Formed in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963, the original lineup was a ska vocal group consisting of Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, Bunny Livingston, Bob Marley, Peter McIntosh, and Cherry Smith; they were called variously the Teenagers, the Wailing Rudeboys, the Wailing Wailers, and finally the Wailers. Braithwaite, Kelso, and Smith had departed by 1966, leaving the trio of Livingston, Marley, and McIntosh. By the early '70s, they had begun playing musical instruments and added a rhythm section consisting of brothers Aston Family Man Barrett (bass) and Carlton Carly Barrett (drums). After recording extensively in Jamaica, this unit was signed to Great Britain's Island Records, which issued their label debut, Catch a Fire, in April 1973, followed by Burnin' in November. These albums attracted critical attention but did not chart at first.
By the time of Natty Dread (1974), the original band had split, with McIntosh (later billed as Peter Tosh) and Livingston (later billed as Bunny Wailer) leaving. The album was credited to Bob Marley the Wailers, the group consisting of Marley, the Barretts, keyboard player Bernard Touter Harvey, and lead guitarist Al Anderson, with backing vocals by the I-Threes (Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley, and Judy Mowatt). The breakthrough for this group was their appearance at the Lyceum in London on July 18, 1975. The show was recorded and quickly released on LP as Live!, and Marley and his reggae music became an international sensation. The success of Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot the Sheriff," a Marley song from Burnin', in the summer of 1974, had done much to popularize reggae (the original version made the U.S. R&B charts that fall), but Marley himself now achieved stardom as a performer. "No Woman, No Cry," a song originally heard on Natty Dread, reached the U.K. charts in its live rendition in September 1975, becoming a Top 40 hit. With that, both Natty Dread and Live! reached the British charts. In the U.S., Natty Dread had charted in May; it was followed by Burnin' and Catch a Fire in the fall. (Live! was held back from U.S. release for a year; when it appeared, it charted in the Top 100.)
Bob Marley the Wailers reached their commercial apex in the U.S. with the April 1976 release of their next studio album, Rastaman Vibration, which hit the Top Ten as "Roots, Rock, Reggae" became a minor pop chart entry and a Top 40 R&B hit. At this point, the group consisted of Marley, the Barretts, the I-Threes, keyboard player Tyrone Downie, percussionist Alvin Seeco Patterson, rhythm guitarist Earl Chinna Smith, and lead guitarist Donald Kinsey. Exodus, released in May 1977, found Marley the Wailers taking a slightly more up-tempo (and disco-influenced) direction; it produced three Top 40 chart hits in the U.K. ("Exodus," "Waiting in Vain," and the Top Ten "Jamming," backed by the non-LP "Punky Reggae Party") and became their first Top Ten album in Great Britain. In the U.S., it sold about as well as Rastaman Vibration, but the band began meeting resistance from category-conscious radio programmers who couldn't figure out whether to slot it as rock or R&B. "Exodus" became a Top 20 R&B hit and "Waiting in Vain" made the R&B Top 40, but neither single charted pop. Once again, Marley had tinkered with the band's personnel, which for Exodus consisted of himself, the Barretts, the I-Threes, Downie, Patterson, and lead guitarist Julian Junior Marvin.
Kaya, the fourth studio album by Bob Marley the Wailers, appeared in March 1978. In the U.K., it was the band's biggest success yet, reaching the Top Five, powered by the advance single "Is This Love," which was a Top Ten hit, and by the follow-up single "Satisfy My Soul," which reached the Top 40. But the story was far different in the U.S., where the album struggled. Black radio seemed to have decided that the band did not fit formats dominated by disco, while pop radio was increasingly attracted to new wave sounds and treated reggae as a fad that had passed. The double live album Babylon by Bus, released in November, which marked the return of Al Anderson and the addition of keyboard player Earl Wire (or Wya) Lindo, was a modest seller, again doing better in England than in America.
The fifth Bob Marley the Wailers studio album, Survival, was released in October 1979. It reached the Top 20 in the U.K., with the single "So Much Trouble in the World" reaching the charts, but in the U.S. it sold only moderately well, though "Wake Up and Live" became a minor R&B chart entry. Uprising, released in June 1980 and prefaced by the propulsive single "Could You Be Loved," gave Marley a commercial rebound. The single and album were Top Ten hits in the U.K. The U.S. was more resistant, but "Could You Be Loved" reached the R&B charts and the album charted higher than any of the band's albums since Exodus. Uprising might have done better domestically if Marley had not become ill shortly after its release and been forced to cancel his tour promoting it after only a few dates. His death from cancer in May 1981 of course brought an end to the band known as Bob Marley the Wailers, but it did not end his and the band's success.
Two years after Marley's passing, the posthumous Confrontation album yielded one of his and the Wailers' best-known hits in the enduring "Buffalo Soldier." Released in 1984, an extremely popular greatest hits collection called Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers went on to become a perennial seller on both sides of the Atlantic, helping to cement those songs in public consciousness for decades to come. Meanwhile, a post-Marley version of the group helmed by the Barretts with Junior Marvin on vocals and guitar was touring consistently throughout the 1980s as the Wailers Band. Tragically, drummer Carly Barrett was murdered at his Jamaican home on April 17, 1987. He was only 36 years old. Strangely, just five months later, founding Wailers member Peter Tosh was also murdered during an invasion of his home on September 11 of that same year. The Wailers Band soldiered on, releasing I.D., their first studio album under this formation, in 1989. Two more albums followed in 1991's Majestic Warriors and 1994's JAH Message, after which the name more or less reverted back simply to the Wailers, with a variety of lineups touring the globe over the next two decades and releasing a steady stream of live albums.
By 2008, two contentious factions had split the group, with Barrett continuing to run a band under the Wailers name and guitarists Al Anderson and Junior Marvin staking their own claim as the Original Wailers. In spite of using this name, neither musician was a founding Wailers member, though for the record, neither was Barrett. Marvin left the Original Wailers in 2011 and Anderson carried on with a cadre of younger musicians behind him. For his part, Aston Barrett did his best to honor the legacy by involving his son, Aston Barrett, Jr., on drums and singer Shema McGregor, daughter of I-Three singer Judy Mowatt. ~ William Ruhlmann & Timothy Monger, Rovi
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