Remembering Bob Marley -- The reggae legend dies 10 years ago, leaving a big beat and a snarl of lawsuits

He cast a net of influence as wide as the world of music. From Paul Simon to the Clash to the Police, anyone who lays down a sensuous reggae groove is paying tribute to Bob Marley. By the time he died of cancer at 36 on May 11, 1981, Marley had become the first superstar of reggae — the man who had wedded the utopian vision and angry politics of the Jamaican underclass with the chunky rhythms and snaking bass lines of the Jamaican soul. Known only in their native country when Island Records president Chris Blackwell signed them in 1972, Bob Marley and the Wailers quickly caught the world’s ear. After the Wailers’ first U.S. album, 1973’s impassioned Catch a Fire, traces of their reggae were soon heard in the pop music of Europe, Africa, South America, and, with Eric Clapton’s 1974 ”I Shot the Sheriff,” North America.

Near the end of his life, because of his popularity, Rastafarian faith, and support for the poor, Marley was treated with almost godlike devotion in Jamaica. When he died after an eight-month illness, all four Jamaican radio stations played his music nonstop, and thousands attended the state funeral of the man who had said, ”Me speak to all the children. Me speak to everything that moveth and liveth ‘pon the earth.”

The peace Marley sought has not been visited upon his estate. Following Rastafarian custom, he had no will, and the subsequent battle over his property — including rights to such hits as ”Get Up, Stand Up” and ”One Love” — has been ugly and emotional. A court has dismissed his widow, Rita, as estate administrator, and Rita’s lawyers have been sued for fraud. The bank that subsequently administered his estate (whose value has been estimated as high as $30 million) has been sued for mismanagement of funds; Marley’s mother, Cedella, has been sued and nearly evicted from her home. The estate is up for sale by the courts, and the primary combatants have been reduced to Island Records’ Blackwell, who is offering $8.2 million, and Windswept Pacific, a Japanese-owned music publisher bidding $16 million. A decision is due in July.

Musically, however, Marley’s beat goes on undiminished. Four of his 11 children — Sharon, Cedella, Ziggy, and Stephen — have made albums of their own. Marley’s catalog was released on CD last year, and Island plans to put out a boxed set this fall. A photo and art exhibition celebrating Marley’s life, Songs of Freedom, opens in New York on May 11 and will tour the U.S. As Ziggy, 22, has said of his father, ”His spirit is here on earth; I feel it around me every day.”

May 11, 1981

Martin Cruz Smith’s thriller Gorky Park led the fiction list. Singer Sheena Easton’s ”Morning Train (Nine to Five)” held the No. 1 spot. Three’s Company was the top TV series, and in the premiere of the week, movie audiences went back to King Arthur’s time with Excalibur.