Tuesday, January 12, 2021

In Memoriam: Toots Hibbert

Toots and the Maytals: Do The Reggay

I suspect that like most American music lovers, my knowledge of reggae music is limited to the Bob Marley classics (and a few tunes by his family members), some Jimmy Cliff, a little Peter Tosh, a handful of Toots and the Maytals songs, and maybe a few other well-known tracks. I like reggae, but rarely went out of my way to listen to it (I am more familiar with the ska revival music of the late 70s and early 80s and the ska-punk music of the 80s and 90s). (By the way, check out Lovers Rock on Netflix, if you want to hear some great reggae music and see an excellent movie.) 

But in 2018, when I started to occasionally blog shows for the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, I had the chance to see Toots and the Maytals, and experiencing the then 75 year-old reggae legend play for 2 hours was a night I won’t forget. You can read about it here

Like probably every genre of music after the first caveman banged a stick on a rock (although someone probably would claim that the caveman’s efforts were derivative of some “more authentic” ape music), it is impossible to literally pinpoint when reggae was created. I discussed this a few years ago in the context of determining what was the first rock song. Trying to figure out where ska and rocksteady stopped and reggae began is similarly fraught, but most historians of the music agree that it was Toots & the Maytals’ 1968 single, “Do The Reggay” that gave the genre its name. Hibbert was once explained:

There's a word we used to use in Jamaica called 'streggae'. If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say 'Man, she's streggae' it means she don't dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, 'OK man, let's do the reggay.' It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing 'Do the reggay, do the reggay' and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound it's name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it's in the Guinness World of Records 

Frederick “Toots” Hibbert was born on (probably) December 8, 1942 in May Pen, Jamaica. His earliest performances were of gospel music in church choirs. At the age of 11, he was orphaned, and moved to the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kingston, the capital, to live with his brother. In 1961 or 1962, along with Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias, he formed a band. Maytals is a word of unclear origin, which may be a reference to Hibbert’s home town, or to the Rastafarian term for “do the right thing.” The Maytals became a top ska act, initially releasing songs with religious themes powered by Hibbert’s powerful, soulful voice (and his multi-instrumental talent), influenced by, among others, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, and eventually branching out into more secular songs. 

After Toots served 18 months in prison for marijuana possession, the band had a hit in the “rocksteady” style with "54-46 (That's My Number)," which Toots wrote about his prison sentence. They released “Do The Reggay," and then hit the UK charts with “Monkey Man.” Toots and the Maytals appeared in the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which popularized reggae worldwide, and had two songs on the film’s soundtrack. The band’s next album, Funky Kingston, released on Island Records, was a critical and commercial success (a different version of the album was released in 1975 in the US). Robert Christgau wrote about the album: 

The quick way to explain the Maytals is to say that in reggae they're the Beatles to the Wailers' Rolling Stones. But how do I explain Toots himself? Well, he's the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet: he transforms 'do re mi fa sol la ti do' into joyful noise. 

In 1981, the original Maytals broke up, and after about a decade as a solo act, Toots formed a new Maytals in the mid-1990s. In addition to continuing to record and perform, Hibbert has collaborated or performed with Willie Nelson, Gov’t Mule, JJ Grey & Mofro, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eric Clapton, Bootsy Collins and The Roots, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards and Jamaican greats Shaggy, Marcia Griffiths and Ken Boothe, among others. 

Hibbert was hit in the head on stage by a thrown bottle in 2013, and despite the injury that caused a nearly three year hiatus from touring, Toots wrote the judge, pleading for leniency for his attacker who, nevertheless, was sentenced to a six month sentence. After recovering from the injury, Hibbert and his band continued to tour and appear on television. He released his first new album in years, Got To Be Tough on August 28, 2020. 

Two days later, Toots was admitted to University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston with, it has been reported, COVID-19, and on September 11, 2020, he died “peacefully . . . surrounded by his family.”