Bunny Wailer, singer and songwriter, has died in Jamaica at the age of 73. He was a founding member of the Wailers. Unlike his peers, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, he did not seek to develop a global career and preferred to live quietly on his home island, among people who shared his Rastafarian beliefs.
Really named Neville Livingston, he was born on April 12, 1947 in Kingston. Raised by his father, he soon met Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in the town of Nine Mile, where Neville’s father and Bob’s mother were mated. The three young men were fascinated by the church harmonies of the Impressions, the group founded in Chicago by Curtis Mayfield, and, although they tried to record solo, they ended up forming in 1963 a vocal group initially called the Wailin ‘Wailers.
The Wailers, as they would become known, spent the rest of the sixties bouncing between different producers and record labels, in the poisoned Jamaican music business. In a third world economy, that was not a great career option: Bob Marley had to emigrate to the United States, to work as a laborer in Delaware. The Wailers continued with another member, and Livingston, already known as Bunny, went from doing choirs exclusively to singing as a soloist, especially on songs of his own.
Wailer became a rasta and soon attracted attention for his hair dreadlocks and his songs with a message. His newfound visibility may explain why, arrested in 1967 for possession of marijuana, he was sentenced to 14 months in jail. When the original Wailers reunited, they were still as poor as ever, but they were fueled by fury at injustice and exploitation.
The rise of the Wailers has been widely documented. After very productive, but barely paid musical experiences with Lee Perry and Johnny Nash, they accepted what seemed like a crazy proposal from a white Jamaican, Chris Blackwell: to be launched for the rock market, through his Island label. The arrangements were modified but the songs were not played, frequently angry and occasionally sensual.
As of 1973, the conquest of the international public was slow but sure. In the process, Bunny discovered that he hated touring strange lands and performing to strange people. Discreetly, he left his spot to Joe Higgs for live performances outside of Jamaica. Like Tosh, he soon understood that Blackwell’s plan was to enthrone Marley as a soloist. With the first royalties, Bunny founded his own label, Solomonic, initially distributed internationally by Island.
On his own, Bunny recorded cared discs that were released in single for Jamaica and they came together in a formidable album, Blackheart man. There were pieces that the Wailers had already performed and fresh themes. His great hymn was Dreamland, where he dreamed of going back to Africa; the memory of his sentence still hurt, as he explained in Fighting Against Conviction.
Become a pillar of the roots reggaeBunny had a loyal audience, both on and off the island. Creatively, he played records like Protest, but got back in shape with In I’s Father House. Marley’s death in 1981 and the murder of Peter Tosh in 1987 left him the sole survivor of the Wailers; inevitably, he was pushed to record entire albums from the old band’s repertoire, which he did with great dignity. He regularly received visits from foreign followers, who were amazed that he lived in a modest house, without apparent security measures. “My people love me,” he used to reply.