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Rear-View Mirror: Bob Marley and His Job on the "Night Shift"

Alex Redekop

Each week on Rear-view Mirror, Rich Terfry and the Radio 2 team look back at a great song from the good ol’ days. Today, Pete Morey steps in for a story about Bob Marley's "Night Shift".

Imagine a world without the music of Bob Marley.

In the 1960s, Bob Marley almost followed a much less musical career path. He could have become a forklift driver in a car factory instead of the worldwide reggae legend we know and love.

Let's rewind the clock. By the mid '60s, Marley had racked up plenty of hits in Jamaica with his group the Wailers, like the massive dancefloor smash "Simmer Down".

Marley was a respected singer and musician on the island, but was paid very badly. Record label owners like Joe Gibbs, Coxsone Dodd and Leslie Kong controlled the purse strings on the island and paid their performers much less than they were worth. Even with his string of hits, Bob couldn't see a future with any financial security in Jamaica. In order to make money as a musician, you needed to own your own record label. That seemed like an impossible pipe dream. He'd also just married his sweetheart Rita and that increased responsibility made up his mind.

In 1966, Bob left Jamaica and music behind him, and moved with Rita to Wilmington, Delaware in America. The young couple lived there with Bob's mother. Bob changed his name to Donald Marley and worked a string of low paying jobs, but he didn't complain. He saved the money he made, was which was much more than he could have earned back home in Jamaica as famous ska singer!

One of those jobs would inspire the song "Night Shift". Bob/Donald started work at the local Chrysler plant driving a forklift on the night shift. It wasn't a bad job, and Bob could have made a career out of it and just left his musical dreams behind. But he had a plan.

If he kept working as a forklift driver for just a little longer he’d have enough money saved to properly finance his own record label. If he owned the label, he'd be in control of his own worth, and he could follow his dream of becoming a musician.

And that's just what he did! He moved back to Jamaica, took his savings from working that night shift, and sank them into his label Tuff Gong Records, which up until this point had been more of an idea than a business. He re-formed the Wailers with his former band mates Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, and by 1973, their album Catch a Fire introduced the whole world to Jamaica’s finest musical export, reggae, and gave Bob the financial freedom he'd never had.

You know the rest of the story: people recognise Bob's genius, he becomes one of the most famous and influential pioneers in music history, he brings Rastafarianism and reggae to the forefront of popular culture and the message of peace and love to the world! And in 1976, on the album Rasta Man Vibrations, Bob penned a song about the time spent working in that factory in Wilmington, Delaware, behind the wheel of a forklift, living under the assumed identity Donald Marley - a man at a career crossroads. He could have worked the night shift for the rest of his career, but luckily for us he choose music.

Here's Bob Marley and the Wailers with "Night Shift" on Rear View Mirror.