In our last interview, I asked Toots Hibbert what he wanted to be remembered for.
Of course, I didn't know at the time that it would be our last interview. Last month, on September 11, Frederick “Toots” Nathaniel Hibbert, 77, died due to complications from COVID-19 after a short stay at a private hospital in St. Andrew, Jamaica.
The man who coined the word "reggae" and charted a record 31 No. 1 hits on the Jamaican charts was one of the most joyful and lively performers in modern times. Over six decades, his pioneering ska and reggae albums sold worldwide, and his live performances played out like soul-infused tent revivals, elevating fans to a natural high that cannot quite be fully appreciated in words, only in person.
Hibbert was born in 1942 in May Pen in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, one of 15 children. He attributed his character to his rural upbringing.
"I grew up in the country with the respect [for others]; we are very spiritual and healthy," he said. "We have intelligence, and whether you are black or you are white, people have respect for you in the country. That’s why I am the way I am.”
His earliest vocal influences were American voices like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Mahalia Jackson, who all started in the church, as he did.
“I grew up in church," Hibbert said. "We did Sunday school. It is the right way of praising God. Some people call him Jesus. I call him God, and in Rastafarianism, they call him Jah.”
After the deaths of his parents when he was a teenager, Hibbert moved to the city of Kingston to live with one of his brothers. A few years later, in 1962, he met Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and Nathaniel "Jerry" Mathias and formed the trio known simply as The Maytals; the name means “pure things.”
By 1966, The Maytals had gained fame by winning the first-ever Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition, with “Bam Bam.” They would go on to win it the next two years as well. "Sweet and Dandy” in 1969 and “Pomp and Pride” in 1972 would also win the highly coveted JIFPS award.
The brakes on Hibbert's success hit the skids in 1967, however, when he was arrested for marijuana possession. He claimed was that he was wrongfully imprisoned for trying to bail a friend out of jail, but he spent 18 months in jail despite his plea. One of his signature songs, “54-50 Was My Number,” would chronicle his arrest and incarceration.
In 1968, with the release of his song, “Do the Reggay,” Hibbert coined the word reggae from the Jamaican street phrase “streggay” for rough or unkempt. A whole new genre would follow.
Hibbert’s first international hit, “Monkey Man,” was part of the Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong's groundbreaking King Kong compilation, which introduced many of the up-and-coming stars of the Jamaican scene to the rest of the world. Other songs that furthered his fame and evolving reggae genre success in subsequent years included “Funky Kingston” and “Reggae Got Soul.”
The first instrumentalist members added to the group included Jackie Jackson, Hux Brown, Rad Bryan, and Paul Douglas. In 1972, the group changed their name from The Maytals to Toots and the Maytals at the behest of legendary Island Records producer Chris Blackwell. (These players would be his traveling band up through 2020.)
Following Kong’s death, the band were asked to be in the seminal 1972 reggae movie, The Harder They Come. The soundtrack gave further exposure and international appeal to early-day reggae stars like Hibbert, Desmond Dekker, and The Melodians, not to mention the picture’s lead, Jimmy Cliff.
Though Toots and the Maytals would enjoy more crossover success by touring in the U.S. with the likes of The Who, The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt in the mid-'70s, Hibbert began putting out solo material in 1981. At the same time, he would gain a second generation of fans due to covers of “Monkey Man” by 2-Tone second wave ska band The Specials, “Pressure Drop” by UK punk legends, The Clash, among others.
As his fame grew, so too did the number of fans who were stars in their own right. This was reflected best in 2004's True Love, the group's 10th album. On it, Hibbert collaborated with Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, No Doubt, Ben Harper, the Roots, and Shaggy. True Love would go on to win Hibbert his only Grammy Award, for Best Reggae Album.
Just this summer, he recorded his first new album in 10 years, Got to Be Tough. The album dropped two weeks before his passing. The music harked back to themes of slavery and other injustices, censure, and tyrannical world leaders on songs such as “Just Brutal,” “Drop Off Head Struggle,” and “Stand Accused.” While Hibbert struggles with registers, the soulful moxie and urgency comes through. He balanced the songs of struggle with ones of hope, such as in “Good Things That You Call,” “Freedom Train,” and even an uptempo version of the Bob Marley classic “Three Little Birds” with Ziggy Marley.
Hibbert leaves behind his wife of 39 years, Doreen, and seven children. His children Toots Junior, Leba, and DJ Blizzard, and grandson King Trevy are carrying on the musical torch.
“I tell them to love music, love God, love the people they meet, and to love themselves and to love their brothers and sisters, and to sing like an angel. [Doreen] is always by my side.”
To me, Hibbert represented everything good about the music world. His message was inspirational, his delivery was joyful, and his shows were filled with unmatched exuberance. He was confident but not conceited, private but approachable, an indomitable spirit who was gracious to all and a man who even after 90-minute sets, would sit and chat with me about family, life, and love of our world and its people.
Though I didn't know him very long, I considered him a friend, a human force for good, and the epitome of authenticity. The world is lucky to have had him dance, smile, sing. His greatest gift he left behind, other than his treasure trove of songs, may have been teaching us to be joyful even when the world is far less than perfect.
And as to the answer to my question, what Hibbert wanted to be remembered for:
“They just have to remember my name, my many talents, and Toots and the Maytals — [we] invented the word reggae — and to always put [me] in good remembrance, and that Toots and the Maytals were wonderful.”
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