Toots Hibbert: The Final Relix Interview
Photo credit: Hugh Wright
Music legend Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, the reggae pioneer who coined the very term for the genre, passed away last month. The current issue of Relix includes this feature article on the beloved Jamaican artist.
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Toots and the Mayals recently ended their 10-year recording hiatus, releasing the new studio album, Got to Be Tough, in August. In normal times, that momentous occasion would have been followed by an extensive tour, bringing their new tunes—as well as ageless hits like “Pressure Drop,” “Time Tough” and “Funky Kingston”— to ecstatic audiences everywhere. Instead, like every other performing musician in the land, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, the founder and dynamic frontman of one of the most durable names in reggae—the superstar who, in fact, gave reggae music its name—spent his summer grounded.
But, hey, no problem! One might think that such a tireless road warrior would be frustrated by the inability to promote his long-awaited new project, but Hibbert is an easygoing sort of guy. “I’m having fun!” he says cheerily over a dicey cell connection from his home in the Jamaican countryside, a few weeks before COVID19-related issues sent him to an intensive care unit. “Touring and performing live is hard work!”
True that—and few have put as much sweat into their music as he has. For more than a half-century, Hibbert has been “one of the hardest working acts not only in reggae, but also on the road, period,” says DJ/publicist Amy “Night Nurse” Wachtel, who specializes in reggae. “When you see Toots, you get your money’s worth–every single penny. There was a time in the history of Jamaican music when he was bigger than Bob Marley; Toots deserves every accolade bestowed upon him.”
Now though, at 77 years old, Hibbert also deserves to catch his breath, as uncharacteristic as that state of being might be to him. For several years—following a 2013 incident where an intoxicated fan hit him in the head with a vodka bottle while he was performing in Virginia—the singer retreated from public view. He eventually settled the case out of court, and the perp did some time for assault. And while Hibbert asked the judge to impose a lenient sentence on his attacker, the ordeal still took a psychic toll on the reggae architect. Hibbert canceled all his remaining gigs, saying he no longer felt safe onstage, and didn’t perform live for several years. The band officially reemerged fully in 2017, playing Coachella and Glastonbury, followed by a full-scale tour the following year that included a return to Old Dominion for LOCKN’.
From all reports, Hibbert had lost none of his drive or charisma in the interim. “He’s as mighty now today as ever, even given the setback from his accident,” says longtime fan Bonnie Raitt.
Toots and the Maytals were back. Now it was time to make some new music.
The decade-long gap between 2010’s Flip and Twist and Got To Be Tough was by far the longest of Toots and the Maytals’ career. Flip and Twist received mixed reviews. Some critics and fans carped that the group had veered too far from the soul-infused reggae of their early days, while others countered that Hibbert had lost none of his power as a singer and composer—or his dedication to the music he helped create.
When it was announced that the new album would be the group’s debut on the Trojan Jamaica label via BMG—recently founded by Who drummer Zak Starkey and his partner Sharna “Sshh” Liguz as a completely separate entity from the original Trojan Records— curiosity ran deep. Toots and the Maytals had already recorded the Peter Green-penned Fleetwood Mac tune “Man of the World” for Trojan Jamaica’s 2019 debut release, the 13-track compilation Red, Gold, Green & Blue, but a few important questions still remained: “What direction would a new Maytals album take, and what would Toots, whose songs have so often been semi-autographical and topical, have to say in this day and age?”
Starkey and Sshh listened to around 30 songs—a mix of older material that Hibbert had never properly recorded and newly written tunes the singer had recently laid down at his Reggae Center studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Together, they narrowed the selections to the 10 that became Got to Be Tough. Hibbert played many of the instruments himself on the basic tracks (“Even the drums!” he boasts), and arranged the horns. Then, co-producers Starkey, Nigel Burrell and Youth, “under Toots’ watchful eye,” brought in virtuosos like Sly Dunbar (drums) and Cyril Neville (percussion) to augment the core players. Starkey himself added guitars to all the songs.
