10 Things To Know About The Assassination Attempt On Bob Marley

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Written by Ann Brown
Bob Marley
Here are 10 things you should know about the 1976 assassination attempt on music legend Bob Marley in Jamaica. (AP Photo)

Seven armed men raided Jamaican music great Bob Marley’s house in Kingston two days before he was scheduled to perform in a peace concert.

Marley and three others were shot in the Dec. 3, 1976 assassination attempt. All survived.

Here are 10 things you should know about the assassination attempt on Marley.

What happened

Mem­bers of the Bob Marley and the Wailers band were at Marley’s home studio, Tuff Gong, late that afternoon to rehearse for the upcoming concert, Rolling Stone reported.

Bodyguards disappear

“The forebodings came true in the midst of rehears­als around 8:30 in the evening. Two white Datsun compacts drove through the gates of Tuff Gong, from which the longtime guards had mysteriously disappeared,” reggae historian and archivist Roger Steffens wrote in his book, “So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley.”

In the midst of rehearsing

At the moment when the gunmen broke in, we were rehearsing ‘I Shot The Sheriff.’ Bob had stepped out, ’cause the horns weren’t on that record and the horn players wanted to play on it…He came out of the rehearsal room and went into the kitchen to get a grapefruit or something…And all of a sudden you see a hand come through the door like, around the door, and start firing this .38,” eyewitness Tyrone Downie, a keyboardist/pianist, recalled, according to “So Much Things to Say.”

Shots fired

Shots rang out and three people at Tuff Gong were hit. 

“Either by good fortune or poor aim, the bullet aimed at Marley skidded off his chest, lodging in his arm rather while wife Rita, although shot in the head while disembarking from a vehicle, survived the hit. Marley’s manager Don Taylor sustained serious injuries from being shot in the leg,” Face2Face Africa reported. There were no fatalities. The shotoing victims were all rushed to the University Hospital and treated.

Rumors swirled as to who sanctioned the shooting.

Theories on the hitmen’s affiliations ranged from the CIA to the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party), but no one was ever charged in the crime, Uproxx reported.

Smile Jamaica Concert

Marley often stressed that he was not involved in Jamaican politics.

There had been a lot of violence in the country centered around the upcoming election and the concert was intended to promote peace and unity. The concert was named after the Marley song, “Smile Jamaica.” However, Marley only wanted to perform one song.

He had originally agreed to play one song on the condition that the Smile Jamaica concert didn’t have a political slant. But when the government moved the elections closer to the concert date, both parties considered the concert to be an endorsement for the ruling party, the People’s National Party (PNP).

Political games

During the 1972 election, Marley and his wife Rita had backed the People’s National Party candidate Michael Manley, but times had changed. The Marleys had not backed anyone for the 1976 elections.

Marley “now found himself in the unenviable position of being the prize of a tug-of-war between the island’s two political parties,” The Guardian reported. “As the material for his album ‘Exodus’ began to brew in 1976, the island was convulsed with lethal political agitation, and Bob’s star status did not confer immunity – rather, it was the reverse.”

Concert concept

Marley had been inspired by a Stevie Wonder concert held the previous year in aid of blind children in Jamaica, according to Stephen Davis, author of “Bob Marley: Conquering Lion of Reggae.” 

“Bob wanted to do something like that, a benefit concert,” Davis wrote. “It was set up for the National Heroes Park. It had no political overtones, except, of course, the fact that there was a huge battle for the soul of the nation; it was an election year. And Bob had supported the (People’s National Party) in the past. Then (Jamaican Prime Minister Michael) Manley called for elections right after the concert was announced, so it would look like, at the height of the battle for Jamaica, that Bob Marley and the Wailers would appear to support the PNP.”

Ultimately, Marley sang a lot more than one song at the concert. He performed for 45 minutes. At the end of the concert, he brought the two parties to the stage to shake hands.

U.S. connection

After the assassination attempt, the U.S. embassy sent a cable titled “Reggae Star Shot: Motive probably political.” In the cable, Ambassador Gerard wrote, “Some see the incident as an attempt by JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) gunmen to halt the concert, which would feature the ‘politically progressive’ music of Marley and other reggae stars. Others see it as a deep-laid plot to create a progressive, youthful Jamaican martyr to the benefit of the PNP (the ruling People’s National Party). Those holding the latter view note that the four persons shot, three of them including Marley, only suffered minor wounds.”

Many suspected the U.S. was involved. Timothy White, the author of “Catch a Fire,” claimed he received information from the Jamaica Labour Party and ruling People’s National Party officials as well as U.S. law enforcement. He concluded that Carl Byah “Mitchell,” a Jamaica Labour Party gunman, was contracted by the CIA to organize a hit on Marley.

The show must go on

Bob Marley and the Wailers went on to do the free Smile Concert for some 8,000 fans. During the concert, Marley invited Prime Minister Michael Manley of the ruling People’s National Party and Jamaica Labour Party opposition leader Edward Seaga to the stage to join hands during the concert, Face2Face Africa reported. Marley hoped to ease the violence that had erupted in the country over the upcoming election.

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How life changed

After the assassination attempt, Marley moved to England.

“It was tremendously depressing because he had been helping the people who came to shoot him,” reggae archivist Roger Steffens told Uproxx. “He’d been giving them money, he’d been giving them food — he just couldn’t understand how these people could betray him so terribly. It was a very depressing time for him in that year that followed.”

Steffens continued, “But he was also a very merciful person: in 1978, on his European tour, some guy came backstage and confessed to Bob that he would have been a part of the people who came for him that night but he just couldn’t find his gun that evening. Bob forgave him and brought him on the rest of the tour with him, gave him a job on the tour.”