Angered by a perceived snub at last month's Grammy Awards, Aston "Familyman" Barrett, the longtime bassist with Bob Marley and the Wailers, last week announced he is bringing legal action against Island Records and the Marley estate. Barrett claims the record company and estate have failed to provide proper credit and millions of dollars in royalties for a number of songs he, drumming brother Carlton "Carley" Barrett and the Wailers wrote and produced with Marley beginning in the late 1960s.
"They are trying to wipe out my history," Barrett said recently during a Wailers' tour stop in Iowa. "They are trying to erase me and the Wailers as if Bob Marley was a one-man band."
Marley alone was presented with a posthumous Grammy Award for lifetime achievement at the ceremony held February 21 in Los Angeles. Marley formed the Wailers with singers Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston "Wailer" in the mid-'60s and subsequently toured and recorded with the band until his death in 1981.
Barrett called the Grammy snub "the straw that broke the camel's back" in a statement announcing his pending suit.
Barrett, 54, alleges that neither he nor his brother have received royalties for any of their work with Marley since his death, and that he and the Wailers have increasingly been "eliminated from recognition" on album and song credits since that date. He also alleges that he and his brother never received songwriter and publishing royalties for several songs they wrote, individually and collectively, for Marley albums.
The Marley estate disagrees. "Barrett's claim is without foundation," said Peter Shukat, an attorney for Bob Marley Music. "Documentary evidence Barrett has signed confims this, and a New York court decision says in sum and substance that he was never Bob Marley's partner."
The Barrett brothers began their music careers in the '60s as founding members of the Hippy Boys. The group, which eventually evolved into the Upsetters, Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry's studio backing band, collaborated with the three founding Wailers on several songs.
The Barretts joined the Wailers officially in 1969 and eventually recorded 11 albums with Marley, beginning with the group's 1973 major-label debut, Catch a Fire. Tosh and Livingston departed soon thereafter, forcing the Barretts and Marley to regroup and ultimately renegotiate their contract with Island in 1974. The group's final album with Marley during his lifetime, Uprising, was released in 1980.
"I was Bob's right-hand man; my brother was his left," Barrett said.
"Familyman" is credited with writing "Want More" (RealAudio excerpt), which first appeared on 1976's Rastaman Vibration; "Carley" and Allan Cole penned "Talkin' Blues" and "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" (RealAudio excerpt) for 1974's Natty Dread, as well as Rastaman Vibration's "War/No More Trouble." The brothers also wrote "Who the Cap Fit" for Rastaman Vibration.
According to attorney Stewart Levy, the Barrett brothers and Marley signed a contract with Island in 1974 deeming the three equal partners. Levy said Barrett did not assign songwriting or publishing royalties to the Marley estate or any related publishing company.
"Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)," which "Familyman" wrote (with Hugh Peart) and recorded for 1974's Natty Dread, was covered by Krayzie Bone on Island's 2000 tribute collection Chant Down Babylon but credited to Marley. Erykah Badu's version of "No More Trouble," on the same album, is also credited to Marley.
Barrett particularly objects to a forthcoming series of Island reissues planned in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Marley's death that, contrary to their original release, now attribute songwriting credit solely to Marley.
On March 27 Island will reissue Marley and the Wailers' Catch a Fire. But according to Barrett's management company, Rising Tide, the album mentions no other Wailers in its song credits. (The reissue's cover, however, gives all the Wailers, including Marley, equal billing.)
According to Levy, the credit is at least as important to his client as royalties are.
"It's as if the Beatles suddenly became 'John Lennon and the Beatles,'" Levy said, "and then they gradually became 'John Lennon.' If you were Ringo Starr, you'd say, 'Hey, what happened to me?'"
Barrett claimed to have tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions during the past six years to negotiate privately with the Marley family regarding the disputed credits and royalties.
Levy said Barrett's London legal team sent a March 9 letter to Island Records' London offices. If the label failed to provide a satisfactory response, he said, they would file a lawsuit in London within three to four weeks.
Barrett's pending litigation is not the first time a former Marley collaborator has sought restitution for unpaid royalties.
In 1984 Marley's former manager and song publisher Danny Sims brought a $6 million lawsuit against the estate, claiming that from 1973 to 1976 Marley had written songs using the names of Jamaican friends to avoid contractual obligations to Sims' Cayman Music. Though Sims lost the suit in 1987, Levy, who was also Sims' attorney, said the case uncovered several improprieties the Marley estate would be forced to address in the future.
In 1992 Bunny Livingston "Wailer" and representatives of the late Peter Tosh filed suit against Island and the Marley Estate over unpaid royalties and use of the Tuff Gong label's logo, which depicts the three raised fists of Marley, Tosh and Wailer. According to Billboard, the parties reached a reported $2 million out-of-court settlement in 1999.