Toots Hibbert: never grow old

Toots Hibbert has had one of the longest careers in Jamaican music, stretching from his early ska hits with the Maytals in the 1960s to his 2004 album

Just Toots. Photograph by Urbanimage.tvLive in 1974. Photograph by Urbanimage.tvOn tour, 1981. Photograph by Urbanimage.tvToots Hibbert and the Maytals, 1981. Photograph by Urbanimage.tvToots Hibbert. Photograph by David CorioToots Hibbert. Photograph by David Corio

He’s been thrilling audiences for over forty years with dynamic stage performances and rousing studio works. Still in high regard in his native Jamaica, where he holds the distinction of writing the first song to reference the reggae genre in its title, he has also recorded blues, funk, soul, and country music, collaborating with noted American stars on several occasions. It was, in fact, the captivating duets he recorded with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Bootsy Collins,and Ben Harper that won him a Grammy for the 2004 album True Love.

But instead of basking in the glory of that accolade, the only break the man took from working in a Kingston studio on what is sure to be another fine album was the forty-date American tour he embarked on in March this year. If James Brown is “the hardest-working man in show business”, then Toots Hibbert must be the hardest-working man in reggae. And despite the fact that he’s getting close to sixty, it seems like Toots just doesn’t know how to slow down.


He was born Frederick Hibbert in May Pen, a market town located in the centre of largely agricultural Clarendon parish, about thirty miles west of Kingston; an older brother gave him the nickname Toots at an early age. As both his parents were ministers, and his siblings were prominent in church choirs, Toots grew up singing in various local churches, places where worship involved active, public performance, infusing European hymns with percussive tapping, clapping, and shouts — similar to the Baptist or Pentecostal services of the American south, but more distinctly African-Caribbean in feel. Such early experiences of spiritual expression, singing praises to the lord with ecstatic gusto, largely defined the singing style he would use on coming of age.

At the age of thirteen, Toots set out for Kingston in search of work, enamoured with music, but hoping to pursue a career as a boxer. As the independence movement gathered steam, the Jamaican music industry was changing: when a few entrepreneurs began issuing mento and calypso recordings in the mid 1950s, the earliest releases were mostly exported to cash in on the growing overseas demand for “exotic” styles, but by the end of the decade, the sound system operators that presented rhythm and blues to the public at open-air dance venues began issuing a different style of recordings for Jamaicans, based on the local variant of New Orleans boogie.

Then, at the dawning of the 60s, a new sound was emerging, ska, as various elements of jazz, R&B, rumba, and other popular forms were merged together and transformed by a burgeoning set of singers and players. Many of the best lived in Trench Town, a close-knit slum in the west of the capital city that was teeming with extraordinary musical talent. It was here that Toots settled when he first arrived in Kingston, and his neighbours included established singers such as Joe Higgs and rising stars like Lascelles Perkins and Alton Ellis; others who would quickly emerge included Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe, and most notable of all, Bob Marley and the Wailers.

On arriving in this musical hotbed, Toots became attached to a local barbershop, where he was casually employed as a hair-cutter. He auditioned as a solo singer for producer Leslie Kong, but Derrick Morgan, the singer supervising the audition, felt the youth wasn’t ready for recording. Back at the barbershop, Toots became acquainted with aspiring singers Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon, older youths who were impressed by the country boy’s vocal abilities. They formed the Maytals in late 1961, and although most producers were reluctant to record them, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, founder of the Studio One label, soon recognised their talent.

He was instantly struck by Toots’s unfettered delivery, which held all the fervour of a “revival” church service, spectacularly offset by solid harmony from the Maytals; their startling blend of sacred singing fused with Jamaican R&B was an electrifying form Dodd knew would hit. He’d already seen a dramatic local response to the “boogie religion” records issued by American labels such as Vee Jay, so the Maytals were quickly signed to Studio One. Their particular brand of ska, informed by gospel, was immensely popular, and they provided the label with some of its biggest hits in the ska period. In fact, their debut album, Never Grow Old, contained six number one hits, and their very first single, Hallelujah, was a sensation.

At Studio One, the Maytals were backed by the Skatalites, the premier session players of the ska era, whose vibrant backing helped keep their work at the top of the charts. Dissatisfaction with financial arrangements ended their relationship with Studio One, leading them to work with Coxsone’s chief rival and former assistant Prince Buster in 1964. This resulted in another series of hits, including the raucous Broadway Jungle, which celebrated their rupture with Dodd, and Pain in My Belly, a jumping ska tale of a crippling stomach-ache.

