Never Grow Old: Toots Hibbert – The Final Hot Press Interview

A report by Pat Carty for Hot Press.

The world lost one of the great soul singers when Toots Hibbert of Toots And The Maytals fame passed away. In one of his last interviews, he spoke to Pat Carty about his art and life, “I sing these songs to make people happy.”

The island of Jamaica – one of the jewels of the Caribbean as the tourist board pamphlets would have it – is a relatively small one. To put it in perspective, Ireland is six times its size. The influence of Jamaican music, however, belies this lack of real estate. Ska incorporated elements of mento and calypso alongside the jazz and rhythm and blues that was coming out of transistor radios and Count Ossie got a different beat out of his nyabinghi drum. The rise of ska required sound systems to play it on, selectors to make the choices and DJs to toast over the music. The rhythm guitar started emphasising the upbeat, and the bass took centre stage from the horns, giving birth to rocksteady. The beat changed again, the lyrics got a bit more serious, the sound got another shot of rhythm and blues, and reggae spread across the world in the 1970s, first with the success of The Harder They Come in 1973, and then Bob Marley’s ascension to superstardom. It might be Marley’s name that most people associate with reggae music, but there is a man who had more Jamaican number one records than Robert Nesta, and that man was Mr Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert.

The word that Toots had passed away landed heavily on the Saturday morning. Some outlets have reported that his death was COVID related, although the details are still sketchy. What is definite is that the world lost one of its great singers, and while the music that he helped to popularise around the world – and gave a name to with 1968’s ‘Do The Reggay’ – is what he’ll be remembered for, Hibbert was as much a soul singer as anything else, and his voice is fit to be mentioned in the same breath as his heroes Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.

In what turned out to be one of his last interviews – we spoke just a day or two before his illness was announced – I was honoured to talk with Toots about his new record and his career as a whole. He was funny, generous, and good company; everything one might hope for should they find themselves lucky enough to talk to one of their heroes. I asked him if he could hear me okay down the phone line that stretched from Dublin 8 to Red Hills, Kingston and received a resounding “Yeah, man. I can hear you well!” in response. The voice sounded as strong as it did on those immortal records that will outlive us all, records filled with glorious, life-affirming music which guarantees that while Toots may be gone, he will never be forgotten.

Good Thing That You Call
The new record, Got To Be Tough, is Toots’ first album of new material in ten years, but there was good reason for the delay.

“Well, after there was an accident…” He trails off a bit before continuing. “I still tour but I had to stop for a while to create good music, it takes time to make a good album so I take time out to make all these songs, I play on them, I created the parts, I played keyboards, guitar, drums, bass, everything with the help of my engineer, Nigel Borrell. It takes time to do it, that’s why I was off for a while.”

The “accident” Toots is referring to here took place in May, 2013. The Maytals were performing at the River Rock Festival in Richmond, Virginia when Toots was hit by a bottle thrown from the crowd. The culprit stood trial and Toots, in a move that marks him out as some kind of man, sent a letter to the judge, pleading for leniency. “I have heard what happens to young men in jail,” wrote Hibbert. “My own pain and suffering would be increased substantially knowing that this young man would face that prospect.” The judge gave him six months nevertheless. Toots’ injuries were serious enough to stop him touring for three years. “Yes, I was very badly injured, but it could be worse, so thank God” was his philosophical view on the incident when I pushed him, but it was obvious it wasn’t something he wanted to dwell on.

Song titles like ‘Just Brutal’, ‘Got To Be Tough’, and ‘Struggle’ sound like they were built to address the hard times the world is going through.

“I never knew this virus was coming in!” Hibbert laughed, a good-humoured comment that drips with a sad irony now. “I had these songs for a long time, I wrote them three or four years ago. We decided to go with BMG and Zak – his father is a good musician, Ringo! – done a lot of good work, dubbing on what I have, and Sly & Robbie – no, not Robbie, just Sly, I’m the one who played bass – Sly dubbed his drums on it. It’s a good thing to have great musicians on this album, with myself!”

Zak is Zak Starkey, the man who sits behind the drums for The Who and who is indeed a Beatle baby. He, along with Sharna Liguz, started the new Trojan Jamaica label to release last year’s Red Gold Green & Blue, a compilation of Jamaican artists covering soul and blues classics. Toots featured, lending his voice to Peter Green’s ‘Man Of The World’, and Got To Be Tough is the label’s latest release. The album’s high points are ‘Good Thing That You Call’ – “That’s a love song I carried around for a long time before I decided to release it” – and a re-arrangement of Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ with Bob’s eldest son, Ziggy.

