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Bunny Wailer (1947–2021), reggae icon who co-founded the Wailers

by Linnea Crowther

Bunny Wailer was a giant of reggae music who co-founded the Wailers along with Bob Marley (1945–1981) and Peter Tosh (1944–1987).

The Wailers

Wailer was born Neville Livingston, and he became close to Marley at a young age as they grew up together in Kingston. They began playing music with Tosh and formed the Wailers in 1963, adding other members later in the year. Playing ska music in the pre-reggae days, the Wailers had early hits including 1964’s “Simmer Down.” Wailer tended to sing harmonies to Marley’s and Tosh’s lead vocals, though he wrote and sang lead on songs including “Dreamland.” The Wailers played a central role in popularizing ska and, later, reggae to an international audience, with later hits including “Stir it Up,” “Get Up, Stand Up, and “I Shot the Sheriff.” But as their fame grew, Marley was placed more in the forefront of the group. Their management placed Wailer and Tosh in the background – and booked a U.S. tour of rock clubs that felt problematic to Wailer’s and Tosh’s Rastafarian values. The two left the Wailers in 1974.

Solo career

Wailer released his solo debut, “Blackheart Man,” in 1976. Marley and Tosh both contributed backing vocals and played on the record, as Wailer sang backup on Tosh’s “Legalize It” that same year. As his solo career developed, Wailer branched out into other styles including dancehall and disco over the course of more than two dozen albums. He won three Grammy Awards for Best Reggae Album in the 1990s, and he was honored with Jamaica’s Order of Jamaica in 2012 and Order of Merit in 2017.

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Notable quote

“The Wailers are responsible for the Wailers sound. Bob, Peter and myself: We are totally responsible for the Wailers sound, and what the Wailers brought to the world, and left as a legacy.” —from a 2016 interview with Afropop Worldwide

Tributes to Bunny Wailer

Full obituary: Rolling Stone

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