Countless dancefloors, house parties, football and festival grounds across the world have erupted in skanking and singing unison to Toots and the Maytals over the past six decades. No doubt you can recall fond memories when you spin their iconic records. For me its boots, braces and mates in the pub.
People told Toots Hibbert he was a great man but he never believed them.
People told Toots Hibbert he was a great man but he never believed them. He was not only a foundation stone to reggae music, but also one of the most influential artists to rise from Jamaica. From his humble roots singing as a youth in a Jamaican church, to multiple chart hits.
In 1968, Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert gave the reggae genre its long lasting name with the song ‘Do The Reggay’ Alongside his group, The Maytals, Toots launched an irreplaceable, ecstatic sound that spoke to generations across the world. His music and performances spanned six decades and impressed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Cliff, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Marcia Griffiths among countless others who sang his praises. He was a huge influence on Bob Marley and The Wailers, The Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, and countless other reggae, rock and ska artists who’ve come since.
Let’s take a look back at his beginnings. Born on 8th December 1942 in May Pen, Parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, Toots was the youngest of his siblings. His parents were strict Seventh-day Adventist preachers so he grew up singing gospel music in a church choir. Sadly, both parents died young and by the age of 11, Toots was an orphan. He moved to live with his brother John in Trenchtown, Kingston. While working at a local barbershop, he met his future bandmates Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias. They started out as a trio in 1961. Toots was a multi-instrumentalist and could play every instrument in the band. Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown were key influences on him. Toots named the band ‘Maytals; as a reference to the Rastafari term for “do the right thing”.
Their early recordings reflected Toots’ religious upbringing such as ‘Hallelujah’ (1963). He became interested in Rastafarianism and was inspired to write songs like ‘Six And Seven Books of Moses’ (1963). The Maytals grew to become one of Kingston’s most popular vocal groups in the mid-1960s, recording with producers Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster, Byron Lee, Ronnie Nasralla, and Leslie Kong. They won Jamaica’s National Popular Song Contest three times with Hibbert’s songwriting; “Bam Bam” in 1966, “Sweet and Dandy” 1969 and “Pomps & Pride” in 1972. But Toots’ biggest source of musical inspiration came in 1966, when he was arrested for possession of marijuana and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The experience led to one of his best known songs, “54-46 Was My Number” referring to his prison number being passed on to the next man upon his release.
Aside from his brush with the law, Toots kept his personal life very simple. He married his wife Doreen when she was 18 years old and stuck with her for life. The couple had eight children together and he publicly dedicated two of his songs to her, “It’s You” and “Never You Change”.
Years of sensational songwriting unlike anything else of its time endured for Toots & The Maytals. They released the classics ‘Pressure Drop’, ’54-46 Was My Number’ ‘Sweet and Dandy’, ‘Do The Reggay’, ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘Barn Barn’. Later Toots released ‘Funky Kingston’, ‘True Love Is Hard To Find’ and ‘Reggae Got Soul’ to the world. Toots’ influence can be heard throughout the history of how ska became rock-steady and rocksteady became reggae. Combining gospel, ska, soul, rock and American R’n’B, Toots carved out, defined and popularised the genre of reggae but was never pigeonholed by it. Loved by skinheads, ska fans, rock fans and more, his music crossed over all boundaries, cultures and age groups.
Toots released a staggering 24 albums throughout his career with the band and as a solo artist. From the mid-sixties to the early eighties The Maytals put out, on average, an album a year. In 2005, Toots and The Maytals won a long awaited Grammy award for their album ‘True Love’ and in 2008 they were accepted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. In 2010, Hibbert ranked as one of the ‘100 Greatest Singers of All Time’ in Rolling Stone and in 2012 he was awarded the ‘Order of Jamaica’, one of the country’s highest honours. Global praise and accolades aside, Toots remained humble. Which is one of so many reasons he remains loved by millions.
Sadly, in August 2020, Hibbert was reported to be “fighting for his life” in hospital. He was in a medically induced coma and by 12th September it was announced that he had died, at the age of 77. He died at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, due to COVID-19. The band stated that he “passed away peacefully” surrounded by his family and was “survived by his wife of 39 years Miss D, and his seven of eight children”.
Tributes have poured in for the iconic musician. Jamaican reggae artist Earl Chinna Smith of Inna Da Yard told Vive Le Rock, “He was the greatest voice we had left in Jamaica. When you hear the man sing it’s a high intensity performance and there’s no other voice like that. The energy of that bredren and the love of his heart, it’s a big loss, like the next Bob Marley and we shall forever feel it.” Ziggy Marley wrote on Twitter that Hibbert was “a father figure to me” whilst Sir Lenny Henry said he was “so sorry” to hear of his death. “His music was a constant in our house growing up,” he tweeted. “His voice was powerful and adaptable to funk, soul, country, AND reggae. Rest in power.” UB40 said Hibbert’s music “influenced and inspired us to love reggae music from an early age” and Ghostpoet wrote: “Another legend returns to the earth. What an impact he made in his time here.”
Described as “the world’s greatest living reggae singer”, his death comes just weeks before the release of ‘Got to Be Tough’, the band’s first full-length album in over a decade. We look forward to hearing new music from this giant of an artist. Rest In Power and Rock In Peace Mr Hibbert.
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