‘The bass is the backbone': Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, bass player for Jamaica's iconic ‘Wailers’ band, passes away at 77

The Wailers’ Bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett by NoRMaN TsAi 蔡英颉 on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED.

Just two days after the opening of Reggae Month in Jamaica, the leader and music director of the original Wailers, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, died on Saturday February 3, at University Hospital in Miami, Florida, after a long illness. He was 77 years old. His son, Aston Barrett Jr., announced his father’s passing on Instagram: “This morning, the world lost not just an iconic musician and the backbone of The Wailers but a remarkable human being whose legacy is as immense as his talent […] words cannot express our profound loss.”

From the throbbing, insistent bass that opens Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic” — featured in the opening sequence of the cult film “Countryman” — to the lively stylings of his dub-infused album “Cobra Style” and the hypnotic drum and bass line that propels the classic “Exodus,” the magisterial sound of Barrett's bass was the driving force behind Bob Marley’s music.

The Bob Marley Foundation posted:

Marley's eldest son, Ziggy, expressed:

Born in Kingston in 1946, Barrett enjoyed singing as a young man but did not take it up professionally. He was drawn to the playing of the late Lloyd Brevett, a founding member of the iconic Skatallites band, who played upright bass.

Barrett said in a 2007 interview, “When I’m playing the bass, it’s like I’m singing. I compose a melodic line and see myself like I’m singing baritone […] And when I decide to listen deep into the music — to all the different sections and instruments playing — I realized that the bass is the backbone, and the drum is the heartbeat of the music. So in our early years, my younger brother Carlton took onto himself the drums, and I took on the bass and decided I’m gonna construct it much better the other way. So first, I made my own bass.”

He made his upright bass out of a length of two-by-four plywood, and a curtain rod, using an old ashtray for the bridge, while Carlton built a drum kit out of different-size paint tins.

The Barrett brothers joined the Wailers in 1974, after an acrimonious departure from Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Upsetters. “Family Man” went on to play in and co-produce all of Marley's albums, and after Marley's death in 1981, continued to play and tour with the Wailers in their various incarnations. He retired in 2019.

Barrett was much more than Marley's bass player. His work, not only with the Wailers, was influential worldwide. As one music fan explained:

Another referred to a classic collaboration with sound system operator King Tubby on dub:

This X (formerly Twitter) user paid tribute to his far-reaching musical influence:

Barrett was a “musician's musician”:

Barrett was a mentor and inspiration to other musicians, notably Robbie Shakespeare, one half of the Riddim Twins, who passed away in 2021. Shakespeare noted in a 2009 interview, “Just the way the man plays the bass, you know … he is a master for me. I have had help and influences from other people, but I have to give it mostly to Family Man. When you say ‘Help!’ someone shows up. He was the one … I couldn’t be in my bed sleeping when ‘Family Man’ was there, because he’d say ‘Ay, get up, get up. You said you want to learn. Come!'”

Barrett was proud of his protégé as well, introducing him to influential musicians, including Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, who let him play on some of their songs.

You might think the nickname “Family Man” might have originated from Barrett's ability to draw everyone into his circle, or even from his own large family, but the story goes that before he even started having children (41 in all, 18 girls and 23 boys), Barrett saw himself as the leader of the Wailers “family” and began to call himself by this name.

One reggae fan pointed out that there are now only two surviving Wailers (Aston's brother Carlton was shot dead in Kingston in 1987):

One musician described Barrett as simply one of a kind:

A poignant footnote: Aston Barrett Jr., who also plays bass as well as other instruments, took over as drummer and leader of the post-Marley Wailers band in 2016. He also plays the role of his father in the Marley biopic “One Love,” which premiered in Kingston on January 23. The film goes on general release on February 14.

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