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Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett: 12 Essential Tracks

The visceral melodic pulse heard in the bass playing of Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who died on February 3, is most closely associated with anchoring the messages and providing the sonic heartbeat within Bob Marley’s music. In 1970, Family Man and his brother, drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett, began playing with Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who had formed the Wailers in 1963.

Following the departure of Tosh and Wailer from the group in 1973 and throughout Marley’s rise to global stardom as the decade progressed, the Wailers served as his backing band, with Family Man as their leader. In addition to his incomparable, reggae-defining bass lines, Family Man also arranged, co-wrote and produced songs with Marley.

Born Aston Francis Barrett on November 22, 1946, his early childhood was spent in downtown Kingston, growing up just a block from Orange St, a central corridor also known as Beat St., rife with recording studios and record shops. Barrett was significantly influenced by many of the bassists he heard growing up, especially the late Lloyd Brevett, who played an upright bass with various jazz bands and later as a founding member of the seminal ska outfit the Skatalites. Also essential in shaping his distinctive approach was Barrett’s love of singing, especially classic soul (James Brown, Curtis Mayfield.) “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,” Barrett once said.

Barrett called himself “Family Man” — or “Fams” for short — as a teen because of his self-appointed role was as a caretaker of music. “As band members, we share a name. We are a one family, and I am the man in charge of that, so I say, I am the family man,” he has said. Working as a welder, Family Man built his first guitar using plywood, with strings made from curtain rods and a wooden ashtray as the bridge; he played the makeshift instrument like an upright bass.

Family Man’s professional journey began when he and Carly were asked to sit in with the Hippy Boys to back singer Max Romeo. Their playing caught the attention of Lee “Scratch” Perry, a.k.a. The Upsetter, who hired them for his Black Ark Studio band, calling them The Upsetters. The brothers’ very first recording session took place in 1968 for the single “Watch This Sound”; hearing the song prompted Bob Marley to ask who was playing bass. A meeting was arranged, and a genre-shifting, historical sequence of events was set in motion.

Family Man’s extensive catalog includes rock steady and early reggae instrumentals, self-produced dub experimentations, reggae collaborations with artists as diverse as Burning Spear, Alpha Blondy and John Denver and immeasurable contributions to Bob Marley’s illustrious legacy, including each album released by the reggae king between 1970 through 1983’s posthumously issued Confrontation.

Here are 12 essential songs from Family Man’s vast, impressive repertoire.

Slim Smith, “Watch This Sound” (1968)

Adapting folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield’s late 60s counterculture anthem “For What It’s Worth” as sung by The Uniques (Slim Smith, Jimmy Riley and Lloyd Charmers) to a loping rock steady beat, “Watch This Sound” was the first recording session for Family Man and Carly. It was also an early indicator of their powerhouse skills that would soon establish an elite standard for (reggae) rhythm sections. “Watch This Sound” is also the record that introduced Bob Marley to the Barrett brothers’ talents.

The Hippy Boys, “Liquidator” (1969)

The Hippy Boys originally cut this instrumental to support singer Tony Scott’s “What Am I to Do?” Producer Harry Johnson bought the rights from Scott, credited the song to the Harry J All Stars and licensed it to Trojan Records. In November 1969 “Liquidator” reached Number Nine on the UK singles charts and the song was certified silver there in April 2022. Winston Wright’s irresistibly gliding chords on his Hammond organ dance with Family Man’s bubbling bass on a swinging, soulful track that the Staple Singers adapted for their 1972 US Number One hit “I’ll Take You There.” Fams, Carly and the other Hippy Boys never received any compensation from the Staple Singers’ hit; Fams has said all the money went to Harry J.

The Upsetters, “Return of Django” (1969)

Family Man’s thumping bass sets the foundation for several hit records in 1969, including Max Romeo’s salacious “Wet Dream” and another raucous instrumental “Return of Django,” which reached Number Five in the British charts. The song’s name is taken from a 1967 Italian spaghetti western but it’s actually an instrumental cover of New Orleans R&B legend Fats Domino’s rollicking hit “Sick and Tired.” Produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry, with a ripping sax solo by Val Bennett (Perry stripped Bennett’s vocals from the record) the song’s swinging, nascent reggae beat is driven by the pronounced, steady throb of Family Man’s bass.

