His death was announced on a Twitter account he shared with original UB40 singer Ali Campbell, with whom he had performed in a breakaway group for the past eight years. The announcement did not cite a specific cause. Another longtime band member, saxophonist and songwriter Brian Travers, died of cancer in August.
Drawing on English pop, American Motown and Jamaican reggae, UB40 sold some 70 million records worldwide and recorded more than three-dozen Top 40 hits in Britain. Formed in Birmingham in 1978, the band took its name from a government unemployment benefits form — each of the eight original musicians was said to have been jobless at the time — and became known as a voice for working-class disaffection and left-wing politics.
“We found it harder to write love songs than militant lyrics, because it was a lot easier to write about stuff you had witnessed or read about. It seemed natural to us,” Astro told the Guardian in May, recalling how he was often harassed by police under the “sus law,” which empowered officers to arrest anyone who was deemed to be acting suspiciously, often under racist pretexts.
Although he was not an original member of UB40, he joined the group in time for its debut album, “Signing Off” (1980), a combination of buoyant dance music and acerbic lyrics about income inequality, African famine and the rise of conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, whom the group dubbed “Madam Medusa.” “I’m a British subject, not proud of it,” the band declared in the anti-imperialist anthem “Burden of Shame.”
“We look upon ourselves as informers, just letting people know what’s happening without giving solutions,” Astro told People magazine. He played trumpet and percussion but was best known for toasting, a Jamaican style of talking or chanting over a beat, which prefigured rapping. “When I started performing I was a traditional reggae emcee,” he later said, “but my style developed because I love a good melody. I became a singjay as opposed to a DJ.”
The band continued to release original songs but found its greatest success with covers, starting with a chart-topping version of “Red Red Wine” that they recorded for their 1983 album “Labour of Love,” a collection of reggae covers. They claimed to have known “Red Red Wine” only from a 1969 reggae version by Jamaican-born singer Tony Tribe and had no idea it was originally a dour ballad by Neil Diamond.
“Even when we saw the writing credit which said ‛N. Diamond,’ we thought it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond,” Astro recalled. He did a toasted verse for the song’s album version (“Red red wine, you make me feel so fine / You keep me rockin’ all of the time”), and the single reached No. 1 in the United States five years later, after a Phoenix radio DJ dusted off the record and began giving it airtime, prompting other stations to do the same. The band’s propulsive cover became the standard interpretation of the song, with Diamond later performing a similar reggae arrangement in concert.
The group also released a hit cover of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” recorded in 1985 with singer Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and topped the Billboard Hot 100 a second time in 1993 with their version of Elvis Presley’s “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You,” which was featured in the soundtrack of the erotic thriller “Sliver.” As with “Red Red Wine,” the song helped introduce them to a wider mainstream audience, even as it irritated fans of their more politically charged, reggae-focused early work.
Astro, who came from a family of West Indian immigrants and was described by Spin magazine as “a devout Rasta,” insisted that the group remained devoted to spreading reggae music around the world. “This music is for peace, not violence,” he insisted in 1983, while chastising a gang of rowdy concertgoers at a UB40 show. As he put it decades later, “Reggae is the universal language that pulls all people together.”
By most accounts, he was born Terence Wilson in Birmingham on June 24, 1957. He said he was nicknamed Astro as a kid, for the brand of Dr. Martens “Astronauts” boots that he always wore. Around that same time, he started listening to reggae music and its precursors, ska and rocksteady, which received constant airplay in the neighborhood.
“We used to slink out of our beds to go and listen at these hash parties that would start on a Friday night and finish on a Monday morning,” Astro told the Washington Times. “Once you’re infected by it, it is something that never leaves you.”
By the time UB40 was performing at local nightclubs, Astro was running a disco and decided to force his way into the group after booking them for gigs. “Once the band was ready to go on I’d grab the mic and say, ‘Here they are, the band you’ve been waiting for, UB40,’ ” he told the Birmingham Post in 2010. “And then I refused to get off the stage — and I’ve been there ever since.”
The group developed its reggae-pop sound in part by spending hours rehearsing in a cellar, and by 1980, it was opening for the Pretenders, who helped launch the band to stardom in Britain. “I live to be onstage,” Astro later told the website U.K. Music Reviews. “I have got the attention span of an ant when we are in the studio.”
He was married to Dawn Wilson. Details on survivors were not immediately available.
Astro left the band in 2013, saying he was frustrated by its musical direction on a new album of country covers, “Getting Over the Storm,” and by his increasingly limited role as a backing vocalist. He joined Campbell and keyboardist Mickey Virtue in a breakaway group, which released the album “A Real Labour of Love” in 2018, and later toured under the name UB40 Featuring Ali Campbell & Astro.
“We’re still on our same mission, which is to popularize reggae music around the world,” he said in a 2017 interview. “We’re all pleased the genre is now an international language everybody understands. It’s played around the world and not everybody has English as their first language. They don’t necessarily understand what’s being said but everybody understands a good bass line and a drum beat. I think a bass line can say more than 1,000 words ever could.”