Reggae Legend Bob Marley Worked at Chrysler USA

by KathleenDuffy

Reggae Superstar Bob Marley spent a year in the 1960s working at the Chrysler factory, Newark, USA. The racism he witnessed helped influence the direction of his music.

I first heard about Bob Marley's stint at Chryler In a 2009 BBC Radio 4 programme, 'Bob Marley: the Chrysler Year'. Jonathan Charles revealed how every year in Wilmington, Delaware the annual People’s Festival pays tribute to Bob Marley and his music.

Marley spent time here during the 1960s and early 1970s. He worked for a year at the Chrysler car plant as a fork-lift truck driver on the night shift.

It is a period in his life which has been largely ignored, but it influenced his creative output.

Bob Marley and Delaware in the 1960s

Before deciding to move to the USA, Bob Marley and his band, The Wailers, were already huge stars in Jamaica. Their hit record, Simmer Down was making the record label rich, but Marley wanted to earn money to start his own label. His mother was already settled in Wilmington, Delaware in the USA and Bob, just recently married and financially pressed, decided to go there too.

Skyline of Wilmington, Delaware
Skyline of Wilmington, Delaware

Wilmington was a racially divided city at the time of Bob’s arrival. It had a separate school system for blacks and whites and the city’s restaurants were segregated. Initially Marley had hoped to work in the docks as a stevedore but he didn’t have the build. He worked instead as a janitor at a the Hotel DuPont, until moving on to become a fork lift truck driver at the Chrysler Plant, Newark, Delaware.

Bob Marley and Chrysler Plant, Newark, Delaware

At that time the Chrysler plant was at the height of its productive powers. Wages were good and there were health care benefits. Although blacks and whites worked together on the assembly line, the canteen was segregated. The atmosphere was hostile and tense, and the Klu Klux Klan openly advertised their meetings on the bulletin board. The Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan was a member of the union.

The tensions in the Chrysler plant were expressed by Marley in his composition, Night Shift.

Bob Marley Sings 'Night Shift'

American Music and Politics Influences Bob Marley

This was the time when the USA was a hotbed of political ferment. The rise of the Black Panthers, the influence of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the growing movement for racial freedom were to influence Bob Marley’s philosophical and political idealism.

In the States Marley also learned about the concept album. After his 1969 trip he put this knowledge to good use when he and The Wailers recorded Best of the Wailers.

And the music was equally influential. The great James Brown, together with Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder were to influence Marley's future hits. His Black Progress is based on both Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud and Sam and Dave’s Soul Man.

And it was in Wilmington that Marley began to compose one of his greatest hits, Jammin’.

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Bob Marley - Good Music Hits

Bob Marley Returns to Jamaica

Life in Wilmington was not easy. Initially Marley had to leave his wife and children back home in Jamaica. When they did finally arrive in the USA the unfamiliar cold weather was hard to deal with.

In the early 1970s the Marley’s went home for good. His subsequent album, Catch a Fire, was a combination of his experiences in the USA , global political upheavals and his deep Rastafarian faith. Catch a Fire made Bob Marley and The Wailers into global superstars.

Wilmington People's Festival Remembers Bob Marley

The Chrysler plant at Newark has closed down, one more victim of the recession. However, the annual Wilmington People’s Festival keeps Bob Marley’s connection to the area very much alive. He is deeply respected.

When Jonathan Charles asked visitors to the Festival what Bob Marley had contributed to Wilmington, their response was unanimous – love.

Source:

Bob Marley: The Chrysler Year Jonathan Charles, BBC Radio 4, Saturday, 5th December 2009.

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Updated: 02/25/2014, KathleenDuffy
 
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KathleenDuffy on 08/13/2013

Hi Mira. I guess it was cheaper to have a mixed assembly line than two separate ones! Who knows what motivated their crazy thinking. Thanks for your comment. :)

Mira on 08/13/2013

"Although blacks and whites worked together on the assembly line, the canteen was segregated." Go figure. Thank you for sharing, Kathleen!

KathleenDuffy on 08/10/2013

I know - two opposing ideologies you would think!

JoHarrington on 08/10/2013

The part which made my heart sink most was that the KKK Grand Dragon was a member of the Union. How could that person align the two? *sigh*

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