The Wailers, “Small Axe” (1970)

Following The Upsetters’ return to Jamaica from their UK tour, Marley persuaded Fams and Carly to join up with the Wailers; angered by the scant remuneration they received from Scratch for the tour, they readily agreed. Reportedly, Scratch threatened to kill Marley for stealing his band. Somehow, they resolved their differences and collectively created a hit song, too. “Small Axe” was their warning to the three biggest recording studios/labels in Jamaica at the time, “if you are the big t’ree, we are the small axe,” and with the swaggering bassline Family Man put down, their competitors were likely quite intimidated.

The Upsetters featuring Dillinger, “Dub Organizer (aka Cloak and Dagger) V3” (1973)

“I now present to you cloak and dagger, music to make you stagger,” Dillinger animatedly toasts on the song’s intro. Dillinger’s rhymes are catchy throughout, but Dub Organizer aka Cloak and Dagger is all about that bass. Family Man’s thunderous grooves are brandished like an aural weapon and nearly obliterates everything else recorded on the track.

Family Man and Knotty Roots, “Distant Drums” (1973)

A haunting instrumental track produced by Family Man, featuring Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer on hand drums, the final time the original Wailers would work together in a recording studio. The song is an instrumental take on Jamaican singer Yabby You’s “Love Thy Neighbor” and exemplifies the so-called Far East sound of the era that was further popularized by melodica master Augustus Pablo.

Bob Marley and The Wailers, “Them Belly Full” (1974)

The Wailers’ weave an entrancing groove, with Carly Barrett’s taut drumming and especially Family Man’s resounding bass lines, which follow Marley’s melody and impact the song’s narrative like another lead vocal. “It’s like I am singing baritone,” Barrett once said of his bass work. “I create a melodic line each time.”

Aston “Family Man” Barrett, “Cobra Style” (1974)

Embellished with swirling, spikey synths this dub drenched instrumental highlights Family Man’s booming bassline that snakes its way around skanking guitars, bubbling keys and Fela Kuti-esque horns.

Bunny Wailer, “Dreamland” (1976)

In 1966, Bunny Wailer initially recorded a version of “Dreamland,” a cover of a 1963 release “My Dream Island” by American R&B group El Tempo. The Wailers revisited the song in 1971, and Bunny included a revamped rendition on his acclaimed 1976 solo album Blackheart Man, transforming El Tempo’s love lament into a Rasta repatriation anthem. Family Man’s steady, shimmering touch enhances the song’s enchanting soundscape.

Bob Marley and The Wailers, “Exodus(1977)

Following the assassination attempt on Bob Marley’s life in December 1976, he and The Wailers flew to London, where they remained for the next 14 months. While there, Family Man heard the score to the 1960 film Exodus, which tells the story of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948; that soundtrack inspired Marley’s album of the same name, its title track secured in an epic bassline with an unrelenting dynamic pulse.

John Denver, “World Game” (1983)

Legendary Jamaican singer Toots Hibbert had a huge hit with a joyous reggae rendition of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When Denver was ready to record his own reggae song, he reached out to the genre’s finest rhythm section: the Barrett brothers. From Denver’s 1983 album It’s About Time, in the vein of Marley’s lighter fare such as “Three Little Birds” the brothers’ galloping rhythm powers a melodic tune that features Denver chatting in a Jamaican accent and incorporating utterances of “Jah” and “I and I.”

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Alpha Blondy and the Wailers, “Jerusalem” (1986)

African reggae star Alpha Blondy initially worked with the Wailers on the 1983 single “Cocody Rock.” Three years later, they collaborated on a widely acclaimed album Jerusalem, with its title track sung in French, English and Hebrew. Family Man’s powerful bass ripples through the song with the force of a seismic tremor.

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