Despite the widespread success of such material, the group soon found that financial matters with Buster were little better than with Coxsone, so they quickly moved on again, and began recording for BMN, a label run by bassist and producer Byron Lee and his business partner Ronnie Nasrallah. The move was fortuitous. Both sides of their single Daddy/It’s You were so popular that the group was asked to make an in-store appearance at Woolworth’s in downtown Kingston. When I Laugh was another chart-topper in 1965; and the cautionary Bam Bam, in which Toots warned that he would use his boxing skills on anyone who dared to do him wrong, won the prestigious Jamaican Festival Song Competition in 1966.

 

Then in 1967 Toots found himself on the wrong end of the law. He was imprisoned, according to him on a trumped-up charge, and the Maytals ground to a halt, just as the slower rocksteady style usurped ska’s popularity. Jerry Matthias cut a few solo numbers in this period for enigmatic producer Ewan McDermott, but otherwise the group was entirely dormant.

Thankfully, after Toots’s release the Maytals’ reformation in 1968 bore even greater fruit: teaming with astute producer Leslie Kong at Beverley’s Records, they scored their first international hits in the new reggae style. Along with their celebratory Do the Reggae, cut in honour of the new music’s dance step, 54-46 referenced Toots’s time behind bars, and the bouncing Monkey Man likened a rival boyfriend to an ape, while Sweet and Dandy, a vivid tale of pre-wedding nerves, was another Festival Song winner. The Maytals also appeared in The Harder They Come, the landmark Jamaican movie shot in 1971, in an unforgettable scene that captured them at a studio session performing Pressure Drop, an enduring hit eventually covered by punk group The Clash.

Part of what made these recordings so outstanding was their exhilarating musical backing by the session players known as the Beverley’s All Stars, which included the crucial nucleus of bassist Jackie Jackson, drummer Paul Douglas, pianist Gladdy Anderson, organist Winston Wright, and guitarists Hux Brown and Douggie Bryan. Aside from the keyboardists, many of these same players would remain with the Maytals for decades to come, both in the studio and in live settings, and several are still active in Toots’s present backing band.


In late 1971, Leslie Kong suffered a fatal heart attack, a surprise blow to the group and to other artists he was managing, such as Desmond Dekker. Following Kong’s premature death, the Maytals returned to working with Byron Lee, who was now in charge of Dynamic Sounds, one of the best-equipped recording facilities in the entire Caribbean region. The re-established working relationship, aided by perceptive session keyboardist and arranger Neville Hinds and in-house producer Warwick Lynn, was an instant success, as the group won the 1972 Festival with the delirious Pomps and Pride.

It also brought them back to the attention of Chris Blackwell, the Jamaican entrepreneur who founded Island Records as a vehicle for Jamaican music in Britain, and best known for his association with Bob Marley. It was Blackwell who had first issued the Maytals’ output abroad (although many of their early singles were credited to The Vikings). But in the early 70s Blackwell got more directly involved in their work, sharing some production duties on the Maytals’ landmark Funky Kingston album. In addition to the title track, its inclusion of songs like Richard Berry’s oft-covered Louie Louie, completely remade as only the Maytals could, secured them the awareness of a wider audience (and the disc’s popularity has never waned, as evidenced by its induction in the Caribbean Hall of Fame in 2003).

Island’s 1976 release Reggae Got Soul was even bigger, and soon the group was headlining sold-out concert venues in the US and the UK. Demand for the Maytals became so great that in 1980 an appearance at London’s Hammersmith Palais was recorded and released by Island as an official live album that reportedly hit the record racks the very day after the performance took place.

 

Just as the Maytals seemed at the height of their powers, Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon decided to migrate to the US. Toots had no desire to leave Jamaica. Thus the loyal set of backing musicians who had been with him since the early 70s in effect became the Maytals, with Toots’s vocals joined by various harmony singers when he went on the road.

After Island issued the acclaimed Toots in Memphis album in 1988, comprised of inspired soul covers recorded in Memphis with Sly and Robbie and a host of talented American musicians, Toots’s recorded output became more sporadic, but thanks to a hectic schedule of live tours, which were always marked by Toots’s unbridled energy and the supreme professionalism of his band, the Maytals’ profile never dropped an inch.

