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“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for us to join together in unity,” said Bunny Wailer, stepping onstage draped in ornate robes to greet the sold-out crowd inside Madison Square Garden at his first and only headlining gig there in 1986.
Bunny was never a fan of international travel, referring to airplanes as iron birds, so his first NYC gig was a big deal. He preferred to tend his garden at home, growing his herbs and vegetables, which may help to explain why he parted ways with The Wailers—the group he’d formed back in the early 1960s with his childhood friend Bob Marley and Peter Tosh—just as things were taking off. In 1976, the same year Marley released his landmark album Rastaman Vibration, Bunny put out his solo debut, Blackheart Man, a mysterious work suffused with images of fire, brimstone, and armageddon.
“It is as the precious ointment upon the head... that went to the skirts of his garments,” Bunny continued at the Garden, “as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion, for there the most high JAH!” Here Bunny paused to let the crowd bawl out in ecstasy before continuing. “Rastafari keepeth I and I and commanded the blessing, that I and I should not die but live.”
Nevertheless Neville O’Riley Livingston, known to his Rasta brethren as Jah B, made his physical transition on March 2 at the age of 73. He’d suffered two strokes and lost the power to speak in recent years—read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s classic GQ profile from 2011 for a look at his later life in Kingston—but just to be in his presence was to feel the unabated power of the natural mystic.
Bunny’s legacy as a founding member of The Wailers will abide forevermore. Diehard fans also cherish his prolific, eclectic solo career, ranging from ska to soul to roots reggae, dancehall, and pop—few remember that it was he who recorded the original, cringably catchy “Electric Boogie,” which became an international hit for Marcia Griffiths, launching a million backyard BBQ dance parties.
“There’s still good recordings made in Jamaica,” Bunny told me the last time we had a chance to reason, in 2009, “but the revolution has taken place and now there’s just lollipop stuff, cotton candy music, disposable music. If you put it down it’s gonna rot. You’re not gonna be able to take them up thirty years from now, and they still are the same gold that they ever were.” As the Rasta elders say, “Music alone shall live.” Here are ten gems from Bunny’s songbook that will surely stand the test of time.
1. The Wailers “I Stand Predominate” (1967)
Bob and Bunny attended the same elementary school in the rural Jamaican village of Nine Mile and stuck together when their families moved to Trenchtown in the bustling port city of Kingston. Bob’s mother and Bunny’s father would eventually have a baby girl named Pearl. Another of Bunny’s sisters later had a child with Peter Tosh, binding the Wailers together more tightly than most musical groups. Around 1966 Bob moved to Delaware where he drove a forklift in a Chrysler parts warehouse for a while. During this time Bunny stepped up to sing more lead vocals for The Wailers, including this smooth self-affirmation over a ska beat courtesy of the Studio One rhythm section.
2. The Wailers “Brain Washing” (1971)
The Wailers met the legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry at Studio One before the mad genius known as “The Upsetter” fell out with Studio One founder Coxsone Dodd. Scratch drew something special out of The Wailers, and their timeless collaborations at Studio 17 were collected on the classic album African Herbsman. Bunny takes the lead on “Brain Washing,” a scathing critique of childhood nursery rhymes and other foolishness, distracting the minds of the young when they should be learning knowledge of self.
3. The Wailers “Pass It On” (1973)
The Wailers were huge fans of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and you can hear the influence clearly on this cut from The Wailers’ 1973 album Burnin’, the group’s second LP for Island Records and the last to feature Bunny and Peter. “Won’t you judge your actions to make sure the results are clean?” Bunny implores in a delicate falsetto that touches the depths of a listener’s soul. “Live for yourself and you will live in vain,” he and his brothers sing in perfect harmony on the song’s chorus. “Live for others and you’ll live again.” Today they are all together once more.
4. Bunny Wailer “Fighting Against Conviction” (1976)
Although ganja and reggae have always gone hand in hand, reggae pioneers like Toots Hibbert and Bunny Wailer risked their freedom by smoking the holy herb. In the late 1960s, Bunny was arrested for possession of ganja and received a mandatory 18-month sentence at Richmond Prison Farm. “As skillful as I am, the jailer-man is bound to find me,” he sang on the second cut of Blackheart Man. “I pray the day will come when I shall be free.”
