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The story is told from the point of view of a narrator who admits to having killed the corrupt local sheriff, and claims to be falsely accused of having killed the deputy sheriff. The narrator also claims to have acted in self-defense when the sheriff tried to shoot him. The song was first released in 1973 on The Wailers' album Burnin'. Marley explained his intention as follows: "I want to say 'I shot the police' but the government would have made a fuss so I said 'I shot the sheriff' instead... but it's the same idea: justice."
In 1992, with the controversy surrounding the Ice-T song "Cop Killer", Marley's song was often cited by Ice-T's supporters as evidence of his detractors' hypocrisy, considering that the older song was never similarly criticized despite having much the same theme.
In 2012, Bob Marley's former girlfriend Esther Anderson claimed that the lyrics, "Sheriff John Brown always hated me, For what, I don't know: Every time I plant a seed, He said kill it before it grow" are actually about Marley being very opposed to her use of birth control pills; Marley supposedly substituted the word "doctor" with sheriff.
Eric Clapton version
"I Shot the Sheriff"
A-side label of the original 1974 UK vinyl release
"I Shot the Sheriff" was the lead single released from Warren G's second album, Take a Look Over Your Shoulder. Warren replaced Marley's original lyrics with his own, although Clapton's version of the song is sampled and R&B singer Nancy Fletcher sings the original chorus. The song was a hit in several countries. In the US, it peaked at number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified Gold by the RIAA on 2 May 1997. It peaked at number two in the UK and at number one in New Zealand.