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When Bob Marley appeared at London’s Marylebone Magistrates Court in 1977, charged with possession of marijuana, the judge suggested the Rastafarian make an effort to ‘restrain’ himself now he was living in England.

At the time, the reggae superstar was staying in a large townhouse on Oakley Street in Chelsea. The interior had been transformed into what the DJ and film director Don Letts described as a ‘Rasta-ganja camp. Like a little Jamaica.’

But for all his attempts to import the culture of his homeland, Marley loved London, living there on and off from his first visit in 1972 to his premature death from skin cancer aged 36 in 1981. And the capital was to prove central to the meteoric rise of ‘the black Bob Dylan’.

So just how did a young Rastafarian musician from Jamaica – who famously demanded a kilogram of weed be left in his dressing room before shows – become an adopted Brit?

The sexual permissive atmosphere of 1970s London may offer some clue. A biopic released in cinemas today may be entitled One Love, but no one could ever accuse Marley of being committed to monogamy.

Bob Marley performs on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7th, 1980 in London

Bob Marley performs on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7th, 1980 in London

Marley, pictured in 1970, lived in London on and off from his first visit in 1972 to his premature death from skin cancer aged 36 in 1981

Marley, pictured in 1970, lived in London on and off from his first visit in 1972 to his premature death from skin cancer aged 36 in 1981

An English Heritage blue plaque was erected at the London house where Marley lived when he finished recording the ground-breaking album Exodus

An English Heritage blue plaque was erected at the London house where Marley lived when he finished recording the ground-breaking album Exodus

The star is known to have fathered at least 11 children by seven different women – including three by his wife and occasional backing singer, Rita. (A brood, admittedly, that pales in comparison with the 41 children of Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Marley’s band leader and bass player who passed away this month.)

Although Rita had affairs of her own, Bob’s energetic philandering did hurt her: ‘As they say, you grunt and bear it,’ she once told BBC Caribbean. ‘That’s what I had to do because I was so in love with this man and that love only grew stronger.’

On the top floor of his Oakley Street home, Marley had a private ‘love-nest’ where he would entertain a harem of young women.

It was there that he finally seduced the 1976 Miss World, Cindy Breakspeare, a startingly beautiful brunette with green eyes he had courted for three long years, and about whom the song Waiting In Vain was said to have been written.

The pair would eventually have a child together, Marley’s youngest, the three-time Grammy award winning jazz musician Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley.

There are also rumours of a dalliance with the woman who went on to become the ice queen of fashion.

A 2004 biography of Vogue editor Anna Wintour claimed she had enjoyed a brief relationship with Marley and ‘disappeared with him for a week’ while working for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1970s.

Wintour has denied the claim, though she did go on to say that she would have slept with him – had the opportunity arisen.

Yet when Marley – along with his band the Wailers – first came to Britain in early 1972 and signed with Island Records, the girls had been much less inclined to throw themselves at his feet.

The slow, reggae groove that had made him so popular in Jamaica was a world away from the rollicking pop melodies of The Beatles or the euphoric disco of The Bee Gees, then all the rave with British audiences.

Bob Marley, pictured at a hotel in London in February 1978

Bob Marley, pictured at a hotel in London in February 1978

Bob Marley performs on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7, 1980 in London

Bob Marley performs on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7, 1980 in London

Bob Marley pictured in Kingston, Jamaica, where he grew up

Bob Marley pictured in Kingston, Jamaica, where he grew up

Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley performs live on stage in June 1977 at the Hammersmith Odeon, London

Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley performs live on stage in June 1977 at the Hammersmith Odeon, London

By the end of 1972, Marley was exhausted. He’d been ‘sofa-surfing’ across London, having first lived on Ridgmount Gardens behind Tottenham Court Road, followed by stints in Chelsea and Bayswater, before eventually ending up in the unfashionable north London district of Neasden, a stone’s throw from the deafening North Circular Road.

Radio appeared to have no interest in playing his music and the bookings were drying up. Band photographer Dennis Morris recalls Marley turning up to play a 2,000-capacity gig that attracted an audience of just 200.

At a May 1973 gig at the Coach House Club in Southampton, an advert in the local paper misspelled the band’s name: proclaiming a performance from ‘Bob Marley And The Whalers’.

During the bitter cold of the following winter, The Wailers’ tour came to an abrupt end.

According to photographer Morris, the band had been complaining for days about the cold before one day stepping outside to see a blanket of snow.

‘What’s that?’ asked one of the Wailers in utter dismay. When the answer came, he retorted: ‘What do you mean, snow?’

Marley, as agitated as anyone, proclaimed loudly: ‘We have to leave Babylon!’ (a derogatory Rastafari term for ‘Western civilisation’).

And just like that, the tour collapsed and Bob Marley and The Wailers returned to Jamaica.

