top of page

The Wailers...How the Group Changed over Time

Updated: Mar 20


L-R: Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh

They came together in 1963, a union established when self-taught musician Hubert Peter McIntosh (Peter Tosh,1944–1987) met the singers Neville O’Rielly Livingstone (Bunny Wailer, 1947–2021) and Nesta Robert Marley (Bob Marley, 1945–1981) in Trench Pen, Kingston. They developed as a Blues/Ska vocal trio calling themselves “The Teenagers” before changing to “The Wailers” soon after, on the premise that from they were born, they had been ‘wailing.’ The group would soon after adjust their name to the “Wailing Rude boys” after learning of an American rock band in Tacoma Washington which had been recording under that name in the Pacific Northwest from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, performing saxophone-driven R&B and Chuck Berry rock and roll. Their hit “Tall Cool One” which was released in 1959.

The Formative Years

The Wailers came under the tutelage of accomplished singer and hit-maker Joseph Benjamin Higgs (Joe Higgs 1940 – 1999) who provided vocal training for the trio. By late 1963, they were joined by singers Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith, expanding it to six. The line-up consisted of Braithwaite on vocals, Marley on guitar, Tosh on keyboard, Bunny Wailer on percussion, with Cherry Smith and or Beverley Kelso on backing vocals. Kelso recalled that they were taken by Seeco Patterson to Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd at Studio One, where they did a couple of songs. They would return the following day where they recorded five songs backed by the Skatellites band, including “Simmer Down” for which Coxsone recorded nearly 10 takes as he wanted the best version of the song.

L-R : Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso, and Bunny Wailer

The Wailers topped the record charts with the song “Simmer Down,” a song which was not only an overnight hit in Jamaica, but also played an essential role in changing the musical agenda in Jamaica from imitating foreign artists, to capturing the lives and spirit of Jamaica. They remained with Coxsone for just over two years producing numerous singles for the Studio One eased as albums. In 1965, Kelso left the band. Marley, Tosh, Bunny, and Junior Braithwaite took turns providing lead vocals.  After leading on the single “It Hurts to be Alone,” Braithwaite exited the group.

First albums

The Wailers first full-length album, “The Wailing Wailers”, a compilation of previously recorded tracks was released the same year, after which the group departed Coxsone. They connected with Leslie Kong and Lee “Scratch” Perry respectively. At “Scratch” they met the Upsetters band featuring brothers Carlton “Carly,” and Aston “Family Man” Barrett who would later become the twin anchors of the Wailers band. Anxious to keep control over their work, in 1966 the Wailers created their ‘Wail N Soul’ record label. Marley would depart the island that same year for Delaware, USA, shortly after marrying Alpherita (Rita) Anderson where he worked for a while, saving his income to help fund the new label. In his absence Constantine "Dream" Walker provided backing vocals for the Wailers from 1966 to 1967

Prolific Recording period

Marley returned in 1967. In 1968, he met Danny Simms who had been in Jamaica with upcoming American singer Johnny Nash who was in search for original material. Simms invited Marley and Tosh to write some songs for Nash paying them $100.00 per week. The arrangement with Simms was designed to get the Wailers music into rotation on the international market, especially in the USA. The effort produced some 200 songs which and included the following which were covered by Nash: Guava Jelly, Nice Time, Rock it Baby, Mellow Mood, Comma-Comma, Stir it Up, and You Poured Some Sugar on Me.The Wailers continued working with Scratch Perry and Leslie Kong’s Beverly’s’ which produced the 1971 album “The Best of the Wailers”,  but it was at Perry’s that some of their best work at the time flowed. The efforts produced the Wailers second and third albums, “Soul Rebels (1970) and “Soul Revolution Part 2 (1971). It was during this time that the Wailers would connect with Upsetters band members bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, and his brother, drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett. Both would later be drafted into the Wailers setup. 

London Tour

In 1972, the Wailers visited England to work with Johnny Nash who was promoting his new CBS album. The visit was expected to provide some shows for the Wailers but except for a few small clubs, nothing happened, and the Tour fell apart. It was during this visit that the Wailers met with Chris Blackwell in London and negotiated for funds to return home to Jamaica. Blackwell was at the time trying to fill his Reggae slot made vacant by Jimmy Cliff’s signing with Colombia Records. He reportedly advanced them £4,000 to record an album. This effort produced the album “Catch a Fire” and set the stage for the Wailers signing with Island Records.

Signing to Island Records

According to Family Man, producing the Catch a Fire album required very little effort. After all, they had been rehearsing most of the songs that the album contained for quite some time and were very familiar with the material. On their return to Jamaica, they went to record at Harry J's in Kingston, and laid down the foundational tracks what would make up the album which was recorded on an eight-track system. The Catch a Fire album marked the first time a reggae band had access to a state-of-the-art studio and were accorded the same care as their rock 'n' roll peers. The tracks were later taken back to Island Studios in London and worked on by Blackwell, and under Marleys supervision. The finished album was released in April 1973, and closely followed by a second album “Burnin” in October 1973.The Breakup By the time the ‘Burnin’ album was released in 1973, the differences between Marley, Bunny and Peter had widened considerably. Tosh and Bunny had very little trust in Blackwell, and Tosh had begun pushing his own solo career. Bunny Wailer on the other hand felt that the tours to the USA and the UK compromised his beliefs and spirituality as a Rastaman as the band often played at sleazy, freaky clubs. In addition, he was not in agreement with Blackwell’s decision to release albums under the name Bob Marley & the Wailers instead of “The Wailers” and decided that he would no longer tour with the group.

The I-Threes

In the circumstances, 1974 became a pivotal year for the Wailers and Bunny and Tosh’s departure not only created openings but would ultimately result in a dramatic shift in the tone and cadence of the group. The American guitarist Al Anderson was brought in, as well as the youthful Keyboard player Tyrone Downie. The clincher though was the decision to pull in the female group The I-Threes, comprised of Marley’s wife Rita, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt. All three singers had strong connections with Marley before joining the I-Threes but joining the Marley enterprise conferred certain advantages. Marley’s star had been steadily rising and as far as international success for a Jamaican artist was concerned, Bob Marley was almost the only show in town in 1974. Reggae remained a club phenomenon outside of Jamaica, but it was clear that Marley, with Island Records’ considerable promotional muscle and a rising reputation with the rock audience, was about to play huge shows worldwide. For many a Jamaican artiste, having a massive hit in the island did not guarantee them any significant earnings in royalties; Marley’s tours, however, offered a steady, decent income – something almost unheard of in 70s reggae.


The first two singles the I-Threes worked on with Bob, “Belly Full” and “Natty Dread,” were credited to the I-Threes as much as The Wailers; and Bob didn’t exactly expect any of them to abandon their solo careers. Marcia had been having much success with producer Sonia Pottinger, while Judy Mowatt had cut an album for Tuff Gong, Mellow Mood, with one track picked up for international release by EMI. As a group they appeared on record with Peter Tosh, Big Youth, Bob Andy, and a few more artistes. They would accompany Marley on the albums Natty Dread (1974), Rastaman Vibration (1976), Exodus (1977), Kaya (1978), Survival (1979), Uprising(1980), and Confrontation (released in 1983, two years after Marleys death.

61 views0 comments


bottom of page