Bob Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36. The 30th anniversary of his death was marked around the world, one of the highlights being the opening of an exhibition on the reggae superstar’s life at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. But I believe we should celebrate the work of a man who was a notable absentee on that day. He was also missing in February 1977 when Marley received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Watching the ceremony at home on television, Wailers’ bass player, band leader and arranger, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, had not received an invitation. There was no mention of the distinctive bass lines and unique “one drop” rhythm that underpins and characterises the inimitable sound of Bob Marley and The Wailers.
In the late 1960s and throughout the 70s, the Wailers gave the world a wonderful new brand of music that made people think and dance at the same time. But if Bob Marley is responsible for the thinking part, Family Man and his brother Carlton, behind the drums, should surely get credit for the dancing bit. Unfortunately, they have been unacknowledged, ripped off and all but erased from the musical history pages in a sorry saga of betrayal, personal tragedies, greed and murder, culminating in an unsuccessful law suit in 2006.
During his lifetime, Marley had controlled the distribution of royalties to band members, and, to be fair, the Barretts had trusted him implicitly. But the payments stopped soon after his death. Eventually, Family Man, in dire financial straits, felt he owed it to himself and to his brother’s family (Carlton had been murdered in 1987) to get up, stand up for his rights and launch a legal bid for a slice of the Marley musical empire generated by sales of DVDs and albums.
At the high court in London, he claimed that he and Carly were still owed up to £60m from a 1974 contract with Island Records and royalties from six songs they had written or co-written. Unable to read and write, Family Man had never been comfortable in the presence of lawyers and businessmen. And it showed. The judge, Mr Justice Lewison, threw out his claim, commenting that Barrett had had the “greatest difficulty” in answering questions about business dealings and his testimony had not been reliable.
It’s ironic that one of the songs involved in the copyright dispute was ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’. The judgement left Family Man penniless. It also left him bereft of recognition for the composition of so many famous songs.
No one disputes Bob Marley’s poetic genius, but his musical abilities were rather limited, which is why he enlisted gifted musicians such as the Barretts in the first place. In the words of Ian “Natty Wailer” Wynter, who recorded and toured with Marley and The Wailers as a keyboard player for over nine years: “The dynamics of reggae music, I would say is totally down to Family Man… This man is the foundation of our music and he’s been my teacher in all sorts of ways… Family Man and Carly’s contributions have been essential in helping make Bob Marley’s music stand the test of time and I don’t think anyone can dispute this.”
To paraphrase Family Man’s own words, he and his brother were ordinary men who did extraordinary work. They certainly deserve more credit for their contributions to the legacy of Bob Marley and The Wailers.
Aston “Family Man” Barrett, we salute you!