At the time of his death, in May 1981, Bob Marley was 36 years old, reggae’s biggest star, and the father of at least eleven children. He was not, however, a big seller.
For Dave Robinson, this presented an opportunity.
Two years after Marley’s passing, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Marley’s label, Island Records, brought Robinson in to run his U.K. operation. Robinson’s first assignment was to put out a compilation of Bob Marley’s hits. He took one look at the artist’s sales figures and was shocked.
Marley’s best-selling album, 1977’s Exodus, had only moved about 650,000 units in the U.S. and fewer than 200,000 in the U.K. They were not shabby numbers, but they weren’t in line with his profile.
“Marley was a labor of love for employees of Island Records,” says Charly Prevost, who ran Island in the United States for a time in the ’80s. “U2 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Robert Palmer is what paid your salary.”
Blackwell handed Robinson — the cofounder of Stiff Records, famous for rock acts such as Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello — an outline of his vision for the compilation, which Blackwell says presented Marley as somewhat “militant.”
“I always saw Bob as someone who had a strong kind of political feeling,” he says, “somebody who was representing the dispossessed of the world.”
Robinson balked. He’d seen the way Island had marketed Marley in the past and believed it was precisely this type of portrayal that was responsible for the mediocre numbers.
“Record companies can, just like a documentary, slant [their subjects] in whatever direction they like,” Robinson says. “If you don’t get the demographic right and sorted in your mind, you can present it just slightly off to the left or the right. I thought that was happening and had restricted his possible market.”
Robinson believed he could sell a million copies of the album, but to do it he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs but Marley himself.
“My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view,” Robinson says, “was to sell him to the white world.”
Read the full story in this week’s Village Voice: “The White Album: How Bob Marley Posthumously Became a Household Name“