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Interview: Bunny Wailer – 70th Earthstrong Anniversary 1947 – 2017

by Angus Taylor | Reggaeville

On April, Neville “Bunny Wailer” Livingston celebrates his 70th birthday. He’s planning to open his own museum in Kingston to mark the occasion. The Wailers’ Museum – A Tribute to the Life and Legacy of Bunny Wailer will join Bob Marley’s on Hope Road and Peter Tosh’s which launched last year in New Kingston. Bunny also intends to hold a commemorative concert at the National Stadium.

In late February, Reggaeville visited the legend at his home, off Washington Boulevard, to discuss his anniversary. On this quiet suburban street, one house is clearly Bunny’s – its towering walls striped red, gold and green. “Jah B” opens the door himself, puffing contentedly on his pipe. In the yard he and some brethrens assess the wellbeing of Sylvan Morris, engineer at two of the Wailers’ key studios, Studio 1 and Harry J, who has recently lost his sight. Respected artist Michael Robinson is preparing to paint a mural depicting Bunny on one of the blue washed inner walls.

In recent years the last survivor of the Wailers trio has gained a reputation for outspokenness – firing high profile criticisms at Rita Marley, Snoop Dogg, Chris Blackwell and Universal Music Group. But today he is serene and focused on his anniversary and his own music. He sits down at the desk in his office study, his three Grammys hanging on the wall, the lion at peace, CEO of all he surveys.

Reggaeville spends half an hour hearing selected memories across Bunny’s 7 decade career. Mostly they draw from the sixties – a time whose promise of a better world feels particularly distant but whose turmoil remains familiar. We learn about his earliest musical experiences, his time in prison from 1967-68, how he finally intends to issue his back catalogue on the internet, and why the Wailers break-up was the most painful experience of all.

Congratulations on your 70th anniversary. How do you plan to celebrate?

Yes man. It’s real. Well, the Wailers is my existence so I am focusing on celebrating my anniversary along with Robert Marley and Peter Tosh. I am satisfied to know I am still here as the surviving Wailer focusing on what the Wailers stood for. This all began way back in England you know? With Danny Sims and Chris Blackwell. Danny has gone. Chris is still here. And I am still here focusing on all the things that have been done by the Wailers, looking forward as we celebrate Bunny Wailer, focusing on the first second and third generation who have been listening to the Wailers.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Wailers Museum?

Well the museum I am focusing on is to interpret what the Wailers have been doing. A lot of people don’t know how long we are a family. My dad got Robert Marley‘s mum pregnant with a little girl called Pearl, so myself and Bob have been involved for quite a while. Long before the Wailers were formed there was that little girl Pearl that we grew up together, along with Peter. Because by now we were the Wailers so we had to be taking care of each other. We didn’t have children yet but we had little sisters and things like that you know? (Laughs) So Peter was along with us in Trench Town, First Street, Second Street, Third Street.

When was the first time you heard a sound system?

Well the first time I heard a sound system, I think that could have been Duke Reid because he was around before the other guys. I could’ve heard sound system from listening to Duke Reid. Listening to Duke Reid I learned a lot about the music as he presented it. Then it was Coxsone and Prince Buster. Those three sound systems are the ones that I have been fully acquainted with.

All right, I am going to give you a draw now. Let me tell you, I was a little boy. I was home and my sister got a lot of pepper from the country. She was going out to sell the pepper and I wanted to go along with her but my dad wasn’t in no mood for pepper and me going! So what I did was cover of myself with the bed and fix myself as if I was there and he came in and saw that everything was alright and left me there in the bed. And when we went to sell the pepper there was a quarrel happening close to the hospital between some guys throwing bottles and one of the bottles hit my face and burst it. Blood. I shouldn’t be there. I should be home in bed! Well I went to the hospital and got dressed and went back home but when I went back home my dad had already learned what happened. That I was not in my bed but I was getting crushed on the road!

These were the kinds of experiences growing in the ghetto at a young age. I know you must have heard about Bya and Claudie Massop? Well I grew along with these kids. It was only that I was a disciplined kid. My dad ran a church. So I had to be focusing on the discipline that was related to him running a church. And he had a Rustler 38 on his hip running a church! That’s the kind of dad I had. (Laughs)

Can you tell me about the first time you heard Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions?

Trench Town. Tata. You ever hear about Tata?

Vincent Tata Ford. He’s getting a JARIA award at the weekend for helping Bob write some of his songs.

That is where we started to listen to the Impressions. And I am satisfied that the time I took with the Impressions has governed me musically. I have grown a respect for Curtis Mayfield because of his being involved with the Impressions. And you know Keep On Moving? It was one of the songs we grew to love. We recorded it several times over. I went to see the Impressions when they came to the Carib Theatre many years ago. That is the only time I ever saw them live. So I’m really satisfied that it was good to have met them and been involved.

There’s a new book about Curtis Mayfield out, written by his son. Curtis Mayfield was a very private man who fought to control what he had created musically. Do you see any parallels with yourself and Curtis?

Maybe. Because I have been learning from Curtis all these years! So that is possible. Things can be transferred in that kind of a manner. And I am satisfied to say that Curtis is one of those people that I’d rather be! (Laughs)

Can you remember the first time you met the Wailers’ original mentor Joe Higgs?

