Bunny Wailer, the remaining founding member of The Wailers, along with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, has died at age 73. The pioneering reggae group was essentially responsible for popularizing reggae music with their catchy, upbeat tunes and undeniable musical chemistry.
Wailer, whose given name was Neville O’Riley Livingston, passed away March 2 at Medical Associates Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, leaving the world with fond memories of The Wailers’ ascension onto the international stage, giving the world a cultural bird’s eye view of Rastafarianism, Jamaican pride and spirituality. The group’s iconic dreadlocked hair tore down stereotypes and created a context for reggae’s rich sound and history.
Peter Mason of the Guardian writes, “The least feted of the trio, he was in many ways the most respected, for as each of the Wailers pursued solo careers from the mid-1970s onwards—Marley to become reggae’s global evangelist and Tosh its militant conscience—Wailer continued on his quiet path as its spiritual ambassador.”
As a group, The Wailers, in the realm of reggae music, were likened to what The Beatles achieved in rock and roll, larger than life musical trendsetters who were loved by millions of fans and revered as powerful icons who led a historically profound musical movement.
Born on April 10, 1947, Bunny was raised alongside a young Bob Marley at the age of 9 when their parents, Wailer’s father, Thaddeus Livingston, also known as Toddy, and Marley’s mother, Cedella Booker, began a romantic relationship. Booker was Toddy’s housekeeper. The boys were raised together, living in the same home in Trench Town in West Kingston, Jamaica, and were bonded familially through the birth of their half-sister, Pearl.
Wailer and Marley met Peter Tosh, who had also moved to Trench Town from a small village and was bonded with the two boys as Tosh had a baby with Toddy’s sister, Shirley. Three icons were not just musically bonded, but they were family, and their closeness created a fortuitous breeding ground for creativity.
They began making music together in 1964 and released a single called “Simmer Down,” and were then known as the Wailing Wailers. They released several singles on their own record label imprints, Wail ‘N Soul ‘M and Tuff Gong. The group was doing quite well until at age 20, Bunny Wailer was arrested for marijuana possession and did 18 months’ hard labor in the General Penitentiary in Kingston.
Despite his troubles, Wailer enjoyed a lengthy and prestigious career. “By the early 1970s, the Wailers—now in loose clothes and dreadlocks—became one of the flagship groups of a slower, muskier new Jamaican sound: reggae. The group’s 1973 album ‘Catch a Fire,’ with songs like ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘Slave Driver,’ is one of the canonical releases of so-called roots reggae, with a rock-adjacent production style and socially conscious lyrics,” writes New York Times’ Ben Sisario.
The group split up in 1973. Bunny released his debut solo album, “Blackheart Man” and followed up with “Protest” in 1977 and “Struggle” in 1978.
With a fear of flying, Wailer didn’t travel often and bought a piece of land that was 60 miles west of Kingston, choosing to live a quiet and contented life. In 2017, the Bunny Wailer museum was founded in Kingston. Wailer is allegedly survived by 13 children.