When David Meerman Scott snuck down from the Stanley Theatre balcony to snap photos of Bob Marley’s performance 40 years ago, he was just happy to be closer to the music.
“I was never rich or connected enough to have really great seats at a show,” said Scott, who at the time was 19 and a student at Kenyon College in Ohio. “But wow, if you brought a cool camera and acted like you knew what you were doing, you could get right up front.”
Scott, 59, who today lives outside Boston, had no way of knowing he was chronicling what would become the King of Reggae’s final live performance — on Sept. 23, 1980, in Downtown Pittsburgh, of all places. Robert Nesta Marley, who had skyrocketed from Nine Mile, Jamaica, into an international superstar, died of cancer May 11 the following year. He was 36.
Years later, Scott was equally shocked to find out he had captured the only images of Marley’s final show.
“I’d never brought a camera to a show,” Scott said. “And I don’t know why I did — I think it was karma, or the cosmos, or the universe talking to me.”
Booking the gig
It was a show that almost didn’t happen at all.
Legendary Pittsburgh promotions company DiCesare-Engler Productions booked the show. When Creighton native Rich Engler picked up the phone the morning of the concert, he was told Marley — who had just finished back-to-back shows opening for the Commodores at New York City’s Madison Square Garden — was not feeling well.
“I found out many years later that he’d collapsed earlier in Central Park while he was exercising,” Engler said. “His agent told me they weren’t sure Bob would appear.”
Engler also did not know that when Marley went to a New York City doctor after collapsing, he had learned the extent to which the rare melanoma had spread — to his brain, liver and lungs. The cancer was inoperable.
Box office sales for the Marley show became one of the quickest sellouts in the history of the Stanley Theatre. “We were all going to make some money, so we decided that we’d postpone it if we had to,” Engler said.
The agent called back and said Marley’s wife was not pleased with the situation.
“He told me Rita was livid. She did not want Bob to get on that bus and come to Pittsburgh,” Engler said.
A couple hours later, Engler was told the band was on its way.
Night of the show
When the bus arrived, Engler met with Marley.
“He was looking really emaciated and just ill in general,” Engler said. “I took him up to his dressing room and said, ‘Please rest. If you don’t want to play, you don’t have to play.’ ”
Engler said Marley looked up and told him he had to play: The band needed the money.
Rita Marley said her husband worked hard to keep up his energy off-stage and on.
“Bob kept that fire burning,” she told the Tribune-Review. “He wanted the people around him to be in good spirits.”
He slept most of that afternoon, however. When Engler returned around 6 p.m., Marley said the show was going on as scheduled.
“It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, still to this day,” Scott said.
“He went onstage, and the Stanley Theatre rocked like it never had before,” he said. “That reggae beat had the balconies actually moving.”
Rita Marley said that while the entire Uprising tour was significant for the band, “my strongest memory was of the audience, watching them observe his movement. Bob’s connection to his music was spirit and power. He was such a force, and the audience felt his transformational liveliness.”
Engler and Scott have nothing but fond memories of that night at the Stanley, with both citing Marley’s brief acoustic solo performance as their favorite part of the show.
“Bob put on the most heartfelt performance that I had seen,” Engler said. “The ‘Redemption Song’ he played, and just everything about it was so magical and special.”
Rediscovering the photos
Marley’s rise to musical prominence did not take long. He, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer formed The Wailers in 1963. After the original group disbanded in 1974, he formed Bob Marley & the Wailers. Less than a year later, the group had its first international hit with “No Woman, No Cry” from 1975’s “Natty Dread” album.
By 1977, when the song “Exodus” from the album of the same name became a No. 1 hit in the U.K., Germany and Jamaica, Marley was a genuine international superstar.
It made perfect sense to Roger Steffens, one of the world’s foremost Marley scholars. In addition to owning the largest collection of Marley memorabilia, Steffens accompanied him on tour and has lectured internationally about the artist.
“Bob said reggae music will just get bigger and bigger and bigger, until it reaches all its rightful people, and he might as well have been talking about himself,” Steffens said in a 2017 talk archived by the Library of Congress.
For Engler, just being in Marley’s presence left a lasting impression.
“Everything he did came from the heart,” Engler said. “You could tell he was a real spiritual man, pushing for a movement with peace and love.
“That’s what he was all about.”
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