Legend: An Interview with Aston “Family Man” Barrett
Think of your favorite reggae song and chances are what comes to you is actually the bass line. That’s because the bass line is often the actual musical hook of the song, which leaves people humming for days. No reggae music has reached as many people as the songs of Bob Marley, and no reggae bass lines have been as influential as those written by Wailers bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett.
Barrett was working as a bike mechanic and electrical welder before hitting it big. He made his own first bass with plywood he nailed together, a curtain rod for a neck, and a curtain rod line for a string.
After playing on the side with several bands, he connected with Marley and went on to write most of the bass lines on the late singer’s hits. He also co-produced many of the albums. Though many think his nickname “Family Man” came from his large number of children, it’s actually a moniker he got before he had children. Seeing himself as the leader and organizer of the band, he started calling himself “Family Man”.
After Marley’s death in 1981, Barrett took on the responsibility of carrying on The Wailers. The group is currently touring in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Marley’s posthumous greatest hits album, Legend, which they also supported with a tour in 1984. Each concert includes a performance of the album in its entirety, plus more hits.
A special member of the band is Family Man’s son Aston Barrett, Jr., who also plays bass. The father/son duo switch out on some of the later songs such as “Exodus,” so Barrett, Sr. can play the bass part on keys.
We caught up with Family Man and Barrett, Jr. on their tour stop in Winchester, Virginia, to get his perspective on the music’s value, his gear and a bonus special announcement on the band’s future plans.
This is the 30th anniversary of the Legend Tour. What was the vibe of the original tour and how is it now?
Actually it’s the same, you know? It’s good to get out there again for [those who missed] out on it. They’ve got a chance to get back at it. It’s good stuff. It’s reggae music, which is the heartbeat of the people, the universal language that carries the messages of roots, cultures and reality. We focus mostly on the young people to keep them in line so they don’t walk on the wild side [laughs].
This music is for all ages and all times. It’s about past, present and future. It’s made out of all other concepts of music: rhythm and blues, funk, soul, merengue, samba, and the early Jamaican music, which is calypso. And jazz.
What kind of gear do you use? A lot of readers wanted to know about your strings, too.
My favorite kind of bass is the Fender Jazz. Fender always makes a set of special flatwound strings for me that I picked out from a 5-string set, but I use a 4-string. I said, “build these four for me,” and every year they send me a six-pack of them.
Aston Barrett, Jr: Ampeg made my father a custom double 15-inch cabinet. He drew a sketch of how he wanted it to be inside and then they improvised and did their thing. They sent a sample, which we have now, and it sounds amazing. They’re working on another one for us now. We also use the Pigtronix Bass Fat Drive. He has two Fender basses now. His Fender bass he’s using now is custom made. They custom made [a copy] of the original one he used with Bob. It looks exactly the same. This one is active, and he has a passive. He uses the drive pedal when it’s the passive bass. We also used their Envelope Phaser in the studio.
Family Man: We always use a 15-inch Ampeg in the studio for miking the bass. When the DI comes in, we use it also but we always use the mic. Also, there’s a great
A lot of people have a view that reggae bass is built on simplicity, but it’s so hard to actually get the right feel. What’s the secret to a great reggae bass line?
You have to listen to the lyrics as the first part of your approach, then the melody, and then you go back and listen to the lyrics again. What is the concept? What is the story it’s telling?
A big part of your career was playing alongside Bob Marley. How did you two meet?
The first time I met Bob, it was music that brought us together. He was in the U.S. hanging out for a while with his mom in Delaware. He heard a different concept of music coming out of Jamaica. So he decided to return to Jamaica and get himself tuned up… back in action. He asked a guitar friend of mine named Alva “Reggie” Lewis if he knew the bass player and drummer [from the songs he heard]. He said “yes”, so Bob said, “Get them for me. I want to talk to them for a session.” We met at a bar and he said, “Is it really you that is named Family Man that plays those bass lines?” I said “yes”. He was surprised because he thought they were coming from an elder player and didn’t know it was [someone] who was one year younger than him [laughs]. He looked at me and said, “If it’s really you, then you’re alright man…”
Before then I was an electrical welder and a bike mechanic and a blacksmith. We rode out on our motorcycles to the west side of Kingstown, if I recall. This was in the mid-sixties, and in my spare time I was playing my homemade one-string bass. One of the guys had us stop at a bar and he said, “listen to this new group.” He put on the juke box and this song began to play… [sings The Wailers’ “Simmer Down”]. I wasn’t playing music professionally yet, and was still a electrical welder. And we [just] listened to that tune. No more other songs played in the bar while we were there. We just kept playing “Simmer Down.” I listened to enough singers, but these guys had a vibe so deep that I had a [feeling] like I was a part of the group, but I don’t even know these guys and these guys don’t know me.
That’s why I say the music is what put us together. He came looking for me, the man who made the sound that I heard. After we discovered each other we never left each other until Bob left us. And I’m still here doing it. I’d been on the road before Bob, you know. I’ve been on the road from 1969. Before Bob, with Bob, and after Bob.
My first band was called the Hippy Boys. From the Hippy Boys it was the Upsetters with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Then it was the so-called Youths Professionals, and that is what became Wailers International. It’s like a four-leaf clover. It’s not like any other [laughs].
What’s next for The Wailers?
We have to keep the music going for you all. Plus we are also working on some progressive kind of roots, rock reggae for you. Soon you will be getting it. We’re hoping for you to get it [released] by summer.
Yes, we’re making some music for you and it’s time for you to be on the right track again.