Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, bassist with Bob Marley and the Wailers – obituary

Aston Barrett in 1993
Aston Barrett in 1993 - David Corio/Redferns

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 Love, 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.”

With Bob Marley in 1975
With Bob Marley in 1975 - Ian Dickson/Redferns

Aston Francis Barrett was born on November 22 1946 in Kingston, Jamaica, the second of five children, to Wilfred, a blacksmith, and Violet, née 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 1971 Soul Rebels album.

In 1972 the band joined Chris Blackwell’s Island label, and the following year began to make international waves with Catch a Fire, regularly cited as one of the best reggae albums ever released. A string of hit albums and singles followed, but in 1981 Marley died of cancer and the Wailers carried on in a sequence of changing line-ups.

In the 1970s Barrett was a pioneer in the burgeoning dub genre, and mentored Robbie Shakespeare of the bass-and-drums duo Sly and Robbie (“Family Man is the one who kicked my butt,” Shakespeare recalled). He played on albums by Burning Spear in that decade, as well as Peter Tosh’s acclaimed album Legalize It and Bunny Wailer’s Blackheart Man (both 1976).

The Wailers in 1972, l-r, Earl Lindo, Bob Marley, Carlton Barrett, Peter Tosh and Aston Barrett
The Wailers in 1972, l-r, Earl Lindo, Bob Marley, Carlton Barrett, Peter Tosh and Aston Barrett - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1987 Carly Barrett was shot dead outside his home in Jamaica aged 36; his widow Albertine was convicted of conspiracy to murder, along with two men, one of whom was reportedly her lover. (Peter Tosh was also shot dead in his home the same year.)

In 1989 Aston Barrett formed the Wailers Band, then in 2015 assembled Wailers Reunited; they toured the UK and US the following year.

In 2006 he filed a lawsuit against Island claiming £60 million in royalties. The judge ruled that he had signed away his rights for a few hundred thousand dollars in 1994; landed with £2 million in legal fees, he had to sell two of his houses in Jamaica.

Aston Barrett was appointed to Jamaica’s Order of Distinction, Commander Class, in 2021.

Aston Barrett had 23 daughters and 18 sons. One son, Aston Barrett Jnr, plays bass with the modern incarnation of the Wailers.

Aston Barrett, born November 22 1946, died February 2 2024