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Bad Vibrations Shake The Marley Empire

May 11, 1986|ROGER STEFFENS

Five years ago today, Bob Marley, the undisputed King of reggae music, died in a Miami hospital of cancer at the age of 36. Born dirt-poor in Jamaica's hill country, the singer-songwriter left an estate valued at more than $7 million, including businesses and properties around the world and a mass of unreleased material designed to perpetuate his legacy.

Marley was the greatest star the Caribbean has ever produced: His 10 albums for Island Records have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. But his importance wasn't measured simply in sales. He was also an influential social force. In 1978, Marley helped engineer a truce in the warring Kingston ghettos, an act that led to his being awarded a peace medal by the United Nations "on behalf of 500 million Africans."

When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Marley was invited to head the national celebrations. That same year he filled stadiums all over Europe. In Dublin, 180,000 people--Protestant and Catholic alike--heard his musical pleas for equal rights and justice.

Ironically, the very government he had so long vilified in his songs chose to award Marley its Order of Merit as he lay on his deathbed. When he died, Jamaica's Parliament recessed for 10 days of national mourning, followed by the largest funeral the Caribbean had ever seen. Soon after, six postage stamps and a souvenir sheet were issued in his honor by Jamaican postal authorities.

And today in Kingston, his former Tuff Gong studio is being dedicated as a Marley Museum, complete with a re-creation of the tiny record shack he once owned. The museum is the latest project of his widow, Rita Marley, who has done a great deal to ensure that Marley's legacy continues.

But all is not calm in the Marley empire.

Marley's former associates and family members are now caught up in a series of lawsuits that are blocking the release of dozens of Marley recordings.

Al Anderson, former guitarist in Marley's group the Wailers, says bluntly, "All the members of the band who worked for Bob Marley are broke."

The band itself, once the biggest attraction in the history of Jamaican music, has released no new material whatsoever since its leader's passing. This frustration has led to a lawsuit by the Wailers for alleged unpaid royalties against Marley's widow, who--in the absence of a will--inherited everything.

When asked about the suit, a spokesman for Mrs. Marley said that the widow has shared more than $1 million with her husband's former musicians--"out of the goodness of her heart" because she is not obligated to pay them anything. Marley never had any written contracts with his players.

Mrs. Marley was also sued in 1984 by one-time Wailers manager-publisher Danny Sims, who claims that he was to receive a percentage of the publishing on everything that Marley would write through October, 1976, whether it was recorded or not. It remains unsettled.

Even Bunny Wailer, a founding member of the Wailers in 1963, is getting into the fray, suing Marley's widow over her recent release in England and in this country of a 12-inch single "Music Lesson"/"Nice Time." The tracks are a technical mingling of vocals Marley did in the mid-'60s, overdubbed by the other four original members of the group during the last three years, and were to be featured in an extraordinary "Original Wailers Together Again" LP that is tied up in the litigation.

Dozens of other recordings--albums and singles--are also being blocked from circulation. They include a large number of unreleased songs considered by many Marley students to be the equal of his best work, and at least five albums' worth of uncollected singles from the group's earlier days.

Yet, in the midst of all this turmoil, there are signs that Marley's legacy may survive. Four of Marley's children have formed a group called the Melody Makers. Their debut album "Play the Game Right," was nominated for a Grammy this year. The lead singer is Marley's oldest son, spitting-image Ziggy, who is now 17 and possesses the same fierce fervor of his father.

Bob Marley's mother, Cedella Booker, has released an LP called "Redemption Songs," gospel reggae tributes to her son. His half-sister Pearl, who is also half-sister to Bunny Wailer, is a regular stage performer.

And Rita Marley continues a solo recording career as well as her membership in the I Threes, whose first album is imminent. An American tour pairing the vocal trio and the Melody Makers is now planned for this summer. Steffens hosts the sixth annual Bob Marley Memorial on the "Reggae Beat" on KCRW, 89.9 FM, from 1 to 5 p.m. today.

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