Industry pays tribute to ‘warrior’ Bunny Wailer - ‘Blackheart Man’ hailed as unique, talented
Bunny Wailer, the original Blackheart Man, who made his transition on March 2, would want to be remembered as a warrior, a man who stood out there to fight for what is right in the music and the development of black people, his long-time friend Junior Lincoln shared with The Gleaner.
“Another warrior gone,” Lincoln lamented. “Bunny wasn’t perfect; he could come across as aggressive sometimes, and as a matter of fact, so, too, could Bob [Marley]. But listen to his music, stop paying so much attention to the messenger and listen to the message,” Lincoln, the chairman of the Dennis Brown Foundation, urged.
He recalled meeting Bunny Wailer in 1970, after returning to Jamaica from England, where he was running a record and publishing company and releasing all of the Studio One records. “But my family and Bunny’s were very close, and when his father told him this, the relationship became more than just professional,” Lincoln said.
He added, “I was not a part of his journey physically, but I was spiritually involved. He was secretive about his personal life, but we would talk for hours about his story. Bunny had his own vision, and everything about his career and music focused on independence. And, as they say, what you get criticised about today, is your uniqueness tomorrow. And Bunny Wailer was unique and talented.”
A devout Rastafarian, Bunny Wailer was a three-time Grammy awardee and a founding member of reggae group The Wailers with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Over the years, much has been said, and continues to be said, about the 1973 break-up of one of music’s most iconic aggregations. But Lincoln’s take on it is quite simple. “It wasn’t meant to be. They were three extremely talented individuals, and they had to be apart to develop their own identity. The parting of the way is the way it was meant to be. Just look, all three received the highest accolades in the country,” he stated.
Herbie Miller, director-curator of the Jamaica Music Museum (JaMM) and the former manager of late Wailer, Peter Tosh, focused on Bunny Wailers musical output and described him as a consummate artiste and a stellar vocalist with a voice that was an outstanding instrument.
He said, “His brilliant vocal skills and deeply intricate melodic intelligence, his sense of harmony, and his feel for rhythm were touchstones in musical accomplishments among reggae singers. From his soulful Rastafari heart to the art of music, Bunny gripped the listener with his logical but emotional warm delivery. Frequently depicting the human conditions, his most enduring works confronted issues of race, class, and social inequity.”
Like many of the musicians of his time, Bunny Wailer used music to spark change. “As profoundly as some other Jamaican musicians – from Don Drummond to Prince Buster to Bob Andy – have done and, including the other two founding members of the Wailers, Marley and Tosh, Bunny brilliantly employed music in pursuit of social, political, and cultural uplift. His wry comments signified and challenged the collective absurdities of particular 20th-century hegemonic philosophical concepts,” Miller told The Gleaner.
“His Blackheart Man (1976), Protest (1977), Struggle (1979), and Liberation (1989) are acclaimed milestones. And while there are no questions about the classics status Blackheart Man enjoys, the latter three are at least quite outstanding. History will record Bunny Wailer as a towering giant among Jamaica’s exceptional musical minds and one of its few real iconic figures,” Miller concluded.
Music analyst Clyde McKenzie said although he didn’t have a personal relationship with Neville ‘Bunny Wailer’ Livingston, they would be very cordial whenever they met. “I have always been fascinated with Jah B. I thought he was a rather complex individual. He was the Wailer who pulled out of that musical aggregation in 1973, and there are differing accounts of what may have inspired Bunny Wailer to make that decision. But the fact is that when you deal with talents of that magnitude in a group, complexities will occur,” McKenzie told The Gleaner.
Describing Bunny Wailer as “definitely somebody who mattered.” McKenzie cited his Blackheart Man album as one of the classics of modern music. Electric Boogie, a defining single he wrote for Marcia Griffiths, he described as “most notable”. Blackheart Man, Bunny Wailer’s début album, was originally released on September 8, 1976, in Jamaica on his own Solomonic Records label and internationally on Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. The songs on the album are said to be regarded as the best written by Bunny Wailer. They examine themes such as repatriation in Dreamland, and his arrest for marijuana possession in Fighting Against Conviction, originally titled Battering Down Sentence. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh performed backing vocals, and the Wailers rhythm section of Carlton and Aston Barrett played on some of the tracks.
“Bunny’s contributions post-Wailer is one for the books, and with his passing, we have lost a great story. There needs to be some chronicling of his stories and perspectives. There are some who contend that Bunny was prickly as a personality; others cite his righteousness and the fact that he did not easily bend. But history will make its own assessment,” McKenzie said.
Bunny Wailer made his transition two weeks after the passing of legendary pioneer of the dancehall, Daddy U-Roy. Both were in their seventies. “It’s an interesting time. The stars are falling, and we have to be mindful of that and appreciative of the juncture we are at in our journey. The Grim Reaper is looking in the direction of significant players who helped to define who we are and who helped to orient us in time and space. It’s like losing a point on the compass,” McKenzie declared.
Ephraim Martin, founder of the International Reggae and World Music Awards (IRAWMA), was quite vocal in expressing his sorrow. “How can we stop the legends from dying? They live on in our hearts. Reggae has lost yet another, and one of its most iconic members in the person of the Blackheart Man, Jah B, Bunny Wailer. Now all three original members of the Wailers have made their transition,” he lamented.
Martin noted that since the pandemic, the reggae industry has lost an unbelievable number of its original and iconic members, and pledged that the 39th IRAWMA would take a special time to dedicate a part of its 2021 IRAWMA’s ceremony to reflect on those who have passed. Bunny Wailer had suffered a stroke in 2018 and again in 2020, and had subsequently been in and out of the hospital.
“Bunny Wailer is an IRAWMA Awards Hall of Fame inductee and multiple-award winner over our last 38 years. In 2019, he was one of our recipients of the Reggae 50 honour at the 37th IRAWMA in Kingston, Jamaica. My personal relationship with Bunny Wailer goes back to 1976, when I was a photojournalist with The Gleaner and THE STAR newspapers. On behalf of Martin’s International, IRAWMA and the reggae community, our deepest and sincerest condolences to his wife Jean Watt, his family, manager Maxine Stowe and friends,” Martin stated.
Junior Lincoln recalled that the last time he saw Bunny Wailer was at the JaRIA Awards in February last year, when he was specially honoured by the organisation. “He was on cloud nine. Ibo [Cooper] and I chose the songs carefully for the tribute, and we paid special attention to the little details that wouldn’t have any meaning to the average person. He was delighted, and I could see tears in his eyes. I understand that moment more now than I did then,” Lincoln, who is part of JaRIA’s organising team for its annual awards show, said.
In 2017, Bunny Wailer was conferred with the Order of Merit, the fourth-highest honour in Jamaica, for his contribution to popular music.