The Tragic 2021 Death Of Reggae Music Legend Bunny Wailer

In the spring of 2021, Nevile O'Riley Livingston lay in a hospital bed in Kingston, Jamaica, slowly dying. He was 73 and had helped popularize reggae music across the globe, put Jamaica on the musical map, and spread the Rastafari religion to which he was dedicated. He had received many awards, including three Grammys and the Order of Jamaica, an important honor akin to being knighted in the United Kingdom, and the Order of Merit, an even higher distinction, according to the African American Registry. Of course, that was mostly under a different name: Bunny Wailer.

Although Bunny Wailer was never as internationally recognized as a solo artist as his two fellow bandmates and close friends, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, he had outlived them both by decades. He'd been devastated by their untimely deaths and was actively working to solidify his legacy and continued to promote reggae, according to the Gleaner.

Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley Became Friends as Children 

Born on April 10, 1947, in Kingston, Bunny Wailer spent part of his childhood in Nine Mile, a rural district on the northern side of Jamaica where he met Bob Marley and the two became friends. "I knew Bob from a very early age — maybe from 9 or 10 when I went to live in the country," Wailer recalled in an interview with NME. The two would later be raised as stepbrothers when Wailer's father and Marley's mother got together, per the BBC. They eventually moved to Trench Town, a marginalized neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica's capital, where Wailer and Marley met Winston McIntosh, later known as Peter Tosh. 

By the early 1960s, as Jamaica freed itself of British rule, the three friends formed the core of several early ska bands — an R&B-influenced precursor to reggae. They had various names including The Teenagers and The Wailing Wailers, before settling on simply The Wailers in 1963, when Joe Higgs, the "Godfather of reggae," took an interest in the group and began helping shape their sound, per NME and the BBC. They became popular in the Caribbean and were considered Jamaica's Beatles, per The New York Times. But they were about to get a lot bigger.

Bunny Wailer Helps Popularize Reggae 

In the early 1970s, Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh had an international breakout with their album "Catch a Fire," produced and distributed through Island Records, that record was instrumental in helping to popularize reggae outside Jamaica, along with the likes of Jimmy Cliff, per Rolling Stone. Their next album, "Burnin'," charted in the U.K. and the U.S. and helped thrust Bob Marley into the spotlight.

Tensions surfaced within the band, and by 1973, Bunny Wailer left with Peter Tosh exiting soon after. Among the issues, Wailer didn't enjoy touring and had been against playing in bars since it clashed with his Rastafari beliefs, per The New York Times. He and Tosh also felt Island Records was sidelining them in favor of Marley, per DancehallMag. Bob Marley would go on with a revamped version of the band dubbed Bob Marley and the Wailers. Peter Tosh went solo, as did Bunny Wailer. Wailer's first, 1976s' "Blackheart Man," was a critical success, and a string of other well-received albums followed, per the BBC.

Medical Issues and a Missing Wife

While Wailer continued to forge his own path, Bob Marley died at age 36 on May 11, 1981, from cancer — a growth on an old soccer injury on one of his toes metastasized and spread, according to History. Peter Tosh also died young. Three gunmen murdered him during a robbery of his Kingston home in September 1987, per the Associated Press. He was 42. 

Bunny Wailer was more fortunate in his longevity, even if the end of his life was fraught with poor health and the mysterious loss of his wife. In September 2018, Bunny Wailer, then 71, returned to his home in Kingston after visiting his farm and had a minor stroke that affected his speech but left him still able to get around, according to The Gleaner. Then in May 2020, Jean Watt, Bunny Wailer's wife of 55 years who had dementia, disappeared from their house in Kingston, according to The Voice and The New York Times. The stress affected Wailer's already shaky health and in July 2020 he had another stroke. As of this writing, Watt has still not been found.

Bunny Wailer was in and out of the hospital after that and on March 2, 2021, he died at the Medical Associates Hospital in Kingston, according to Rolling Stone. The 73-year-old Wailer had outlived Bob Marley by nearly 40 years. 

Bunny Wailer's Legacy 

When the news of Bunny Wailer's death broke, the accolades poured in from other Jamaican musicians and elsewhere. Ziggy Marley, one of Bob Marley's sons, told Rolling Stone that Wailer's "legacy, music, and spirit will never die. His contribution to our music not only as a member of the Wailers but as a solo artist has been an enormous influence for me personally and to many more around the world." Flea, the bass player for The Red Hot Chili Peppers, posted a tribute to Wailer on Twitter, writing, "Oh man, god bless Bunny Wailer. What a true rocker and noble man. I love him."

Beyond the music world, Wailer's impact was felt by his fellow Jamaicans, expressed by the country's prime minister, Andrew Holness, who wrote on Twitter that Wailer's death was "a great loss for Jamaica and for Reggae, undoubtedly Bunny Wailer will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music industry and Jamaica's culture," per the Associated Press. Wailers' music, both with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and his solo efforts will continue to inspire and entertain for generations to come.