Next, Starkey says, “I brought the 10 tracks along with me when I was on tour with The Who. I wasn’t totally happy with my guitar sound and with some of the arrangements, so when the tour hit LA, I went to my dad’s [Ringo Starr] studio to edit some tracks, recut most of the guitar parts, rearrange a few tunes and add some electro drums. My dad ended up loving the tracks so much that he added percussion to ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘Having a Party.’ After The Who tour, I brought the tracks home to Trojan Jamaica Sounds Studio U.K. to do a bit more editing, and then listened intently as Dave Sardy mixed it. Sshh designed the artwork for the cover and came up with the animated video ideas. We did a lot of work on Got to Be Tough in order to give it a contemporary sound while still maintaining Toots’ signature underpinning. It’s a timeless, wise, thoughtful, thankful and profound record.”
Hibbert worked on Got to Be Tough meticulously, until it was right where he wanted it. “It takes time to compose, arrange and create— and to make sure that everything is alright, and to do it properly,” he says. “Now everything is great. I know it’s a good album.”
Among the songs that made the final cut—all Hibbert originals except the aforementioned, Ringo-assisted cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” which also features Ziggy Marley on guest vocals—several address always timely issues. “Struggle,” the closing track, makes a plea for peace and cooperation: “In this struggle, world, we need to love,” Toots sings. “We got to stop the fighting, the shooting and killing.” The title track and first single from the album, he says, “means even if you want to give up, don’t give up. You gotta be tough in this time. It’s not so easy to carry on, so you got be tough.” In “Warning Warning,” the sophomore single, Hibbert cautions, “Why won’t you utilize your brain in the right way that you should/ If you don’t change, I would assume that you would be doomed.”
Not everything is quite so weighty though. “Having a Party”— much like the Sam Cooke classic of the same name—leaves solemnity at the door, although Hibbert does request of his partygoers: “Just be conscious, don’t be malicious, don’t be prejudiced.” And “Good Thing That You Call” serves as a reminder that sometimes making up is the only satisfying antidote to breaking up.
Musically, the 10 tunes stay true to Toots and the Maytals’ patented soul-reggae amalgam, with nods toward beefy rock riffs (“Drop Off Head”), gospel jubilation (“Freedom Train”) and funk along the way. Hibbert’s vocal performances are, not surprisingly, magnificent throughout—simultaneously gruff, gritty, heartfelt and poignant. “He’s always willing to move this way or that way a little but, paradoxically, at the same time, he’s very traditional,” Keith Richards once said in the BBC’s Toots documentary Reggae Got Soul.
“Toots is my favorite reggae artist of all time,” says Raitt. “I hate to play favorites, but I’m such a fan of R&B—Otis Redding, James Carr, Wilson Pickett, the great soul shouters, the gospel shouters— and Toots has that.”
Hibbert has had “that” since the beginning. Born in the Southern Jamaican parish of Clarendon, the youngest of seven children, he “grew up singing in church in the country, with my mother, father, sister and brother. I went to school in the country. People told me that I could sing: ‘You have a good voice.’ Then people began to love it and give me good encouragement.”
At first, he considered becoming a boxer, but the music won out. “I started to practice. I made my own guitar [out of bamboo], and I learned off of it. I listened to the radio, to everyone who was singing before me, and I learned from them.”
The future Maytals leader not only heard fellow Jamaican artists, but also the American sounds of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Little Richard and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. “I can do different things with my voice,” he says. “And then I play the instruments and make it better ‘cause I know what I want.”
Hibbert, Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias formed The Maytals—the “Toots and” prefix wouldn’t be added until a decade later—as a trio in Kingston, with several backing instrumentalists, in the early ‘60s. The three singers’ sweet harmonies served them well on the early recordings—initially in the then-dominant ska and rocksteady styles— that they made for producers Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Prince Buster and Byron Lee. The group won the Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition three times; they were just starting to make a name for themselves when, in 1966, Hibbert was arrested for ganja possession and jailed for 18 months. (“It was not really a prison because I get my own meals, I get my own clothes, I get my guitar, I don’t wear prison clothes,” he says.)
