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Back in September, after six decades of music-making, it was with great sadness that the world said goodbye to one of the pioneering figures of reggae music – Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, best known as the lead singer of seminal ska band, Toots and the Maytals.
Toots' songs were what the BBC called “postcards from Jamaica,” often detailing life in rural central Jamaica, where the songwriter was born and raised prior to moving to Kingston after the death of his parents. Jamaican folk music, known as ‘mento’, would have been the most popular music on the island during Toots’ youth. But in the early ‘60s, the emergence of ska saw young musicians take influence from the electric guitars of rock and roll and the horn sections of New Orleans jazz and blues, blending them with the African rhythms and social commentary of traditional mento music.
Starting out as a vocal trio, The Maytals (including singers Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias) were early players in the ska scene, performing at similar venues to their contemporaries, The Wailers, and recording with renowned producers like Prince Buster and Leslie Wong. But what really made The Maytals stand out was the charisma and unique voice of their main singer. Toots brought a new dimension to the ska genre, partly due to his experience singing close-harmony gospel as a child and partly down to his love of powerful soul singers from the US, like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. Ultimately, this soul influence is what made his voice so loved by fans in North America and Europe, as well as in his native Jamaica.

Before long, under the tutelage of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, The Maytals had changed their name to Toots and the Maytals and brought a band of crack session musicians on board, scoring a series of hits during the mid-to-late-‘60s. Not content with being perhaps Jamaica's biggest ska act, the group were instrumental in ushering in the genre's brief shift to 'rocksteady' (slower-tempo cousin to ska music) before helping pioneer the reggae sound that would eventually find global appeal and acclaim.

Many have debated whose influence on reggae was greater out of Toots Hibbert and the more widely known cultural figure, Bob Marley. In reality, they were friends and contemporaries, both operating in a similar musical space. Of course, it’s ridiculous to downplay the role of Bob Marley and The Wailers in reggae’s formation. But, as music journalist Robert Christgau put it, Toots and the Maytals were “the Beatles to the Wailers’ Rolling Stones.” Both the Maytals’ early ska/rocksteady tracks and their classic Island Records albums in the early ‘70s helped shape and direct reggae to popularity, bringing about a seismic change in Jamaican culture and fanning the flames of rebellion and revolution for which Bob Marley subsequently carried the torch.

As proven by the sheer number of tributes made upon Toots Hibbert’s death from COVID-19 on the 11th of September, the influence of Toots and The Maytals reaches far and wide, from reggae itself to the British ska-punk of 2 Tone and onwards into hip-hop and modern-day ska. Nothing emphasises this more than the band’s 2004 True Love album, for which they re-recorded versions of their classic hits in collaboration with a varied crowd of established musicians. Collaborators ranged from Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt and hip-hop legends The Roots, to blues and country singers Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, to rock gods like Clapton and Keith Richards. The album took home the Grammy that year for Best Reggae Album.

Toots continued to perform, write, record and collaborate through the 2010s, right up until the year of his death, when the 2020 single ‘Got to Be Tough’ saw the singer addressing violence and social atrocities, telling Rolling Stone that it was his “last chance” to speak up.

In the times we find ourselves living in now, there’s a lot to be said for the values he demonstrated throughout his life and career: his unflinching commitment to his art and his ability to channel positivity in the face of adversity.

When you can finally get out there DJing for clients again, the essential Maytals tracks below will satisfy the cravings of even the biggest ska and reggae fans. But, perhaps more importantly, no matter who hears them, these timeless recordings are guaranteed to fill the room with positivity and bring the dance-floor to life. That is the true legacy that Toots Hibbert leaves behind.

Sweet And Dandy [1968]

A high-energy ska track that tells the story of a young couple having doubts before their wedding day, 'Sweet And Dandy' exemplifies Toots' attitude towards life: even when things aren’t going too well, there’s still joy to be found – especially in music. The young couple in the song are nervous as hell and all they can afford is “one pound ten for the wedding cake / and plenty bottle of cola wine,” but with some reassurance from their family and a bar-room packed with friends, everything turns out to be "sweet and dandy". The track is an early example of reggae, showcasing a gospel-inspired style of vocal harmony inspired by the music Toots heard and sang in church during his childhood.

Do The Reggay [1968]

The first known use of the word 'reggae' (in a musical context) was in the title of this 1968 track, providing the newly emerging successor to ska with its name. Some accounts say that the 'reggay' was a dance popular with audiences in Jamaica, which is where Toots took the word from, while others say it was slang used to describe someone who was ‘dirty’ or a bit rough around the edges. Either way, Toots was the first to match the word with the musical characteristics that came to define the genre: a quicker tempo than rocksteady and the signature double-skank guitar rhythm. The lyrics to the track may not be of much note, but thanks to his use of the word ‘reggay’, Toots was able to bring awareness of the emerging genre to a wider audience in Jamaica and abroad.

54-46 Was My Number [1969]
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 104, Pages 48-50.