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Formed in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963, the Wailers were a vocal group consisting of Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso, Bunny Livingston, Bob Marley, Peter McIntosh, and Cherry Smith; they were variously called the Teenagers, the Wailing Rudeboys, the Wailing Wailers, and finally the Wailers. Braithwaite, Kelso, and Smith had departed by 1966, leaving the trio of Livingston, Marley, and McIntosh. By the early '70s, they had begun playing musical instruments and added a rhythm section consisting of brothers Aston "Family Man" Barrett (bass) and Carlton "Carly" Barrett (drums). After recording extensively in Jamaica, this unit was signed to Great Britain's Island Records, which issued their label debut, Catch a Fire, in April 1973, followed by Burnin' in November. These albums attracted critical attention but didn't initially chart.
By the time of Natty Dread (1974), the original group had split, with McIntosh (later billed as Peter Tosh) and Livingston (later billed as Bunny Wailer) leaving. The album was credited to Bob Marley & the Wailers, the group consisting of Marley, the Barretts, keyboard player Bernard "Touter" Harvey, and lead guitarist Al Anderson, with backing vocals by the I-Threes (Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley, and Judy Mowatt). The breakthrough for this group was their appearance at the Lyceum in London on July 18, 1975. The show was recorded and quickly released on LP as Live!, and Marley and his reggae music became an international sensation. The success of Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot the Sheriff," a Marley song from Burnin', in the summer of 1974 had done much to popularize reggae (the original version made the U.S. R&B charts that fall), but Marley himself had by now achieved stardom as a performer. "No Woman, No Cry," a song originally heard on Natty Dread, reached the U.K. charts in its live rendition in September 1975, becoming a Top 40 hit. With that, both Natty Dread and Live! reached the British charts. In the U.S., Natty Dread charted in May; it was followed by Burnin' and Catch a Fire in the fall. (Live! was held back from U.S. release for a year; when it appeared, it charted in the Top 100.)
Bob Marley & the Wailers reached their commercial apex in the U.S. with the April 1976 release of their next studio album, Rastaman Vibration, which hit the Top Ten; "Roots, Rock, Reggae" became a minor pop chart entry and a Top 40 R&B hit. At this point, the group consisted of Marley, the Barretts, the I-Threes, keyboard player Tyrone Downie, percussionist Alvin "Seeco" Patterson, rhythm guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith, and lead guitarist Donald Kinsey. Exodus, released in May 1977, found Marley & the Wailers taking a slightly more uptempo (and disco-influenced) direction; it produced three Top 40 chart hits in the U.K. ("Exodus," "Waiting in Vain," and the Top Ten "Jamming," backed by the non-LP "Punky Reggae Party"), and became their first Top Ten album in Great Britain. In the U.S., it sold about as well as Rastaman Vibration, but the band began meeting resistance from category-conscious radio programmers who couldn't figure out whether to slot it as rock or R&B. "Exodus" became a Top 20 R&B hit and "Waiting in Vain" made the R&B Top 40, but neither single charted pop. Once again, Marley had tinkered with the band's personnel, which for Exodus consisted of himself, the Barretts, the I-Threes, Downie, Patterson, and lead guitarist Junior Marvin.
Kaya, the fourth studio album by Bob Marley & the Wailers, appeared in March 1978. In the U.K., it was the band's biggest success yet, reaching the Top Five; it was powered by the advance single "Is This Love," which was a Top Ten hit, and by the follow-up single "Satisfy My Soul," which reached the Top 40. But the story was far different in the U.S., where the album struggled. Black radio seemed to have decided that the group didn't fit formats dominated by disco, while pop radio was increasingly attracted to new wave sounds and treated reggae as a fad that had passed. The double-live album Babylon by Bus, released in November and marking the return of Al Anderson and the addition of keyboard player Earl "Wire" Lindo, was a modest seller, again doing better in England than in America.
The fifth Bob Marley & the Wailers studio album, Survival, was released in October 1979. It reached the Top 20 in the U.K., with the single "So Much Trouble in the World" reaching the charts, but in the U.S., it sold only moderately well, though "Wake Up and Live" became a minor R&B chart entry. Uprising, released in June 1980 and prefaced by the propulsive single "Could You Be Loved," gave Marley a commercial rebound. The single and album were Top Ten hits in the U.K. The U.S. was more resistant, but "Could You Be Loved" reached the R&B charts, and the album charted higher than any of the band's records since Exodus. Uprising might have done better domestically if Marley hadn't become ill shortly after its release and been forced to cancel his tour promoting it after only a few dates.
His death in May 1981 of course brought an end to the band known as Bob Marley & the Wailers, but it didn't affect Bob Marley & the Wailers' success. Even before his death, Marley's back catalog had begun to sell, with a British single release of "Three Little Birds" from Exodus reaching the Top 20 in the fall of 1980. Shortly after Marley's death, "No Woman, No Cry" was reissued and reached the U.K. Top Ten, with Live! (retitled Live at the Lyceum) returning to the album chart. The posthumous Confrontation was issued two years after Marley's death, in May 1983. Both its single, "Buffalo Soldier," and the LP made their way into the U.K. Top Five. In the U.S., the single made the R&B charts, and the album was a moderate seller.
However, the record that really established the defunct band as an across-the-board sales success was the hits collection Legend: The Best of Bob Marley & the Wailers, issued in the U.K. three years after Marley's death, in May 1984, and in August in the U.S. The album topped the British charts, with "One Love/People Get Ready" (originally released on Exodus) becoming a Top Five single, "Waiting in Vain" returning to the Top 40, and "Could You Be Loved" returning to the charts. American chart statistics were not as spectacular, but the album became a perennial seller; before the end of the century, it had been certified for sales of over ten million copies. Its success, in turn, stimulated sales of the Marley catalog in the U.S., and in the '90s, Burnin', Live!, Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Kaya, Uprising, and Confrontation all went gold, while Island continued to scale the charts with compilations such as Rebel Music (1986), Talkin' Blues (1991), and Natural Mystic (1995). Often, the focus was on Marley alone: the 1992 four-CD box set Songs of Freedom, which included recordings dating back to the early '60s, was billed to Marley, not Marley & the Wailers, as was the 1999 chart album of newly created duets Chant Down Babylon. On the other hand, the many repackagings of '60s Wailers' recordings have long tended to credit their wares to Bob Marley & the Wailers, even though the material was cut by the Livingston/McIntosh/Marley group, and Island has long credited reissues of Catch a Fire to Bob Marley & the Wailers (indeed, the initial U.S. release carried that credit). Thus, in practice, recordings by Bob Marley & the Wailers can refer to any music featuring Marley and made in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, though careful listeners will insist that the credit should apply only to the recordings and performances of Marley and his regular backup group from the breakup of the original Wailers trio in 1974 to Marley's death in 1981.
In the years following Marley's death, subgroups stemmed out of the Wailers' various former members. Barrett assembled the Wailers Band in 1989, continuing to play with various lineups for decades to come. In addition to frequent touring, that band released albums like 1991's Majestic Warriors and 2020's One World. In 2008, Junior Marvin and Al Anderson splintered from the Wailers Band to form the Original Wailers. This offshoot released the debut EP Miracle in 2012, which was nominated for Best Reggae Album at that year's Grammy Awards. Keyboard player Tyrone Downie died on November 5, 2022, at the age of 66. ~ William Ruhlmann
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