An obituary from The Times of London.
Reggae singer who helped to turn the genre into Jamaica’s greatest cultural export
In 1968 Toots Hibbert and his band the Maytals recorded a rollicking dance single titled Do the Reggay.
At the time the distinctive, scratchy groove that was unique to Jamaican music was variously known as ska, rocksteady and bluebeat, but Hibbert’s song redefined it as a rhythm that would conquer the world.
“The music was there and no one didn’t know what to call it,” he recalled later. “I recorded that song and people told me that let them know our music is called reggae. So I’m the one who coined the word!”
Hibbert claimed to have derived the term from “streggae”, street patois for a “raggedy” person. In the song’s lyric he also referred to “the reggay” as “the new dance going around the town”.
Whatever the etymology, reggae became Jamaica’s greatest cultural export and its foremost ambassadors were Toots and the Maytals, and Bob Marley and the Wailers.
“The quick way to explain the Maytals is to say they’re the Beatles to the Wailers’ Rolling Stones,” Robert Christgau, the American rock critic, wrote. Hibbert himself described his relationship with Marley as “competitive but friendly” and Marley namechecked the Maytals in the lyrics to his song Punky Reggae Party.
With the Maytals he went on to enjoy a series of classic reggae hits including Pressure Drop, Monkey Man, Funky Kingston, Reggae Got Soul and 54-46 That’s My Number. All were characterised by Hibbert’s soulful voice, which Keith Richards described as having an “uncanny resemblance” to Otis Redding.
On stage with the Maytals in 1975
Like Marley, his lyrics often spoke out against injustice and the “sufferin’ ” of his people. He called his songs “messages of consolation and salvation”, although the socially conscious lyrics were always framed in the context of infectiously joyous dance rhythms. “A hundred years from now, my songs will be played, because it is logical words that people can relate to,” he said.
Among those who covered or sampled his songs were the Clash, Amy Winehouse, Kanye West and Lauryn Hill. Richards recorded a version of Pressure Drop with Hibbert on a 2005 Grammy-winning album that also included Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson duetting with the Jamaican star.
He had recently made a comeback after being badly injured by a bottle thrown at him on stage while on tour in America in 2013. “One of the guys loved my music so much that he threw a liquor bottle. I tried to catch it but it hit my head,” he recalled.
It left Hibbert with anxiety, memory loss, headaches and a fear of crowds. Yet typically he asked the court to show leniency to his assailant. “He is a young man, and I have heard what happens to young men in jail,” he wrote in a letter to the judge. “My own pain and suffering would be increased substantially knowing that this young man would face that prospect.” The man was sentenced to six months.
Hibbert returned to the stage three years later and his final album, Got to Be Tough, was released last month to enthusiastic reviews. It included original songs by Hibbert with a powerful sociopolitical message such as Freedom Trainand Struggle and a nostalgic duet with Marley’s son Ziggy on the old Wailers’ hit Three Little Birds.
He is survived by his wife Doreen, his lifetime partner, to whom he referred as Miss D, and seven of their eight children. Several of them, including Junior Hibbert, Leba Hibbert-Thomas, Jenieve Hibbert-Bailey and Melanie Hibbert, followed in his footsteps as singers.
Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert was born in 1942 in May Pen, Jamaica, a rural market town about 30 miles west of Kingston. His father owned a bakery and his mother was a midwife. Both his parents were strict Seventh-day Adventist preachers and Hibbert and his six older siblings sang in church every day after school.
His mother died when he was eight and when his father followed her into an early grave three years later, he was sent to live in Kingston with his older brother John, who gave him the nickname “Little Toots”.
He took a job in a barbershop and some time around 1962 he formed a vocal trio called the Maytals with Jerry Matthius and Raleigh Gordon. “I make my little four-string guitar and people listen to it in the barber’s shop,” he recalled. “One day Raleigh come down and say, ‘Teach me how to sing.’ I meet Jerry the next day, and we sit under a tree, and everybody start to sing. I teach them harmony. I teach them how to write song. And they teach me how to grow up.”
Jamaica was growing up, too, having gained independence in 1962. The prevailing spirit of pride and optimism led to a creative surge in the local music scene. The sound that emerged drew on black American R&B but its rhythm was uniquely Jamaican. It became known as ska and the Maytals were among its early leading lights with hits such as Hallelujah and Six and Seven Books of Moses. Both were produced by Coxsone Dodd (obituary, May 6, 2004) and reflected Hibbert’s Christian upbringing and the Rastafarian faith he adopted. For his debut recording Hello Honey Dodd offered only a free lunch. “I was very hungry and I love a patty,” Hibbert recalled. Even after the group became hit-makers they were paid a few pounds a session. “It go on like that for a long time,” he said ruefully.
By 1966 Toots and the Maytals had become the biggest group in Jamaica, winning the popular song competition at the island’s first Independence Festival for Hibbert’s composition Bam Bam. However, progress was temporarily halted when, shortly after, Hibbert was arrested for marijuana possession and spent a year in prison. On his release the experience gave him one of his best songs with 54-46 That’s My Number, a reference to his prisoner number.
His international breakthrough came in 1972 when Chris Blackwell, who also discovered Bob Marley and the Wailers, signed Toots and the Maytals to his Island label and gave them a cameo in the film The Harder They Come, about ghetto life in Kingston.
During the Seventies the band toured the world with the Who and the Eagles, taking reggae to a white rock’n’roll audience, before the founding trio broke up in 1981. For a while Hibbert performed as a solo artist before reforming the Maytals in the Nineties, although he was the only original member in the line-up.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done and the love I’ve given but it’s getting harder to give the love the people need now more than ever,” he said in one of his final interviews. “But I’m the one who invented the word reggae so whatever I put out has to be positive.”
Toots Hibbert, reggae singer, was born on December 8, 1942. He died of suspected Covid-19 on September 12, 2020, aged 77