The multi-talented musician brought his skills to a vast array of hits including ‘Red Red Wine’
UB40 first made their mark on the music scene in the 1980s, a decade defined by the despair of the jobless in the group’s own country and famine in Africa. They brought a British brand of reggae-pop to the charts and concert stages – with their name taken from the attendance card issued to people claiming unemployment benefits.
Astro, real name Terence Wilson, who has died aged 64, was brought into the eight-piece group as their MC – as well as trumpet player and percussionist – but said he became a “singjay” rather than a DJ, providing backing with melodies.
This “toasting”, a reggae style of talking or chanting over the beat – long before rapping took off – was most powerfully showcased on the full-length album version of “Red Red Wine” (1983), the first of UB40’s three chart-topping singles in the UK.
The band based it on Jamaican singer Tony Tribe’s 1969 reggae recording, unaware that the original was a ballad written and performed by Neil Diamond two years earlier.
“Even when we saw the writing credit, which said ‛N Diamond’, we thought it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond,” Astro, notable for his dreadlocks and dark glasses, told The Guardian earlier this year.
It came from Labour of Love, an album of cover songs given a reggae treatment, following three studio LPs featuring UB40’s own politically and socially conscious material.
On its rerelease five years later, “Red Red Wine” hit the top spot in the American singles chart – the group’s first No 1 in the US market – after being resurrected by a DJ in Phoenix, Arizona, who had heard their live performance at Nelson Mandela’s 70th-birthday concert at Wembley Stadium.
Another cover, of Sonny & Cher’s 1960s classic “I Got You Babe”, brought UB40 a second British chart-topper when they teamed up with Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde in 1985. Astro’s trumpet playing was at its most effective by being understated.
It was more prominent in the band’s 1993 version of Elvis Presley’s hit “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You”, which went to No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Some fans felt these lilting reggae versions of others’ songs were betraying UB40’s roots as the voice of working-class disaffection, but the band continued writing their own material – usually under a joint credit.
Astro sang lead vocal on the 1987 single “Rat in Mi Kitchen”, having written it himself after Ali Campbell told him he had… “a rat in mi kitchen”.
The band sold more than 70 million records, including 39 singles in the UK Top 40 and seven in the US Top 100 between 1980 and 2005.
Their first release, “King”, in 1980, was a dedication to Martin Luther King, but radio stations picked up on the catchy B-side, “Food for Thought”, and, turned into a double-A-side single, it went to No 4 in the UK.
Both came off UB40’s debut album, Signing Off (1980), which stayed in the charts for 71 weeks, kept off the top only by Gary Numan and Kate Bush. It included the Margaret Thatcher anthem “Madam Medusa”, with lines such as: “Hear the silent suffering that echoes through the land.”
Ali Campbell and Mickey Virtue finally left UB40 in an acrimonious split in 2008. Five years later, Astro followed, having completed the band’s 18th studio album, Getting Over the Storm (2013), dissatisfied with the move to country music covers on it and his limited role as a backing vocalist.
The following year, he teamed up with the group’s other refugees. Their most successful album, under the name UB40 featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey, was A Real Labour of Love (2018), which featured Jamaican reggae songs, went to No 2 in the UK and topped the US reggae chart. Astro sang lead vocal on six of the 16 tracks.
Virtue then left before UB40 featuring Ali Campbell & Astro, with a seven-piece backing band, toured Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the US in 2019. Their lockdown single the following year, a cover of the Bill Withers classic “Lean on Me”, was recorded in aid of NHS Charities Together and featured guest artists such as Cliff Richard, Suggs and Jools Holland.
Terrence Wilson was born in Birmingham in 1957, the son of Jamaican immigrants, and nicknamed Astro as a child after the Astronauts brand of Doc Martens boots he wore.
He attended the same school as Virtue, Golden Hillock (now Ark Boulton Academy), in Birmingham’s Sparkhill district.
UB40 were formed in 1978 by singer-guitarists Ali and Robin Campbell, sons of Scottish folk performer Ian, from whom they gained political awareness.
The group played on the Birmingham pub circuit the following year and, after a couple of gigs, Astro joined the line-up of the Campbell brothers, Earl Falconer on bass, Brian Travers on saxophone, James Brown on drums, Virtue on keyboards and Norman Hassan on percussion, trombone and vocals.
In the multiracial mix, Astro and Falconer were British Jamaicans, Hassan was partially of Yemeni descent and the others were white British – all of them bound together by a love of reggae music.
On seeing them live, Hynde offered UB40 a spot as support band on a Pretenders British tour in the spring of 1980.
After being signed by a local record label, they went into the studio to record their first album.
In live performances, Astro’s “toasting” and dancing across the stage encouraged the band’s fans themselves to dance. “I crave a reaction from an audience,” he said.
Astro is survived by his wife, Dawn.
Astro, singer and trumpeter, born 24 June 1957, died 6 November 2021