Musician seeks part of multi-million fortune Wailers member cites 1974 contract and royalties
Aston Barrett claims he and his brother Carlton gave Marley a 'unique musical advantage'. Photograph: Martin Argles
He sang of peace and harmony but yesterday the late Bob Marley was at the centre of a multimillion-pound court action when his former bassist claimed he and his brother masterminded the reggae legend's international breakthrough.
Aston "Family Man" Barrett told the high court he had been denied up to Â£60m after Marley's widow, Rita, and his record company cut him out of a slice of the Jamaican's fortune following his death from cancer in 1981.
In a case that had barristers grappling with patois and the concepts of "jamming" and "shuffle bubble", Barrett is suing Mrs Marley, seven of Marley's children and Island Records, now part of Universal. He claims he is owed millions from a record contract signed in 1974 and royalties from Marley songs he co-wrote with his deceased brother, Carlton, the drummer with the backing group the Wailers, who was shot dead in the 1980s.
Barrett said Marley asked for his help behind his studio 56 Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica. He said: "We were singers and we were musicians and we came together to make it international."
The court heard that Marley had achieved acclaim in Jamaica with his vocal trio the Wailers but saw the Barretts' rhythm section could give him an "international sound". The brothers had already scored international hits with The Upsetters and their Jamaican rhythms "created an electric reaction amongst audiences", said Stephen Bate, for Barrett.
"Not to detract from the extraordinary songwriting ability of Bob Marley," said Mr Bate, but the Barretts provided him with "a unique musical advantage".
In 1974, Marley's original two collaborators, Neville "Bunny" Livingstone and Peter McIntosh, left and a new group, Bob Marley and the Wailers, with the Barrett brothers and Al Anderson was born. Wittington Winter, a studio assistant at 56 Hope Road, told the court how the Barretts would compose songs together, with Carlton - "lyrical, outspoken and often philosophical" - improvising words while "Family Man" added bass lines. "He [Carlton] would be talking and they would be playing and singing and humming ... When you say write [songs], you don't sit there with a pen and paper. It's more like an inspiration."
According to Barrett, he and his brother agreed a $27,000 contract alongside Marley with Island Records in 1974 which split royalties equally three ways. But he explained he never signed the contract because Marley, overseas at the time, signed for the three of them. "We didn't have a problem with that, never yet."
Marley and the Barretts recorded Marley's third album, Natty Dread. It was a breakthrough: the single No Woman, No Cry, was Marley's first international hit. Bob Marley and the Wailers then agreed a "stratospheric" increase and a new $175,000 contract with Island in 1975.
Marley took half of all revenue from royalties, touring and merchandising, and the Barrett brothers shared the remaining half with the other musicians who had joined the Wailers.
But family feuds followed his death, made worse because Marley had 11 children by nine woman and did not leave a will. The Barretts were left with little money.
The hearing is expected to last for three weeks.