The songs of Bob Marley and the Wailers spoke a passionate message of political and social justice in a world of grinding inequality. But it took a powerful engine to deliver the message, to help people to believe and find hope. That engine was the beat of the drummer known to his many admirers as “Field Marshal.”
Rarely does a drummer’s work so clearly define the sound of a genre, but Carlton “Carly” Barrett is one such player. His irresistible, deep-pocketed, slinky locomotion is immediately identifiable throughout the world and is synonymous with the uplifting, transporting sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers, the global ambassadors of reggae. Barrett absorbed what came before him, evolved it, and sculpted an archetype for reggae’s sound, feel, and vocabulary.
The teamwork between a bassist and drummer is often referred to as a “brother” relationship. With the Wailers, this was literal. Carlton’s comrade in groove was Aston “Family Man” Barrett, his older brother, and together they became one of history’s most influential rhythm sections. With Bob Marley and the Wailers, they were the backbone of the first Jamaican band to go global, spreading their healing groove far and wide.
Carlton Barrett was born on December 17, 1950, and raised in the ghettos of Kingston, but he never let life’s hardships derail his dreams. Aston worked at a welding shop, where he jerry-rigged a makeshift bass guitar with plywood and a two-by-four neck. Stretching a curtain cord over a wood ashtray bridge, Aston fashioned a usable one-stringer. Keeping up with his big brother, Carlton scavenged various paint cans and constructed a kit topped with a street-salvaged cymbal. The Barrett groove was born.
Later, armed with honest-to-goodness instruments, the duo teamed with neighborhood youngsters and formed the Hippy Boys. Another later-famous reggae figure, Max Romeo, landed a gig at the Baby Grand Club and enlisted the unit. Carlton seized this opportunity to exercise and polish his “one drop” beat night after night. The band nicknamed him “Oney.” It was his personalized one-drop that would later become central to the Wailers sound.
The Hippy Boys’ intersection with destiny was their collaboration with musician, producer, and mad genius Lee “Scratch” Perry. In 1969 Perry and his studio house band, the Upsetters, had scored a numberfive hit on the U.K. charts with the double A-side single “Return of Django”/“Dollar in the Teeth” and were planning a sixweek tour. Due to scheduling conflicts, the Upsetters couldn’t commit, so Perry drafted the Hippy Boys to play under the Upsetters banner.
The wiry, eccentric producer was impressed with the brothers’ commanding groove, and upon returning to Jamaica he hired them—along with band members Alva Lewis (guitar) and Glen Adams (organ)—to be his new Upsetters. Recording behind a steady stream of local acts, the brothers further strengthened their mighty locomotion. Carlton’s early infectious drumming from this period can be heard on Upsetters A Go Go. A host of rootsy hits ensued, including the Uniques’ “Watch This Sound” and the Harry J. All Stars’ “Liquidator.” The Barretts’ winning groove was now highly in demand.
A particularly promising local act that was catching constant airwaves approached Perry for studio time. With its personnel in flux, the group was down to a trio and sought to use the Upsetters rhythm section. Previously calling themselves the Teenagers, the Wailing Rudeboys, and the Wailing Wailers, the young trio—Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley—was now simply known as the Wailers. Carlton and Aston Barrett were excited to be working with the group, having been fans of the Wailing Wailers’ big local hit, “Simmer Down.” But it took their unparalleled feel to complete the formula that would yield unparalleled success.
The Wailers were thrilled by the new recruits’ input and invited them to join as full-fledged members. Miffed at losing his prize players, Perry assembled a third version of the Upsetters that included the young heir to Carlton’s seat, Sly Dunbar.
The Perry-produced Wailers tracks are some of the grittiest and funkiest in the band’s canon. Barrett’s sweaty, locked-in, slow-groove cuts of this era are well exemplified by Soul Rebels (1970) and a compilation of sides, African Herbsman, that contained original versions of many later-rerecorded megahits.
The Wailers’ rise to international acclaim came with the release of their first major-label album, Catch a Fire (1973). It was the first time Jamaican musicians had access to major studios and the promotional machine of the rock world—a potential target forseen by the record companies. Following quickly was the hits-rich Burnin’ (1973), which ramped up the band’s fame in the States.
