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."
The unprecedented global success of the Wailers/Upsetters teaming had a lot to do with Marley's obvious, well-documented talents, but Perry's foresight and Barrett's bass prowess should not be overlooked. Because Perry recognized that Marley, Livingstone and Tosh would need a self-contained band in order to court success abroad, he encouraged the Upsetters to become full-fledged Wailers. In addition, he recognized that reggae's sound was mutating in the face of influences such as Rastafarianism--and thanks to Barrett, he found a sound that symbolized this seismic shift. The bass hadn't been an important part of the Jamaican sound, but Perry boldly axed the horns and pianos that dominated ska and moved Barrett's sinister playing to the forefront. The result was spectacular and lastingly influential. To this day, ominous bass lines are reggae's hallmark--and Barrett's were the first and the finest. Barrett puts it simply: "Everything started out right at Lee Perry's table."
But if Perry, a recent Westword profile subject ("Learning From Scratch," November 6, 1997), deserves much of the credit for the bass-heavy revamping that marks classic Wailers albums like African Herbsman and Soul Rebels, Barrett confirms that the driving force behind them was Marley. He portrays Marley, now thought of as a musical deity, in very human terms. "He was a regular, ordinary guy doing some extraordinary work," he says. But even Barrett admits to being awed by the man. "You can feel a vibration with him, feel it coming out. You can see how the people are reacting in the audience. Like in the early years in London, they write upon us and said our first number cause a spell, and then after that it was like magic. I tell you, that was the best way you could express it. I never forget that because it's true."
Tosh and Livingstone left the Wailers to pursue solo careers in 1974, but Barrett stuck with Marley. It turned out to be a good move: The outfit, dubbed Bob Marley and the Wailers, became more popular than ever upon the release of several platters that Barrett refers to as "the international series": Natty Dread, Exodus, Uprising and Kaya. With the support of a new label, Island Records, the Wailers introduced reggae to the world.
Recording and touring with Marley filled most of Barrett's days, but he still managed to appear on many of the era's biggest reggae hits by other artists. "In my spare time, I managed to do a couple things, like Bunny Wailer's first, Black Heart Man," he says. "Also Peter Tosh's first album, Legalize It. And I support Burning Spear on Social Living." Barrett appeared on countless lesser albums, too--so many that even he can't remember them all.
Things changed for the worse in 1981, when Marley died of cancer. A creative vacuum followed: Without Marley to lead the way, reggae lacked a clear direction. Today Barrett puts a positive spin on this difficult period. "A good thing doesn't last forever," he philosophizes. "But within the work, there's a message, a consciousness, that we can still bring forth."
Five years later, Barrett realized that the best way to keep Marley's flame burning was to reform the Wailers, with keyboardist Junior Marvin as the new frontman. The idea, he insists, was Marley's own: "He tell us to do it. And that's what I am gifted for; that's what I am destined for. Him say, 'When one door is closed, many more is opened.'" Money was also a factor, he acknowledges. "It's business, too. After Bob pass, everybody was doing their little different shows. I was moving around with some of the local groups. So we discuss and say, 'Why don't we take a vacation, play some music with all expenses taken care of, and have a pack of money and get ourselves back together?'"
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The group toured quite happily until two years ago when, Barrett says, "Junior Marvin got carried away with certain business aspects and run off to Brazil." On the surface, Marvin's replacement--a 23-year-old Israeli-born UCLA student named Elan--seems unlikely, but Barrett thinks otherwise. He calls Elan "spiritual--like a Sabbath man," adding, "Some people listen and them say, 'Are you sure he's not one of Bob's kids you didn't know about?'
"Jah Rastafari is one person; same person, different name," he continues. "Him move in a mysterious form. Even Bob's father was a white man. So you see the lineage Bob came through and you know Jah work in a mysterious way."
But without Marley, can the Wailers still be regarded as reggae's top act? Barrett puts forth a convincing argument in favor of this viewpoint. "Every reggae band out there has to play Bob Marley and the Wailers' songs, you know?" he says. "Even just one. And no one plays them like the Wailers does, 'cause we're the ones who create and inspire them. They're the only thing that lasts forever."
The Wailers. 9 p.m. Thursday, February 19, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $21, 443-3399 or 830-