Livingston Neville O’Riley, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and became Bunny Wailer (1947–2021). He first encountered Bob Marley when he relocated to the Saint Ann Parish community of Nine Mile when he was eight years old. Following the single-parent upbringing of the two boys, Bunny and Bob were reared together in Kingston when Bunny’s father, “Toddy” Livingston, moved back after falling in love with Bob’s mother, Sidilla Editha “Cedella” Booker.
While working on songs together in the early 1960s, Bob and Bunny ran into the renowned singer Joe Higgs, who would have a big impact on the Wailers. Higgs paired them up with another adolescent, Peter Tosh, and taught them the art of harmony singing. After months and months of harmonizing, they were finally invited for an audition with Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. and the ska hit “Simmer Down,” which they recorded for the first time in 1964, shot to the top of the Jamaican charts right away. The legend of the Wailers had made their way to the hearts of many.
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Cherry Green, Beverly Kelso, and Junior Braithwaite joined them in their early recording sessions. During his eight months with the Wailers, Braithwaite sang lead on a few songs, but most people only knew Bob, Bunny, and Peter as the Wailers, and because of their incredible accomplishments, reggae became widely known. Beginning in the early 1970s, reggae was highly popular throughout Africa and in England, France, Germany, Spain, and Japan. Due largely to Marley, reggae managed to sell respectably while facing stiff competition from rock, disco, country, funk, rap, hip-hop, and metal in the United States. However, it did not achieve the same level of popularity as it achieved in other regions of the world.
A vital member of the Wailers, Bunny contributed both vocals and drumming. and out of the three vocalists, his voice was identified as the greatest. Of the many songs the original Wailers recorded, Bunny sang harmony with Tosh on the majority; he sang lead on only about ten of them, mostly when Bob moved from Jamaica to Delaware, USA, to raise money for the Wailers to launch their own record label back home.
Bunny could be described as aggressive if the circumstances demanded it. Throughout their career, producers took advantage of the Wailers on several occasions. A dispute with a producer once turned Bunny into a legendary figure in Jamaican culture. For Leslie Kong, the group recorded a full album of songs, which was the first Jamaican album that wasn’t made up exclusively of singles. Kong announced to the group that the album would be titled The Best of The Wailers. Enraged, Bunny told Kong that it was impossible to intentionally label this “the best of,” given they were all young men with years of recording sessions ahead of them. If Kong truly believed that this was their greatest accomplishment, Bunny said, then Kong was going to pass away very soon. Kong made fun of Bunny. King passed away soon after the album’s release. Later, Bunny remembered, “Because he saw the last of the Wailers so to him really was the best of the Wailers, for it ended for him. He heard the best.”.
From the band’s first 7-inch single release in 1964 to the release of the “Burnin'” album in 1973, Bunny was happy to mostly support Bob and Pete. He sang harmony primarily with a lovely, high voice that occasionally descended into falsetto, but it must have worn thin on this gifted musician to always be viewed as the third Wailer.
For Bunny, two things went wrong, and his final recording with the Wailers was a performance that was televised by the BBC on May 24, 1973. The owner of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, made a comment about the Wailers playing “freak clubs” during their next US tour at that time. With his strong Rastafarian convictions, Bunny found this offensive. In addition, they spent several months recording and playing in England in 1973 after signing to the Island label and producing the Catch a Fire and Burnin’ albums. and Bunny abruptly departed after the group’s spring tour when Blackwell handed them a $80,000 bill. For the following thirteen years, he would not leave Jamaica.
For the next few years, Bunny released occasional 7-inch singles while residing in a Jamaican Rasta community.
Given his resentment of Blackwell, some people might be surprised that Bunny decided to release his groundbreaking solo album, Blackheart Man, on Blackwell’s Island Records. However, Bunny had a secret weapon. He included a peculiar provision to his contract that said he would not be bound by it if Blackwell passed away. “That way,” Bunny is reported to have said, ” I can get out of the contract at any time.” Bunny was given an astounding $42,000 advance to produce the record.
Blackheart Man is a masterpiece by all measures and is widely considered to be among the top 10 reggae albums ever recorded. It’s clear that the manufacturing took several months to complete. All of the musicians on hand are exceptional, the songs are remarkable, the arrangements are dreamy, and the recording is cutting edge. When Island first released it, it came in an opulent gatefold with all the lyrics and graphics.
The first song, “Blackheart Man,” which lasts for more than six minutes, is considered to be amazing. It tells the story of the struggles faced by dreadlock men in particular as well as by all social outcasts, the oppressed, and those who are discriminated against because of their appearance or beliefs. Though it may be difficult to imagine, the earliest Jamaicans who adopted the Rastafarian lifestyle and grew dreadlocks were instantly perceived as criminals.
All of the songs on Blackheart Man are exceptional. Even while the words are incredibly well-written, powerful, and menacing, these songs also have a subtle, poetic quality. The magnificent “Rastaman” is one of the most intimately personal to Bunny and his beliefs.
In a 2015 National Public Radio interview, Bunny provided the clearest explanation, “Well, the blackheart man is something that is related to our culture, custom and practice,” he noted. “There was a kind of nickname that was given to the Rastaman: the blackheart man. Parents used to tell us, ‘You be careful where you go. Watch out for the blackheart man.’ So we grew up with the blackheart man being that kind of a challenge. Where we are concerned, we still maintain the order of the blackheart man.”
When he was younger, Bunny was obviously not impressed by advice to avoid Rastafarians.
“I’ve been a blackheart man since four years of age,” he remarked. “I used to play in the gullies, and one day we were there playing, and we just saw a foot come out of a manhole — just a foot. And every man, every youth, run from the scene. And when he came out, he had a flour bag shirt. … He looked at me and said, ‘So why you don’t run?’ I said, ‘For what?’ And I became a Rastaman from that day. From then on until now, my dreadlocks touch the ground when I stand.”
The Wailers first recorded “Dreamland” in 1966, with Bunny taking the lead vocals and Peter providing the harmony (That was when Bob was in Delaware) In 1971, it was recorded once more, with Lee Perry producing and all three Wailers in attendance. Bunny took the lead vocals once more. Bunny was performing this song in front of the crowd for the third time. It was praised as one of Bunny’s greatest works and for a long time was believed by many to be his vision of a Rasta utopia with strong African themes.
But as it turned out, Bunny had stolen, pirated, or copied the song from a forgotten Vee Jay single from 1964 called “My Dream Island,” which was performed by a Lakawant County, New York group known as El Tempos. It’s basically a love song that was composed by guitarist and singer Al “Bunk” Johnson. The final line, “And surely we’ll never die,” is also included. It should be noted that Rastafarians believe in eternal life rather than death. There are very few copies of El Tempos’ single in existence, making it extremely rare.
Bunny’s follow-up album was always going to be a letdown after the amazing Blackheart Man LP, and it is. Though it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, Protest still has some really good songs. The Wailers’ most well-known song is “Get Up Stand Up,” which they included on their Burnin’ LP. Bob took the first two verses and Peter took the third one there. Bunny was finally able to add his own touch to the song on Protest. He succeeds in doing so; the song opens with him saying, “We want the truth,” 14 times.