The death of Jamaican music legend Bunny Wailer on Monday this week at the age of 73 brings to an end a career that encapsulates the evolution of reggae from an exotic Caribbean musical style into a global cultural phenomenon.
The death of the last survivor of the Wailers, brought to an end the life of an eccentric personality who was regarded by some as a spiritual mystic, shunned the limelight, abhorred the rigours of touring and was not afraid to experiment with new variations of reggae, even when it cost him the respect of the genre’s traditional fans.
Bunny Wailer was born Neville O’Reilly Livingston on April 10, 1947 in Kingston. His friendship with Bob Marley, who was two years his senior, which started when they attended the same junior school, deepened when Bunny and his father moved in with Bob’s mother in the village of Nine Mile and eventually relocated together to the Trenchtown suburb of Kingston. That relationship resulted in the birth of a daughter.
In the 1950s, Bob and Bunny were growing up during a time of political unrest and widespread gang culture in Jamaica. Listening to the American R&B on the transistor radio was an epiphany for the two young boys. The teenagers would spend whole evenings listening to the music from radio stations transmitting from Miami in the US while imagining themselves on stage singing like Sam Cooke and other soul artists.
Bunny would strum on a makeshift guitar he had created out of a large can, a bamboo staff and some copper electrical wires. The boys would eventually enroll for training under the vocal coach, Joe Higgs “The Father of Reggae”. It is while jamming with Higgs, that they met Winston Hubert McIntosh (Peter Tosh) and became the Teenagers, then the Wailing Rudeboys and eventually the Wailing Wailers in 1963.
The group originally comprised of Bob, Bunny and Tosh, plus two female backup singers and an additional vocalist. Bob and Tosh were the main songwriters and lead vocalists while Bunny played percussions and sang harmonies.
The Wailers auditioned for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, owner of the Studio One recording label, who offered them a contract for their first songs including the hit Simmer Down. Recorded in the upbeat ska style that was borrowed from American R&B, the song was a warning to the island’s juvenile delinquents, the so called “rude boys” to end gang wars, and it hit No. 1 in Jamaica in February 1964.
Within a few months of active recording, the Wailers were already labelled a rude boy band, but their producer Coxsone was eager to steer their music away from songs that explored the burning issues like social and economic discontent.
The relationship with Coxsone came to a nasty end when the musicians confronted him over their earnings in a scene that played out in the recording studio and from that point, Bunny claimed he became a target for police harassment in West Kingston. He was arrested by police in 1967 on a charge of possession of ganja and convicted to one year and two months in jail
After the fall-out with Coxsone, the Wailers worked with the Chinese Jamaican producer Leslie Kong who had enjoyed two global hits with My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small and The Israelites by Desmond Dekker.
The Wailers was recorded some of their most influential music with the revolutionary Lee “Scratch” Perry who transformed their singing, and overall sound of the group introducing a rock slanted rhythm with the “one drop” drumming on songs like My Cup, Soul Almighty and Duppy Conquero.
Perry produced the album Soul Rebel released in 1970, followed by Soul Revolution in 1971 featuring the classics Keep on Moving and Kaya. This collaboration, too, came to end, thanks to a financial dispute which led the Wailers to form their own label, Tuff Gong.
Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records who had already worked with another Jamaican star Jimmy Cliff, understood the potential of reggae and so invested in the Wailers to record the album Catch A Fire leading to the group’s international breakthrough in 1973. That same year, island Records released Burnin, the last album by the original Wailers, featuring the classics I Shot the Sheriff and Get Up, Stand Up.
The international success of the group had come with new challenges revolving around the personalities in the group. Bunny was notoriously shy about travelling and was averse to the rigours of going out on the road with the band. He pulled out of a US tour, because he could not handle the freezing weather and Joe Higgs was called in as his replacement
Tensions in the group left Bunny in an awkward position because, as Timothy White writes in the book “Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley”, he loved both Bob and Tosh and didn’t want to be caught up in the middle of the animosity.
Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh left the Wailers in 1973 and, while Tosh’s frosty relations with Bob continued, Bunny still hung out at Bob’s Hope Road residence in Kingston while developing his own Solomonic label.
Always prolific, Bunny changed his sound in the years immediately before Bob’s passing in 1981, switching to a dancehall-oriented sound as exemplified by the popular album “Rock ‘n’ Groove”
Just as Bob’s cancer condition worsened, Bunny recorded his versions of songs like “No Woman, No Cry”, “Soul Rebel”, “Redemption Song” and “Time Will Tell” on the album “Tribute to the Late Hon Robert Nesta Marley O.M., which became an instant hit in Jamaica.
Bunny Wailer’s entry into dancehall was devoid of some of the gimmicks prevalent at the time, like the use of sound effects like pistol and rifle fire and the slackness (vulgar) lyrics.
He still wrote conscious reggae songs like “Ceasefire” and ‘Boderation” while keeping on the edge of the dancehall riddims through his work with the famous duo of bassist Robbie Shakespeare and drummer Sly Dunbar
When he faced criticism for turning to dancehall in the early 1980s, he said that he was embracing a sound that was popular with the youth and it was his mission to make great dance music. “It’s escapist for sure but young people need to release the tensions of tribulation. It’s not a bad thing,” he said.
Impress all music fans
His style didn’t always impress all music fans in Jamaica. In 1990, he was pelted with bottles at the Reggae Sting concert, to which he chided the fans for disrespecting their own “reggae king”
Chris Blackwell recalls the ordeal of signing Bunny to a contract for his influential 1976 album “Blackheart Man” and after days of waiting, Bunny turned up seated in his car. “When de right time come, me call for you and here you are.”
Bunny insisted that the recording contract includes a “death clause” so that if anything happens to Chris Blackwell, he would be free of all obligations.
It took a lot of persuasion for him to appear in the 2012 documentary film “Marley”
“He was suspicious and felt the story of the original Wailers had not been told accurately in the past. And he feels that as the last survivor of the Wailers, he wants to shape that history…” said Scottish director of the film Kevin McDonald
Once Bunny signed on then he devoted a full day to the film crew and as McDonald describes it “He’s very conscious of his look and the thing that I was most impressed with was the pipe that he had with him, which was made out of carrot, which seemed highly appropriate for a man called Bunny.”
He won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album three times and was honoured with Jamaica’s Order of Merit in 2017.
He is survived by 13 children while his partner of more than 50 years, Jean Watt, had dementia and has been missing since May 2020.