Among the venues the greatest bass guitarist in the history of popular music has played in recent months: Sherpa and Yetis in Breckenbridge, Colorado; the Big Easy Concert House in Boise, Idaho; the Mangy Moose in Teton Village, West Virginia; McMenamins Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon; the Wilma Theatre in Missoula, Montana.
For Aston “Family Man” Barrett, life on the road these days is very, very different from when he was plying his trade before record crowds at major stadiums around the world back in the 1970s.
Instead of audiences in the tens of thousands, collectively enthralled by the reggae music of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Family Man’s booming bass riffs are being heard by audiences numbering in the hundreds at venues a long way removed from New York’s Madison Square Garden, London’s Wembley Arena, Jamaica’s National Stadium, Montreal’s Forum, and Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens.
Why is this giant of the bass guitar still spending large chunks of his life on tour buses and in motels, going through the daily grind of sound checks and rehearsals, and often braving winter weather that’s not easy on someone born and raised in the steamy heat of Kingston, Jamaica, and whose sixtieth birthday is looming?
1. Aston Barrett loves what he does.
2. Aston Barrett needs the money.
Yes, the man who created most of the bass lines that underpinned what many people regard as the most significant body of work in the history of music, the recordings of Bob Marley and the Wailers, isn’t exactly rolling in the green stuff.
He should be.
The music he played such a crucial role in creating continues to be the best-selling reggae in the world — the Legend compilation album, as just one example, has been number one in the catalogue charts of Billboard magazine longer than any other album in pop music history. The songs he helped record — and in many cases mix, produce, and write — both in the early days of the Wailers and when the band was the hottest on the planet, have become international anthems.
So how come Fams, as he’s known throughout the reggae world, is still touring with the latest incarnation of the Wailers?
As I said, he needs the cash, and why he needs it is all part of a tangled web that started when Bob Marley died in 1981. To be more precise, it all started years before Bob left us, in the days when the band started making big money but never seemed to get around to putting down in writing who should get what and why.
Bob left the world with a remarkable musical legacy. But he didn’t leave it with a will, and his substantial estate — now estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of US dollars — has been fought and squabbled over for much of the past quarter century. Predictably enough, the big losers in this showbiz saga have been the people who actually made the music. And the biggest loser of them all has been Aston Barrett — because, next to Bob, he played the most significant role in the music of the Wailers following the departure of original members Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1973.
Bob’s deal with his musicians was a simple one, clearly understood by the various players of instruments who recorded and toured with the Wailers over the years: Bob Marley took half of what the group made; the band members got the other half.
Family Man, as the senior Wailer, was the man entrusted with handling the band’s fifty per cent and distributing it fairly. But when Bob died, that all ended. And there was nothing in writing to guarantee the band members what they assumed would be their share of ongoing royalties. The money stopped rolling in, the Wailers without Marley were nowhere near the draw they had been, and in 1994 Family Man accepted an offer as settlement for past royalties.
Since then, though, Family Man says, royalty payments have dried up, while Wailers CDs have continued to sell by the million, and he’s hoping that the judges in the venerable English High Court of Justice, where he’s suing Island Records, Universal Records, and the Marley Estate, will agree he’s owed millions of dollars for his major contributions to landmark recordings like Exodus (honoured by Time magazine as the finest album of the twentieth century), Survival, Confrontation, Rastaman Vibration, Kaya, and Uprising.
For Family Man, having to fight a court battle involving the widow, the sons, and the daughters of his beloved friend and musical comrade in arms hasn’t been a particularly gratifying experience, and he knows how much it would have hurt Bob.
Says Barrett: “Bob was my best friend and my partner, and I loved him dearly. Together we wrote and produced songs that still touch the heart and soul of everyone around the world. We worked together on the music and together we shared our success. If Bob were alive today, there would be no lawsuit. He wouldn’t have allowed this to happen.
“Bob must be rolling over in his grave as he watches everything we worked for together be torn apart. I am left with no choice but to stand up for my rights and insist on collecting what I have worked my whole life for and what I am rightfully owed.
“They try to make us look like we are the bad guy, but we didn’t stole anything, we didn’t forge anything, we are not claiming what is not ours. There is enough cash for everybody, cash for the wife, cash for the kids.”
Whatever the outcome of the court case, one thing that can’t be taken away from Aston Barrett is his hard-earned and well-deserved reputation as the greatest reggae bass player of them all.
Don’t take my word for how good Fams is. The next time you get the chance, put a Bob Marley and the Wailers CD on — and if you don’t have one, shame on you! — sit back, try, if you can, to shut out Bob’s voice and everything else that’s going on, and concentrate on the bass.
After a few numbers, you’ll notice that every bass line is different and unique — some brooding, ominous, and heavy, some light-hearted and almost playful, most somewhere in between. And they all fit, perfectly, into reggae’s rhythmic structure and complement, perfectly, the sublime melodies.
If some of them sound a trifle familiar to hard-core reggae fans, that’s almost certainly because the bass pattern that Family Man created was picked up by other Jamaican producers and used on subsequent releases by other artists.
Family Man’s contributions to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ remarkable body of work weren’t limited to creating and playing bass patterns. He co-wrote many of the songs that were to become international reggae anthems — among them “Who the Cap Fit”, “Rebel Music”, and “War” — and as band leader and arranger he played a role second only to Bob, a notoriously tough musical taskmaster, in ensuring that the Wailers were the tightest, hardest, rootsiest band ever to emerge from Jamaica.
For Family Man, the past couple of decades have been a long, hard haul, and continuing to make, record, and produce music has helped sustain him through the tough times. He’s worked with a remarkable smorgasbord of artists, including the late country-rock singer John Denver, blues master Taj Mahal, African reggae star Alpha Blondy, Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil, and veteran English rocker Joe Cocker.
I hope he gets what he deserves — and I believe that what he deserves is a fair share of the millions that have been made from the music he played such a huge role in creating. I know that Wailers fans around the world will rejoice if his genius is finally rewarded by something more tangible than our collective admiration and appreciation. And I know that, somewhere, Robert Nesta Marley will be rejoicing too.
A footnote: A few columns back I wrote about this year’s landmark tenth anniversary St Kitts Music Festival (June 29 to July 2). The festival lineup’s still being worked on as I write this column, but two acts already confirmed mean a treat’s in store for roots reggae fans on Friday, June 30. The legendary Jamaican harmony group Culture and St Kitts’ own Crucial Bankie will be featured on the same evening; this is as good as it gets when it comes to classic roots reggae.