When Bob Marley Survived Getting Shot During A Home Invasion
Bob Marley is a worldwide musical icon, but it’s difficult to imagine from his sunny reggae anthems why he was once targeted in an assassination attempt in his own home.
But targeted he was, and on this day in 1976, when seven gunmen burst into his house and sprayed him with bullets.
During the mid-1970s Kingston came to resemble a war zone. Political tensions heightened in Jamaica due to the approaching elections between the CIA-backed Jamaican Labour Party and the People’s National Party, linked to Cuba and Russia. Both parties aggressively courted the support of Jamaica’s greatest cultural export, Bob Marley. Though Marley and his wife had backed the then Prime Minister Michael Manly and his democratic socialist People’s National Party in the 1972 elections, they decided to remain neutral during the 1976 elections.
Marley, being inspired by the Stevie Wonder concert held the previous year in aid of blind children in Jamaica, wanted to host a similar free concert to spread the message of love and peace during the tumultuous time. According to Stephen Davis the author of Bob Marley: Conquering Lion of Reggae: “Bob wanted to do something like that, a benefit concert…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.” In other words, Marley was caught in his own cultural gravity.
The People's National Party strategically moved the election dates to coincide with the Smile Jamaica concert, effectively turning it into a rally for the government. This made Marley furious because he had agreed to the idea of a free concert on the condition that there wouldn’t be any political interference. Though Marley was given police protection after PNP’s stunt, his house became a targeted spot by the right-winged Labour Party led by Edward Seaga.
All this was a perfect storm for some trouble to break out.
At 8:30pm, on December 3, 1976, two days before the Smile Jamaica Concert, two white Datsuns pulled up to 56 Hope Road, and the gunmen immediately shot Marley’s wife, Rita in the head - then burst into the studio with weapons blazing.
Marley and his band were on break from rehearsal. The gunmen shot Marley in the chest and arm. His manager, Don Taylor, was shot in the legs and torso. Band employee Louis Griffiths took a bullet to his torso as well. There were no fatalities
Tyrone Downie, a keyboardist, recalled in a biography of Bob Marley, “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.'
Miraculously, both Marley and his wife survived, Marley having been shot in the arm.
His manager Don Taylor was more seriously hurt, having been shot in the leg.
By some miracle, the gunmen fled the scene soon after shooting Marley leaving behind zero casualties. “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,” Face2Face Africa reported.Nancy Burke, who was in the house at the time, told the BBC, "The silence after seemed like forever, which was even more terrifying.”.
"The next sound I heard was somebody calling out to Diane, saying: 'Diane, Diane, come quick, Bob is shot.'"
"While I was doing that I saw Bob walk out with the police and he was holding his left arm. It was fantastic to see him on foot - looking really, really angry."
Bob Marley told concert chairman Trevor Philips that the leader of the Jamaican Labour Party, Edward Seaga – Michael Manley's political opponent – was alleged to have ordered his bodyguard, Lester "Jim Brown" Coke, to be present during the shooting. Nancy Burke, Marley's neighbour and friend, recalled hearing Wailers percussionist Alvin Patterson say "Is Seaga men! Dem come fi kill Bob!" After the shooting, numerous reports indicated that the gunmen returned to Tivoli Gardens, a neighbourhood loyal to the JLP and home to the notorious Shower Posse.
After the shooting, the American 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 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. Those holding the latter view note that the four persons shot, three of them including Marley, only suffered minor wounds."
Timothy White, the author of Catch a Fire, claimed that information he received from JLP and PNP officials, as well as US law enforcement officials, led him to believe that Carl Byah "Mitchell", a JLP gunman, was contracted by the CIA to organize the Marley shooting and that Lester Coke, aka Jim Brown, led the charge on Hope Road.
Don Taylor, Marley's manager, claimed that both he and Marley were present at court in which the gunmen who shot Marley were tried and executed. According to Taylor, before one of the shooters was killed, he claimed the job was done for the CIA in exchange for cocaine and guns.
The Smile Jamaica Concert went ahead at the National Heroes Park, Kingston, two days later, on 5 December. Marley said, ‘“The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”With the bullet still lodged his arm, Marley demonstrated exactly why his street name was Tuff Gong, as he and The Wailers courageously put on a 90-minute performance in front of an audience of 80,000 fans, which mercifully passed off without incident. The next morning, Marley flew out of Jamaica and would not return to his homeland for more than a year...