John Masouri

Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers

John Masouri

(Omnibus Press, 2008)

Reggae enthusiasts will be pleased by the arrival of a book that finally tells a part of the genre’s history from the perspective of a musician. In this case the musician is Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett who was both the Wailers long-time bassist/arranger as well as an omnipresent studio musician in the 1970s. ‘Wailing Blues’ is the detailed story of both the Wailers and Barrett told from Barratt’s unique perspective. Given the abundance of detail and numerous mini musician biographies, readers will be reminded of David Katz’s Lee Perry biography ‘People Funny Boy’. However, in a number of ways Masouri’s book is a much more comprehensive and engaging read. While focusing on the activities of the Wailers, the book also highlights the stylistic and music industry changes that were taking place between the late 1960s and early 1980s.

The 2006 court battle between Barrett and both the Marley estate and Island Music serves as a backdrop for ‘Wailing Blues’. As Barrett struggles to find both recognition and financial compensation for his considerable involvement with the Wailers, the book often focuses on the exploitative nature of the music industry in Jamaica. While Jamaican singers have often complained about a lack of fair compensation both off and on the island, this problem is even more extensive for musicians – who in the local studio system were often considered temporary guns-for-hire. ‘Wailing Blues’ provides ample evidence that Barrett’s recording and touring role with the Wailers extended well beyond an easily classifiable ‘session musician’ label. Masouri relentlessly offers up confirmation – both from ‘Family Man’ and other musicians – that both Aston and his brother, drummer Carly Barrett, were key components in the Wailers sound and style.

‘Wailing Blues’ touches on a number of reggae music areas that have suffered from neglect. There is a great deal of interesting information about the period in which rock steady transformed into reggae in the late 1960s. The book excels at examining the pre-Island Records days of the Hippy Boys and the Wailers. Masouri also looks at the many connections between the reggae labels in Jamaica and their numerous distributors in the UK. This is particularly useful as negotiating the maze of UK labels and sub-labels is immensely difficult – especially now as many of the companies and their subsidiaries are long gone. The book also looks at the ongoing supply of sound system dub plates – a much neglected topic especially with respect to the Wailers. The book is filled with a multitude of small and highly interesting anecdotes and details. An interesting example would be when Family Man discusses the value of recording at night. Readers think that this will relate to the price and availability of studio time whereas he talks about how the supply of electricity is much more consistent in Jamaica when the factories are not functioning at full capacity.

Perhaps for some readers the most troublesome aspect of ‘Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ is that it is not entirely a book about the Wailers. In many ways this book is a Family Man biography. Readers only somewhat familiar with the Wailers story might be left wondering why there is so much detail about producers like Bunny Lee and Keith Hudson, and sessions such as the one for Errol Dunkley’s ‘Darling Ooh’ – which do not seem to have direct links to the Bob Marley story. This type of multi-page detail becomes somewhat questionable when other key Wailers events, such as the departure of Bunny Wailer, are dispatched within a page and a half. Of course the value to this approach is that it avoids areas of the Wailers story that have been covered (perhaps over-covered) elsewhere. Plus, this Family Man centered narrative allows for a fresh and unique take on the Wailers story in that its descriptions of the bassists’ non-Wailers sessions and activities gives context to the overall story. Future printings of ‘Wailing Blues’ would greatly benefit from the inclusion of both an index and a detailed bibliography. For example, it is impossible to quickly find the details of the 2006 court case as they are scattered throughout the book.

These are small complaints in what is an essential read for people interested in both the Wailers and reggae music. If ‘Wailing Blues’ largely tells one side of the story – the side of musicians in opposition to Tuff Gong/Island – it is a side that desperately needs to be told. Overall Masouri makes a compelling case that the Barrett brothers specifically, and Jamaican musicians in general, need to receive more attention, praise and compensation. The book benefits from avoiding gossip and sticking to the music, its context and its creation. As with dub music itself, this is a case where the material that has traditionally been placed in the background is revisited and reexamined and moved to the foreground. ‘Wailing Blues’ makes the valuable point that the production of reggae music is multifaceted and complex and to be successful it requires a number of interacting forces. The most amazing aspect of Masouri’s book is its overall readability – it is a page-turner even for those already familiar with the Wailers story.

Jim Dooley