Bunny Wailer – one of the founders of reggae music dies at 73
Bunny Wailer, a founding member of the Wailers, the Jamaican group he founded with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, which helped bring reggae music to a worldwide audience, died March 2 in Jamaica. He was 73.
The death was announced by his manager, Maxine Stowe. There were conflicting accounts about whether he died at a hospital in Kingston or in St. Andrew Parish. He had been treated for a stroke suffered last year.
Mr. Wailer, a three-time Grammy Award-winner whose original name was Neville Livingston, was the last surviving member of the Wailers, which he helped form in the early 1960s.
He shared a hardscrabble childhood with Marley in rural Jamaica and later in the Kingston neighborhood of Trench Town, where they discovered music and met Tosh, who had taught himself to play a homemade guitar.
Other members came and went, and the group’s name changed from the Teenagers to the Wailing Rudeboys to the Wailing Wailers, but Marley, Tosh and Mr. Wailer were the nucleus. In 1963, they recorded “Simmer Down,” a plea to end violence among the “rude boys” in the Kingston slums, which became a No. 1 hit in Jamaica.AD
At first, the Wailers, as they became known, blended the Jamaican musical styles of rock steady and ska with the rhythm-and-blues and jazz they heard on U.S. radio stations.
“American music was a part of Jamaican culture,” Mr. Wailer told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998. “We used to listen to [R&B performers] Rosco Gordon and Louis Jordan. Then we started getting into Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Bill Haley, that rock ’n’ roll. If they were hot in America, they were hot in Jamaica — until we started to make our own music.”
All three principal members of the Wailers wrote songs and alternated singing the lead vocals. Mr. Wailer — “I inherited my name from the Wailers. That’s how serious I am about this,” he said in 1986 — had a soulful tenor voice sometimes reminiscent of Sam Cooke and was known for his high harmonies. He sang the lead part on his compositions “Dreamland” and “Dancing Shoes” and on a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”AD
By the late 1960s, the Wailers and other musicians, such as Joe Higgs, Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, slowed the rhythm to a distinctive loping pattern, giving birth to reggae. The lyrics often highlighted social struggles and spiritual concerns.
“The music caused a lot of people to change their lives and their convictions,” he told the Chronicle. “It was saying something a little different from ‘Darling, I love you’ and ‘Baby, I need you.’ ”
The Wailers were outspoken about their Rastafarian faith, which emphasized Black pride and held that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was a deity. The smoking of marijuana, or ganja, was a sacred ritual. (Mr. Wailer spent 14 months in prison on a marijuana charge in the late 1960s.)
The Wailers’ first few albums were released only in Jamaica before they signed with Island Records, founded by Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell. The group was renamed “Bob Marley and the Wailers,” and Marley and Tosh wrote most of the songs on the group’s first two albums for Island, “Catch a Fire” and “Burnin’ ” (both 1973). Mr. Wailer was reduced to being mostly a harmony singer.
The group performed in England in 1973, but Mr. Wailer balked at a planned U.S. tour. He left the Wailers that year, followed soon afterward by Tosh. Marley became an international superstar.
“Going on tour every time you record an album, you’ve got to be jukeboxing yourself,” Mr. Wailer told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “That kills every artist that does that — physically, morally, in every way.”
Mr. Wailer retreated to a solitary life in Jamaica, formed a record label (Solomonic) and emerged with his first solo album, “Blackheart Man,” in 1976. He wrote most of the songs, including one about his prison term in “Battering Down Sentence” (later called “Fighting Against Conviction”) and others about Jamaican identity, including the title track, “Rastaman” and “Dreamland.”
Critic Rick Anderson, writing for the AllMusic.com website, hailed it as “one of the most extraordinary albums of the roots period, a complex but instantly attractive and occasionally heartbreaking record that never rises above a whisper in tone but packs as much political and spiritual wallop as the best of Bob Marley’s work.”AD
Neville O’Riley Livingston was born April 10, 1947, in Kingston and spent his early years in rural St. Ann Parish. He was raised by a single father, who was a minister. Marley, who was two years older and was raised by a single mother, was his closest friend. (Marley’s mother and Mr. Wailer’s father later had a daughter together.)
Both families moved to Kingston, where Mr. Wailer and Marley lived in poverty. (The lyrics of “Talkin’ Blues,” a song Marley later recorded, was hardly an exaggeration: “Cold ground was my bed last night. And rock was my pillow, too.”)
Mr. Wailer had the nickname Bunny from a young age, as he and Marley worked on vocal harmonies, based on what they heard on the radio. One of their Trench Town neighbors was Higgs, who became a musical mentor.
“I did it as a hobby, for entertaining the community,” Mr. Wailer told GQ magazine in 2011, describing his early approach to music. “Bob took it as a weapon, to get him out of that kind of condition of being a nobody to being a somebody, a musician.”AD
After Marley died of cancer in 1981, and Tosh was shot to death in an attempted robbery in 1987, only Mr. Wailer was left to carry on the Wailers’ legacy. He released many more albums, including several dedicated to the memory of Marley and the Wailers, and embarked on international tours. Among the three Grammy Awards he won in the 1990s, two were for tributes to Marley. His most recent recording was released in 2018.
In 2012, the American hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg traveled to Jamaica to collaborate with Mr. Wailer, but they had a bitter falling-out.
“I tried to call him Snoop Lion,” Mr. Wailer told the Irish Times in 2014, “but he disrespected me . . . [and] exhibited himself to be the dog that he is.”
Mr. Wailer’s wife, Jean Watt, who designed his colorful stage outfits, suffered from dementia and has not been seen since disappearing in Kingston last year. Mr. Wailer had children from several relationships. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.AD
Even as his beard and dreadlocks turned white, Mr. Wailer was an energetic concert performer, and his exquisite voice never deserted him. He divided his time between Kingston and a farm in Jamaica’s interior.
“I am more a man of the bushes, the jungle, the weeds,” he said in 1990. “That’s where my inspiration comes from. That’s what keeps Bunny Wailer alive. And it’s not good to stray from your life force.”
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