Bunny Wailer was the last living founder of iconic Jamaican reggae band The Wailers.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Neville O'Riley Livingston, the Jamaican vocalist better known as Bunny Wailer, died on March 2 at Medical Associates Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, at age 73. A founding member of The Wailers alongside Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Wailer went on to become a reggae icon in his own right. Wailer traveled and performed sporadically, each appearance a regal occasion befitting a seldom seen reggae monarch.
Through the release of the albums Catch a Fire and Burnin' on Island Records, The Wailers brought roots reggae, their Afro-centric Rastafari way of life (much maligned in Jamaica at the time of their emergence) and their dreadlocked hair, a covenant of that way of life, onto the international stage.
"The Wailers are to reggae what the Beatles are to rock 'n roll and pop music," Jamaican music-business veteran Copeland Forbes told NPR. "When they walked into Chris Blackwell's Island Records office in London, he saw something special in them and against many warnings, he advanced them £4,000 to make an album."
Forbes, who has worked with some of the reggae industry's biggest names, including Marley, Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Marcia Griffiths, has a memoir, My Life in Reggae, due later this year. "Bunny and I were schoolmates from kindergarten and just last night I was editing a chapter about him for my book, so it was shocking to wake up to this sad news," he said. "The three founding members of the legendary Wailers are now together in Zion, and, as they sang on 'Rasta Man Chant,' 'one bright morning when my work is over, I'll fly away home.'"
Wailer, a celebrated singer, songwriter and percussionist also known as Jah B, was born on April 10, 1947. His relationship with Bob Marley predated forming the fabled vocal trio: Wailer was around 9 years old when his father, Thaddeus Livingston, began a relationship with Marley's mother, Cedella Booker. For a time, the boys were raised as brothers in the same house in the west Kingston community of Trench Town, home to many Jamaican music legends. It was there the two met another youth with musical aspirations: Winston Hubert McIntosh, who would adopt the name Peter Tosh. A few years later, The Wailers would immortalize the poor yet musically fertile community with their classic "Trench Town Rock."
As teenagers, the aspiring artists spent long hours perfecting their harmonies under the tutelage of Trench Town singer Joe Higgs. The Wailers hit their initial stride with Coxsone Dodd's Studio One label, considered Jamaica's Motown. Wailer's exquisite, high-pitched tenor, reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield (whose voice and lyrics profoundly influenced all three Wailers), brought compelling harmonies to the group's early hits, including their first, 1964's "Simmer Down," and stunning leads on the early gems "Dancing Shoes" and "Let Him Go."
The Wailers went on to release several singles on their own Wail 'N Soul 'M and Tuff Gong imprints. They recorded for several producers, including Leslie Kong and, most notably, Lee "Scratch" Perry, whose gritty, dub heavy sound brought an appropriate framing to The Wailers' stirring vocals on the albums Soul Rebels and Soul Revelution Part II. The latter yielded the Wailer-led tracks "Riding High" and "Brain Washing." Their creative relationship came to an end when Perry released the albums in England without notifying or financially compensating the performers.
In 1968 the Wailers signed to JAD Records, the label founded by singer Johnny Nash with Arthur Jenkins and Danny Sims. The label brought The Wailers to London for promotional gigs opening for Nash, but when their music failed to have much of an impact, Sims and Nash abandoned the group and flew back to the U.S. Unsure what to do next, The Wailers visited the offices of Anglo-Jamaican recording executive Chris Blackwell, who bought out the group's JAD contract, signed them to Island Records and paid their fares back to Jamaica.
Blackwell marketed The Wailers as a rock band, focusing on albums and tours. With the respective April and October 1973 releases of Catch a Fire and Burnin' — both following Island's release of The Harder They Come soundtrack — reggae began to resonate beyond Jamaica's shores. Burnin' featured Wailer's joyous "Hallelujah Time" and his striking high-pitched harmonies on Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." (The latter would be covered by Eric Clapton, giving Jamaican music an even greater push.)
