Toots Hibbert, 1942 – 2020: an all-time great whose message of joyful defiance never dimmed

One of the most influential figures in Jamaican music has died at the age of 77, leaving behind a pioneering and unflinching legacy. RIP

Toots And The Maytals were not just one of reggae’s pioneers; they essentially gave the genre its name. Their 1968 single ‘Do The Reggay’ is widely credited with popularising the term worldwide. With his roaring, soulful voice, eloquent and impactful songwriting and unquenchable political fire, the band’s leader, Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert became one of Jamaica’s biggest stars – he had more Number One singles there than even Bob Marley – and an all-time great whose influence spanned the entire globe.

His death marks the loss of one of Jamaican music’s original pioneers. He was a versatile leader as the country’s music transformed from the ska and rocksteady of early-1960s soundsystems into globally-renowned reggae, and a man whose message never really changed. From his earliest releases to his last, he wrote unflinchingly about reality, about life’s grind, burdens and injustices, but also about its many joys and the absolute necessity of resistance.

Hibbert was born on December 8, 1942 in the town of May Pen in central Jamaica, the youngest of eight children. His parents, both Seventh-Day Adventist preachers, encouraged him to begin singing gospel music in the church choir, fostering his unforgettably resonant voice, and instilling him with values he’d carry with him for the rest of his life.

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“When it was Christmas time, I remember that [my father] always killed two cows and two pigs to give to neighbours who didn’t have anything. I grew up loving people, giving away my lunch money to kids who didn’t have any,” he told the BBC in a 2011 documentary about his life.

Toots Hibbert

By his teens, however, he was an orphan, and had moved to live with his older brother John in Kingston’s Trenchtown district. While he was working in a barbershop there, Hibbert met Ralphus ‘Raleigh’ Gordon and Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Matthias, and in 1961 the trio formed the first iteration of the now-legendary Maytals.

With Gordon and Matthias providing harmonies to Hibbert’s arresting lead vocals, they became founding members of a wider musical landscape that would be looked back on as one of the most fertile of all time. Their 1964 LP ‘Never Grow Old’, for example, was produced by the legendary Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd at his mythical Studio One, with none other than The Skatalites as their backing band.

Working primarily in the upbeat ska that emerged in Jamaica after independence in 1962, and then the slower rocksteady that it would evolve into, The Maytals became one of, if not the most popular band in Jamaica, for a time outstripping their biggest competition The Wailers. “The Maytals were local heroes,” remembered Jackie Jackson, who would later join the band on bass. Much of their success came thanks to Hibbert’s extraordinary ability to express the reality of their everyday life, its joys, sorrows, hardships and victories. “No artist ever painted a broader and truer canvas of daily life in Jamaica than Toots,” the reggae historian Roger Steffens has said.

The Maytals won Jamaica’s prestigious National Popular Song Contest three times: with 1966’s ‘Bam Bam’, 1969’s ‘Sweet And Dandy’ and 1972’s ‘Pomps & Pride’. It was 1968’s ’54-46 Was My Number’, however, that became the band’s most enduring and powerful hit, written after Hibbert was sentenced to 18 months in prison for possession of marijuana.

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Toots And The Maytals
Hibbert in 2020

At the end of the 1960s, as rocksteady began to give way to the faster and more danceable sound that would later be known as ‘Reggae’, the band remained at the forefront. Now going under the name Toots And The Maytals, they released the album ‘Funky Kingston’ in 1972. It stands up today as one of the greatest LPs of all time – in any genre –  and the peak of their career. That same year their fame was boosted even further by their appearance in the hugely influential film ‘The Harder They Come’. 40,000 people showed up to a premiere at a 1,500-seater theatre in Kingston. Starring Jimmy Cliff in a role partly inspired by Hibbert’s life, its Maytals-featuring soundtrack was a huge international hit in itself, bringing the genre to its biggest-ever audience.

As they spent the following decade on huge international tours to solidify their reputation, the band’s output began to influence a whole new generation of musicians as two-tone music emerged in the inner cities of the UK. The Specials’ vital version of the Hibbert-penned ‘Monkey Man’ is just one example of how far his songs had started to reach. In 1981 the original Maytals trio split, their frontman continuing as a solo artist until he revived the moniker with a new line-up in the mid-1990s.

Toots Hibbert

Through the 21st Century, Hibbert kept on touring, and released a collaborative album ‘True Love’ with some of those he’d inspired – the likes of Willie Nelson, Jeff Beck, The Roots and Keith Richards. In May 2013 he was seriously injured after being hit by a glass bottle thrown at him during a gig, which forced a three year hiatus from live shows. The culprit was sentenced to six months in prison, despite a plea from Hibbert himself: “I have heard what happens to young men in jail. My own pain and suffering would be increased substantially knowing that this young man would face that prospect.”

On September 1, 2020, Hibbert was hospitalised in the intensive care unit of a private facility in Kingston and awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, and 10 days later it was announced that he had died. Just two weeks to the day beforehand, he released what now stands as his final album, the defiant ‘Got To Be Tough’. It was a record that showed him in all his qualities, his voice a little cracked but more soulful than ever and the message of he pushed for almost 60 years still undimmed. “Things may be hard – so hard – but we have to overcome it,” he sang at the album’s very end.

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