Bunny Wailer, named by Newsweek as one of the three most important musicians in world music (along with Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade and Brazil’s Milton Nascimento), is an enigmatic figure in the world of reggae. During his ten years as a member of the original Waiters, he was acknowledged as a songwriting equal to reggae greats Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and was often described as the finest singer of the trio. Yet when the group disbanded in 1973 and Tosh and Marley went on to world acclaim, Wailer disappeared into the hills of Jamaica. For three years he was scarcely seen or heard from. Rumors proliferated about his ascetic existence and passionate study of the principles of the Rastafarian religion. But when he reemerged to record again, Wailer proved that he had not lost touch with the rhythms that moved the people; his albums were masterful blends of sociopolitical commentary and infectious, danceable melodies. After the untimely deaths of Marley and Tosh, Wailer was looked to as the elder statesman of reggae. He has refused to exploit or even acknowledge that status, however, preferring to remain focused on his own vision of what his life and music should be.
Wailer was born Neville O’Reilly Livingston in Kingston, Jamaica, but spent most of his early childhood in the idyllic rural village of Nine Miles. There he acquired a nickname, “Bunny,” and a best friend, Bob Marley. The boys grew up as brothers, their bond growing even tighter when Marley’s mother and Waiter’s father moved together to Jamaica’s largest city, Kingston. Although the ghetto in which they lived, called Trenchtown, was one of the world’s poorest and most violent, Wailer perceived it as a magical place. Like Hollywood, it was full of stars and would-be stars. The two boys were no exception. Listening to rhythm and blues on New Orleans radio, they dreamed of making music; they fashioned crude guitars for themselves out of sardine cans, bamboo, and discarded electrical wire. When they met another local youth, Peter Tosh, who owned a real guitar, they happily expanded their duo to a trio. By 1966, their biggest dream had come true—they were offered, and signed, a recording contract.
Wailer, Marley, and Tosh were first known as the Teenagers, then the Wailing Rudeboys, which became the Wailing Waiters, and finally just the Waiters. Somewhere along the way, Bunny adopted the group’s name as his own surname. From the start, and through all their various incarnations, the Waiters were a hit in Jamaica. As the music evolved from rollicking ska to rock-steady to reggae, they were always in the forefront. The three members considered themselves equals, alternating leads; Waiter’s sweet tenor was featured on a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” as well as on his own compositions “Dancing Shoes,” “Dreamland,”
Born Neville O’Reilly Livingston, April 10, 1947, in Kingston, Jamaica; son of Thaddeus Livingston.
With Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, founded group the Wailers (originally known as the Teenagers, then the Wailing Rudeboys, then the Wailing Wailers), mid-1960s; established Solomonic Records, 1972; recorded and performed with the Wailers until 1973; solo artist, 1973—.
Awards: Grammy Award and NAACP Image Award nominations, both 1989, both for Liberation.
Addresses: Record company —Shanachie Records, 37 East Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860.
and many others. In fact, he composed some of the group’s most enduring tunes, including “One Love,” “Who Feels It Knows It,” and “Pass It On.” Despite their popular success, though, hastily signed contracts meant that the Wailers made almost no money in their early years, and the group broke up briefly at the start of the 1970s when Wailer was imprisoned for possession of marijuana and Marley went to work on an American assembly line.
When they reunited some two years later, Marley was determined to get them a new contract—one that would give them their due. Accordingly, he sought an alliance with Chris Blackwell, a wealthy white Jamaican whose company, Island Records, was the home of many major rock stars. Blackwell signed the group, despite the prevailing wisdom that reggae would never find an audience beyond Jamaica; the sound was considered too primitive, and the growing influence on the music of Rastafarianism—a religion based on the belief that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia is the living God who will deliver blacks from oppression and in which the smoking of marijuana is considered a sacrament—was deemed entirely too esoteric for mass consumption. But Blackwell’s faith in the Wailers proved justified; with his promotional efforts, the albums Catch a Fire and Burnin’ were enthusiastically received and have since become classics.
But Blackwell was also instrumental in the undoing of the original Wailers, grooming Marley to be the star of the group rather than one of three equals, which was reflected in the renaming of the band—to Bob Marley and the Wailers. This was unacceptable to Tosh, and Wailer had reservations about it as well; moreover, he found the world tours arranged by Blackwell virtually unbearable and longed to return to Jamaica. In 1972 Wailer founded his own label, Solomonic Records, and cut a few singles; in 1973, he broke entirely with Blackwell and Island, as did Tosh. Marley and Tosh went on to solo success, but Wailer retired to a reclusive life in the country, contemplating all that had happened. His reputation as a mystic with supernatural powers grew from 1973 to 1976, a period in which he recorded no music and was rarely seen.
Then, in 1976, Wailer made a sudden and surprising reappearance. Backed by Marley, Tosh, and the new Wailers band, he released Blackheart Man on the Island label. Hailed as a masterpiece, the album’s cryptic lyrics solidified Wailer’s image as a shaman of sorts, and he continued in his elusive ways; he did not perform in public again until after Marley’s death, on May 11, 1981. But his stage comeback was quite spectacular: he organized the 1982 Christmas Day Youth Consciousness Festival in Kingston, featuring himself, Tosh, reggae notables Jimmy Cliff, Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, and the Wailers band, and performed a stunning three-hour set, the other performers backing him in turn. Just as astonishing was his decision, in 1987, to venture from Jamaica for the first time in 14 years. The occasion was a solo performance at Madison Square Garden to support his Rootsman Skanking album. Although the concert was his debut at the stadium—and went virtually unpromoted—Wailer played to a sellout crowd.
Wailer continues to release music and perform, but only when the time seems right to him. The Liberation album, for example, was scheduled for release in the late 1980s, but he held it back in favor of the lighter, more dance-oriented Rule Dance Hall; when Wailer did unveil Liberation, it proved strangely prophetic, foretelling the release from prison of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and the fall of the Berlin Wall just months before those events occurred. His seeming gift of clairvoyance aside, Waiter’s earthly performances and recorded output—insightful, morally uncompromising, and consistently enjoyable—have demonstrated that his music is rightly hailed as among the best of reggae’s past and present.
With Bob Marley and the Wailers; reissued on Tough Gong/Island, 1990, except where noted
Catch a Fire.
Legend (The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers).
The Never Ending Wailers, Ras, 1994.
Blackheart Man, Island, 1976.
Protest, Island, 1977, reissued, Mango.
Struggle, Solomonic, 1979.
Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers, Island, 1980, reissued Mango.
In I Father’s Groove, Solomonic, 1980.
Rock ’n’ Groove, Solomonic, 1981.
Tribute to the Late Hon. Robert Nesta Marley, OM, Solomonic, 1981, reissued as Time Will Tell: A Tribute to Bob Marley, Shanachie, 1990.
Hook, Line and Sinker, Solomonic, 1982.
Roots, Radic, Rockers, Reggae, 1983.
Live, Solomonic, 1986.
Marketplace, 1986, reissued, Shanachie, 1991.
Rootsman Skanking, Shanachie. 1987.
Rule Dance Hall, Shanachie, 1988.
Liberation, Shanachie, 1989.
Gumption, Shanachie, 1990.
(Contributor) People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, Shanachie, 1993.
Crucial: Roots Classics, Shanachie, 1994.
Davis, Stephen, Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica, Anchor Press, 1979.
White, Timothy, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, Holt, 1983.
Down Beat, March 1991; June 1991.
High Fidelity, May 1989.
Rolling Stone, April 20, 1989.
Vibe, March 1994.
Village Voice, December 29, 1987.
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