At one point, Toots’s daughters Leba and Jennive provided harmony in the Maytals, but when the pair became famous in their own right as the dancehall duo 5446, their honorary Maytals membership became less frequent. These days, Toots often tours with no specific backing singers, allowing his musicians and the audience to fill any gaps.

Everyone who’s had the pleasure of working with him concurs that Toots is exceptional, not only as a performer, but also as a human being. “Toots is like a genius,” suggests Chris Blackwell, who remains on good terms with the singer today. “Toots is one of the purest human beings I’ve met in my life, pure almost to a fault.” Bassist Jackie Jackson points out that it is Toots’s unpredictability that ensures an exciting performance. The way he keeps his band on their toes, trying to anticipate his next move, means he has never really done the same show twice. With such continued capriciousness, plus his creative drive and sheer raw energy, there’s no sign of Toots Hibbert slowing down anytime soon.

A Maytals discography

Never Grow Old (Studio One/Heartbeat)
Absolutely crucial debut, packed with incredible hits. The CD reissue has four bonus tracks.

Life Could Be a Dream
(Studio One)
More riveting Studio One ska.

Monkey Man/From the Roots (Trojan)
Two albums of early reggae scorchers produced by Leslie Kong, reissued on a single CD with four bonus tracks.

Funky Kingston/In the Dark (Island/Dragon)
Two wonderful early 70s albums, produced for Dynamic Sounds and Chris Blackwell, recently reissued on a single CD; gives good evidence of the Maytals’ maturing sound.

Reggae Got Soul
(Island)
The sound of international success.

Toots Live (Island)
All the power and glory of Toots’s live experience. The CD reissue has two previously unreleased bonus tracks.

Toots in Memphis (Mango)
Inspired collaboration with soul session players, backed by the incomparable rhythm section of Sly and Robbie.

True Love (V2)
Grammy-winning set of duets with international guest superstars.

“I’m an international artist”

How did you start singing?
I born in a country town in Clarendon called May Pen Town, and I grew up in the church before I went to Kingston to do my music. It’s Seventh Day Adventist, and many churches . . . not no special church, but where people would gather and singing so nice, praising God, I always want to be there, so I grow up in a spiritual way. My father was a preacher and my mom was a preacher, and my sister and brother, they are in the choir in the church — a clapping church, that was one of them. I began singing in the church, and therefore my music goes as a churchical order. When I grow up, I get teachment in the Coptic Church, Rastafari.

How did you come together with the other two members as the Maytals?

Leaving the country, I went to Trench Town in Kingston when I were about maybe 13 — I was pretty young when I start. I went away from my country because I used to listen to artists like Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown on the radio, and I wanted to sing. But I used to do boxing in my youthful days. I used to love those two things, but people told me I could sing, so I stopped boxing. I was singing from when I was two, actually. I was very young, making sounds, and people told me, “You’re going to be a good singer.” So when I grow up, I went away from the country, go to Kingston, and I stuck with some people who do barbering; I was there and I could trim people’s hair. Then I met Jerry, I met Raleigh; they was living in Trench Town, and they are bigger than me, they was elder, and they say, “I like the way you sing, I want you to teach me,” so I began to teach people in my youthful days, people who was elder than me. When we start to make it in life, they want to live in a foreign country and I want to stay in Jamaica with my family . . . But we were the longest group that never break up, and up till now we didn’t break up. I toured with my daughters sometimes as backup, but they become quite professional now, and they have their own group, so I travel by myself now and the audience became my backup singers — they know my songs and they just sing. If I take harmony on the road with me, they can’t even get the chance to sing the harmony, because the audience sings it all the time.

In 1967 you got arrested for ganja?
I didn’t, not for ganja. I get arrested because people wish me bad. Somebody get arrested, I went to go bail him, and they arrest me. I was just bailing a friend, and I get arrested for nothing, because it was planned. That’s why I sing about it.

You served 18 months?

No, I didn’t serve much time.

And 54-46 was your actual prison number?

No, I just make it up.

You’ve been performing for a very long time.

It’s just like the other day, to me. That’s why my songs are not . . . I wouldn’t call myself vintage or whatnot. I’m an international artist. I don’t go on no “old hits” show.

Where do you get the energy?
My energy comes from the people, and from the prayer I pray