Remembering Bunny Wailer: Reggae Pioneer, Icon, and Legend

Remembering Bunny Wailer: Reggae Pioneer, Icon, and Legend

(Photo: @TheWailersOfficial)

By Victoria Falk

Bunny Wailer, reggae pioneer, icon, and legend, is dead at age 73. The last surviving founding member of the internationally acclaimed reggae group, The Wailers, died on March 2, 2021, in a hospital, in Kingston, Jamaica. The Jamaican singer, songwriter, and percussionist reportedly died of complications brought on by a stroke he had earlier. In October of 2018, Wailer suffered a minor stroke that left him with speech problems. Then again, in July of 2020, he suffered another stroke. This second stroke was more debilitating, leaving him with unrepairable damage to his body and led to the complications that ended his life.

Bunny Wailer’s life was well-lived. His story began on April 10, 1947, when he was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Wailer’s given name at birth was Neville O’ Riley. However, he chose to be known professionally as Bunny Wailer. He was also known as Jah B, Bunny O’ Riley, and Bunny Livingston. However, he was most known as Bunny Wailer.

Bunny was raised by a single father, Thaddeus Livingston. During his youth, his father had a relationship with the famed reggae artist Bob Marley’s mother. Young Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley were raised as brothers in the same household and became good friends. The two boys, who shared musical aspirations, later met the young Winston Herbert McIntosh, who later adopted the name, Peter Tosh.

In their adulthood, the long-time friends co-founded the original Wailers group. Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh achieved great success together. The world-famous reggae group was credited with transforming Jamaican culture. They were the pioneers of reggae music. They brought roots reggae and the Rastafarian way of life, along with dreadlocked hair, to the international stage. “Some say they were like the Beetles. They brought attention to the music genre of reggae. 

Their style spoke of the hardships of being Black, marginalized, and Rastafarian. The music is still highly regarded in the Jamaican culture as the issues discussed then still persist and exist today,” shared Janice Blake, a proud Jamaican in New York, when asked what Bunny Wailer and the Wailers mean to Jamaican people. The Wailers achieved international fame with such reggae classics as Stir It Up and Simmer Down. 

After leaving the Wailers in the early 1970s, Bunny Wailer became a reggae icon as a solo artist. His first solo album, Blackheart Man, was described as a “masterpiece.” He recorded over 20 albums during his lifetime and won a total of 3 Grammy awards for Best Reggae Album. The first Grammy was in 1991 for “Time Will Tell: A Tribute to Bob Marley,” the second in 1995 for “Crucial! Roots Classics and the third Grammy was received in 1997 for “Hall of Fame: A Tribute to Bob Marley’s 50th Anniversary.” Bunny Wailer also was awarded the Order of Merit from the Jamaican government in 2017, and Jamaican Irie FM (107.5) honored Wailer with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. In 2019 he accepted the Pinnacle Award from the Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music on behalf of the Wailers, who were recognized for their role in reggae music being declared by UNESCO as “an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”

When asked her thoughts about Bunny Wailer’s death, Jennifer Nelson, a proud Jamaican who resides in Florida, stated, “When I heard about his death, this was my first thoughts: A legend and household name from Jamaican history has passed away. Many of us remember growing up listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers. My brother Bunny even got his nickname from Bunny Wailer. The rockers and seeing our parents dance and party to the good old beats will never be forgotten! The oldies but goodies.” Proud Jamaicans like Mrs. Blake and Ms. Nelson, along with the many non-Jamaicans who came to love and respect the man known as Bunny Wailer, are mourning a significant loss as the world says good-bye to a legend, an icon, and one of the pioneers of reggae music.

The Caribbean American Weekly team extends our sincere condolences to Bunny Wailer’s family and the people of Jamaica. We have lost a Caribbean star, icon, and legend. May he rest in peace. 

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