Bunny Wailer, Reggae Pioneer With the Wailers, Dies at 73

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Bunny Wailer, Reggae Pioneer With the Wailers, Dies at 73

Bunny Wailer, the last surviving original member of the Wailers, the Jamaican trio that helped establish and popularize reggae music – its other founders were Bob Marley and Peter Tosh – died Tuesday in a hospital in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 73 years old.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Maxine Stowe, who gave no reason.

The Wailers were formed in 1963 when their members were teenagers. They were among the biggest stars of ska, the optimistic Jamaican style adopted by American R&B. On early hits like “Simmer Down” and “Rude Boy” the three young men – who at the time wore suits and had short cropped hair – sang in gentle harmony and threaded some social comments with their onomatopoeic “doo-be doo” -be doo- bas. “

“The Wailers were Jamaica’s Beatles,” said Randall Grass of Shanachie Records, an American label that worked extensively with Bunny Wailer in the 1980s and 1990s, in a telephone interview.

In the early 1970s, the Wailers – now in loose dresses and dreadlocks – became one of the flagship groups of a slower, more musky new Jamaican sound: reggae. The 1973 album by the group “Catch a Fire” with songs like “Concrete Jungle” and “Slave Driver” is one of the canonical releases of the so-called Roots Reggae, with a production style bordering on rock and socially conscious lyrics.

Marley and Tosh were the main songwriters and singers in the group. But Bunny, who also played percussion instruments, was a crucial part of her harmony style. At least among the fans, the three men have settled into character roles like reggae superheroes.

“Peter Tosh was the real militant, then Bob was the poetic revolutionary humanist,” said Vivien Goldman, author of The Book of Exodus: The Making and Significance of Bob Marley and the Wailers Album of the Century (2006). . “Bunny was seen as the spiritual mystic.”

Born in Neville Livingston, he took the name Bunny when he joined the group. He was variously referred to as Bunny Livingston or Livingstone before settling on Bunny Wailer in the 1970s.

The Wailers toured the UK and began gaining international recognition, but by 1973 the original trio had split up. Marley, nearing global fame, began performing under the bill of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Bunny didn’t like touring and, as a Rastafarian believer, had felt uncomfortable performing in bars and viewed them as unsuitable places for the group’s spiritual message.

Neville Livingston was born on April 10, 1947 in Kingston and grew up in the village of Nine Mile in St. Ann Parish off the north coast of Jamaica. He and Marley met there as children and for a time Marley’s mother Cedella lived with Neville’s father Thaddeus in the Trench Town of Kingston.

The two friends met Peter Tosh – real name Winston McIntosh – through Joe Higgs from the Jamaican pop duo Higgs and Wilson. The Wailers also included Junior Braithwaite and Beverly Kelso, and they recorded with top producers of the day like Coxsone Dodd, Leslie Kong and Lee (Scratch) Perry.

After leaving the Wailers, Bunny continued to make music, including his first solo album, Blackheart Man, in 1976; He produced it himself, wrote most of the songs and released it on his own label Solomonic. But while Marley and Tosh toured a lot, Bunny stayed mostly in Jamaica where he built up a powerful mystique.

He made his New York debut in 1986 at Madison Square Garden with opening acts and backup groups like the vocal ensemble The Psalms, which he had chosen to represent Jamaican music history. Three years later, while performing at Radio City Music Hall, Jon Pareles of the New York Times described the show as “like a gospel service with a reggae beat,” with Bunny wearing a robe embellished with the silhouette of Africa was Star of David, the Lion of Judah and Marijuana go.

Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981. Peter Tosh was shot dead in 1987.

Ms. Stowe said that Bunny Wailer’s survivors included 13 children, 10 sisters, three brothers and grandchildren. Ms. Stowe said that Jean Watt, his partner of over 50, has dementia and has been missing since May.

Bunny won three Grammy Awards for Best Reggae Album. Two of these albums paid homage to Marley.

He received the Order of Merit of Jamaica in 2017. Peter Phillips, a minister in the Jamaican Parliament, said his death “brings to an end the most vivid period of Jamaica’s musical experience” and called him “a good, conscious Jamaican brother”.