Bob Marley preached "One Love," but as fate would have it, it's been anything but, according to Aston "Family Man" Barrett, who with his brother, Carlton, helped form the band that would catapult Marley and reggae into the global consciousness. While the Wailers continue to tour with new lead singer Gary "Nesta" Pine, a young Jamaican by way of Brooklyn, keyboardist Keith Sterling, who played for years with The Wailers co-founder Peter Tosh (shot to death in 1987), as well as a number of other new faces, Barrett is involved in a court case with the Marley estate, headed by Marley's widow, Rita, herself a one-time backing singer for the band. (Carlton Barrett was slain by gunmen hired by his wife in 1987.)
"The name The Wailers, it means crying out in the wilderness, my man. Like, sweet cry of freedom, and by crying out our suffering and our separation, telling people what it really is, like the legal battle that I am up against right now," says Barrett. "I'm suing for back royalties, promotin' and merchandising money, and the battle-line is money. Everybody's after that. After all my hard work...promoting the catalog, year in year out, which no one does, not even the family - so that is more than crying out in the wilderness. It's crying out in the open land."
Aston and Carlton Barrett joined Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, and Bob Marley to form the core of Bob Marley and The Wailers in 1969. Prior to that, The Wailers had been a singing group -- almost like a barbershop quartet, headed by Tosh, Livingston and Marley, performing throughout Jamaica during the sixties. In the late sixties, they decided to move from simply singing into making music, and recruited the Barretts to be the rhythm section. Barrett had been playing in a number of bands in the sixties, the most famous being The Upsetters, who backed the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry on many of his albums.
It was Barrett who, in 1971, apparently encouraged the band to go to England, where they met with success and secured a contract from Island Records.
"That stable-work that Bob took us out in, that stable was not happening. I was the mastermind behind believing that stable was to go to England to go to higher level," says Barrett in his thick Jamaican patois. "A guy who used to work for the stable but was not working then, I tell him to set up this thing, but I didn't know the day when it was going to happen, and Bob, Bun and Peter went. The three of them set up this label in Jamaica called Tuff Gong that they decided to lease to Island for 15 years. But before even ten years, Bob drop out."
Drop out, of course, is a euphemism for Marley's unfortunate death in 1981. Diagnosed with cancer (will they ever invent the low-tar joint?), he died following the release of the band's Uprising album at the age of 36. By then Bob Marley and The Wailers were already international superstars. Their album, Natty Dread, recorded after the departures of Livingston and Tosh in 1974, had scored them a Top 20 U.K. hit in "No Woman, No Cry," and they followed that up with successful albums such as Exodus (with "Jamming" and "One Love/People Get Ready"), Kaya ("Satisfy My Soul," "Is This Love") and Survival ("Ride Natty Ride"). The 1984 posthumous collection, Legend, would go on to sell over 10 million copies, and overall it's estimated the entire Bob Marley and the Wailers catalog has sold over 250 million copies worldwide, more than any other artist.
The Wailers have continued to tour, first with Junior Marvin (who joined the band following Tosh and Livingston's departures) on vocals, and now with the talented Pine. They've remained true to the spirit and tone of the message, even if the Marley estate has not. It's a shame because the estate is worth more than $200 million and there's no denying Barrett's crucial role in the ascent of reggae -- not only as the music's backbone and driving force as the band's bassist -- but as a composer and writer.
"That's how we used to be and how we used to work -- very collaborative. We moved together, we eat together, we write and play together, we smoked together and the man that was charged with keeping everyone together in the family is the "family man.' So the name become a legend," Barrett says in reference to his nickname.
It's a name he's hoping will get its due soon, not only financially, but in the musical record, where credit has been heaped on the leader to the exclusion of his band, such as the 2001 Lifetime Grammy, which was given to Bob Marley but not The Wailers.