life of an incredible woman, married to one of the most well-known and beloved musicians of all time.
People ask what it's like when I'm somewhere and suddenly Bob's voice comes on the radio. But the thing about Bob is so deep, it is as if he's always with me, there's always something to remind me. So I don't wait for his voice.
And he did promise me, before he finally closed his eyes, that he'd be here. It was May 11, 1981, and the doctors said he was dying of cancer and that there was no hope. But Bob was hanging on, he wouldn't let go.
I had put his head in my arm, and I was singing "God Will Take Care of You." But then I started to cry and said, "Bob, please, don't leave me."
And he looked up and said, "Leave you, go where? What are you crying for? Forget crying, Rita! Just keep singing. Sing! Sing!"
So I kept singing, and then I realized, wow, that's exactly what the song was saying: "I will never leave you, wherever you are I will be ..."
So if I hear his voice now, it's only confirming that he's always around, everywhere. Because you do really hear his voice wherever you go. All over the world.
And one interesting thing about it, to me, is that most people only hear him. But I hear more, because I'm on almost all of the songs. So I also hear my voice, I also hear me.
Who Feels It, Knows It
Studio One had probably been a home before Coxsone bought it. He had taken down walls, but it was easy to imagine where the bedroom used to be and the kitchen and the hall. So you felt like you were at home there, because it was less like a business and more like a family affair. When anything happened, everybody got excited -- the musicians, the singers, the man outside. And the hype was, "We do a hit tune today." "We" meaning it was everybody's hit tune. We would be there for days, nights, days, but nobody complained -- it was just fun to wake up and say, "Oooh, I have studio today!"
Coxsone had recorded some of the most successful groups in Jamaica, including the famous "Skatalites," one of the earliest ska bands. (The word "ska" comes from a certain sound made by the electric guitar.) Marcia Griffiths, who later sang with me as one of the I-Three, says that Studio One was Jamaica's Motown, "where all the great stars grew ... like a university you graduate." A lot of times different people would be working at once; songs were being written in every corner. You couldn't help but learn if you kept your ears open. Coxsone had a guitar that he loaned to those who were too poor to buy one. Bob had that guitar most of the time.
The backup group we eventually formed still consisted of Dream, myself, and Marlene, who would leave school in the evenings to come to Trench Town and rehearse, and whose parents thought this was the worst ambition. To leave high school to go to Trench Town, to be with those kinds of people -- the tough guys, the killers, the thieves!
Dream was my main tootsie, my favorite cousin, my little postman, my little errand runner. As a baby, he had the most beautiful big eyes you've ever seen, and always looked as if he was dreaming -- you know that sexy dreamy look? So from an early age Constantine Anthony Walker was known as "Dream." He was only about thirteen, the baby amongst us, when we met the Wailers. They, being the Misters of Black Progress, who taught us that Black Is Beautiful and how wise it is to know yourself, decided that Dream was so much their little "buds" (buddy) that they had to change his nickname. Only old men have dreams, they insisted, but young men have visions. And so Dream became Vision. A much more youthful flavor!
We sang behind the Wailers and sometimes behind other singers or groups who were recording. Coxsone and some others on the scene suggested we name ourselves something like the Marvelettes, an American group we'd heard, and so we became the "Soulettes." Our first big hit, with Delroy Wilson also singing background, was "I Love You, Baby." This was a big, big thrill for us. We were unknown, we weren't out there in the show business arena, and we were all still teenagers, starry-eyed amateurs.
It was also Coxsone's suggestion that Bob train and rehearse us, and I guess by then he must have seen something happening between Bob and me.
He was pretty handsome, I thought -- Robert Nesta Marley, Robbie to all of us then. Jamaicans would call him brown-skinned and Americans might say light-skinned. His father, Captain Norval Sinclair Marley, was an older white man, a native Jamaican who had retired from the British Army. Bob had much of his father's imprint; he was very half-black, half-white, with a high, round forehead, prominent cheekbones, and a long nose. His mother, Cedella "Ciddy" Malcolm, was seventeen when she met Norval. He was more than twice her age, and was then the superintendent for British-owned lands in the rural parish of St. Ann, where Ciddy lived. By the time she was nineteen, she'd been seduced by, married to, and then abandoned by Norval. The one time he saw his father, Bob used to say, the old man offered him a "Willy" penny (an old copper coin, thought of as a collector's item). Bob claimed he never saw Norval again.
But like me, Bob had an extended family to raise him, at least for a while. His grandfather, Omeriah Malcolm, was a myalman, or healer, as well as a successful businessman respected in his community of Nine Miles. So it didn't surprise me that Bob, as the world would come to know, was very black conscious -- his black consciousness covered his light skin. You see him, you hear him, and he's a black man. And he was very disciplined, self-disciplined. Very real.