A major hurdle popped up when Tosh and Bunny Wailer departed the band, bound for solo careers. Still bolstered by the brothers’ groove, the unit continued the Bob Marley and the Wailers moniker. With the charismatic leader taking on a greater role, they released a further succession of Carly-fueled reggae classics, including Natty Dread (1974), Rastaman Vibration (1976), Exodus (1977), Kaya (1978), Survival (1979), and Uprising (1980). In addition, outstanding concert albums were issued, including Live! (1975) and the powerful and influential Babylon by Bus (1978). The band’s catalog remains one of the most successful in popular music. The greatest-hits collection Legend (1984) alone has sold well over 25 million copies.
In a 1983 MD interview, Barrett offered a discography footnote that “nobody knows,” revealing that the Wailers did not play on a few of Marley’s tracks. The second side of Survival (starting with “Africa Unite”) featured a different band, including Mikey “Boo” Richards on drums. Barrett explained that outside influences had encouraged Marley to test different waters. “But after Bob hear the results,” Carly concluded, “he realize the Wailers the best reggae band in the world.” Barrett also laid down his impeccable beats on Tosh’s first solo disc, Legalize It (1976).
“Field Marshal,” as Carlton was nicknamed, applied a variety of rhythms, both traditional and hybrid, to the Wailers sound. But his calling card remains the one-drop that he evolved and popularized via the megastardom of Bob Marley and his band.
The origin of the one-drop has been debated endlessly. Barrett is often credited as the originator, and Aston has insisted the same in several interviews. But the local music surrounding Carlton had certainly been ingrained in him. He acknowledged being especially influenced by his mentor, Lloyd Knibb, of the ska pioneers the Skatalites. Winston Grennan, known for his drumming with Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, and Toots and the Maytals, had also laid claim to the “originator” title, and his contributions can’t be denied. But many top local drummers peppered the stew. Setting the stage for all of them were the earlier beats of mento, the calypso-like Jamaican folk music, as well as the brisk rhythms of ska and mid-tempo rocksteady grooves.
Considering all the simultaneous cross-fertilization, it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific one-drop moment of birth. But one thing is for sure: Carlton Barrett took the rhythm to an archetypal peak with the Wailers, and he popularized it to the world. Most of all, he applied a trademark loose, jazzy swing to the pattern, which influenced the sound of reggae. Aston Barrett has also cited the impact of funk, soul, and rhythm and blues on the brothers’ groove.
The “official” way to count reggae (4/4 versus “cut time”) remains a frequent debate. But that’s all semantics—the groove remains the same. Unlike most beats in popular Western music, the onedrop doesn’t place a grounding accent on 1 and 3 (when counted as a slow 4/4). Instead, those beats are unaccented, and the strong beats are on 2 and 4 (or on 3 if you’re counting twice as fast, as in cut time). Those strong beats are accented by the bass drum and commonly combined with rimclicks. The effect is a funky, laidback, half-time feel.
Many of the classic Wailers hits are one-drop wonders, including “Stir It Up,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Waiting in Vain,” “One Love/People Get Ready,” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” Even on early Perry-produced tracks, Carly experimented with syncopated variations of the one-drop, as in his funky original version of “Small Axe.”
While Barrett’s sensual, loping phrasing helped define the modern Jamaican sound, it also embodied a cultural and spiritual identity. In his MD interview, Carlton said, “It’s a spiritual vibe that I try and get from my drums to the music. Because drums are from the slavery days and from Africa, it comes from a lot of history. The reggae drummer carries that history more than the guitarist or keyboard player, and the good reggae drummers make playing a spiritual experience.”
Carly’s infectious swing often straddled the nebulous cracks between straight-8th and triplet phrasing. This was pronounced in his hi-hat work. An especially influential innovation was his use of hihat triplets—whole and broken-up partials—laid across the beat, lending an African-like duple-against-triple tension. He applied that with a back-phrasing that leaned against the forward motion of the kit. Anchoring it all was his solid “Field Marshal” time. A strong example is heard on “Crazy Baldhead.”
