Toots Hibbert was born the youngest of seven children, born on December, 8, 1942 in rural May Pen, Jamaica. His parents were both preachers, and he was raised singing gospel in church. In 1962, Hibbert formed the Maytals as a vocal trio with Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias in Kingston, his soulful vocal style rendering him the “The Otis Redding of Reggae.”
Hibbert literally coined the word “Reggae” as a musical term in 1968 with the Maytals’ “Do the Reggay.” His songs have been sampled or covered by KRS-One, Keith Richards, the Clash, Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds, Sublime, The Specials, etc.
We lost reggae’s founding father back in September to coronavirus complications. Today, on what would have been his 78th birthday, we look back at the musical legacy he leaves behind, captured in ten important songs.
“Bam Bam” (1966)
“I want you to know that I am the man/Who fight for the right, not for the wrong,” exclaims Toots on “Bam Bam,” which won Jamaica’s first ever Independence Festival Song Competition. Their breakthrough song made known to the world what a powerful voice and force this guy was going to be.
“We Shall Overcome” (1968)
Originally a labor song dating back to slaves singing “I’ll be all right someday” as they worked in the fields, “We Shall Overcome” evolved as a folk song and later became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. The song may be most correlated with activists Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, but Toots achieved its most soulful version.
“I Shall Be Free” (1968)
In the same year the last legislation was enacted during the civil rights era, Hibbert sang, “I know, oh yes, I know, yeah / I’m going to live to see everyone free, free, free, free” in “I Shall Be Free.” Always a man of well-timed hopefulness, the influence and import of his music will continue to sustain through times of civil rights struggles.
“Bla Bla Bla” (1968)
“Bla Bla Bla” is Hibbert’s response to the negative human tendency of throwing one’s weight around. And when I think of where the Maytals fit into the origins of ska/rocksteady, this is the song that comes to mind.
Lyrically, “Alidina” is simply about a girl with a taste for finer things who is too lazy to work. Musically, the major key tonality and climactic vocals make it one of the Maytals’ most definitive tracks.
“Pomps and Pride” (1972)
A funky, horn-heavy re-imagining of the old graduation walking march “Pomp and Circumstance,”‘ this song earned Toots and the Maytals another win in the Independence Festival Song Competition.
“Country Roads” (1972)
Hibbert resets the scenery of “West Virginia” to “West Jamaica” in his lilting rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads,” and as only he can do turns it into even more of a sing-along.
“Careless Ethiopians” (1981 and 2004)
2004 saw the release of True Love, a collection of Toots and the Maytals songs re-recorded with guest musicians. Keith Richards backs Toots up on vocals on “Careless Ethiopians,” originally on 1981’s Knock Out!
“54-46 Was My Number” (1968 and 2004)
In 1967, Hibbert was arrested for marijuana possession, serving nine months behind bars. This holdup prompted what would become one of the Maytals’ most popular songs, always greeted by a rousing fanfare. The song’s upbeat, catchy delivery belies its more uneasy message that refers, namely, to his prison number. He recorded “54-46 Was My Number” again with Jeff Beck.
“Got To Be Tough” (2020)
The roots reggae icons returned this year with the release of GRAMMY-nominated Got To Be Tough, their first LP in over 10 years.sets an example of moral courage when encountering today’s world and its exigencies: “Just in case you never know/Or maybe you forget/Your days are getting shorter/Our youths are getting slaughtered.”
*Feature image: © Philamonjaro