But Wailer barely made it through the U.K. leg of the Catch a Fire tour, the only trek by the original Wailers, comprising 19 shows at clubs and universities. He disliked the food on the road, the cold climate and, like Tosh, resented that his talents were underutilized, with Blackwell's attention primarily focused on Marley. Wailer left the group in 1973, and Tosh exited shortly thereafter; Marley would claim The Wailers name for his backing band.
While Marley and Tosh traveled the world with their respective bands, spreading reggae's beat and identity, Wailer chose to remain in Jamaica. In 1976 he released his debut solo album, Blackheart Man, which featured reworkings of several Wailers tracks, including "Fighting Against Conviction," released initially as "Battering Down Sentence" and written about the 14 months he served in jail for marijuana possession beginning in 1967. (As Rastas, all three Wailers served time for ganja usage, and championed the plant's healing properties decades before such views became widespread.)
Blackheart Man would come to be viewed as a masterpiece, and Wailer's vast repertoire includes several more classic LPs, including Protest, Struggle, Liberation and Roots Radics Rockers Reggae. Among his biggest singles are the irresistible "Cool Runnings", the majestic "Dance Rock" and the title track from another of his essential albums, "Rock 'N Groove." He also wrote "Electric Boogie," which was further popularized when a version recorded by Marcia Griffiths reached no. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990. Broadway choreographer Ric Silver created the popular line dance the Electric Slide for the song — a routine Wailer nimbly demonstrates in a 1989 video.
In 1986, Wailer returned to touring with a triumphant sold-out concert at New York City's Madison Square Garden. His final concert tour in 2016, marking the 40th anniversary of Blackheart Man, included a May 1 stop at New York City's B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. The Times Square venue was packed to the rafters, with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio in attendance. The evening's historic nature was not lost on a rapt audience, as Wailer offered a selection of hits spanning the ska, rock steady, reggae, dub and dancehall eras.
Wailer was a recipient of countless awards, including three Best Reggae Album Grammys: the first in 1991 (for Time Will Tell: A Tribute To Bob Marley), another in 1995 (Crucial! Roots Classics), and one more in 1997 (Hall of Fame: A Tribute to Bob Marley's 50th Anniversary). He was conferred with the Order of Merit, the Jamaican government's fourth-highest national honor, on October 17, 2017. Jamaican radio station IRIE FM (107.5 FM) honored Wailer with a Lifetime Achievement Award on February 11, 2018, which included an outstanding 45-minute performance by Wailer and his band. That ceremony, at Kingston's Bournemouth Beach Complex, was attended by several reggae luminaries, including singer-songwriter Bob Andy, a Wailers contemporary (who died on March 27, 2020), and dancehall godfather U-Roy (who passed away on February 17, 2021).
In October 2018, Wailer suffered a stroke that resulted in speech difficulties. But on November 2, 2019, he came to New York to accept the Pinnacle Award from the Brooklyn based Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music (CPR). "Following UNESCO declaring reggae 'an intangible cultural heritage of humanity,' we were humbled when Bunny Wailer graciously accepted the CPR Pinnacle Award of Excellence on behalf of The Wailers, whom we recognized for their role in the music achieving that inscription," CPR co-founder and president Carlyle McKetty told NPR.
Wailer had been in rehab care at Medical Associates Hospital since December 2020, after suffering a second stroke: a result, according to a statement posted on Facebook by his son Abijah Asadenaki Livingston, of stress relating to the disappearance of Jean Watt, known as Sister Jean. Wailer's wife of more than 50 years, Watt suffered from dementia, and left their home in May 2020. "Due to the stress of Sister Jean's disappearance my father suffered a second stroke in July 2020 and he has since been medically incapacitated," Livingston wrote.
"The world has lost a culture statesmen of significant enormity," McKetty told NPR. "The roots of reggae are to be found in Rastafari values, and in the life and life's work of Jah B."