Still Wailing

Aston "Family Man" Barrett of the Wailers is keeping a reggae tradition alive.

It's no exaggeration to say that behind every great reggae band is a great bass player--and the bass player who's been behind more great reggae bands than practically anyone else is Aston "Family Man" Barrett. His work with the Skatalites, Lee Perry and the Upsetters, Bob Marley and the Wailers and countless other acts in this bass-driven genre clearly establishes him as one of reggae's most influential instrumentalists. Moreover, the history of his career is in many ways the history of the music. Barrett has been at the heart of everything from the development of ska to the most recent performances of the Wailers, which he helped revive a little over a decade ago.

Of course, Barrett is primarily known for the years he spent with Bob Marley, and that's as it should be; practically no one outside of Kingston, Jamaica, had heard Marley's name until his vocal trio (featuring Bunny "Wailer" Livingstone and Peter Tosh) hooked up with Barrett's band. But Barrett claims that this famous team might never have come together had he been blessed with better pipes.

"That was my first general approach to music--I wanted to sing," Barrett reveals from his Jamaican home. But his voice, which, as he laughingly demonstrates, resembles the squawk of a tortured parrot, was not up to the challenge. "I guess I find that area of the music taken care of, you know?" he says. "So I take a different curve."

Before long, Barrett gravitated toward the bass guitar. He taught himself to play as a child, and by immersing himself in soul, funk and jazz, he learned how to convey subtle nuances on his ax of choice. He subsequently formed a makeshift band with his brother Carlton and friend Max Romeo, who went on to fame as a singer. "We were just flexin' as youths, just playin' music," he recalls. The group was so informal, in fact, that it didn't even have a name when the players were discovered. "There was a manager for a hotel called the Flamingo that was looking for a resident band to play there in the times that they got tourists in and things like that," Barrett explains. "Someone who worked there was passing by and heard us rehearsing and come in and look at us and say, 'Look dem youth. Dem look like musicians, not bad boys. Just different; down to earth.' He liked the way we sound. He say we sound the way we look."

This talent scout arranged an audition, and for the tryout, the three nascent performers chose to play the ska music that was then all the rage. Their efforts went so well that they were hired immediately--as long as they came up with a suitable moniker, that is. Fortunately, the hotel manager came to the rescue. "The manager see how we look and hear us play and she say, 'You guys remind me of the hippies.' So we ended up being the Hippie Boys."

The appellation wasn't chosen at random. Since most of the tourists who vacationed in Jamaica during the early Sixties were from the United States, the musicians who played the circuit did whatever they could to Americanize themselves. Ska helped them do so: It was derived from the so-called Jamaican boogie of the late Fifties, but it caught on with U.S. visitors because of its kinship with jazz and swing music.

Unfortunately for the Hippie Boys, Jamaica's tourist industry began to dry up after the country won its independence, in 1962. But around the same time, an indigenous recording industry sprang up to provide other employment opportunities. Barrett and company quickly became session men working under some of the island's premier producers.

"We do a lot of session gigs in the studio for Lee Perry, who was another kind of revolutionary-type people, and him love the sound that he hear from us," Barrett notes. "We work with Bruce Ruffing, Derrick Morgan, Burning Spear, Justin Hines, Delroy Wilson, John Holt, Slim Smith of the Uniques, and many, many others."

In those days, producers tried to set themselves apart from their competitors via studio bands that worked for them exclusively. Barrett, however, didn't want to limit himself to performing for only one label, so he came up with a plan to rechristen his combo for every new producer who hired it. "For Perry, we called ourselves the Upsetters," he says. "For Joe Gibbs, we added a singer and called ourselves the Reggae Boys. The last name that we work under before we join with the Wailers was called Youths Professional, because I figured that is what we are. So we had some distinguished names, I tell you."

Barrett's scheme came to an end--not because he ran out of good handles, but because the band landed a gig so good that it didn't need any others. Perry, whose relatively diminutive stature stood in direct contrast to his power as a starmaker, paired his foremost vocal group, the Wailers, with the Upsetters, and the combination became an immediate smash. After scoring with blockbusters like "The Return of Django," Barrett says, "we decided to swing with the small guy."

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