5. Bunny Wailer “Armagideon Dub” (1978)
Released on Bunny’s own Solomonic label, Dub D’sco Vol.1 and Vol. 2 cherry-pick a variety of gems from Jah B’s catalog, all served up in a spaced-out dubwise fashion with X-amount of echo chamber on just enough of Bunny’s vocals to keep it sweet. As with most dub music, it helps to know the original cuts to fully enjoy the experience (and a big ganja spliff doesn’t hurt either). The horn section on this apocalyptic tune from Blackheart Man sounds like Gabriel’s trumpet on judgment morning—if any tune ever deserved a dub version, this is it.
6. Bunny Wailer “Walk The Proud Land” (1980)
He may have officially departed the group in 1974, but Bunny remained a Wailer forever. In 1980 he went into the studio with ace musicians Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare to rework a selection of The Wailers’ earliest hits. The cover art for Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers shows Bunny flashing his dreadlocks over a Studio One promo photo of Bunny, Bob, and Peter in younger days dressed up like The Impressions with sharp suits and short haircuts. The same year this album was released, Bob Marley had to cut his world tour short to focus his strength on fighting the cancer that had spread from his big toe throughout his body. “Doo-be-doo-be-doo-ba-day,” Bunny sang as the memories flowed. “I’ve got to keep on moving.”
7. Bunny Wailer “Ballroom Floor” (1981)
In 1981, the same year his bredren Bob flew away home to Zion, Bunny entered a new musical phase, linking with the mighty Roots Radics band to create Rock N Groove, perhaps the most thoroughly enjoyable album of his entire oeuvre. With Style Scott and Flabba Holt on drum and bass, and Steely and Binghi Bunny locked in on keyboard and rhythm guitar respectively, Bunny had no choice but to dub it d-wise galore. Blackheart Man may be the officially certified classic, and roots purists may turn up their noses at “dancehall style,” but Bunny has never sounded more free than he does on “Ballroom Floor.”
8. Bunny Wailer “Wirly Girly” (1983)
Two years after Rock N Groove, Bunny doubled down on the dancehall style, collaborating with Roots Radics on another brilliant album, Roots Radics Rockers Reggae. This particular tune is dedicated to teenage girls who “don’t usually wake up early” because “anywhere her favorite sound is playing in town you’ve got to find it find it find it.” Flabba’s bass sounds fat and round, just the way we love it.
9. Bunny Wailer “Crucial” (1993)
This Solomonic 12”—first released with an equally crucial B-side called “Togawar Game”—became the title track of a 1993 compilation Crucial! Roots Classics. “I’m out on the rock now, with no clothes on my back yow,” Bunny sings on the sufferer’s selection. “No shoes on my feet now, I got nothing to eat yo.” If you cannot relate, go ahead and count your blessings—or better yet, help someone who can.
10. Bunny Wailer “Ram Dancehall” (1987)
“We have yet to realize when we say dancehall what we are talking about,” Bunny explained in our final conversation. “Because when I touch the stage, if you come in there in a wheelchair, you better move your toe if your toe is alive, or your finger if your finger is alive, or you wanna get up out of that wheelchair and dance. That’s what I call dancehall.” When I asked him what was his biggest dancehall tune ever, this was his selection. “That track is the baddest. Nuttin’ can test that.” So run it back from the top to the very last drop.
Bonus: Bunny Wailer “Dreamland” (1971)
Visions of paradise are part of reggae’s life blood—songs like The Abyssianians’ “Satta Amassa Gana” and Garnet Silk’s “Zion in a Vision” offer a welcome respite to the brutality of reality. Nobody ever evoked utopia more perfectly than Bunny Wailer on this cut, first voiced for Scratch in 1971 and later perfected on Blackheart Man. “There’s a land that I have heard about, so far across the sea,” Bunny sings. “To have you all in that Dreamland would be like heaven to me.” Listening to the delicate melodies, it’s nice to think of The Wailers reunited at last. “We’ll count the stars up in the sky. And surely we’ll never die.”
Originally Appeared on GQ