Bunny Wailer, 1947 – 2021: reggae pioneer with a crucial political voice

The founding member of The Wailers has died in Jamaica at 73. “Reggae is a people’s concept,” he once told NME. "It’s like sharing a weight.” RIP

Bunny Wailer, the last of The Wailers, has died in Jamaica at the age of 73. Affectionately known on the island as Jah B, he was a devout Rastafarian, the creator of peerless solo records such as ‘Blackheart Man’ and, along with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, a crucial voice in the group that did more than any other to introduce reggae to the world.

Wailer was born Neville O’Riley Livingston in Kingston, Jamaica on 10 April 1947. While he was still a child, his family moved to the village of Nine Mile in St. Ann Parish in the north of the island. His father, Thaddeus ‘Toddy’ Livingston, preached at the Revivalist church, and young Bunny got his first taste of performance by banging the drum during services.

Bunny Wailer in 2019. Credit: Getty

In St. Ann Wailer attended the Stepney All Age School, where he first met Bob Marley. “I knew Bob from a very early age – maybe from nine or 10 when I went to live in the country,” he told NME’s Paul Bradshaw in 1984. “He was at the same school as I. When I left the country and came back to town, we later came to live in the same neighbourhood. So, it’s a long relationship. You couldn’t forget Bob.”

In 1963, aged 16, Wailer formed a group with Marley and Peter Tosh, variously called The Teenagers, The Wailing Rudeboys and The Wailing Wailers, before they eventually settled on just The Wailers. They had their first Number One hit in Jamaica with ‘Simmer Down’ the following year, and in 1965 released ‘The Wailing Wailers’, a collection of their best early recordings. On the cover, all three wear shiny suits and have short cropped hair, and are described simply as “Jamaica’s Top-rated Singing Sensations”.

Their sound evolved rapidly, in spite of setbacks – like the 14 months Wailer served in prison for cannabis possession from June 1967. The gorgeous harmonies the trio produced became part of the signature sound that developed under the guidance of producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on 1970’s ‘Soul Rebels’ and 1971’s ‘Soul Revolution’. In 1973, after signing with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, they released not one but two classic records: ‘Catch a Fire’ and ‘Burnin’’.

Their music spoke to a young audience not just in Jamaica, but around the world. On tour in England that year, Wailer told NME’s Sebastian Clarke: “Right now youth consciousness is causing turbulences all over the earth. As soon as the youth starts realising the truth he starts to tell it, and as soon as the old folks hear it, they start making trouble for them.”

While the group were at a creative peak, Wailer was unhappy that international touring put him at odds with his Rastafarian faith and felt his artistic contributions were being minimised as the group was rebranded as Marley’s backing band. Wailer quit and went to live in a ramshackle cabin by the beach, where he survived by catching fish and writing songs.

Some of those songs would be included on 1976’s ‘Blackheart Man’, Wailer’s debut solo album and one of the essential roots reggae records. Both Marley and Tosh sang backing vocals for their old friend on tracks like ‘Fighting Against Conviction’, a song about Wailer’s time in prison. The album’s title is a reference to a fable from his childhood in Nine Mile.

“To Wailer, reggae was about more than entertainment. It showed that music could be as potent as any political broadcast”

“We all grew up hearing about this Blackheart Man,” Wailer told MOJO in 2009, “and we were told that you had to be careful of strangers who might walk up to you and invite you into a situation, or you might be found in the lonely countryside, or in the gullies, or anywhere that this individual might have shown up – and then he would take your heart out. So it brought fear on all the youths of that time when they heard the name ‘Blackheart Man’. So I did the album based on my experiences.”

Wailer’s musical output – mostly released on his own Solomonic label – was prolific and varied. In 1980 he released ‘Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers’, which saw him reinterpret many of his old group’s classic songs in a roots reggae style with the backing of legendary rhythm section Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, while in 1982 he experimented with disco on his album ‘Hook Line & Sinker’. He won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album three times: for 1991’s ‘Time Will Tell: A Tribute to Bob Marley’; 1995’s ‘Crucial! Roots Classics’; and 1997’s ‘Hall of Fame: A Tribute to Bob Marley’s 50th Anniversary.’

Bunny Wailer in Notting Hill, 1988. Credit: Getty

The awards were well-deserved, but to Wailer reggae was about more than entertainment. The seven-inch singles he released in Jamaica during the ’70s, with titles such as ‘Power Struggle’ and ‘Innocent Blood’, showed that music could be as potent as any political broadcast.

“It’s a people’s concept,” he told NME in 1984. “If you’re not doing it for the people, it doesn’t make sense – it wouldn’t be music. Reggae, apart from most music, is a little bit more relevant to the everyday life and activities of the people. Not only I, but most of the artists try to deal with their experience and the experience of others to try and soothe the stress and the tension by letting them know that their feelings are shared. It’s like sharing a weight; that’s what reggae does.”

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