Bunny Wailer, a reggae legend
Another Reggae legend has left us, Bunny Wailer, Neville O'Riley Livingston OM OJ (10 April 1947 – 2 March 2021), one of the founders of The Wailers, with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and the last surviving member.
He drove Reggae forwards, with an uncompromising sound and ethos and was pure to his Rasta beliefs throughout his career which spanned five decades.
As an acolyte of Joe Higgs; a childhood friend of Bob Marley: their families lived close to one another in Kingston, and later in fact his father had a child with Bob's mother, so the two were family, musically and in actuality.
Higgs gave singing lessons to the young boys and encouraged them to form a band, which they did in 1963, together with Peter Tosh and Junior Braithwaite - The Wailing Wailers.
Signing with Studio One with whom they released over 70 tracks, their first release Simmer Down in 1964, was a great success -
Bob left to the USA in 1966, and The Wailers carried on recording without him and Bunny featured as lead vocal in a number of their subsequent hits which he also wrote -
The Ska train was chugging along nicely, and hits were frequent, and Bunny's harmonies and occasional lead vocals carried the group, but of course it was Bob who, after a stint in a US prison for cannabis posession, was becoming the focal point.
Here Bunny carries the bridge, in the seminal Keep On Moving, released in 1971 -
By this time, having recorded The Best of the Wailers with Leslie Kong of Beverly Records, they had moved to team up with the Upsetter - Lee Perry - and their two albums with Perry represent a turning point as their style became rootsier and Perry's production showcased their exquisite harmonies wonderfully.
A UK tour beckoned, and in 1973 they hit the road, supporting Desmond Dekker and Nicky Thomas, to promote their first Island album - Catch A Fire -
He never made the second Wailers tour, and his last appearance with The Wailers was on the Burning album, before he and Tosh went their own way, perhaps unhappy to play second fiddle to the Bob bandwagon, and reluctant to tour the US and play at 'freak' clubs as Blackwell wanted (in order to raise their profile).
He started his own label - Solomonic - and his first release on that was with another sadly departed legend, U Roy - Bide Up, this is the flip to that, from 1972 -
His output included reworking Wailers' songs, a pattern he continued throughout his career -
His first album, for many, remains his finest work - Blackheart Man - and includes the deeply spiritual Rasta Man, and spreading his vocal wings and expressing his faith proved he was more than just the supporting act to Bob -
In fact, whereas Peter Tosh sang almost reluctantly and Bob and the song became one, Bunny was a vocal master - in control and always in harmony with his supporting band. More militant albums followed in the late 70s and into the 80s, received well, but critically he was perhaps always in Bob's shadow.
His tribute to Bob - 'Sings The Wailers' was released not long before Marley's death in 1981 -
The more rub-a-dub influenced Rock and Groove followed in 1981, but it was his live performances which became his most powerful tools, and so after a seven year absence he wowed the Kingston crowds at the National Stadium with his concert in 1983, backed by The Roots Radics Band -
He toured the US, finally, in 1986, and took Madison Gardens by storm. Catch it all again here -
He toured New York the following year and also appeared at Reggae Sunsplash in 1987, and there was in his pomp - celebrating his joy and love of Rasta and Roots reggae music. His single releases were hits too - 'Cool Runnings' and 'Rock'n'Groove' and his 1989 album 'Liberation' was heralded as a triumph -
A world tour with The Skatalites followed, and a heartfelt tribute album to Bob in 1990 - 'Time Will Tell', for which he won a Grammy. He won another for his 50th Anniversary Tribute to Bob in 1995, as well as dabbling with dancehall trends and fashion in other releases in the 90s. However, it when he was recreating the Wailers' majesty he seemed most at ease and poignant -
One more album followed in 2000, 'Communication' which features all his own work, but perhaps was a step too far as he tried to marry rap, poetry and the spoken word into a cohesive whole. However, there are bright spots and it is clear Bunny still held the flame aloft when singing about injustice and in glory of Rasta -
He focussed, in his last years, on politics, forming his own party and campaigning on youth issues as well as calling for the decriminalization of cannabis.
Awarded the Jamaican Order Of Merit in 2017 and Order of Jamaica in 2012, and a Reggae music legend, Bunny suffered a stroke after stress following his wife's disappearance in May 2020. Sadly after a second stroke in December he sadly passed on 2 March 2021, leaving a wonderfully powerful and rich spiritual and musical legacy.
Don Pablo will host a Tribute this coming Sunday in honour of the last Wailer, Bunny.
Read about some of our Special one-off shows, and about the music which moves us.