William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke, the husky-voiced lead singer of internationally popular reggae band Third World, died of leukemia at his home in Florida, longtime friends and colleagues said Monday. He was 65.
Former bandmate Colin Leslie said the singer died Sunday in Orlando a week after he was released from a hospital following cancer treatment.
Clarke worked with the band Inner Circle and top reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry in Jamaica before joining Third World in 1976. The next year, the band released “96 Degrees in the Shade,” one of its most popular albums. The group was signed to Island Records and had hits on British and U.S. charts, including “Now That We Found Love,” “Always Around” and “Reggae Ambassador.” He performed on all of Third World’s records except the group’s debut.
Stevie Wonder, who performed on stage with the band at Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1981, co-wrote and produced Third World’s 1982 song “Try Jah Love.”
“He was a remarkable talent. Bunny had a great voice, something even Stevie Wonder admired,” Leslie said.
Clarke and Third World were known for seamlessly fusing reggae with soul and pop music, something they were occasionally criticized for by reggae purists. In a 1992 interview with Billboard magazine, he described the band’s identity this way: “Strictly a reggae band, no. Definitely a reggae band, yes.”
Drummer Willie Stewart, who kept the beat in Third World until 1997, said Monday that the fun-loving Clarke “loved his art but always had a joke.”
In a government statement noting Clarke’s death, Culture Minister Lisa Hanna said: “Bunny Rugs’ voice was distinct. He had a charisma and stage presence that was spellbinding with a smile that was vibrant.”
Clarke is survived by his wife and eight children.