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Toots Hibbert, Reggae Ambassador And Leader Of Toots And The Maytals, Dies At 77

Sep 12, 2020
Originally published on September 12, 2020 12:02 pm

Updated at 11:49 a.m. ET

Frederick "Toots" Hibbert, the lead singer and songwriter of Toots and the Maytals and one of reggae's foundational figures, died Friday in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 77.

His death was announced on the band's Facebook and Twitter accounts. "It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel 'Toots' Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica," read the statement.

The cause of death was not revealed, but his Facebook account confirmed on Aug. 31 that Hibbert was tested for coronavirus in the last two weeks and placed in intensive care.

Hibbert's soulful, electrifying performances thrilled live music lovers for more than 50 years and brought a distinctive Jamaican expression to international audiences. His 1968 song "Do The Reggay" gave a name to Jamaica's signature beat, but his artistry defied boundaries. His vocals are an amalgam of rousing gospel, vintage soul, gritty R&B, and classic country fused with pliant, indigenous Jamaican rhythms. Hibbert brought a stunning island lilt to Otis Redding's standard "(I've Got) Dreams to Remember," he transformed Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand The Rain" into a scorching serenade, and forever altered John Denver's "Country Roads" into a beloved sing-along reggae anthem.

Hibbert's humble demeanor and affable personality belied his towering global stature. Regarded as a national treasure in Jamaica, in 2012 he was conferred the Order of Jamaica, the country's fifth highest honor.

"For my generation, Toots is the ultimate performer," said Roy "Gramps" Morgan of the reggae group Morgan Heritage. "The [kind of] artist that leaves everything on the stage, physically and spiritually. Toots is the James Brown of reggae, and one of the greatest Jamaican singers of all time. You won't find another singer that sounds like Toots and you are not going to hear that sound again."

Frederick Nathaniel "Toots" Hibbert was born on Dec. 8, 1942, in rural May Pen, Clarendon, about 45 minutes west of Jamaica's capital Kingston. Hibbert's parents were preachers and he was raised singing gospel in what he calls "a salvation church." The hand clapping, foot stomping, and soul-shaking vocals associated with Jamaica's Afro-Christian religious traditions, including Revival Zion and Pocomania, were essential in shaping Hibbert's performances. Hibbert also cites Elvis Presley, gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, and soul superstars James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding as influences.

In his early teens, Hibbert moved to Trench Town, an economically poor yet musically thriving community in western Kingston, also home to future reggae artists including Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley, who became The Wailers. While working as a barber, Hibbert met Nathaniel "Jerry" Matthias and Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and they formed The Maytals vocal trio, circa 1961, at the dawn of Jamaica's ska era. Matthias and Gordon had previously cut a single together and they knew Hibbert's powerful voice would enhance their sound. The Maytals went on to release numerous singles for the top Jamaican producers of the 1960s. They signed with Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One label in 1962, releasing such ska gems as "Hallelujah," "Fever" and the exceptional "Six and Seven Books of Moses," featuring Hibbert's galvanizing gospel delivery.

Studio One was regarded as Jamaica's Motown, home to many outstanding young singing, songwriting and instrumental talents, including The Wailers, Bob Andy, The Heptones, Marcia Griffiths and Jackie Mittoo. The Maytals, however, were dissatisfied with Dodd's payments and moved on. They recorded the rollicking "Dog War," which alludes to leaving Dodd and working instead with his rival Prince Buster. They made history with producer and band leader Byron Lee when their joyous ska romp "It's You," and its b-side, the R&B ballad "Daddy," both topped the Jamaica charts . In August 1966, The Maytals' "Bam Bam," also produced by Lee, won the inaugural Jamaica Festival Song competition, held annually to coincide with the island's Independence Day celebrations. (The chorus of "Bam Bam" was featured in Sister Nancy's 1982 song of the same name.) Hibbert was arrested shortly after The Maytals' victory and sentenced to 18 months for possession of marijuana; he described the incident as "political, a means to keep me down."

At the time of Hibbert's release from jail, the jaunty ska beat created in Kingston studios had slowed down and morphed into rocksteady. The reunited Maytals began recording for producer Leslie Kong; their first release "54-46 (That's My Number)," which Toots wrote about his prison sentence, became The Maytals' biggest hit of that era and had remained a staple in Hibbert's live shows. Kong's other productions with The Maytals include "Monkey Man," which broke through to the UK singles charts, and "Do The Reggay," which became the first song to brand the beat that followed rocksteady, which is Jamaica's most successful (musical) export. When asked about the origins of the word, reggay, shortly thereafter spelled "reggae," Toots offered: "Streggay was a slang word in Jamaica, it meant something that looked raggedy, scruffy so one day I was talking with Raleigh and Jerry and just changed the word to reggae and said, let's make music, let's do the reggae."

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Two Maytals tracks produced by Kong — "Pressure Drop," about tough conditions in Jamaica, and "Sweet and Dandy," an engaging tale of a rural wedding — were included on the Island Records soundtrack to the 1972 landmark film The Harder They Come, which introduced reggae to America. In the film, directed by Perry Henzell, The Maytals are seen recording "Sweet and Dandy" (their 1969 Jamaica Festival Song Contest winner) while the film's lead character, aspiring singer Ivan O. Martin (portrayed by Jimmy Cliff), watches mesmerized.

Chris Blackwell signed The Maytals to Island Records and changed their name to Toots and the Maytals, with Maytals now referring to the backing singers and the band members. They released several influential albums for the label, including Funky Kingston (1975), Reggae Got Soul (1976) and, following the departure of Matthias and Gordon, Hibbert's solo album Toots in Memphis (1988). The latter, accompanied by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, aka the historic rhythm section Sly and Robbie, was critically acclaimed and earned Hibbert his first Grammy nomination.

"Toots was the writer, singer, songwriter, you never saw anybody else on stage because Toots was so charismatic," said Blackwell in the 2011 BBC documentary, Toots and The Maytals: Reggae Got Soul. "The Maytals were unlike anything else; sensational, raw and dynamic. There are many occasions where you hear a record by someone and then you go to see them 10 years later and it's a little bit of a disappointment. But Toots gives his everything to his audience, he never phones it in."

"One of the things Toots always told us was to 'sing from your soul, man,'" said Morgan, whose father, Denroy Morgan, knew Hibbert since their childhood days in Mocho Village, May Pen. "Study the great showmen like James Brown and Otis Redding because when someone pays money to come see you, they have to have an experience."

Later in life, Hibbert won the 2005 Grammy for best reggae album for True Love. Each song on the record was a collaboration with some of his biggest fans, among them Eric Clapton, Bootsy Collins and The Roots, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards and Jamaican greats Shaggy, Marcia Griffiths and Ken Boothe. Bonnie Raitt, who's featured on the title track, "True Love is Hard to Find," said performing with Toots and his band is "one of the highlights of my life."

On Aug. 28, 2020, Hibbert released the final album of his career and his first new studio album in a decade, the aptly titled Got To Be Tough. On the album, an impassioned Hibbert addresses global atrocities on the soul jam "Just Brutal," overcoming obstacles on the funk-infused "Struggle," combating dirty principles with decency on the scorching "Warning Warning" and staying resilient, irrespective of the circumstances on the indomitable title track.

Two days after the release of Got To Be Tough, Hibbert was admitted to Kingston's University Hospital of the West Indies.

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