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  • Writer's pictureRichard Blackford

Tribute to Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert of the Maytals

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Richard Blackford

FREDERICK NATHANIEL "TOOTS" HIBBERT, was born in Treadlight district just outside of the town of May Pen, Clarendon on December 10, 1945, to parents who were both preachers in their local church. They named him Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert. The youngest of seven children, he grew up singing gospel music in a church choir courtesy of his parents. Toots moved to Kingston in the early 1960s at the age of 13, and from very early he expressed a desire to develop a singing career.

As a resident in Trench Town, young Hibbert had an interest in boxing but was convinced by his neighbours to give up the boxing and to concentrate on his singing as he had a good voice. In his late teens, Toots worked as a barber to pay his bills. He would later meet Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias, and in 1961 the three formed group 'The Cherry Pies' but later renamed themselves 'The Maytals'. Lee ';Scratch' Perry discovered the group in an audition at Coxsone's that same year. According to Scratch, 'Toots brought with him a rich gospel-like intensity to his singing, and this is what gave the group its advantage.'

Toots too admitted that for the most part his singing style was influenced by the American soul singers such as James Brown, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett as well as his intense Seventh-day Adventist church influences. Coxsone at the time was dominating the Ska era with releases backed by his influential house band the Skatellites and the addition of The Maytals only increased Dodd's ammunition in this area. They released 'Fever' and 'Never Grow Old' but the tune which placed them over the top was the Rastafarian quasi-religious anthem 'Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses' released in 1963. The potency of the song was demonstrated in a Monday Night soundclash between Duke Reid's Trojan and Lloyd Daley's Mighty Matador sound system known for its high sound output at the time. Reportedly, Trojan was having most of the evening until Matador produced a copy of the acetate borrowed from Coxsone.

The minute the record hit the turntable the dance was over for the Trojan as the patrons would not let the tune go. After a two year stint with Coxsone, the Maytals moved on to Prince Buster's studio and in 1966 to Byron Lee. Under Lee's direction The Maytals won Jamaica's first-ever Festival Song Contest with their original nyabinghi influenced, 'Bam Bam' They would repeat in 1969 with 'Sweet and Dandy' and again in 1972 with 'Pomps and Pride.

'Toots' career was halted in 1966 after he was arrested, charged and sent to prison for 18 months reportedly for ganja possession courtesy of a repressive policing approach adopted by the then Hugh Shearer led Jamaican government in a bid to break the back of the Rastafarian movement. Toots would use the experience to produce the anthem '54-46' a rallying cry against police brutality. On his release from prison in 1967, Toots Hibbert and The Maytals teamed up with Leslie Kong for a collaboration which yielded a string of hits including the big bang '54-46' and the phenomenal 'Pressure Drop' a poignant protest against the systemic repressiveness of the Jamaican government in1969. The song featured in the soundtrack of the Jamaican cult film The Harder They Come. The group's success continued with their International hit 'Monkey Man' in 1970 propelling them at home as one of the most significant acts on the island.

After Leslie Kong died in 1971, the group continued to record with Warrick Lyn and resumed their relationship with producer Byron Lee who renamed the group Toots and the Maytals. The group released three best-selling albums produced by Lyn and Blackwell of Island Records and enjoyed international hits with 'Funky Kingston' in 1973 and 'Reggae Got Soul' in 1975. The Maytals received an invitation to tour with The Who as their opening act during their 1975-76 North American tour. The tour went poorly, and Toots & the Maytals' compositions would be given a second airing in 1978-80 during the reggae punk and ska revival period in the UK, when The Specials covered 'Monkey Man' on their 1979 debut album and The Clash put out their recording of 'Pressure Drop'. In 1982, Toots & the Maytals' 'Beautiful Woman', reached number one in New Zealand, but the group had already broken up. They reformed in the early 1990s to continue touring and recording successfully, releasing in the album' True Love' in 2004. The album consisted of re-recorded versions of their previous hits, alongside Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Trev Anastasio, No Doubt, Ben Harper, The Roots, and Shaggy. The album won the Grammy Award that year for Best Reggae Album.

In 2006, they recorded a reggae/ska version of Radiohead's 'Let Down' for the tribute album Radiohead, by the Easy All-Stars. The album was a song for song makeover of the English rock band's album 'OK Computer' into reggae, dub and ska. In August 2007 Toots & the Maytals released the album 'Light Your Light' which featured re-workings of older songs such as 'Johnny Cool Man', as well as new material. The album received a nomination in 2008 for a Grammy in the best reggae album category. In March 2009 Toots & the Maytals played to a sell-out crowd at Bush Hall in London after their scheduled performance alongside Amy Winehouse to celebrate their shared record label, Island Records' 50th anniversary did not materialize as Winehouse cancelled. Winehouse had covered the band's 'Monkey Man', and the Maytals were supposed to support her at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London on May 31 2009. The 2012 album 'Unplugged on Strawberry Hill' gained Toots Hibbert his fifth Grammy nomination. That same year Frederick Nathaniel "Toots" Hibbert was vested with the Order of Jamaica for his nearly 50 years of contribution to Jamaican Music by the government of Jamaica. He continued to represent the country worldwide as a living legend and even more so as one of the last living greats from the Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae era.

 He entered the 2020 National Song Competition with the inspirational entry' Rise Up'just before resuming his hectic work schedule. He was diagnosed with Covid-19 related symptoms in late August 2020 and admitted to the University Hospital of the West Indies where he transited on September 11, 2020. Toots was a rare gem whose brilliance illuminates the path of Jamaican Music. 

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