Singer, songwriter and percussionist Bunny Wailer, an icon of reggae music, died in Kingston, Jamaica, on Tuesday morning. He was 73 years old. Wailer was a founding member of The Wailers, alongside Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.
His death was reported initially by Jamaica's Observer newspaper, which said that he had been unwell since enduring a second stroke in July 2020.
It was confirmed by Olivia Grange, Jamaica's minister of culture, gender, entertainment and sport, who said in a statement: "I announce with deepest sadness the passing of the patriarch, brother, friend and Jamaican music icon, the great Bunny Wailer ... We mourn the passing of this outstanding singer, songwriter and percussionist and celebrate his life and many accomplishments. We remain grateful for the role that Bunny Wailer played in the development and popularity of reggae music across the world."
Wailer was born Neville O'Riley Livingston on April 10, 1947, and literally grew up with Marley from early childhood: Marley's mother and Wailer's father joined households in Kingston, and had a daughter together.
In 1963, Wailer and Marley formed The Wailing Wailers with their friend Peter Tosh. Singers Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith joined the group, but departed within a period of months to a few years.
Even as The Wailers rose to international success, touring England and the U.S., Wailer was also recording singles in his own right, and had formed his own record label, as had Marley and Tosh.
By 1974 both Wailer and Tosh had departed from The Wailers, in part because the music industry seemed intently focused on making Marley a solo star. Wailer's subsequent hits included the songs "Cool Runnings" and "Ballroom Floor," as well as his 1976 album, Blackheart Man.
Wailer won three Grammys in the early 1990s; in 2017, he was awarded Jamaica's Order of Merit, one of his country's highest honors.
In a 2016 interview in New York — during his first U.S. tour in more than two decades — Wailer told NPR that he hoped to "just keep on singing ska, rocksteady and reggae music. That's my legacy: to sing for you people and to teach you people of what I've known by singing this music."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A reggae icon, songwriter-singer and percussionist Bunny Wailer died in Kingston, Jamaica, this morning. He was 73 years old and had suffered a stroke last July. Alongside Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, he was a founding member of the Wailers. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this remembrance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMMER DOWN")
THE WAILERS: (Singing) Simmer down, you lickin' too hot, so simmer down.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Bunny Wailer, born Neville O'Riley Livingston, was just 15 years old when the Wailers had their first hit in Jamaica in 1963 with the song "Simmer Down."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMMER DOWN")
THE WAILERS: (Singing) Simmer down.
TSIOULCAS: The Wailers were a tight-knit group. Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer literally grew up together from early childhood. Marley's mother and Wailer's father had become a couple and had a daughter together. The aspiring singers met Peter Tosh and formed the band eventually known as the Wailers in 1963. And you can hear Bunny Wailer's sweet, high harmonies on some of the band's biggest hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STIR IT UP")
THE WAILERS: (Singing) Then I'll satisfy your heart's desire. Said, I stir it...
TSIOULCAS: By the early 1970s, the Wailers had started to see international success, touring England and the U.S. But by 1974, both Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh had left the band, in part because attention was focused on making Marley a solo star. By that point, Wailer was recording singles in his own right and had created his own record label. He viewed his 1976 solo album "Blackheart Man" as an artistic and spiritual triumph, and it became a reggae classic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKHEART MAN")
BUNNY WAILER: (Singing) Tikya the Blackheart Man, children, for even lions fear him.
TSIOULCAS: In the early 1990s, Bunny Wailer won three Grammy Awards. And in 2017, he was given the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government, one of his country's highest honors. One year earlier, in an interview in New York during his first U.S. tour in more than two decades, Wailer told NPR what he hoped to accomplish.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
WAILER: I would just like to keep on singing ska, rocksteady and reggae music. That's my legacy (laughter) to sing for you people and to teach you people of what I've known by singing this music.
TSIOULCAS: For his fans around the world, that legacy is assured.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMLAND")
WAILER: (Singing) To have you all, my dreamland would be like heaven to me. We'll get our breakfast from the tree. We'll get our honey... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.