By Clay Risen
Aston Barrett, who as the bass player and musical director for the Wailers — both with Bob Marley and for decades after the singer’s death in 1981 — crafted the hypnotic rhythms and complex melodies that helped elevate reggae to international acclaim, died Saturday in Miami. He was 77.
The cause of death, at a hospital, was heart failure after a series of strokes, according to his son Aston Barrett Jr., a drummer who took over the Wailers from his father in 2016.
Aston Barrett was already well known around Jamaica as a session musician when, in 1969, Marley asked him and his brother, Carlton, a drummer, to join the Wailers as the band’s rhythm section.
More than anyone else, the collaboration between Marley and his bassist turned both the Wailers and reggae itself into a global phenomenon during the 1970s.
Marley wrote and sang the songs and was the band’s soulfully charismatic frontman. Aston Barrett arranged and often produced the music. He also kept the band organized during its constant touring, earning him the nickname Family Man — or, to his close friends, Fams.
“Family Man was a genius,” Wayne Jobson, a reggae producer, said in a text message. “As the architect and arranger of Bob Marley’s songs, he took reggae to the stratosphere.”
And that’s to say nothing about his playing. He provided the uniquely melodic bass on all the Wailers’ biggest hits, including “Jammin’,” “Three Little Birds” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” and in doing so he helped make laid-back yet complex bass lines a staple of the reggae sound.
Some people called Barrett a “ninja” bassist for his ability to jump around unexpectedly, playing slow and brooding on one song and light and playful on the next. He got his unique sound from playing a Fender jazz bass, with stainless steel flatwound strings that were custom-made for him by Fender.
Barrett kept the Wailers going after Marley died of cancer at 36. The band continued to play its greatest hits from the Marley years but with an evolving sound rooted in Barrett’s musical innovations. He held the group to a rigorous schedule; until he retired in 2016, he was playing up to 200 shows a year.
“When I’m playing the bass, it’s like I’m singing,” he told Bass Player magazine in 2007. “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.”
Aston Francis Barrett was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on Nov. 22, 1946, the older son of Violet (Marshall) and Wilfred Barrett. His father was a blacksmith, a trade that Aston also plied before committing to music full time.
He and his brother were unable to afford store-bought instruments, so they made their own. To craft a bass guitar, Aston took a two-by-four piece of wood and attached it to a square of plywood; down the neck he strung a curtain cord, with a wooden ashtray as the bridge. Carlton took a similarly DIY approach to his drums, scavenging old buckets and tin plates for his kit.
The brothers practiced in a basement, where they could take advantage of the reverberations off the concrete walls.
As soon as they had paying gigs, the two traded up their instruments, with Aston Barrett playing for a time on a Höfner, the same brand favored by Paul McCartney. They played in a band called the Hippy Boys and were soon providing rhythm for reggae innovator Lee (Scratch) Perry and his band, the Upsetters.
Barrett and Marley built their relationship on mutual admiration. Barrett first heard the Wailers when someone played their song “Simmer Down” at a party. He was transfixed.
“Well, I tell you, I listened to that music so deep, I feel like I was a part of that group and that it was me and my brother who do that song,” he said in an interview for “Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers” (2009), by John Masouri.
Marley likewise heard the Barrett brothers playing and sought them out. They began backing the Wailers in 1969 and soon left Perry’s band to join the Wailers exclusively. When two of the original members, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, left the band in 1973, Marley and the Barretts reformed the band around themselves.
The band continued to tour and release albums after Marley’s death, although ticket and record sales declined. Legal troubles followed.
In 2001, Barrett sued the Marley family and Island Records, the Wailers’ longtime label, for approximately $115 million in royalties. A court dismissed the suit, ruling that he had signed an agreement for a one-time payment of $500,000 in 1994; the decision left him with almost $4 million in legal bills.
Barrett continued to tour, insisting that there were no hard feelings. He brought on his son as drummer in 2009 and eventually gave him control of the Wailers when he stepped down as musical director in 2016. Aston Jr. plays his father in the movie “Bob Marley: One Love,” set to be released Feb. 14.
Along with his son, Barrett’s survivors include his wife, Angela; two other sons, Floyd and Kevin; three daughters, Novelette Lindsay, Shadona Barrett and Ramona Barrett; and his sisters, Narma, Cherry and Winsome Barrett. His brother, Carlton, was murdered in Kingston in 1987.
Barrett claimed to have more than 35 other children, as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, although he did not maintain relationships with all of them.
He moved to Miami in 2001, but he retained a home in Jamaica and returned there frequently.