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Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Bassist and Rhythmic Backbone of Bob Marley & The Wailers, Dead at 77

Aston Barrett, the Jamaican bassist known as “Family Man” who served as the rhythmic architect for reggae legends like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Burning Spear, and Augustus Pablo, has died at the age of 77.

Barrett’s death was announced on social media by his son Aston Barrett Jr. “With the heaviest of hearts, we share the news of the passing of our beloved Aston ‘Familyman’ Barrett after a long medical battle,” Barrett Jr. wrote. “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. Our family is asking for privacy during this challenging time, as words cannot express our profound loss.”

One of Jamaica’s most renowned, prolific and influential studio musicians, the Kingston-born Barrett, along with his younger brother and drummer Carlton, worked as the rhythm section for the near-entirety of Marley’s tenure as frontman of the Wailers, playing bass on a string of classic albums spanning from 1970’s Soul Rebels to the group’s 1983 posthumous LP Confrontation.

“The drum, it is the heartbeat, and the bass, it is the backbone,” Barrett once said. “If the bass is not right, the music is gonna have a bad back, so it would be crippled.”

Nearly every now-Legendary song by Marley and the Wailers featured Barrett’s bass work: “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Stir It Up,” “Jamming,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Three Little Birds,” “Could You Be Love,” “Is This Love,” and dozens more.

Barrett — dubbed “Family Man” for his patriarchal role as bandleader of the Wailers — “played a primary role in introducing the sound of reggae’s one-drop rhythm to international audiences,” Rolling Stone wrote in our list of the 50 Greatest Bassists of All Time. “But the influence of the self-proclaimed ‘Architect of Reggae’ extended far beyond that genre into pop, R&B, and funk: His strutting bass line on the 1969 instrumental track ‘The Liquidator,’ by the Harry J. All Stars, would end up serving as a direct template for the Staples Singers’ smash ‘I’ll Take You There’ three years later.”

While Barrett landed at Number 28 on the Rolling Stone list, his peers held him in higher regard, including legendary reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare, who mentored under Barrett before founding his own formidable rhythmic duo Sly & Robbie.

“He should be Number One [on the list]. He’s the one who started it all,” Shakespeare told Rolling Stone in 2020. “People think he played on [Bob Marley’s] ‘Concrete Jungle,‘ but I played ‘Concrete Jungle,’ I was just playing a style that was similar [to Barrett, who with the Wailers performed on the rest of Catch a Fire]. But Family Man is the one who kicked my butt; he’s the one who told me to get up and do this.”

In addition to his decade-long tenure with the Wailers, Barrett also had stints with Lee “Scratch” Perry’s the Upsetters, the Aggrovators, and King Tubby’s house band, and played on acclaimed reggae albums by Peter Tosh (Equal Rights), Max Romeo (Revelation Time), Keith Hudson (Pick a Dub), and I-Roy (Truth and Rights), to name just a handful.

Barrett — who would later give “Family Man” a double meaning by siring at least 50 children — sued Island Records in 2006, asking for £60 million in unpaid royalties from his work with the Wailers.

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“Aston Barrett and his brother literally created the sound of the Wailers, though not for a minute to detract from the extraordinary songwriting ability of Mr Marley,” Barrett’s lawyer Stephen Bate told the court when the lawsuit went to trial. “It was the Barretts’ unique sound which brought the Wailers international success.” However, Barrett ultimately lost the lawsuit.

Despite not getting the financial recognition he deserved, Barrett was routinely honored by his bassist peers, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Bass Player magazine. In 2021, Jamaica awarded Barrett an Order of Distinction for his role as the musical “backbone” of the nation’s most enduring music.

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