Recently, a bit of reggae history was made in Las Vegas at the close of the Bob Marley Roots Rock Reggae Festival when Ziggy and Stephen Marley, his only sons with Rita Marley, joined Bunny Wailer in an emotional, show-closing "Get Up Stand Up."
Wailer (born Neville Livingston) was a founding member of the Wailers and, with the passing of Marley from cancer in 1981 and the slaying of Peter Tosh in 1987, is the legendary trio's only surviving member. As for Ziggy, he was 5 years old -- and Stephen 1 -- when "Get Up Stand Up" appeared on the Wailers' 1973's "Burnin' " album, the last to feature all three founding members.
Amazingly, this is the first tour featuring Marley partner and progeny on the same bill. (The show comes to Wolf Trap on Sunday.) When the tour was announced, Wailer called it "something that was destined to be."
"These were babies coming up," Wailer said of the Marley siblings from a West Coast tour stop. "When all of that with Bob was happening, some of them weren't even born yet."
In fact, Wailer left the Wailers in 1974, just as the group was on the verge of worldwide success; Tosh left a year later. Though Wailer went on to a solo recording career that established him as one of the strongest and most compelling voices in reggae, he made only sporadic live appearances, and it wasn't until 1986 that he undertook his first tour outside Jamaica. As a result, he has always been more of a cult figure than a commercial star, as well as one of reggae's most enigmatic figures in the bargain.
Though Wailer includes Marley's classic "One Love" in his own set, there were once conflicts with the Marley estate over royalties and the merchandising of Tuff Gong, the label Wailer started with Marley and Tosh, notably the broad licensing of its iconic logo depicting three raised fists -- belonging to Marley, Tosh and Wailer. According to Billboard, the parties reached a $2 million settlement in 1999.
Now, the man who has become the respected elder statesmen of Jamaican music seems happy to be participating in a legacy tour that celebrates him and his departed Wailer mates and solidifies familial connections. "I'm their uncle," Wailer says.
"As far as family is concerned, I'm satisfied about what's happening and very proud to be part of this next generation of musicians. Everything is good.
"I'm satisfied with knowing that I'm serving the purpose of getting reggae music to be where it's at, and I'm proud to be part of that," he adds. "I'm just here trying to do my best in the completion of that journey and be thankful for the strength that I do have at this time to be working along with the next generation just the same. I'm feeling good to know that I'm still here doing the things that's appropriate of Bunny Wailer."
It's doubly appropriate in that Wailer was Bob Marley's oldest friend. The two grew up in the rural village of Nine Miles in Saint Ann Parish, separated by only two years. (Marley was born in 1945; Livingston in 1947.) In the early '50s, their families moved to the same Kingston tenement, Trenchtown, where the youngsters took informal singing lessons from veteran Joe Higgs. It was at Higgs's Third Street "conservatory" that they met Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh) and Junior Braithwaite, forming the Teenagers and working their way through emerging styles of Jamaican music, from ska and rocksteady to roots reggae. Their name evolved as well, from the Teenagers to the Wailing Rudeboys to the Wailing Wailers and, finally, the Wailers.
The first island hit came in 1964, with "Simmer Down," which urged "rude boys" to curtail their violent ways; it would take almost a decade for the world to warm up to the music.
"We having a dream, having a vision," Wailer recalls, "but as to the magnitude of what the dream might grow to, that is something that you cannot determine. At the same time, we believed in the music, we loved the music. We knew there was a lot of people that would have loved it just the same if they got the chance to hear it. We knew that it had a place in all of the other music cultures that it has now been fit into."
The Wailers' 1973 international label debut, "Catch a Fire," didn't quite, but "Burnin' " lived up to its title, thanks to "Get Up Stand Up" and "I Shot the Sheriff." There would be one true Wailers tour of England and the United States, but Wailer barely made it through the British leg. Ironically, his place on the American leg was taken by the group's original mentor, Higgs.
There were different stories as to why Wailer left: His sweet Curtis Mayfield-like tenor made him an impeccable harmony singer, but he only occasionally got to sing leads; he was never as prolific a writer as his mates, but over the years his input was increasingly diminished; and he was never big on touring, particularly as a devout Rastafarian who had difficultly obtaining religion-proscribed unprocessed food on the road.
