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Reggae Legends

Bunny Wailer

Bunny Wailer

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published September 9, 2005

Had he emerged from any band other than the Wailers,  Bunny Wailer would quite probably have been recognized as a giant in his own right.

Being a founding member of the Wailers was both the best and the worst thing that could have happened to Bunny Wailer. Just as the talented George Harrison couldn’t help but play third fiddle to John Lennon and Paul McCartney in their band, Bunny Wailer was no match against the supreme reggae deity Bob Marley and the charismatic, outspoken Peter Tosh. Had he emerged from any other band, or as a solo artist, Bunny Wailer would quite probably have been recognized as a giant in his own right. Instead, although his name is fairly well known and aficionados sing his praises, he is all too often dismissed as “the only surviving original member of….”

          Born Neville Livingston (sometimes spelled Livingstone) in Kingston, Jamaica in April 1947, the future Bunny Wailer, childhood friend Bob Marley and Peter Tosh (along with a few other early members who dropped out) in 1963 formed the group that would, after several other names, come to be called the Wailers. They recorded prolifically almost from the start (those early sides, primarily cut for producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label, are available on any number of compilations). The group swiftly gained in popularity, although there were roadblocks along the way, among them Marley’s temporary move to the U.S. and Bunny Wailer’s 1967 marijuana bust (for which he served more than a year in jail).

          The Wailers’ history—including Bunny Wailer’s participation in the first two groundbreaking albums for Island, Catch A Fire and Burnin’ (both released in 1973)—is well documented, as is Wailer’s departure. Refusing to fly, and thus foregoing touring, Wailer launched a solo career in 1976 with the album Blackheart Man, still considered by many to be not only his finest but one of the acknowledged masterpieces of roots reggae, a collection of poignant political and spiritual anthems whose raging lyrics belied the singer’s tender vocalizing.

          Wailer kept busy after that, often releasing more than one album per year. In 1980 he paid tribute to his own roots by recording Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers, on which he re-imagined 10 of the old songs. His hefty catalog is nothing if not diverse, and although there were missteps to be sure, including forays into hip-hop, even his most recent efforts almost always serve as a reminder that the “third Wailer” stands in no one’s shadow.

 

Recommended Recordings

 

Blackheart Man (Island)

Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers (Universal International)

Retrospective (Solomonic/Ras)