At fourteen he had come from St. Ann to Kingston with his mother, to live with her and a man named Thaddius (Taddy) Livingston, who had offered her work in his bar. Ciddy had a daughter, Pearl, with Taddy, but then found out he was already married and had other women besides. Looking for a better life, she took Pearl, who was still a baby, and migrated to Wilmington, Delaware, where she had some family and friends. Bob was left in Taddy's care, but more like on his own. He told me that his mother's plan had been to send for him in three months, as soon as she was settled and could secure the necessary papers. But the papers weren't easy to get. The three months had become more than three years.
When we met, Bob was living in an uneasy situation with Taddy Livingston, Taddy's common-law wife, and his son Neville Livingston, called Bunny, the member of the Wailers eventually known as Bunny Wailer. With his mother away, Bob lacked the kind of support and defense I got from Aunty. (One of his early songs is titled "Where Is My Mother.") Taddy's woman resented him, as the son of a woman who had had an affair with her man. One day Bob told me how fed up he was with both Taddy and this "stepmother," who wanted him to be her maid because he wasn't bringing any money to the house. For a while he had simply become an errand boy, then worked as a trainee in a welding shop, before making his first singles, "Judge Not" and then "One Cup of Coffee," on the Beverley's label. That Bob was getting some attention didn't mean he was being paid very much. No one had money then.
At first, and maybe always, I cared for Robbie Marley from a sisterly point of view. I was that sort of person, and still am -- the responsible kind. I saw him and I said, "poor thing." It wasn't "I love him," but "poor thing." My heart went out to him. I kept thinking, oh, what a nice boy. So nice that I didn't want to let him know I had a baby -- in those days, for a teenager to be unmarried and have a baby seemed so shameful. During this time I spent many hours at Studio One, rehearsing and recording, and always managed to conceal that fact. But one day, right in the middle of recording, my breasts started to leak, and Bob noticed. He said, a little surprised, "What's that? You have a baby?" It was not said unkindly.
Although I was terribly embarrassed, I couldn't deny the evidence, so I just nodded.
And he said, "I could tell. Why you didn't let us know? Why you didn't ask to go home early? Is it a boy or girl?"
"Well, it's a girl," I said.
"Where is she? What is her name? Where is her father? Can I see her?"
All these questions came fast, with great concern. I stood there, looking at him, unable to answer right away. I found that concern to be very mature for a young man still in his teens -- like caring and at the same time maybe seeing me through a different eye. His interest in my baby made me feel proud instead of ashamed. That to me was a good sign, but so unexpected. Finally he said, "Go home and feed your baby and I'll see you later."
And this is where my love came in. I looked at him and thought, uh-oh, such a nice guy. And I got weak in the knees. Oh my God, I thought, oh my God.
That evening, he did come by. Sharon was about five months old then. When I brought her out, he loved her. And she loved him. When she learned to talk a little she couldn't say "Robbie," so she called him "Bahu."
From that day on, when you'd see Bob, I'd be his tail. He'd have me by the hand, walking me, come on, Rita. When all this first started, Sharon's father and I were still corresponding. Bob didn't like that and made his position clear. In fact, he insisted that I end the relationship -- why was I having anything to do with a man who wouldn't help me or the baby? One day he caught Dream with a letter to be mailed to Sharon's father and took it away from him! (That ended the correspondence.)
I learned firsthand about his generosity then, this Robbie, the kind of man he was, because whenever he had a little money he'd come by the house with some Cow & Gate baby food and a drink for Aunty. And even she began to give in to his nice ways and manners. "Well," she said, "it looks like something is going on here."
And so, though I didn't expect this, I became his. As in okay now, guys, this is my girl. Even Peter Tosh respected that and learned not to touch, because Peter was very touchy, he would see you and ohh -- hug you up and try to squeeze you.
But Bob said, no no no ... this is my girl. | May 2004
Copyright © 2004 Rita Marley Productions, Inc.
Rita Marley performs with the reggae group the I-Three and helps run the Bob Marley Foundation. Rita was married to Bob Marley in 1966 when she was 19 and he was 21. She remained his wife until his death in 1981. The mother of Bob's children, she performs worldwide. She makes her home in Ghana, West Africa.
Hettie Jones is a poet and prose writer, author of numerous books, including How I Became Hettie Jones, a memoir of the Beats and of her former marriage to LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). She lives in New York City, where she teaches writing at New School University and the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center.