Three Years After Bob's Death, the Ghost of Marley Lives on in the Music of His Wife, Rita

updated 11/19/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/19/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

She was 17 when they met, a child of Jamaican poverty with an illegitimate infant daughter. He was 19 and equally poor, a guitarist inspired by Rastafarian beliefs and a reggae beat. Even then "I thought he was someone special," says Rita Marley. "Bob's appearance was always very stern, no laughing, no fun. But we were looking in the same direction, determined to come out of that gutter life."

And so they did, propelled by the power of Bob Marley's music from the shanties of Kingston into concert halls around the world. The pair married in 1966, and Rita accompanied her husband as a backup vocalist, bore four of his children and countered his romantic dalliances with singular devotion. In 1976 the couple got caught up in Jamaica's often turbulent political scene. Two nights before a benefit concert sponsored by the socialist People's National Party, gunmen entered the Marley house and opened fire. Bob was shot in the arm and Rita in the head, but both performed as scheduled—Bob in bandages and Rita in her hospital gown.

Although Marley had brought reggae's hypnotic beat into the pop music mainstream, influencing performers such as Eric Clapton and the Police, his own authentic island voice seemed stilled when, in 1981, he died of a brain tumor at age 36. Then, last July, Island Records released an anthology LP, Legend: the Best of Bob Marley and the Waiters. The album quickly soared to No. 1 on British charts and is now finding a receptive U.S. audience. To help boost American sales even higher, Rita Marley, 37, has reassembled her husband's backup band for its first North American tour since Marley's death. "We want to show the world that the music continues," explains Rita in a soft Jamaican lilt. "There is no end to it."

The stage show, featuring video clips of Bob and vocals by Rita and others, has forced her to leave the two-story home in Kingston that she shares with an aged aunt and 11 Marley children. Although seven were borne by other women, they "call their mothers Jean or Cindy or Janet or whatever, but I'm the only mummy," says Rita. "It gives me more love for Bob to have him hand these legacies down to me." As for Marley's romantic meanderings, which included a tryst with 1976 Miss World, Cindy Breakspeare, "I was never mingled in the other women's affairs," states Rita. "I was always his very special one. When God puts you together, you remain together no matter what happens."

Determined to "keep the trend that Bob wanted," Rita converted the country house that she shared with the singer into a home for the aged. "We took them off the street. Some were living by themselves, and we decided to share with them. It was a dream of Bob's," says Rita, who now tends to the elderly residents one day each week. Marley left no will when he died, but Rita has converted much of his estate into a foundation that donates an estimated $250,000 each year to underprivileged children and others among the island's needy. "We give to too many to count," Rita boasts, "but we have to keep our numbers down, or you find you work more than the welfare department. There are people in need and there are people in want. We give to the needy rather than the wants."

Rita starts her days with a 5 a.m. jog along the nearby beach. After preparing the children for school, she drives to Kingston's Tuff Gong Studios (so-called after Bob Marley's old street name) where she writes and records and helps produce other local bands. One of them is the Melody Makers, featuring Bob and Rita's oldest son, Ziggy, as a lead vocalist.

Like Bob, she converted from Christianity to Rastafarianism, the belief that regards Haile Selassie as the messiah and Ethiopia as the promised land. Now a student of Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, she has been learning to prepare Ethiopian dishes and talks of one day moving to the African nation.

Before that happens, however, she and the band will carry the Marley legend even further. They are planning tours to Japan, Australia and Brazil after Rita completes her U.S. itinerary. "I loved all of him, everything from when there was nothing," says Rita of Marley. "It is just like his spirit is still guiding my will to say, 'I am always here, and it's not you alone.' And I don't feel alone."

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