But Will Live Forever in So Many Ways, in So Many Lives
Reggae Legend Toots Hibbert – One of reggae’s foundational figures, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, the enigmatic lead singer and influential songwriter of Toots and the Maytals, died Friday in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 77.
His death was announced on the band’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. “It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica,” read the statement.
The cause of death was not revealed, but his Facebook account confirmed on Aug. 31 that Hibbert was tested for coronavirus in the last two weeks and placed in intensive care.
It is with personal and visceral sadness that I heard the news today about the passing of the one and only Toots, because of how his music directly affected and altered my life. Fortuitous to have seen Toots live a few times, from Orlando to Brooklyn, his music has been a soundtrack to moments in my life for a very long time.
Music is a time machine, transporting you where you were and how you felt when you first heard or felt a song. I first heard Toots and the Maytals while riding in a car with my first love. She was in college, I was in high school, and she had a better musical repertoire, introducing me to a lot of great music, but it was Toots and the Maytals that stuck with me, even after this first love gal broke my young, dumb heart and headed back to Wisconsin.
In college, for a brief time, I lived in a two bedroom with a bunch (much more than two) of my buddies, and most of our rituals started with playing the best of Toots and The Maytals CD, skanking and singing in the living room. It is with these pals that I saw Toots play live at The Social in Downtown Orlando, Florida. One of those friends with whom I made many memories, is no longer with us, and so now he is the first thought in my heart when I sing along to 54-46 (That’s My Number).
Recently, while driving around this place me and my daughter call “Secret Animals”, Monkey Man by Toots and the Maytals came on shuffle. To my surprise, I looked in the rearview mirror to see her bopping and nodding, making me a very proud father, and hopefully continuing the impact of Toots on my life.
Do the Reggay
Toots’ electrifying performances thrilled live music lovers (such as myself, my friends, and now my daughter) for more than 50 years, helping to further expand unique Jamaican expression to international audiences. In fact, his 1968 song “Do The Reggay” gave a title to Jamaica’s signature beat, which is now ingrained in the island’s history.
With soulful artistry that defied boundaries, his vocals are an amalgam of rousing gospel, vintage soul, gritty R&B, and classic country fused with a pliant, indigenous Jamaican cadence. Toots brought a stunning island lilt to Otis Redding’s standard “(I’ve Got) Dreams to Remember,” he transformed Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” into a scorching serenade, and forever altered John Denver’s “Country Roads” into a beloved sing-along reggae anthem.
Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert was born on Dec. 8, 1942, in rural May Pen, Clarendon, about 45 minutes west of Jamaica’s capital Kingston. Hibbert’s parents were preachers and he was raised singing gospel in what he calls “a salvation church.” The hand clapping, foot stomping, and soul-shaking vocals associated with Jamaica’s Afro-Christian religious traditions, including Revival Zion and Pocomania, were essential in shaping Hibbert’s performances.
In his early teens, Toots moved to Trench Town, an economically poor yet musically thriving community in western Kingston, also home to future reggae artists including Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley, who became The Wailers. While working as a barber, Hibbert met Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias and Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and they formed The Maytals vocal trio, circa 1961, at the dawn of Jamaica’s ska era.
In August 1966, The Maytals’ “Bam Bam,” also produced by Lee, won the inaugural Jamaica Festival Song competition, held annually to coincide with the island’s Independence Day celebrations. Hibbert was arrested shortly after The Maytals’ victory and sentenced to 18 months for possession of marijuana, an incident he described as “political, a means to keep me down.”
At the time of Hibbert’s release from jail, the reunited Maytals began recording their first release “54-46 (That’s My Number),” which Toots wrote about his prison sentence. The song would become The Maytals’ biggest hit of that era and had remained a staple in Hibbert’s live shows, covers by other artists, even featured in films.
Music is a Time Machine Forever
On Aug. 28, 2020, Toots released the final album of his career and his first new studio album in a decade, the aptly titled Got To Be Tough. On the album, an impassioned Toots addresses global atrocities on the soul jam “Just Brutal,” overcoming obstacles on the funk-infused “Struggle,” combating dirty principles with decency on the scorching “Warning Warning” and staying resilient, irrespective of the circumstances on the indomitable title track. Two days after the release of Got To Be Tough, Hibbert was admitted to Kingston’s University Hospital of the West Indies.
As I get older and the world gets weirder, the music of Toots Hibbert becomes more and more precious to me. Reading about the passing of the Reggae legend hit my heart hard, because of the memories and the loved ones I have that I attach to his music. In grief, if I could say one thing to Toots, it would be “Thank you…for the memories, and thanks for calling out that one dude who was smoking cigarettes right up front at the show, a lifetime ago, in Orlando.” That is a true story. What’s also true is Toots’ music will live forever, across oceans, borders, across racial lines, and across time.