Reggae Icon Bunny Wailer Succumbs at 73

Livingston, tired of the long touring schedule, the difficulty in eating whole foods (as dictated by his Rastafarian beliefs) and annoyed by Island’s insistence on marketing the band as Bob Marley & the Wailers, instead of simply, the Wailers, left the band by the end of 1973 to spend more time with his family and pursue his own artistic ambitions.

Reggae pioneer Bunny Wailer, who achieved success as a member of the Wailers, and later as a solo artist, has died. He was 73.

Bunny Wailer in concert at Reggae Geel, Belgium. August 1, 2014. (PHOTO: Peter Verwimp/Creative Commons)

Bunny Wailer in concert at Reggae Geel, Belgium. August 1, 2014. (PHOTO: Peter Verwimp/Creative Commons)

Born Neville O’Reilly Livingston on April 10, 1947 in Kingston, Jamaica, he was raised in the village of Nine Miles. He was raised by his father Thaddeus, who operated a grocery store.

As a youngster, he met a neighborhood boy named Bob Marley, and the two became close friends. When Marley’s father died in 1955, he and his mother Cedella moved into the Livingtson household. At that point, Marley and the younger Livingston effectively became stepbrothers.

After moving to the Kingston neighborhood of Trenchtown, Neville and Bob met Winston Hubert McIntosh, who would later be known as Peter Tosh. The trio formed a vocal group called, the Wailing Wailers.

Life was tough for the young men. Neville was so poor growing up, that his first guitar was homemade using found objects.

Their luck would begin to turn around when they met a local singer named Joe Higgs, who became a mentor to the young men. He help them hone their musical skills and recruited Junior Braithwaite, making the group a quartet. He also added background singers Cherry Green and Beverly Kelso.

In December 1963, the group, now known as simply, the Wailers, recorded a track urging peace in the community. The track was called, “Simmer Down,” and before long it was at the top of the Jamaican singles chart.

Another single, “Duppy Conqueror” was the follow up prior to the release of their first album, The Wailing Wailers, in 1965.

Despite Livingston serving a year in prison for possession of marijuana and Marley moving to the United States, the Wailers had recorded enough material to release a steady stream of singles.

A second album, Soul Rebels, was released in 1970. It was produced by the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry, which helped further develop their sound. It was also their first album billed as Bob Marley & the Wailers.

A tour of the United Kingdom with American soul singer Johnny Nash helped to set the stage for their international breakthrough. Nash, who had been dabbling in Jamaican music for a few years (he had a Top 5 US and UK hit with the rock steady single with “Hold You Tight” in 1968), had a monster hit with “I Can See Clearly Now.” He also featured several songs written by Bob Marley on his album of the same name, including “Stir It Up.”

Despite the promise that the tour had provided, by the end of tour, the Wailers were too broke to cover the airfare to get back home.

All was not lost, however. Chris Blackwell of Island Records offered the Wailers a recording contract which covered not only airfare, but the cost of recording the album in Jamaica. This resulted in the Catch a Fire album. While it only reached number 171 on Billboard’s pop album charts, and number 53 on the magazine’s R&B charts upon its initial release, the album is generally regarded as a classic. Rolling Stone recently ranked Catch a Fire as one of the 500 greatest albums of all-time, placing it at number 140.

It would not be until Burnin’ two albums later in 1973, that the Wailers would finally achieve international commercial success. Also ranked as one of the greatest albums of all-time by Rolling Stone (this one is currently listed at number 319). It was also added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry as historically and culturally significant. The lead single, “I Shot the Sheriff” was covered by British rocker Eric Clapton, who topped the American charts with his version.

Livingston, tired of the long touring schedule, the difficulty in eating whole foods (as dictated by his Rastafarian beliefs) and annoyed by Island’s insistence on marketing the band as Bob Marley & the Wailers, instead of simply, the Wailers, left the band by the end of 1973 to spend more time with his family and pursue his own artistic ambitions.

Beginning with his first solo album, Blackheart Man in 1976, Livingston went to achieve acclaim outside the shadow of Bob Marley & the Wailers. Livingston told The Daily Gleaner in 2009, that he considers it his best solo album.

In 1990s, after the death of Marley in 1981 and Tosh in 1987, Livingston continued the legacy of the Wailers as its last surviving original member. (Junior Braithwaite, who was added to the group after its formation, died in 1999.) During this decade Livingston won the Grammy award for best reggae album three times.

In 2012,the Jamaican government bestowed upon him the Order of Jamaica. Five years later he was awarded the Order of Merit,Jamaica’s highest honor.

While Livingston will always be known for his time with the Wailers, he will also be known for contributions on his own and as a leading proponent of reggae.

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