As It Happens

Bunny Wailer's music 'lives on in us,' says friend and collaborator Sly Dunbar

Bunny Wailer, a reggae luminary who was the last surviving member of the legendary group The Wailers, died Tuesday at a hospital in St. Andrew, Jamaica, after suffering a stroke. He was 73. 

Wailer, a reggae legend and last surviving member of The Wailers, died Tuesday at the age of 73

In this Aug. 28, 2014, photo, legalization advocate and reggae legend Bunny Wailer smokes a pipe stuffed with marijuana during a Rastafarian reasoning session in a yard in Kingston, Jamaica. Wailer died Tuesday from complications from a stroke. (David McFadden/The Associated Press)

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Bunny Wailer may be gone, but his music will live on, says friend and fellow musician Sly Dunbar. 

Wailer, a reggae legend who was the last surviving member of the The Wailers, died Tuesday at a hospital in St. Andrew, Jamaica, after suffering a stroke. He was 73. 

Born Neville O'Riley Livingston, Wailer started The Wailers in 1963 with his childhood friend, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh. Like his bandmates, the baritone singer went on to have a successful solo career after the group found international success.

Dunbar is a drummer and one half of the legendary rhythm section Sly and Robbie, which played on many of Wailer's albums. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

We just played [a] clip of Dreamland off Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers. You played drums on that record. What goes through your mind when you hear that?

I know Bunny from a long time, and he's just very musical. And he had this instinct of the kind of groove he wants. And it helps remembering the kind of person he was, you know? Very, very, very serious about his music.

What was your first memory of meeting him and of hearing him sing?

When I was a kid, like 10 years old, I went to the stage show, and The Wailers was on the stage show and I saw him. 

But I used to listen to their records on the radio. And whenever I heard his voice on Simmer Down, it blew me away, you know?

And they never turned back from Simmer Down. They got better and better with him being part of The Wailers.

Robbie Shakespeare, left, and Sly Dunbar, right, of the Jamaican rhythm section and production duo Sly and Robbie, collaborated with The Wailers. (Wonder Knack/Mideya)

So to go from that — being a 10 year-old-kid watching him play, to playing drums on one of his tracks — what kind of a journey must that have been like?

A long journey, because at that time, I couldn't believe it when I got hooked up with him through Robbie [Shakespeare of Sly and Robbie]. He wanted me and Robbie to play on a song.

I felt great because we were playing with Peter Tosh's band, you know, and then him and Peter was good friends.

I felt great to play on a Bunny Wailer record.

I think everybody kind of really knows Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. What was Bunny's contribution?

Bunny carried a little harmony voice.… You could hear his voice distinctly, and you could hear Peter's voice distinctly, and you could hear Bob's voice distinctly. He carried a small kind of voice, like [American singer-songwriter] Curtis Mayfield.

Jamaica's prime minister, Andrew Holness, called him a "respected elder statesman of the Jamaican music scene"…. How was Bunny seen by other Jamaican musicians?

Every musician had respect for Bunny Wailer.

What was he like? You know, you feel, as a fan, like you come to know somebody through their music and their lyrics. What was he like [in his] personal life and as a friend. You know, you spent years playing with them.

I mean, he was such a great person. He gave me, like, the kind of freedom to play. And he just loved to make music.

Can you remember a story or a moment that you guys shared that you'd be willing to tell us about?

I don't know if there's any story, because most of the time we went in to cut tracks and we cut the tracks.

But I remember when he did Crucially Crucial … and when the song played at Skateland, it mashed up the place. And when I say mashed up the place, like, everybody go crazy.

Wailer, circa 1975. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There is an amazing kind of duality to his music that his songs spoke of sorrow, but there is a real lightness to it. What does that tell us about Bunny?

That he was thinking musically in all ways and … he actually had this kind of Curtis Mayfield kind of vocals that makes you have to sit and listen to songs.

He was the last surviving member of The Wailers. What have we lost with Bunny's passing?

There won't be no Bunny, but there is music that lives on in us. And now you're going to hear more Bunny Wailer being played around the place because he's not here anymore. So people are going to respect that.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from John McGill. Interview produced by John McGill. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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