Obituary: Astro, charismatic star of the UB40 who aimed to popularize reggae music

Death: November 6, 2021.

TERENCE Wilson, better known as Astro, who died at the age of 64 from a short illness, was a founding member of UB40, the multiracial group that has been at the forefront of the integration of British reggae music into the global public. As a toaster (which meant speaking or singing to a beat or beat) and MC, he was central to the band’s attitude as much as his sound on hits such as Red Red Wine (1983) and I Got You Babe (1985).

On record, he gave UB40 his political conscience, while he rhymed on the daily racism experienced by his generation. In the live arena, he established himself even further, his charismatic stage presence and chatty personality courting a huge audience as he encouraged them to party.

UB40 was formed in 1978, named after the then unemployment benefit card, which the original eight members of the group – and several million more for that matter – had experienced firsthand. Led by Ali Campbell, with his brother Robin on guitar, the group came at a time of high racial tensions in the UK, with Margaret Thatcher’s rise as Tory Prime Minister accentuating class divisions.

Wilson became Campbell’s perfect foil, as UB40 wrote about the Martin Luther King assassination in April 1968 and the controversial “sus” law. The latter is taken from the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which, until its repeal in 1981, legitimized the stop and search of black youths by the police on the grounds that they were perceived to be acting in a suspicious manner.

In an interview with Graeme Thomson in the Guardian earlier this year, Wilson explained how he “went through the same ordeal as most blacks in the late 1970s” and how being pulled up by the police was “a weekly occurrence” . We found it more difficult to write love songs than activist lyrics because it was much easier to write about things that you had witnessed or read. It seemed natural to us.

As reported in 2006 in the Campbell brothers’ joint autobiography Blood and Fire, despite the success of UB40, Wilson was denied entry to nightclubs because of his dreadlocks, while the white members of the group were allowed to enter.

In 1990, he was jailed and deported from Seychelles after police allegedly found marijuana in his hotel room. He was then refused entry to Hawaii, where the band had to perform without him. Despite such abuse, Wilson remained an artist every inch of the stage and was at the heart and soul of the band.

Terence Wilson was born in Birmingham, the son of Jamaican immigrants who settled in England as part of the Windrush Generation. He grew up in the multiracial neighborhood of Balsall Heath and went to school with future UB40 keyboardist Mickey Virtue, who has remained his oldest friend in the group. He acquired his brand nickname “Astronaut” from the Doc Marten boots he wore.

Wilson began DJing and drinking with Duke Alloy’s Birmingham-based sound system, and bonded with UB40 founders Ali and Robin over their mutual love of reggae. After signing with local label Graduate, the band scored a top ten with their debut single, Food for Thought / King, with both songs appearing on their politically charged debut album, Signing Off (1980).

With writing credits shared equally between the group, another success came with One in Ten, from their second album, Present Arms (1981). The title of the song referred to the percentage of people in the West Midlands claiming unemployment benefits in 1981.

Despite these serious concerns, Wilson was cited as acknowledging that reggae is as much about pop music as it is about social consciousness. This was evidenced when UB40 achieved worldwide success with a cover of Red Red Wine written by Neil Diamond, from their 1983 album, Labor of Love. Another cover, of Sonny and Cher’s 1965 hit song I Got You Babe, by Bagariddim (1985), featured Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde. Both singles went to number one in the UK charts.

UB40 sold over 70 million records, before a bitter split saw the Campbell brothers directing two different versions of the group. After appearing on 18 UB40 albums, Wilson himself left the original band in 2013 in response to plans for a UB40 country music album. He joined Ali Campbell and Virtue in what eventually became UB40 with Ali, Astro and Mickey, and appeared alongside them in 2014 on their new record, Silhouette. An unplugged album followed two years later, with A Real Labor of Love released in 2018.

After Virtue left, the group became UB40 with Ali Campbell and Astro, and continued to tour the world. In June 2021, they performed an online concert of Signing Off in its entirety. Throughout the changes, Wilson’s love for the roots music around which UB40 was formed never waned. “I’ve been on a mission for over thirty years trying to help popularize reggae music,” Wilson told www.reggaeville.com in 2014 after reuniting with Campbell and Virtue.

“And all these years later, we’re still on the same mission. Because we do not personally believe that reggae is sufficiently broadcast on mainstream radio. There are many specialized stations, but they only preach to converts. What we need to reach are people who have never listened to reggae before but who might be interested. They just need someone to show them the way.

He is survived by his wife, Dawn Wilson.


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