Bill Tuttle remembers being in a rotten mood on Dec. 6, 1979.
The Kansas University history professor’s house had just been broken into. Someone took two of his cameras, lenses and his sound system.
He wasn’t too happy, either, after dealing with the reporting police officer, who Tuttle said was stern and chastised him for not locking the house.
That evening, Tuttle was finally starting to mellow out at KU’s Hoch Auditorium, where he was within a few feet of reggae superstar Bob Marley as he performed. Marley’s music famously promoted “one love” and social justice.
People danced around and were enjoying the vibe. Tuttle even says plenty of “illegal substances were being consumed” at the concert.
And then, he saw the same police officer with whom he’d had a less-than-pleasant encounter with earlier in the day — Tuttle doesn’t remember his name — leaning against the wall also enjoying himself.
“I was amazed to see this guy there who had really been so intimidating just a few hours earlier and so receptive to the music,” Tuttle said.
Marley’s performance had that effect on people, according to some who attended that concert, which was 30 years ago Sunday.
“I’ve never been to a concert like that before or since. It was really quite a spiritual experience. It was just incredible,” said Tuttle, now a KU professor emeritus of American studies.
Those who were able to attend and see Marley in person found out later how lucky Lawrence was to get him here when it did.
Marley, at 36, died from complications from cancer in May 1981 — 17 months after he played at Hoch.
Rick Sheridan, who grew up in Lawrence, almost missed his chance to see Marley.
“A couple of close friends talked me into it. At the time that was expensive. It was a whole $10,” said Sheridan, who was 22 at the time and a part-time KU student.
Hoch, which is now Budig Hall, was set up with a stage and seating on the floor, plus more seats in the balconies.
“Once Marley came out, things really loosened up,” said Sheridan, now an assistant professor of communications at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
The official concert included Bob Marley and the Wailers with I-Threes, the backup singers that included Rita Marley, Bob’s wife.
Eileen Larson, a KU student at the time, had bought six tickets with her boyfriend John Naramore, now her husband. Some of their friends were supposed to drive in from western Kansas, but they never showed up.
Larson and Naramore initially sat in their seats on the third row, but eventually the loud music hurt her ears so they moved back to balcony seats.
“He was gorgeous. The colors were gorgeous. The sounds were gorgeous,” she said.
After she moved farther away, Larson was able to enjoy it more, and everyone in the crowd seemed to be swaying and dancing to the music.
“I think so much of it was just the rhythm. It’s a real natural rhythm,” she said.
Social, political impact
The music world, including in Lawrence, undoubtedly felt Marley’s impact because reggae bands began to crop up in the area, said Sheridan, who has created a series of historical markers about events in Lawrence history.
“His legacy really lived on,” he said.
Sheridan wants to get permission over Christmas break to put a laminated marker he’s made in Budig Hall to commemorate Marley’s concert. The marker includes the set list for the night.
Tuttle said Marley’s appearance here and his music also made a lasting political impression.
During post-Vietnam and post-Watergate eras, Lawrence was in a political transition. But Marley’s message of equality and his anti-apartheid message struck home for Tuttle and others who wanted to advocate for another cause.
Tuttle said Marley’s music, among other influences, led to many protests of apartheid, including a group of KU students who later set up a “shanty town” and advocated for the KU Endowment Association to divest of its holdings in South Africa.
Aside from considering Marley an important political figure, Tuttle says he’s still blown away by the performance that night.
“I didn’t expect to be so moved,” Tuttle said.
Those who were able to see Marley perform live that night in Lawrence can still see the way the lights touched him on stage.
They remember how his hair moved. Tuttle has a photo of Marley in his home that longtime Journal-World photographer Richard Gwin took that night.
They can also feel the beats radiating through the auditorium as the crowd moved.
They can still hear his voice.
“I just never stopped listening to that music,” Larson said, “so Bob Marley lives.”