The upcoming Wailers album "Together Again" isn't just your average reunion record. Besides Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Junior Braitwaithe and Constantine Walker, the lineup will feature the group's other original member: Bob Marley, the charismatic reggae singer who died in 1981.
One disc of the double album will feature a compilation of songs the Wailers recorded in the mid-'60s for small Jamaican labels. The other includes freshly treated tracks written and sung by Marley during the group's abortive attempt to establish its own label in the late '60s.
For Bunny Wailer, the album has a two-fold objective: to re-establish the legacy of the band's early vocal-group incarnation, and to flush out bootleggers who never paid royalties on their early songs.
"The whole album is a total restoration," Wailer said during a phone interview from Kingston, Jamaica. "We had these songs of Bob's in our archives that were totally new because the public hasn't really heard them. We went into the studio to put on all these new synthesizers with 24 tracks so the music sounds very clean, strong and nowadays.
"We used the old tempos and directions but the music is totally different. It's new music to old singing and it's going to be the old Wailers. It's something that seemed impossible but is possible."
For Wailer, who formed the creative nucleus of the Wailers with Marley and Tosh, "Together Again" is just one aspect of an energetic return to the international pop scene.
Only a handful of Wailer's solo albums have received wide distribution outside Jamaica. "Marketplace," his new Shanachie album of bright, pop reggae is the opening salvo in his 1986 campaign.
The music moves beyond strict reggae, incorporating elements ranging from soca to electronic funk. The diversity already has worked on one front: The video of the album's catchy single "Jump Jump" cracked the MTV play list.
"It would be selfish just to stick to playing reggae music," said Wailer, 38. "I've been acquainted with all kinds of music in my development as a musician and it rubs off.
"Music is an exchange: I sing your song, you sing mine, and everyone is supposed to meet in the international marketplace of music. The album is really set up on that concept, that it has on it everybody's little love."
Born Neville Livingston, Bunny Wailer met Bob Marley when the latter moved into the same tenement yard in Kingston in 1960. The two joined with Tosh, Braitwaithe and Beverly Kelso to form the Wailers three years later and learned the rudiments of harmony singing and songwriting from veteran Jamaican singer Joe Higgs.
The group first topped the Jamaican charts in early 1964 with "Simmer Down" but the lineup was pared down to the core trio of Wailer, Marley and Tosh by the following year. The Wailers recorded a series of hits for producer Coxsone Dodd that made them the pace-setters of Jamaican music and the voice of the "rude boys" populating Kingston's tenement yards.
The Wailers weathered some turbulent times later in the decade before beginning the collaboration with producer Lee Perry that ushered in the reggae era in 1969. When the three stopped working with Perry, they took the Barrett brothers rhythm section with them, signed with Island Records in 1972 and established reggae on the international pop scene.
But Bunny Wailer only performed on the early "Catch a Fire" and "Burnin' " albums. One major reason he quit the group before its mid-'70s breakthrough was the band's grueling tour schedule.
"Music is based on inspiration, and if you're in an environment where you are moving up and down, here and there, that's how your music is going to sound," he said. "Going on tour every time you record an album, you've got to be jukeboxing yourself.
"That kills every artist that does that--physically, morally, in every way. It's for me to choose whether I want to die like those artists and I have chosen to be around for some time."
The price Wailer paid was relative obscurity, and the larger pop audience missed out on hearing classic early '80s albums like "Rock 'n' Groove," a sensual celebration often likened to Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," and "Tribute," an exceptional collection of Marley songs.
"I had problems getting good contracts with any company that would have put the promotion behind Bunny Wailer that I deserved. I had to sing, arrange, produce and write my way out of that and I'm still doing it. It has created in me a certain independence that I'm enjoying."
That self-reliance certainly hasn't curbed his output. Besides "Marketplace" and "Together Again," Wailer intends to release this year an album of material in reggae's popular "dance hall" style and another of serious message music in the vein of his debut solo LP "Blackheart Man." And if there is sufficient demand, Bunny Wailer may hit the road.
"It's for us to stay with the authentic part of the music because that's the foundation," he said. "If the artists who know what they stand for start getting carried away by the revolutionary part of the music and forget what it was all about, that would be dangerous."