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Behind the music

Reggae band The Killer Bees to perform tonight

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2003

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 19:07

They say that behind every great musician there is a story to tell. For internationally acclaimed reggae band The Killer Bees, the story expands beyond the token hurdles-in-the-road and struggles that most bands face. It extends into their personal commitment to each other and their music, despite the tragedy of losing front man and co-founder Michael E. Johnson to kidney disease in 2001.  

Fellow founder and guitarist Malcolm Welbourne, also known as Papa Mali, said the seed for The Killer Bees was planted more than 20 years ago after a fateful trip to Jamaica.

"I was barely 22 when I visited Jamaica, and it changed my life," Mali said. "When I came back, all I had on my mind was the desire to start a reggae band."

Mali said he searched for two years for a musician to join him before meeting Johnson, who had also been to Jamaica during his days in the military service and was also a fan of reggae music. Together in their hometown of Shreveport, La., they formed The Killer Bees. 

Mali said The Killer Bees started playing funk and jazz music. The idea to become an all-out reggae band came after Mali made a trip to New Zealand.

"Reggae music had become very popular in New Zealand during the time I made my trip there," Mali said. "When I came back I was more determined than ever to form a reggae band. Mike (Johnson) said a reggae band would never work in Louisiana, so we got a manager and agent, and set out to move to Austin." 

Austin proved to be a smart move for The Bees, Mali said, because its fan following rapidly gained momentum.

"We started to tour all over and work really hard to promote our music," he said. "At the time Bob Marley had passed away and because of his music surfacing to the mainstream, reggae music had become very popular. We toured all over the U.S. and overseas as well." 

Mali said their brand of reggae has a style of its own.

"Our musical influences are a mixture of musicians, like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and a lot of funky music like LA Meters, Dr. John, and The Neville Brothers," he said. "And of course, we listened to a lot of reggae too, such as Bob Marley, Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse. Our sound is a result of a combination of all of these bands." 

Mali said one of the earliest highlights for the band came in 1987, when The Killer Bees was the first American band invited to play at The Reggae Sun Splash festival in Jamaica. The second achievement followed the same year, when the band's first release "Grooving" won the Best Reggae Recording award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors, according to musicaustin.com. 

After being in the band and on the road together for so long, Mali said he needed a break.

"By the late 80s, we had been on the road touring 300 days a year for almost ten years. I told Mike I needed a break," he said. "He encouraged me to take some time off and went on with the band. He told me that he would go on with the band, and I was welcome to come back when I was ready." 

When he returned to the band in 1991, the band was going as strong as ever, Mali said.

"We finished up a live recording from a concert in Germany and our latest album reached the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Reggae charts," he said. "We were really excited about the future of the band." 

But tragedy struck in 1998. Mali said Johnson's health started to deteriorate, leading to a heart attack.

"After the heart attack, Mike also found out that he had a form of kidney disease as well," Mali said. "Despite all of that, he would still come to band practice and participate in our performances." 

After he was placed on dialysis, Johnson finally had to give up. Mali said that without Johnson in the band, he decided to pull the plug on The Killer Bees.

But when Johnson realized that he was losing his battle with kidney disease, he told Mali to go on with the band. Mali said he decided to go on with the band, for the sake of keeping his friend's memory alive and to sustain the band they created together.

"Mike was one of the bravest, most caring and strongest men that I knew," he said. "He was the best friend that I ever had and ever will have. It is still very hard for me to be on stage and not have him next to me playing music. Once I start to perform the songs we put together, I can feel his spirit through the music. He was a great man and I use his memory as an inspiration to life other people's spirits." 

Willie Bennett, close friend of the band, said Mali's dedication to music is inspiring.

"Welbourne is an amazing talent," Bennett said. "The Bees have been a dynamic favorite in College Station for decades. They have current fans whose parents were fans of the band years ago when they went to college." 

Bennett said the years following Johnson's death were especially hard for Mali.

"Even a year after Mike's passing, I tried to get Mali to perform but he said it was just too soon," he said. "When he finally did decide to return to the live music scene, he decided that they would only play a few times a year, and all of the shows would be dedicated to Mike's memory.

These days the only time that Mali performs in College Station, is when I specifically ask him to." 

The Killer Bees will be performing at Shadow Canyon, Thursday the 19th at 11:30 pm. 

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