Jamaica’s music legacy suffered another huge blow when the Honourable Neville O’Reilly Livingstone, OM, better known as “Bunny Wailer” was called home to glory on March 2, 2021. He was born on 10 April 1947 and spent most of his early years with his father Thaddeus Livingston in Nine Miles, in the hills of the Parish of Saint Ann, Jamaica where he met Robert Nesta (Bob) Marley. The two grew up together and in time migrated into Kingston where both were determined to pursue careers in music.
Early in 1962 Livingston made the trek after school to Leslie Kong’s Beverlys Records for an audition where he reportedly planned on singing his then Ska-infused composition, “Pass It On” but because he had left school late that afternoon, he missed the audition. A few months later, himself, Bob, Peter McIntosh, and Junior Braithwaite along with Cherry Smith, and Beverly Kelso formed “The Teenagers” an intended Ska and Rock Steady group, receiving vocal and musical tutelage from the still youthful but experienced Joseph Higgs. Over time the group would be renamed “The Wailing Rudies” and later “The Wailing Wailers.”
While the major members of the group alternated on lead vocals, Bunny did not demonstrate any strong inclination to lead and would only embrace that role when Marley left Jamaica in 1966 for the US, and was briefly replaced by Constantine “Dream” Walker. During that period, Bunny Wailer began to record and sing lead vocals on some of his own compositions, such as “Who Feels It Knows It”, “I Stand Predominant” and “Sunday Morning.”
Like a majority of singers at the time, Bunny Wailer’s singing style was influenced both by the church as well as the great Curtis Mayfield. In 1967 he recorded the now-classic “This Train” for Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label. An arrest and subsequent conviction for possession of ganja in June of the same year resulted in Bunny being locked away for a 14 month stretch in prison.
The latter part of the 1960s saw the Wailers leaving Studio One and doing the proverbial trundling through the growing list of producers. Bunny would focus more on singing harmonies and less on writing or singing as a lead vocalist. That notwithstanding, he would sing lead on the Wailers’ “Riding High,” and “Brainwashing,” as well as the group’s rendition of El Tiempos’ “My Dream Island” which they named “Dreamland” and which soon became Bunny Wailers’ signature song. He also sang lead vocals on “Reincarnated Souls”, the B-side of the Wailers first Island label single of the 1970s era, and on two tracks on the Wailers LP, “Burnin.'” These were “Pass it On” and “Hallelujah Time”.
By now Bunny was recording singles in his own right, cutting “Searching For Love”, “Life Line”, “Bide Up”, “Arab Oil Weapon” and “Pass It On” (a new recording of the Wailers song) for his own label.
Chris Blackwell is on record as stating that while the Wailers worked well together, the three main members, Bunny, Bob, and Peter, while respectful of each others’ abilities, were wary of each other. What is known though is that Bunny Wailer was reluctant to deal with Blackwell. Bunny Wailer was a devout Rastafarian and was wary of going on tours. An ill-fated UK Tour with Johnny Nash in 1971 not only left the fledgling group ‘out-of-pocket’ but also left a sour taste in Bunny Wailers’ mouth. It did not help that after they hooked up with Island Records, Blackwell was intent on pushing Marley ahead of the other members of the group, a decision which caused much consternation. Bunny nevertheless toured with them to England and the United States, but soon after, became reluctant to leave Jamaica as he had grown too uncomfortable with what he felt was the marginalization of himself and Peter Tosh as the Wailers’ popularity grew.
In 1973 Bunny Wailer, satisfied that the Wailers’ direction ran counter to his Rastafarian principles, left the group to pursue a solo career. Armed with a catalog of his own written works, as well as material that he had written for the Wailers, he launched his Solomonic Productions label with the crooning single “Search For Love.” Bunny set about building his career on the Roots Reggae style. He re-recorded a number of cuts from the Wailers’ catalog and in 1976 he dropped his debut album “The Blackheart Man” with tracks such as “Dreamland,” “Fighting Against Conviction,” and the title track “The Blackheart Man,” which the buying public enthusiastically received.
He would go on to produce another 25 albums, 87 singles, and nine compilations in a career that spanned more than 50 years. His “Rock and Groove” and “Bunny Wailer Sings Wailers” albums released in 1981are classics that every Reggae Music lover should have in their collection.
As the 1980s reached toward the approaching decade, Bunny experimented with the emerging Dancehall genre, captured in the Bunny Sings Wailers album. Rootsman Skanking and Rule dancehall were two albums that boasted a strong and confident dancehall flavor. Finally, Bunny Wailer had found the connection to Dancehall, a move that was delivered by a pair of singles, “Cool Runnings” and a recut “Rock ‘n’ Groove,” Both cuts proved the point by soaring up the Jamaican charts.
Having accomplished the Dancehall milestone, Bunny Wailer returned to an older sound for 1989’s equally wonderful Liberation, eschewing the dancehall flavors for a return to his Roots Reggae past. This turned out to be his most acclaimed album of the decade, and in response, the singer set off on a world tour, with backing now provided by the recently reformed Skatellites band.
Bunny Wailer would greet the decade of the 1990s with his first appearance at Reggae Sunsplash and produced a heartfelt album in honor of his late friend, entitled “Time Will Tell: A Tribute to Bob Marley.” This album would produce his first of three Grammy Award wins in the Reggae category. His first win came in 1991 with the album “Time Will Tell” – A Tribute to Robert Nesta Marley. His second win came in 1994 for Crucial! Roots Classics, and again in 1997 for “Hall of Fame: A Tribute to Bob Marley’s 50th Anniversary.” He was also featured on the album “True Love” by the great Toots Hibbert, which won the Grammy Award in 2004 for Best Reggae Album
Bunny Wailer in 2012 was accorded Jamaica’s fifth highest honor, the Order of Jamaica. In 2016, Bunny Wailer played a month-long ‘Blackheart Man’ tour to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his 1976 album. In October 2017, he was awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government, the nation’s fourth-highest honor He would suffer a minor stroke in 2018 which resulted in his speech becoming impaired.
In November 2019, Bunny Wailer received a Pinnacle Award in New York from the Coalition to Preserve Reggae. He would suffer another stroke in 2020, from which his recovery was always tenuous. He passed away on March 2, 2021, at the Medical Associates Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 73 years of age.
About the Author
Richard Hugh Blackford is the host of a 2-hour music-driven internet show Sunday Scoops on yaawdmedia.com each Sunday from 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm. The show focuses on Foundation Jamaican Music and takes its audience on a nostalgic but historical musical journey, peeling back the years of Jamaican musical development as the hosts explore the careers of Jamaican artistes. Sunday Scoops provides interviews with personalities, and discussions on Jamaican music and other topical issues. The show is co-hosted by noted DJ Garth Hendricks.