Sun | May 26, 2019

The Music Diaries | Bunny Wailer honoured, great works acknowledged

Published:Sunday | February 18, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Bunny Wailer at the Trench Town culture yard.
From left: Bunny Livingston, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh when they just formed The Wailin' Wailers.

The image and status of Bunny Wailer were virtually immortalised at an exciting concert at the Bournemouth Complex along the Michael Manley Boulevard last Sunday, February 11. The event, dubbed Irie FM Lifetime Achievement Award and Celebration for Bunny Wailer, saw a plethora of artistes from the present and past generations showering unending accolades on the maestro, whose work has not only helped to place Jamaica on the international music map, but has also preserved the Wailers' legacy even at times when it stood on shaky ground. Bunny, born Neville O'Riley Livingston, and one of two living original Wailers (the other being Beverley Kelso), has been the main surviving symbol and cornerstone in the perpetuation of the name 'Wailers' and in the preservation of their musical legacy.

In one of many tributes at the celebration, the songwriting, genius, Bob Andy, while adopting a non-musical approach, spoke about the Studio 1 days when they were contemporaries. Andy recalls one instance in particular when Bunny's backing vocals, along with the Wailers, contributed in no small way to the success of his big hit, I've Got To Go Back Home. It was an extemporaneous act, which will always be etched in the memory of Andy since no prior arrangement had been made for that.

And Studio 1 is perhaps the institution that will be most indelibly etched in the memory of Bunny Wailer. It was there that his career was rooted, anchored by his first big hit, Simmer Down, sung by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and himself. The group saw Bob Marley doing most of the lead singing at Studio 1, but Bunny proved that he was a notch above the rest in terms of vocal quality when he took the lead on cuts like Who Feels It Knows It, What Am I To Do, and Dancing Shoes. With these cuts, Bunny managed to keep the Wailers' legacy and name alive at a time when Marley was overseas and his place temporarily taken by Constantine Walker.

Frustrated with conditions at Studio 1, where the group worked long hours for meagre wages, they withdrew their services and ventured into self-production. Almost coinciding with Marley's return from the US and armed with Bend Down Low and Freedom Time, they approached Studio 1 boss, Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd with an unprecedented request - the rental of the studio as independent producers. The recordings marked the birth of the Wail 'n' Soul 'm' label, which was later changed to Tuff Gong. Other hits - Nice Time, Hypocrites, Mellow Mood, Thank You Lord and others - followed. So did collaborations with Lee Perry and Leslie Kong. With the songs riding high on the charts, the group enjoyed a very successful period, financially. However, according to Bunny in his CD box set Musically Speaking, 'scanners' were at work, and this led to most of the funds vanishing. He mentioned "bootleggers and pirates, who, from the beginning of the Wailers' career, have persistently and consistently been involved with the illegal and unlawful exploitation of the Wailers' work".




To make matters worse, Bunny, who handled most of the financial arrangements for the group, said that he was framed and falsely imprisoned for ganja at the Richmond Farm Prison from July 1967 to September 1968. This, he said, was a serious blow to and setback for the group. He vented his frustration in the recording Fighting Against Conviction, which he wrote while being incarcerated:

"Battering down sentence, fighting against conviction

I find myself growing in an environment

Where finding food is just as hard as paying the rent

In trodding these roads of trials and tribulation

I've seen where some have died in desperation."

By 1974, Bunny Wailer, aka Jah B, had gone solo, following a split with the Wailers. His 1976 debut album, Blackheart Man, on his own Solomonic label, and from which the recording was taken, had other enduring cuts like Dreamland and This Train, in addition to the title cut. It is regarded by many as his finest work, delving into themes such as repatriation, marijuana possession, and fables. His Rock and Groove album of 1981, however, contained some of his best-loved and better-known tracks in the form of Dance Rock, Cool Runnings, Roots Man Skanking, and Rock and Groove.

Jah B's earliest upbringing was in Trench Town, where he was born on April 10, 1947. His early childhood development began there while he attended Miss Kelly Prep, Chetolah Park and All Saints Primary schools before graduating to Camperdown High School. Coming from a tightly knit family structure in which he shared a sister with Bob Marley, both boys became very close friends from early in an environment where music was a major influence. Joining forces with Peter Tosh, Junior Brathwaite, and Beverley Kelso, the Wailing Wailers was born, and the rest is history.

One of the unforgettable moments in Bunny's career was his composition of the hit single Electric Boogie in 1982 for Marcia Griffiths. It spawned the exciting dance craze The Electric Slide in 1986. According to Griffiths, the genesis of that episode lies in a musical gadget that she purchased while on an overseas tour. After introducing it to Bunny, he improvised on the sound it emitted and came up with the idea for the tune.

As for the concert, Jah B, a consummate percussionist as well, closed the event with a dazzling display of his hits, which proved that he has lost little of the sting that made him one of the best dual-voiced performers in Jamaica's music history.