by: Tony Atkins Updated:
PITTSBURGH - When music promoter Rich Engler booked Bob Marley and the Wailers for a 1980 show in downtown Pittsburgh, he already knew that the 16-song set he’d booked for was going to one of Marley’s best.
What he didn’t know was that he’d also be booking one of Marley’s last.
On Sept. 23, 1980, 35 years ago, Marley and The Wailers took the stage at The Stanley Theater, known today as the Benedum Center for what would eventually become Marley’s iconic final act on stage.
“The agent called and said, ‘Hey, I can get you Bob Marley September 23rd.’” Engler said. “Without hesitation, I said OK.”
Engler wasn’t the only person eager for Marley in Pittsburgh. As soon as tickets were available, they immediately sold out. Just like that, it was all set. Bob Marley was coming to Pittsburgh for a sold-out event.
When the day finally arrived, there was one objection. It was from Marley’s wife Rita, who was concerned about her husband’s well-being after he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma two years prior.
“He collapsed and he’s very ill,” Engler recalled from a morning phone call with Marley’s agent. “He collapsed but he still wants to come.”
Despite his earlier collapse, Marley and his band hopped on a bus and they made their way to Pittsburgh. When Marley’s bus finally pulled in, the first thing that came to Engler’s mind was to check on his health.
“I see Bob and he looks really tired and emaciated,” Engler said. “I ask him how he’s doing and he says, ‘not so good.’”
Still uncertain about Marley’s health, Engler pulls him aside into a dressing room to once again ask if he was sure about doing the show.
“Yeah, mon,” Marley said. “I got to do it for my band. For my band, they need the money.”
For Engler, that was the moment when everything came together.
“I didn’t know how sick he was at the time, but I think he knew that this would be his last event,” he said.
The day went on and Marley would opt out of that day’s sound check to rest quickly before the show.
Just before Marley took the stage, Engler and another colleague awarded Marley with a plaque for doing one of the fastest-selling shows at the Stanley Theater.
“Thanks. It’s going to be a good one,” Marley humbly replied.
Time finally came for Marley to take the stage. For the next hour and a half, Marley would go on to craft his final signature moment as a musician.
“He was spectacular. The crowd was rocking,” Engler said. “I think everybody knew, from the band members, the roadies, the lighting man -- knew that this was probably his final episode.”
Nobody knew for sure if that would be the end of not. Perhaps Marley did. Some 35 years later, Engler would only know one thing as certain.
“After he left, who knew? We were making history.”
It would be eight months later that Marley would fall in his fight against cancer.