ASTON BARRETT: 1946 – 2024
Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who has died aged 77, was the bass guitarist with the Wailers and played a key role in the band’s rise – producing and arranging several of their records – as reggae broke out of Jamaica and became a global phenomenon. He also played with Lee “Scratch” Perry, Burning Spear and Peter Tosh in a wide-ranging career.
Besides his melodic bass lines, locked into hypnotic sync with the drumming of his brother Carly, he co-wrote several songs with Bob Marley, and as arranger whipped the band into shape, making them one of the tightest outfits to emerge from their island.
He played on such hits as I Shot the Sheriff, Get Up, Stand Up, Stir it Up, Jamming, No Woman, No Cry and Could You Be Loved, and was a passionate believer in the centrality of the bass guitar to reggae. “The drum, it is the heartbeat, and the bass, it is the backbone,” he once said. “If the bass is not right, the music is gonna have a bad back, so it would be crippled.”
Aston Francis Barrett was born on November 22, 1946 in Kingston, Jamaica, the second of five children, to Wilfred, a blacksmith, and Violet (nee Marshall). The house was filled with soul music, and he quickly gravitated to the bass guitar, building his own from scratch. His younger brother Carlton, or Carly, an aspiring drummer, built his own drum kit.
Aston worked for a while as a welder, blacksmith and bike mechanic, while finding session work with Carly. Seeing himself leading a band in the years to come, Aston adopted the nickname “Family Man” before he had fathered any of his 41 children.
The brothers performed under a succession of monikers, starting with the Soul Mates, moving on to the Rhythm Force, and – with Max Romeo on vocals – the Hippy Boys. They played with Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Upsetters, then in 1969 joined Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in the Wailers.
Marley had heard some Jamaican records while he was staying for a while with his mother in the US, and when he went home he sought out the rhythm section that had so impressed him on those discs. He recruited Aston and Carly to the Wailers, and the brothers played on the Soul Rebels album.