We grew up along with the music of Joe Higgs, of Higgs and Wilson. He passed on a lot of the legacy of the Wailers to us in different forms of harmonies. I’m always going to be giving thanks to Joe Higgs. I met Joe Higgs about two years before I came up on Coxsone. I went into Trench Town because of the Wailers being formed and he was the one that was to take the Wailers out of that musical darkness and bring us unto the light. I appreci-love Joe Higgs for that. Maximum respect.

Can you remember the first time you heard the Skatalites?

Ah! That was in Coxsone’s Studio 1. I as a young member of the Wailers singing Simmer Down. That is where I first met The Skatalites. The full Skatalites. Don Drummond and everybody. (Laughs)

You mentioned the Wailers’ manager Danny Sims earlier. What are your memories of him?

Well alright, I went to prison in 1967. That was when Danny came into the Wailers. I was not in the Wailers when Danny came. I was in jail. Danny came into the Wailers and started a relationship with Bob Marley. When I got out of jail Rita was then a member of the Wailers in my absence. Coming from prison, prison is a very serious offence in the system. You might not be privileged to even sing again. Anyway, I as a member of the Wailers behaved myself accordingly, while Rita and the Wailers, Bob and Peter, focused on putting out things with Danny Simms.

Carl Dawkins told me he was in prison at the same time as you. So were Lord Creator and Toots.

Yes! Yeah man.

Lord Creator came out of prison with the song Such Is Life, Carl Dawkins came out with Satisfaction, Toots came with 54-46 and you came with Battering Down Sentence?

Battering Down Sentence. Well, you know those things were some experiences. Police and jail, being arrested, the courthouse, judges. Three judges tried me for a little spliff. What’s that? It’s a waste of time. Three judges! You don’t have any more purpose or use for your judges? (Laughs) All of that kind of experience wasn’t a good one. I did my 18 months hard labour because I worked in the cane fields. You had other people who would want to work in other things but I chose to work in the cane fields. If you look at my skin, the cane injections, the little things that came off were all over. But I enjoyed that. (Laughs)

Doing my sentence I also used to play cricket. I used to represent the team. I used to play professional cricket. I used to make top scores. All of that time playing this game I was comfortable. I didn’t have any problems really. I focused on doing my sentence to the best of my ability. And it turned out that I left the prison dreadlocked. A lot of people might not know that. I used to pat down my hair but when I was leaving the prison I just… (mimes opening his hair out) (Laughs) Serious thing! But it has been a journey. It has been a comfortable one. And I am still here. (Thumps table) And right now I have been given the Order Of Distinction, Commander Class so I just don’t even bother thinking about that. (Laughs)

Last year was the 40th anniversary of your 1976 album Blackheart Man. What do you think made it so well loved over 40 years?

Blackheart Man was my first album. And the tracks that were done in Blackheart Man were very symbolic and significant to this whole development of reggae music. I really consider Blackheart Man to be one of those albums that the universal reggae world should be focused on.

Since then you’ve won the Grammy award for Best Reggae Album more than once. These days there seems to be a lot of controversy about the Reggae Grammy.

(Points at walls) One, two, three. (Laughs) Yeah, because I am not really satisfied with how some people are able to treat the Grammy awards. It is more significant to the music of reggae for people to actually get the Grammy. When you get the Grammy you should actually be receiving something you have earned. That is what the Grammy is all about. But I am seeing now that it is a family affair. It is turning into that and that is not the thing I am looking forward to seeing within our involvement in the Grammy awards. So I am sitting down and playing these recordings I’ve made over the years and when I hear those recordings I realise I have got to be focusing on putting out these recordings. So that is what I’m aiming at doing now. (Laughs)

On the subject of recordings that need to be put out, back in 2010 you premiered a video on Reggaeville for a big tune called Stolen Property. When is that coming out?

(Pauses) Stolen Property. (Pauses) I remember the title. Was Chris Blackwell involved?

No. It was about Universal Records profiting from the Wailers back catalogue.

Plays Stolen Property on phone!

Yeah it was never released! But it is a serious song that! Serious song. We just didn’t get around. But it is still something that, among other tracks, we can put together. Bunny Wailer has been putting out a lot of stuff. I have been putting out a lot of stuff. Like my 50 tracks. You got my 50 tracks right?

Yes, you released 50 tracks in 2013. A lot of your older albums haven’t come out on iTunes and Spotify. Are you a fan of releasing music on the internet?

Well we are going to get into that more seriously now. I don’t know if you have learned of Miss Maxine Stowe? She is now focused on kind of running Bunny Wailer’s affairs. So we are going to be brightening that side of the picture a lot more than it has been.

What’s the latest on your commemorative show at the National Stadium?

We are aiming on going into the National Stadium. We are now talking to Babsy Grange. Her mother has just died so she is recovering from that. Then we’re going to have a meeting in regards to the National Stadium. So in a little while, maybe in about a week or two, we’ll be able to say what’s going to happen.

Finally, which were the toughest and the most uplifting things that happened in your seven decades?

I would say when the Wailers broke down from Catch a Fire, Burnin’. That was the toughest. But we survived, survived, survived. (Laughs) I have been satisfied moving from stage to stage. When I listen to my vocals I see a lot of improvement singing from those times until present day. I have been doing a lot of different kinds of work and turning my vocals in all kinds of shapes so everything is good.

A brief preview of the artifacts and accolades that will be on display at the highly anticipated Wailers Museum: