Groundbreaking Reggae Star Bunny Wailer Dies At 73

The last surviving member of the original Wailers passed away this week.
Groundbreaking Reggae Star Bunny Wailer Dies At 73
Photo Credit: Alfred Moya (via Wikimedia Commons)

Groundbreaking reggae musician Bunny Wailer has died at the age of 73, according to a statement from Jamaican government officials issued on Tuesday. Wailer, born Neville Livingston, was a founding member of the pioneering reggae group the Wailers, along with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.

Jamaican Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport Olivia Grange said that Wailer died at Medical Associates Hospital in Kingston after being hospitalized since December. No cause of death was given in the statement that Grange said was made at the request of Wailer’s family. Wailer suffered a stroke in July 2020 and had spent much of the time since then in the hospital.

“We mourn the passing of this outstanding singer, songwriter, and percussionist and celebrate his life and many accomplishments,” Grange said. “We remain grateful for the role that Bunny Wailer played in the development and popularity of Reggae music across the world.”

Jamaican Prime Minister Honors Reggae Superstar

Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness also issued a statement honoring the native-born star of reggae music who traveled the world sharing the music of his Caribbean island home.

“Bunny Wailer has made a tremendous impact on the world, setting the stage for a global movement and a love for Rocksteady and reggae music,” the prime minister said in a statement. “His legendary performances have touched the hearts and souls of millions of fans in Jamaica and across the world.”

“Prime Minister Holness has extended sincere condolences to the Livingston family, friends, his musical colleagues, and many supporters across the globe,” the statement added.

Last Surviving Founding Member Of The Wailers

Wailer, Tosh, and Marley formed the vocal group the Wailing Wailers in Kingston’s Trench Town neighborhood when the trio were only teenagers in 1963. The name of the group was chosen because “we started out crying,” Marley said, as quoted by the BBC. Vivien Goldman, the author of 2006’s The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century said that each of the founding members of the group had their own role to play.

“Peter Tosh was the real militant one, then Bob was the poetic revolutionary humanist,” Goldman said. “Bunny was regarded as the spiritual mystic.”

After meeting Joe Higgs, a singer known as the godfather of reggae who became their mentor, the group added vocalist Junior Braithwaite and backing singers Beverly Kelso and Cherry Green. The new lineup, now known simply as the Wailers, recorded “Simmer Down” in December 1963, a song written by Marley calling for peace in Kingston’s poor neighborhoods. The track reached number one in Jamaica and was followed by the single “Duppy Conquerer” and the debut album “The Wailing Wailers,” which was released in 1965.

That was followed by a short hiatus for the band when Wailer spent 14 months in prison for marijuana possession and Marley got married and moved to the United States. After reuniting, the band released their second album “Soul Rebels” in 1970. The ensemble then caught the attention of producer Chris Blackwell, who signed them to his label Island Records. The group released the albums “Catch A Fire” and “Burnin’” with Island before Wailer decided to leave the band in 1973, citing conflicts between an international touring schedule and his Rastafarian faith.

Celebrating A Distinguished Career

As a solo artist, Wailer released dozens of albums, including his 1976 debut “Blackheart Man,” over a career that spanned more than four decades. His solo work was characterized by music in the roots reggae style, which reflected his deep devotion as a committed Rastafarian. Wailer won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album three times during the 1990s. In 2012, the Jamaican government awarded him the Order of Jamaica, followed in 2017 by the Order of Merit, “the country’s highest honor,” according to the statement from the prime minister.

In 1981, Marley died of cancer at the age of 36. That was followed by Tosh’s death when he was 46 after being shot by a gunman in 1987. As the last surviving member of the original Wailers, Bunny Wailer told the Washington Post in 2006 that he was pleased with his legacy.

“I’m satisfied with knowing that I’m serving the purpose of getting reggae music to be where it’s at,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of that.”

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