Goodbye reggae legend

Covid-19 claims life of pioneer Toots Hibbert who helped bring the sound of Jamaica to the world

The cover of Funky Kingston. Photo: John Clewley

Toots Hibbert, the soulful leader of the legendary ska/reggae band Toots and the Maytals, died last week in Kingston, Jamaica, at the age of 77 from complications related to the Covid-19 pandemic. His death, following the recent release of Got To Be Tough, his first studio album for 10 years, shocked the global music community.

Frederick Nathanial "Toots" Hibbert was born in 1942 into a family of preachers and his earliest musical experiences were in a church choir. As with so many US soul singers, his experience of gospel music helped to create the rich tone and expressiveness that marked him as one of the finest reggae singers and enabled him to switch to soul and even country music.

In his teens, he formed a vocal trio (before Marley's Wailers came on the scene) with Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and Nathaniel "Jerry" Matthias and they slapped their harmonies together singing everything from R&B to ska and soul. Coxsone Dodd released their first records in the early 1960s on his legendary Studio One label.

In the mid-1960s Hibbert was sent to prison for possession of marijuana, an experience of which he turned into a memorable single titled 54-46 (That's My Number), which was his prison ID number. After leaving jail, he teamed up again with Gordon and Matthias and formed Toots and the Maytals. His single Monkey Man charted in the UK in 1972 and as a 15-year-old ska fan that was my first taste of the Maytals' music. Pressure Drop, another classic "sped up" ska song featured in the 1972 movie The Harder They Come, which further boosted the popularity of reggae in the US and Europe.

After his prison term, Toots and the Maytals developed a faster tempo for his ska songs. In the mid-1960s, ska was transforming into rocksteady and he took his musical skills (he was a multi-instrumentalist) and his lyrical talents to develop a danceable, socially-conscious but still fun songs that hit in the all the right areas -- the head, the heart and the feet. This was the template he helped create for the development of reggae in the 1970s. In fact, he did a lot to popularise the term reggae, in Jamaica and internationally, after the release of his 1968 single Do The Reggay.

As punk rock bands like The Clash embraced reggae and Dub (and were produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry), a new "2-Tone" ska scene developed in the UK led by The Specials, Selector and Madness and these, often multi-racial bands, covered Hibbert's classic songs: The Clash covered Pressure Drop and the Specials covered Monkey Man. His influence could even be discerned in this region when the first ska band in Southeast Asia (that I know of), Manila's excellent Put3ska, released their hit single Manila Girl in 1995. In it, you could hear the influence of his fast action ska style.

Hibbert was a consummate musician, bandleader and songwriter. His upbeat messages were designed to uplift, to console and to support salvation. This positive attitude came out in his singing and he was one of the great reggae singers, up there with Marley, Dennis Brown, Johnny Clarke and Gregory Isaacs. What made his voice unique in the reggae world was the soulful expressiveness that came from his gospel roots -- he sounds a lot like the great soul singer Wilson Picket and gospel and soul star O.V. Wright. In his live shows, he could turn his pipes effortlessly to funk, soul or even country. He was my favourite Jamaican singer.

Now if I were ever asked to compile a list of, say, 12 songs or pieces of music to take to a desert island, like on the famous radio programme, I would certainly include one of Hibbert's all-time classics, Funky Kingston. It's a song I usually play when I DJ; I use it to signal that the tempo on the dancefloor is going to go up a notch or two. The song begins with a tantalising drum roll and bass intro, along with Hibbert's exhorting grunts of "Hey! Hey! Give it to me" (like a Jamaican James brown) and a speedy ska groove. It just builds and builds, before exploding into an irresistible dance groove; it doesn't matter what nationality or age, the effect is the same -- people start tapping their feet, then they begin shuffling and pretty soon the dance floor fills up.

The song is about taking the sound of "Funky Kingston" to the world (well, at first he's talking to a woman about the music he has for her) and playing it "east to west … north to south" only to note cryptically at the end of the song that he had no more "Funky Kingston" as "somebody takes it away from me". So, the song is not a typical ska track as there are elements of funk, R&B and soul in the mix, which makes the sound extraordinarily rich and textured. I've been listening to his Funky Kingston album for over 40 years and it still sounds fresh and exciting. RIP Toots Hibbert, you will be missed but your music lives on.


John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.