June 10th, 2008
Title: Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers
Author: John Masouri
Publisher: London ; New York: Omnibus Press
ISBN: 978-1-84609-689-1 (582 pp.)
John Masouri, a veteran reviewer of reggae and related music as well as a journalist and a frequent contributor to radio and television documentaries, presents the story of Bob Marley’s band, the Wailers, in a work of particular importance to readers interested in the present state of reggae music and Bob Marley’s legacy. After the Wailers’ signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records led to the departure of longtime partners Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Marley turned increasingly to bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett for collaboration. “Fams” and his brother Carlton, the band’s drummer, had developed the drum and bass technique at the heart of the Wailers’ sound while playing in Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band, the Upsetters. The Barretts and the rest of the Upsetters promptly left Scratch’s employ when given the opportunity to become Marley’s permanent band.
Masouri details the whirlwind events of the ‘70s as Bob Marley and the Wailers introduced reggae music to the world. In a relationship often characterized by spiritual concerns relating to Rastafarism, the band, and especially Family Man, entered into contracts and agreements with Marley, many of which were never written down or vetted by lawyers. Marley, “Fams,” and all involved believed in what they were doing and when Bob pledged to take care that all of the proceeds were shared and all contributing musicians would be generously remunerated, there was no reason to think differently. Then Bob died of cancer.
Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the aging Wailers have fallen into poverty and poor health. Even before Bob’s untimely death, there were signs that financial considerations promised by Marley were not necessarily forthcoming from Island Records, which now controlled the flow of money to the band. Signing with Island had given Bob Marley and the Wailers far better distribution, publicity, facilities, and management than other Jamaican bands, but it also introduced accountants and lawyers into the band’s lives. Sadly there was also no assistance to the band members’ plights forthcoming from Marley’s estate, now controlled by Bob’s widow Rita and his eldest son Ziggy.
The first half of Masouri’s book is an exhilarating biography of a band reaching worldwide acclaim, at once promoting reggae to the world, and all but eclipsing the rest of the reggae artists trying to reach the mainstream pop music market. The second half tells the long, twisted tale of the legal pursuit of the benefits “Fams” and the rest of the Wailers felt were due them according to far-reaching understandings, but pitifully few signed, legal documents. Similarly, though Masouri presents a comprehensive look at the situation, his book does not offer the convenience of a bibliography, although he does include a one-page list of acknowledgements.
Masouri’s attention to detail is admirable, and in his hands the legal rigmarole that is at the heart of the story reads tolerably well. But the real story here may be the unkind portrait it paints of Rita Marley and her disinterest in living up to the spiritual message associated with Bob Marley, his life and music, despite her current (and very successful) efforts to market all things Bob. The Marley estate is now worth many times what it was worth when Bob died, thanks in large part to constant reissuing and repackaging of the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. This negative report of how Bob’s legacy is working out may complicate the ongoing marketing of his music by casting doubt on the spiritual aspect of the whole operation. But whatever happens in the contretemps between Bob’s former sidemen and the Marley estate and Island Records, Masouri has contributed a much needed look behind the music.
Posted by Mike Tribby
Review Genre(s): Reggae