WHEN THE names of great reggae acts are mentioned The Wailers are always included and always near the top of the list. The band has been together in various guises for more than 40 years, and for most of those the line-up has featured Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett.
It is Aston’s bass you can hear on any classic Bob Marley song you can think of and he still keeps the band going today, leading it into numerous tours of the globe to play to devoted reggae audiences.
Jamaica, and its capital Kingston, in the early 1960s was a place of potential and problems. The island had only recently declared independence from Britain and was searching for a new way forward. For many young people music offered a way to escape crime and to express a new, post-colonial, independent, Jamaican identity.
Listening to r’n’b and blues, Jamaican artists reinterpreted these forms into what became ska and reggae. Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh were excited by these sounds and formed The Wailers, recording singles and developing their sound. In 1969, The Wailers as we know it was born when the trio recruited the Barrett brothers - bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ and drummer Carly - from Lee Perry’s Upsetters.
Inspired by promoting a Jamaican identity, the Rastafarian religion, the new ska and reggae sounds, and by the Black civil rights movement in the US, the group pioneered roots rock reggae, and signed to Island Records in 1971. In 1972 they released their classic debut album Catch A Fire, which featured such songs as ‘Stir It Up’ and ‘Kinky Reggae’.
The album got the band a foothold on the international market and in 1974 they had made their commercial breakthrough with Burnin’ and saw the song ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ become a hit for Eric Clapton. Reggae was now the hottest new music and white audiences in Europe could not get enough of it.
Peter and Bunny left to pursue solo careers and the band continued as Bob Marley & The Wailers, with the Barrett brothers providing the rhythm engine to Marley’s great songs. Through such albums as Natty Dread, Exodus, and Survival, and their accompanying tours, Marley became the face of reggae, a spokesperson for black youth, a prophet and political activist for Jamaicans, and an international rock superstar.
Sadly Marley died of cancer in 1981, and in 1987 former member Peter Tosh was murdered while Carly Barrett also suffered the same fate in the same year. Despite this it was not be the end of The Wailers.
Family Man continued on the band and subsequent line-ups have revolved around him. In 1997 the band received a new lease of life when Wailers’ guitarist Al Anderson discovered Los Angeles singer Elan Atias. He was persuaded to join the band to perform classic Bob Marley songs live.
However neither Elan nor Family Man was content to see The Wailers become their own tribute band. It was important to celebrate the band’s past and continue looking forward into the future. As a result, Elan has worked some of his own songs into their repertoire and formed a joint production venture with Family Man to extend the Marley legacy yet further.
As the greatest living exponents of Jamaica’s reggae tradition, the Wailers have completed innumerable other tours, playing to an estimated 24 million people across the globe. They were also the first reggae band to tour new territories on many occasions, including Africa and the Far East.
The Wailers play a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ show in the Live Lounge at The Radisson Blu Hotel on Sunday November 28 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.