Memories of A Legend On His Earthstrong
“Ready?” asked the drummer. “Yes sir!” Toots Hibbert replied.
The year was 1968, and Toots and the Maytals were about to make history at Federal recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica.
The drummer, Winston Grennan of Beverley’s All-Stars, counted off “1, 2…” and the band began to play a brand new sound. The fast-paced ska beat that took Jamaica by storm in the early ’60s had given way to a slower, sweeter sound known as rock steady around 1966. But on this day, the Maytals — a vocal trio comprising Toots and his friends Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias — were cutting a song called “Do the Reggay.”
Where rock steady songs were more delicate and romantic, the reggae beat was raw and muscular.
“I want to do the reggay with you,” Toots sang, his powerful voice cutting through the rhythm.
“Yeah yeah!” Raleigh and Jerry harmonized.
“Is this the new dance?” Toots went on. “Going around the town?” As soon as their song hit the streets, everybody in Kingston town wanted to do the new dance too.
Toots said the name was inspired by Jamaican slang for girls you see on the street. “From streggae to reggae,” he explained.
Born Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert in Jamaica in 1942, and nicknamed “Little Toots” by his older brother when he was a baby, Toots would go on to be hailed as Jamaica’s original soul man. Toots and the Maytals’ songs became worldwide hits, and the group toured with rock stars like the Who and the Rolling Stones. “Pressure Drop” was covered by the seminal U.K. punk group the Clash. “Monkey Man” was covered by the British ska band the Specials. “Bam Bam” was covered by numerous Jamaican dancehall artists including Sister Nancy, whose version became the most sampled reggae record in history, inspiring renditions by JAY-Z, Kanye West and Lauryn Hill, to name a few.
Toots released his final album, Got to Be Tough, on Aug. 28. A day or so later he was admitted to University Hospital of the West Indies with symptoms of Covid-19 and soon placed in a medically induced coma. “Toots is fighting for his life and his family is asking for prayers,” his publicist Claude Mills told the Jamaica Gleaner. He died at the age of 77 on Friday, Sept. 11 — exactly 33 years to the day after his friend Peter Tosh.
“People say I’m great,” Toots said in a video interview. “I don’t think that I’m great, but they call me great.” Raised in the rural parish of Clarendon, his parents were preachers in a Seventh-day Adventist church, where Toots soaked up the righteous fervor of gospel. His parents died when Toots was young, and he moved to Kingston in the early 1960s, where he got a job in a barbershop. Living in Trenchtown, Toots met a young Bob Marley, who was singing before Toots, and he inspired him to give it a try. “He’s a good guy,” Toots said of Marley. “A really cool person. We really miss him.”
The Maytals started their career at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One when it had only a one-track recording facility. Toots said he received a beef patty in return for recording his first song, so the group moved on to work with producers Leslie Kong and Byron Lee in search of better pay. Soon after their song “Bam Bam” won Jamaica’s prestigious Festival Song competition in 1966, the Trenchtown trio flew to England to perform.
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Like most Jamaican artists of his time, Toots saw singing as a way to survive and lift himself out of poverty. Groups like the Wailers, the Maytals and the Heptones got their start at Studio One but soon established themselves as worldwide stars. Reggae was not respected by well-to-do Jamaicans for many years, and was rarely played on local radio. American pop and country-and-western music dominated Jamaica’s airwaves for most of the early ’60s. But reggae ruled the sound systems that played in the streets of Kingston, and it soon caught on overseas — especially in the U.K. “This is a gift from God,” Heptones lead singer Leroy Sibbles once told me. “If we had to pay for it, we would never be able to do it.”
The Maytals appeared in the 1972 film The Harder They Come, singing their classic song “Sweet and Dandy” in the recording studio. That film was the first to expose the injustice faced by so many reggae artists — brilliant musicians who struggled to receive fair compensation for their work. “I am the producer and I play instruments and I arrange everything,” said Toots, who was not credited as producer on most of his biggest hits. “I am the creator of my songs and then all they do is pay studio time and claim that they are the producers. So I don’t get no money.”
Touring tirelessly for decades, Toots managed to provide for his wife and eight children, as well as for his extended family and much of his community. But in May 2013 a teenager attending his concert in Richmond, Virginia, threw a vodka bottle at the stage and hit him in the head, leaving Toots with a concussion and post-traumatic stress. The tragic experience sidelined him for a few years.
Some time after that incident occurred, I happened to run into Toots at one of my favorite bars in Kingston, the Terra Nova hotel, which turned out to be the reggae legend’s fave spot also. I was pleased to find him in good spirits. He spoke about progressing through his anxiety, but he was not quite ready to be back in the limelight.
Weeks before the release of Got to Be Tough, I spoke with Ziggy Marley, who is featured on Toots’ new album on a remake of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Ziggy explained that Toots was like a father to him. “His energy and his music is my earliest memory,” Ziggy said. When asked what message he wanted to relay to Toots, Ziggy said simply, “I love you. That would be the message.”
An outpouring of love has flooded social media since Toots’ passing, with fellow reggae stars like Buju Banton and Bounty Killer paying tribute. Nadine Sutherland, the reggae singer who was once signed to Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong label, wrote a moving tribute to the man she called “Daddy Toots,” wondering what sort of bashment was going on in heaven right now between Toots and Marley. “What a great reunion,” she wrote. “What a legacy you left us! Me cry when me hear the news, but happy you out a suffering. Skank up to de heaven Elder!”
All of us leave footprints, some large, some small; the only guarantee in life is that there is no return once you depart. Toots used his 77 years on Earth to the best of his ability, leaving an indelible mark on the world and never losing his upful spirit, even when times were hard.
During the middle of the coronavirus lockdown I reached out to Toots, who blessed TIDAL with his personal “At Home” playlist, sharing some of the musical selections that helped inspire him and keep him strong during this difficult time. “I look forward to celebrating with you in person soon!” he said in the quote that accompanied his playlist.
Originally Published on Tidal Magazine
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