- 12 Sep 20
One of the greatest singers of all time, in any genre, has passed away.
Terrible news this morning from Jamaica, as it has been announced that Frederick Nathaniel 'Toots' Hibbert has passed away peacefully at the University Hospital of the West Indies, in Kingston, surrounded by his family. Toots, who is survived by his wife, Miss D, and seven of his eight children, will be mourned the world over, not just as one of the great ambassadors of reggae music, but as one of the greatest soul singers to ever draw a breath.
I was lucky enough to speak to Toots less than a month ago for our next issue on the occasion of the release of his latest album, Got To Be Tough, his first album of new material in ten years, and found him funny, generous, and engaging. Everything, in other words, that you hope one of your heroes will be if you actually get to talk to them. Given how alive and vital he sounded, it’s hard to believe he’s gone.
Hibbert came from May Pen, in the Parish of Clarendon in Jamaica, and was singing in the choir at an early age – both his parents were involved in the Seventh-Day Adventist church – and gospel would remain a part of his musical arsenal his whole life. He followed his elder brother to Trenchtown as a teenager, feeding himself by cutting hair in a Barbershop while playing songs on his homemade guitar. It was there he met up with Ralphus 'Raleigh' Gordon and Nathaniel 'Jerry' Matthias, forming the vocal group The Maytals, named after his home town back in the country.
The group recorded for pretty much every name producer – Byron Lee, Leslie Kong, Coxsone Dodd - in Jamaica during the sixties and were extremely popular. They went on to win the Jamaican National Popular Song Contest three times – ‘Bam Bam’ in 1966, ‘Sweet And Dandy’ in 1972, and ‘Pomps & Pride’ in 1972 - after which Hibbert half-joked that he wouldn’t enter again so that someone else might have a chance.
Just as things were taking off in 1966, Toots was arrested for marijuana possession and jailed for several months. He put this set-up down to professional jealousy on someone’s part and got his own back by working another number one song out of it with ’54-46 That’s My Number’. In 1968 he even gave a name to the genre he helped to invent, as ska moved from rocksteady to somewhere new, with another Jamaican hit, ‘Do The Reggay’.
1972’s Funky Kingston was the first Toots And The Maytals album to gain worldwide attention, helped along, as Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire would be, by Chris Blackwell. The group’s appearance in the hugely popular Jimmy Cliff-starring The Harder They Come, which hit the screens in 72/73, didn’t hurt either. Toots followed up with In The Dark in 1973, and a combination of the tracks from the two albums was released as Funky Kingston in the US in 1975. This collection would go on to be included in Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all time list, and rightly so.
Toots’ sound was beloved by those who fell under the umbrella of ‘punk’ – The Clash’s cover of ‘Pressure Drop’ is one of their best - and Toots would repay a debt to soul music – he had proved his point with ‘Reggae Got Soul’ in 1976 – by recording the album Toots In Memphis with Jim Dickinson in 1988, covering Otis, Al Green and James Carr, music he so obviously adored.
Toots kept touring and enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the early years of this century with the guest-heavy – but very good indeed – True Love album in 2004, featuring everyone from Keith Richards to Terry Hall. He appeared on good friend Willie Nelson’s Countryman album a year later and recorded Radiohead’s Let Down’ as part of the Easy Star All-Stars Radiodread project in 2006.
Toots was an incredible live performer – he never seemed to raise the microphone further than his chest for a start, although you never had any trouble hearing him – and was a regular visitor to Ireland after the success of True Love. I remember a great night down in Liss Ard and the thrill I got from shaking his hand after a show in Vicar Street. He took a break from the road after being hit by a bottle, thrown onstage in Virginia in 2006 – he pleaded for leniency at the culprit’s trial, which goes to show what kind of man we’re talking about – but eventually returned to performing. No doubt the plan was to go out again once we all got the other side of our current predicament, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Not only was Toots Hibbert one of the greatest, if not the greatest, reggae singers of all time, he was one of the great singers full stop. Added to that was his prowess as a songwriter, and I very much doubt you could find anyone who ever had a bad time at a Toots And The Maytals show. I was honoured to have him tell me why he thought his music, and the music of Jamaica itself, meant so much to so many people. “It’s a special music, bringing wisdom and understanding to the people," Toots said, down the scratchy phone line. “It carries a message, it tells a story, It’s a natural music.”