The experience gave Hibbert a hit song, “54-46 Was My Number,” about his incarceration, and upon his release in 1967, the group began working with famed producer Leslie Kong. It was under Kong’s tutelage, in 1968, that Hibbert wrote the dance number “Do the Reggay.” Unwittingly, he’d named—with a minor spelling tweak soon to come—a genre of music that would eventually go global.
“I did it as a joke,” Toots says now about coining the word reggae. “No one knew what to call it. We was listening to the music and I say, ‘Let’s do the reggay.’ It was just fun. Reggay was just a simple word, but people tried to spell it with a -y (r-e-g-g-a-y). And I told them: ‘No, it’s r-e-g-g-a-e.’ And from then [on], people honor me for naming the music.”
He not only named a musical style, but he also quickly became one of its biggest stars. When The Maytals were cast in a crucial scene in Cliff’s 1972 film vehicle The Harder They Come—seen at work in a recording studio—their name and reputation spread far beyond the Caribbean.
Raitt was one early American fan. “I was going to college in Cambridge, [Mass.], which was going nuts for The Harder They Come,” she says. “I don’t know about the rest of the country, but the Boston area, with those 300 colleges, was a hotbed; it went reggaemad. Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff were just superstars in that area.”
The two songs The Maytals contributed to the film, “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop,” became reggae staples: The Clash later cut a blistering cover of “Pressure Drop,” while the British ska revival band The Specials made The Maytals’ “Monkey Man” their own. After signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, the renamed Toots and the Maytals graduated from local sensations to international stars. The hits kept coming: “Pomp and Pride,” “Time Tough” and a surprising and irresistibly funky cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road. (Of “Time Tough,” Hibbert says, “Even though you work hard, it is still tough—tough today the same way.” And, of the reimagined Denver classic, the singer remembers, “I said, ‘I want to do a new version of it because it’s a good song.’”)
The group’s run through the end of the ‘70s was marked by endless touring and a stream of impressive recording; albums like Funky Kingston, In the Dark and Reggae Got Soul achieved widespread audience appreciation. They opened The Who’s 1975- 76 North American tour, and they never lost their popularity at home, scoring a record-breaking 31 No. 1 singles in Jamaica.
In 1981, that incarnation of Toots and the Maytals called it quits and Hibbert carried on as a solo artist, releasing the Grammy-nominated Toots in Memphis album in 1988. He formed a new Maytals lineup in the early ‘90s, which led to their only Grammy win, for 2004’s stunning True Love album. The LP found Hibbert reworking catalog tunes with the help of celebrity fans like Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Trey Anastasio, Raitt, Richards and Ben Harper. Other than the break he took following the bottle incident, Hibbert has continued to take his soulful brand of reggae to audiences everywhere for decades, playing festivals and concerts, appearing in films and on TV. His charisma and enthusiasm have never waned.
“His music is so infectious and so galvanizing and uplifting,” says Raitt. “That classic power of rhythm—it makes you want to dance. It’s also very touching. He’s got a tender side that comes through in his voice, like all soul singers. A lot of the other reggae voices are passionate and soulful, but I put Toots in the same field as all the gospel and soul music. That melding of R&B music and reggae will be his legacy. I have to say that he’s up there in the top two or three greatest soul singers of all time”
“Toots and the Maytals have created a timeless, evergreen, original sound, which will forever resonate with all people of all ages and all races,” Starkey and Sshh explained in a joint statement. “Toots’ lyrics speak to us almost transcendentally— heavy yet deceptively simple messages wrapped up in sublime yet ruff-and-tuff music. He is, quite simply, one of the world’s greatest living singers.”
Toots Hibbert himself shrugs off all of those plaudits. Asked why he’s still at it when he could easily retire to his country estate and bask in the Jamaican sun, he gives a simple answer: “I live to sing. I have to sing.”