Bunny Wailer: Reggae music giant and founding member of The Wailers
In 1963, Bunny Wailer formed a group with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Along with Wailer’s harmonious vocals and percussion, they became the greatest exponents of reggae music and Jamaica’s most famous musical export.
The band that would become The Wailers perfected their vocal harmonies by singing doo-wop. They recorded ska and rocksteady versions of American soul songs and, in February 1964, scored a Jamaican No.1 with their original ska classic “Simmer Down”. But it was with Rastafarian-inspired reggae music, a genre the band helped launch with alchemical producer Lee “Scratch” Perry on albums such as the 1970s. Rebellious souls and 1971 Soul revolution, that the Wailers set the world on fire.
Signing with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in December 1971 opened up the UK and US markets. But Blackwell’s game plan for the years 1973 Take a fire made Marley the focal point, and Wailer and Tosh felt marginalized. They quickly left the group after a revered lunge on The old gray whistle test; both men were aggrieved when Blackwell refused to release Tosh’s solo album. Wailer also felt that working outside Jamaica compromised some tenets of his Rastafarian faith.
While stepping out as world fame called for it may have taken some spirits away, Wailer was just getting started. His personal vision came to fruition when he made his solo debut in 1976, Man with a black heart, a dazzling reggae roots record. Named after a legendary Jamaican bogeyman, it featured many of Jamaica’s most elite musicians. Wailer always cited it as his best and most spiritual work.
Born Neville O’Riley Livingston in Kingston in 1947, Wailer’s twin loves were music and cricket. He befriended Marley at school and, along with Tosh, they organized the Kingston Outdoor Dances.
The ties between them were deep. After Marley’s father died in 1955, Wailer’s father moved in and had a daughter with Marley’s mother. Tosh, meanwhile, would later have a son with Wailer’s sister.
Wailer’s arrest for possession of cannabis at the age of 20 would have a lasting politicizing effect. He spent part of his 18-month sentence at the notoriously harsh Kingston General Penitentiary and it inspired Man with a black heart‘s “Knock down the penalty”.
Recognition for his work peaked in the 1990s. Wailer has won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album three times. First for the 1990s Time will tell: a tribute to Bob Marley, then for the years 1994 Crucial! Classic Roots, and finally for the years 1995 Hall of Fame: A Tribute to Bob Marley’s 50th Birthday.
A Mojo Reviewer of a 1996 show in Finsbury Park in London noted Bunny’s silver sequin jumpsuit and “age and gravity defying kung fu jumps”, but he was still afraid to fly and walked past. much of his time growing coffee and corn on land near Kingston, he had purchased with a cash settlement from Island Records.
His iconic status as the last surviving member of the Wailers has grown in weight over the decades. In 2017, Kingston opened the Bunny Wailer Museum. He was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit the same year.
Years later, Wailer used to carry the group’s proud heritage on its own. Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36 and Tosh was shot dead at his home in Kingston, Jamaica in 1987 at the age of 42. Wailer died on March 2 at the age of 73 from complications from two strokes he suffered in recent years.
Wailer’s manager Maxine Stowe was with him when he died at Medical Associates Hospital in Kingston, and told the Jamaica Observer he is survived by 13 children, 10 sisters, three brothers and grandchildren. Stowe also said that Jean Watt, Wailer’s partner of 50 years and suffering from dementia, had been missing since last May.
“Bunny Wailer will always be remembered for his remarkable contribution to Jamaican culture,” Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness wrote in a tweet.
Ziggy Marley, son of Bob Marley, said: “His legacy, his music and his spirit will never die. “
Bunny Wailer, singer and percussionist, born April 10, 1947, died March 2, 2021