But by the time Marley came back to Britain in 1975, he was a name to be reckoned with – in no small part thanks to Eric Clapton’s hugely successful 1974 cover of his song I Shot The Sheriff.

To mark his return, Marley played two gigs on 17 and 18 July at London’s Lyceum Theatre. For many, this was Marley at his achingly brilliant best.

The auditorium was a haze of marijuana smoke, allegedly so pungent that audiences arriving on the second evening got high from the previous evening’s fumes. The crowd was an equal mixture of black and white music-lovers and the mood was euphoric.

DJ Don Letts described the concert as: ‘a religious experience. I came out of that gig a changed man: empowered, informed and inspired.’

It was during this time that Marley, having converted from Catholicism in 1966, deeply embraced Rastafarianism, a Biblical religion founded in 1930s Jamaica, which holds the 20th-century Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to be divine, and has music, community and marijuana at its heart.

‘When you smoke herb, herb reveal yourself to you,’ Marley once said. ‘All the wickedness you do, the herb reveal itself to yourself, your conscience, show up yourself clear, because herb make you meditate. Is only a natural ting and it grow like a tree.’

Marley, pictured, first came to Britain in early 1972 and signed with Island Records

Marley, pictured, first came to Britain in early 1972 and signed with Island Records

Bob Marley performing live on stage at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London

Bob Marley performing live on stage at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London

Reggae star, singer-songwriter Bob Marley strolling through the streets of London in 1977

Reggae star, singer-songwriter Bob Marley strolling through the streets of London in 1977

Back in Jamaica in December 1976, Marley suffered the darkest moment of his life – a failed assassination attempt that left both him and his wife with gunshot wounds.

It happened two days before Marley was due to play a ‘political unity’ concert in Kingston, a performance that his assailants believed to amount to an endorsement of the much-maligned sitting Jamaican prime minister.

Deeply shaken, Marley returned to London the following month and moved into his iconic Oakley Street home, where he would go on to write the legendary album, Exodus.

A key reason for choosing the neighbourhood of Chelsea was the short walk to Battersea Park, where Marley and the Wailers could indulge another obsession: football.

When asked what the game meant to him, Marley once said: ‘Freedom! Football is freedom!’

He later told another journalist: ‘If you want to get to know me, you will have to play football against me.’

And football was to be inextricably linked with the story of Marley’s untimely death aged just 36.

A lesion on his toe was at first attributed to an injury sustained in a game between the Wailers and travelling music journalists – played on an astroturf pitch beneath the Eiffel Tower in May 1977.

But a second doctor recognised a melanoma. The recommendation was to amputate the toe, but Marley refused on account of his religious beliefs – a partial excision of the toenail and surrounding tissue was performed instead.

By May 1980, when Marley collapsed while jogging in New York City, the cancer had already spread to his lungs, stomach and brain.

He died the following year in Miami, after his rapidly deteriorating condition forced his flight back to Jamaica to perform an emergency landing. His corpse was said to have weighed less than six stone.

Months before Marley’s death, a doctor attested the musician had ‘more cancer in him than I’ve seen with a live human being.’

A final UK show came on July 13, 1980 at the New Bingley Hall. Marley’s dreadlocks had to be cut back because their weight was such that he was no longer strong enough to hold up his head.

Bob Marley pictured on stage in 1970

Bob Marley pictured on stage in 1970

Bob Marley pictured at Tower Records, in Hollywood, California in 1979

Bob Marley pictured at Tower Records, in Hollywood, California in 1979

Bob Marley performing on stage with The Wailers at the West Coast Rock Show, Ninian Park in Cardiff, Wales in June 1976

Bob Marley performing on stage with The Wailers at the West Coast Rock Show, Ninian Park in Cardiff, Wales in June 1976

Some 20 years after the death of the undisputed king of reggae in May 1981, a four-inch stretch of those famous dreadlocks was sold at auction in London for £2,585.

Marley didn’t leave a will, instead leaving the paperwork to his manager and telling him: ‘Rita can write my signature better than me.’ What Marley – who saw wealth as a Western colonial concept – would have made of Rita later selling his image rights to an American corporation is anyone’s guess.

But then again, she did slip a bud of marijuana into his coffin before it was nailed down, so husband and wife certainly parted on good terms.

Today, more than 19 million people listen to Bob Marley every month on Spotify and, according to Forbes, he was the 9th highest-earning dead celebrity in 2023, making $16million from not only his image rights, music and the upcoming film, but also from Bob Marley-branded marijuana.

But behind the dope-smoking, there was a musician of immense talent with a simple message of love and unity, who found an unexpected home in Britain.

He wrote some of his best-loved songs here, including Three Little Birds and One Love. Late in life, by then crippled by cancer, he told the BBC: ‘England is the place, man. It must be happening… the music… if the people in England like it.’

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This post first appeared on Daily mail

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