Another reggae fundamental, the steppers beat, was used effectively by Barrett. Playing four-on-the-floor quarter notes on the bass drum against the upper structure, Carly generates an urgent, driving feel, as opposed to the more relaxed nature of the one-drop. Classic examples can be heard on the hits “Is This Love,” “Buffalo Soldier,” and “Jammin’.” “Exodus” exemplifies a potent use of the triplet hi-hat against the steppers drive, lending an unyielding tension throughout.
Despite Barrett’s relaxed, loose feel, his technique was tight and precise, with little wash or “hangover.” His remarkable rudiment-based, dancing fills served as kicking setups, especially in his trademark intro bars, which contrasted thuddy one-headed toms with a high, cracking, timbale-like snare. In fact, the syncopated setups and sudden quick accents on the “&” often suggested Latin influences.
For the bulk of his tenure with the Wailers, Barrett used a five-piece Ludwig kit. The head on his chrome snare was cranked to the breaking point, with snares off, producing a sharp bark that became an identifying sound of reggae. Along with the hi-hat, Barrett used two crashes. Consistent with his tight, crisp approach, he didn’t include a ride cymbal. And crashes were avoided at fill climaxes. Carlton later switched to Yamaha drums but claimed the decision wasn’t an issue of sound or quality. At that time, Yamaha was simply offering better equipment for the band’s journeys to Japan and Europe.
After Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981, the Wailers carried on touring internationally. But well before the decade was over, Barrett’s magisterial groove was tragically silenced. On April 17, 1987, the Field Marshal was gunned down on his own front lawn. He was thirty-six years old. Charged with the murder were Carly’s wife, a man she was involved with, and an accomplice. Barrett’s wife and her paramour were sentenced for conspiracy yet served only one year on a technicality. Carlton is one of three Wailers members—the others are Tosh and Junior Braithwaite—who have perished by gun violence.
Sly Dunbar lauded his fellow innovator in a 1985 MD cover story. “Carly was playing drums before I started,” Dunbar said. “I used to admire him a lot, because the one thing about Carly Barrett is that he is a very original player. Carly always played drums the Carly Barrett way. Everybody, not just me, admires him for that. He was a big reason why the Wailers rhythm section always sounded so cool.”
From streets of turmoil, Carlton and Aston Barrett and their bandmates gave joy to millions round the globe.
Now feel this drumbeat
As it beats within
Playin’ a riddim
Resisting against the system
—from “One Drop”
To hear Carlton Barrett’s early recordings with Bob Marley, including his groundbreaking work with producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, you can’t beat the multi-disc collection The Complete Bob Marley & the Wailers, 1967 to 1972. In addition to enlightening liner notes, the set features rare photos, including this 1970 shot of Perry’s Upsetters, whose rhythm section would form the nucleus of Marley’s bands until the singer’s death in 1981. From left: Aston Barrett, Carlton Barrett, Alva Lewis, and Glen Adams.
Carlton Barrett’s Beats
Transcribed by Eric Novod
Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Don’t Rock the Boat,” African Herbsman
This is an example of the classic one-drop, a groove where the bass drum slides over to overlap with the rimclick on beats 2 and 4.
Notice the subtle hi-hat accents on the offbeats. (The one-drop can also be notated in cut time, with the bass drum and rimclick landing on beat 3.) (0:47)
Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Concrete Jungle,” Catch a Fire
This groove contains many funky developments of the one-drop. Notice the open hi-hats and the way Barrett plays similar rhythmic embellishments on beats 3 and 4 in the second and fourth measures. (2:01)
Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Crazy Baldhead,” Rastaman Vibration
This is Barrett at his most complex. Notice the incredibly nuanced choice to accent the two triplets on the “&” of beat 4 in measures 2–4, as well as the mix of 32nd-note and 16th-note-triplet syncopations throughout. (0:00)
Bob Marley and the Wailers, “One Love/People Get Ready,” Exodus
Barrett is an improviser through and through. Here’s another example where he plays similar rhythmic ideas in the second and fourth measures. (1:00)