In a 1990 interview, the deeply spiritual Wailer told the London Guardian: "I'm not involved in that kind of scene, too much of the limelight kind of thing. I am more a man of the bushes, the jungle, the weeds. That's where my inspiration comes from. That's what keeps Bunny Wailer alive. And it's not good to stray from your life force." He now splits his time between Kingston and a farm in the interior of Jamaica.
Wailer launched his own label, Solomonic, in the early '70s, and his 1976 solo debut, "Blackheart Man" -- considered one of reggae's masterworks -- released years of pent-up creativity and featured contributions from Tosh, Aston and Carlton Barrett (the crucial brotherly rhythm section that became the Wailers when the singers left); Marley and Tosh even sang harmonies on a remake of the repatriation anthem "Dreamland." Wailer's next two albums, "Protest" and "Struggle," evinced a strong Pan African/Rastafarian/political sensibility but didn't have the commercial impact of Tosh's and Marley's releases. Over the next three decades, Wailer would switch back and forth between hard-core Rastafarian roots music and contemporary dancehall styles, establishing his own legend but seemingly destined to remain the most underappreciated of the original Wailers.
(Interestingly, the Wailers Band, featuring guitarists Junior Marvin and Al Anderson and bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett, is at Nissan Pavilion on Friday with 311 and Pepper.)
Although he left the Wailers, Wailer never abandoned the group's legacy, or Marley's. In 1980, when the reggae icon was still alive, he recorded "Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers," backed by Sly & Robbie. After Marley's death, Wailer recorded "Tribute to the Hon. Nesta Marley." And he won Grammys for 1990's "Time Will Tell: A Tribute to Bob Marley" and 1995's "Hall of Fame: Tribute to Bob Marley's 50th Anniversary," a double album featuring 52 of Marley's Wailers and solo compositions, including some rarities.
Until now, Wailer's recording connection to next-generation Marleys was limited to a pair of Grammy-winning albums by Damian Marley, produced by Stephen Marley. On 2001's "Halfway Tree," he offers a spoken intro for "Educated Fools," while last year's "Welcome to Jamrock" kicks off with "Confrontation," building from spoken passages by Wailer, Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey into a pounding indictment of war. Wailer describes those contributions as "putting a little cement here, a little steel there."
Might there be more Marley/Wailer collaborations, perhaps on "Mind Control," Stephen Marley's highly anticipated solo debut expected in February or as part of Ziggy Marley's plan to get all the Marley brothers together for the first time to record?
"Let's see what happens," says Wailer, who is working on the follow-up to 2000's "Communication." The new album, to be called "Cross Culture," will add the more mainstream sounds of hip-hop and R&B to the mix.
"I'm trying to see if I can exhibit some of the music cultures that I've been absorbing over the years so as to make my contributions in those ears just the same, so that this generation of musicians and artists and writers can understand that Bunny Wailer is trying my best to understand what they are doing and to make my contributions for their future development."
He adds that "without any past, you don't got no future. I try not to forget the past although I will venture into the future. We know that the roots will always be the foundation, and that cannot be removed. I'm here as one of those main current that keeps the roots going. . . . I'll play my part until I'm tired of that."
Maybe he'll even finish "Old Fire Sticks," the 15-years and counting autobiography he is writing with reggae historian and collector Roger Steffens, based on more than 60 hours of interviews in 1990. One presumes it will cover the intervening decade and a half as well, but Wailer seems to work on his own schedule.
"A whole lot of people have been writing stuff, and there's lots of things that have been said of the Wailers that people reading and absorbing this stuff might think are realities," Wailer says. "But there's a lot of fictitious stuff, so when we get that book completed, I think we should have as much of the reality and true history of the Wailers for the fans and well-wishers."
And if you don't want to wait to read it, Wailer suggests you listen.
"The music has already spoke."
Bunny Wailer with Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley and Ozomatli
Sounds like:The roots and the fruits of reggae.