“It is in a different style,” Hibbert explained. “Before Bob leave us, he used to be my good friend and we talked about our songs all the time, he respect me and I respect him a lot, he started in the business a few years before me, y’know? Of all of his songs, that’s one of my favourites, I said ‘well Bob I’m gonna do one of your songs’ but we never got to do it. He go on and I ask his son to assist me on this track, and Ziggy says “yes, uncle” – he calls me uncle and I call him my grandson because me and Bob were very close. He says ‘Uncle, I’ll do it’ We did it in a different way and we’re both happy.”

I Shall Sing
As with every release under Hibbert’s name, it’s the voice that stands out, the voice which retained every ounce of its power, right up to the end. He started early, singing at his parents’ feet.

“Yes, I grow up in church with my parents and I start singing when I was a baby, but I never know how was my singing. People told me ‘Yes, you have a good voice, and one day you’re gonna make it’ and ‘Oh, beautiful voice!’ Everyone was crazy!”

Toots laughed at the memory, which was something he seemed to do a lot. Gospel would remain a big part of his approach throughout his life.

“Yes, it’s one of the main parts because I grew up with self-respect and honour to my family and honour to all the people in the world. I honoured them, and they honoured me.”

Honour your father and mother, so that your days may be long upon the land.

“The Lord thy God giveth thee,” Hibbert finishes the quote for me. “Yes, of course. I read the Bible a lot.

Toots parents passed when he was young, so the 55-odd km move from his native May Pen in Middlesex County to Trenchtown, Kingston was probably inevitable.

“My bigger brother, who gave me the name Toots, was living in Trenchtown, so when we had a break from school, we always go to my brother and spend time.”

Toots found tonsorial work in the big town.

“I used to cut hair when I was in my teens, singing also, but I always loved to cut hair so I did that, and I still have my tools! I used to box too, and then I sing. People say I should sing because my voice is different.”

It was while he was working in the barbershop in the early sixties that he met up with Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon and Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Mathias, with whom he would form the initial Maytals – named for the home place – vocal trio.

“After I’d finish in the barbershop doing hair, I’d take up my little guitar that I had made myself. It was four strings – it’s called a ukililly! – I made it out of fishing line, and I made it so well that I could play and everyone would tell me ‘Hey!’” He’s laughing again. “People were gathering and then Raleigh came along and, the next day, Jerry came along. They were friendly with me because I’m a country guy. People walk away after getting their hair cut, I pick up my guitar, and people come into the shop again, it fill up with people, lining up, they want to hear, y’know?”

Toots went on to map out how he went from cutting hair to cutting records.

“In the barbershop, people told me I could sing so I went to look for recording. But I didn’t get through, they said that my voice sound like country and western and they complain – Sir Coxone Dodd, Prince Buster, lots of people. They say I must come back in six week’s time. So I went back and everyone want me to sing, they say “yeah, your voice is different, man, yeah, yeah, YEAH, YEAH!’ and I start to record.” More laughter. “When I recorded those days I just get maybe two shillings for me and my two friends. We would get no money at all, no payoff, but after a while I went in the festival and we won with ‘Bam, Bam’ and then my career started to grow and grow ‘til I have twenty-one number one records in Jamaica. I cut a two-sided record which is called ‘Daddy’ and ‘It’s You’ and the two sides become number one on both radio stations, so I keep on recording and people keep loving me.”

Time Tough
Toots won the Jamaican National Popular Song Contest three times – with ‘Bam, Bam’ in 1966, ‘Sweet And Dandy’ in 1969, and ‘Pomps And Pride’ in 1972, after which, so the legend goes, he decided not to enter again, so that someone else might have a chance. “Yeah, that’s true!” he confirmed. Just as things were getting going, he was arrested and convicted of marijuana possession in 1966, which he has always maintained was a set up, but he was to have the last laugh.

“I wouldn’t say ‘prison’, it was a place of confinement but they gave me my own clothes to wear, they gave me my guitar, and they gave me my own food from my home. It was just a politics set-up because it was to be my first tour of Europe and somebody was jealous that a guy who just came from the country and have so much number one records and moving too fast. They pay the cops thirty pounds to keep us back after getting our first tour from Chris Blackwell. They held me back that way, but when you’re in prison you aren’t supposed to get your own clothes to wear or your guitar, it was like moving to an apartment, y’know! They held me back for about nine months. I wrote this song called ’54-46 That’s My Number’ then my manager and my wife came for me. I came out and record it, and it was number one also! He, he, he!”

In 1968 Toots had another Jamaican hit with ‘Do The Reggay’, the song that has been credited with naming the new music that he was at the vanguard of. I asked him how the new style developed.

“The ska was in Jamaica, and I do a lot of gospel songs uptempo in ska music. Then rocksteady comes along which is a slower rhythm. You can dance with rocksteady, you can waltz a little bit and stay still with a lady, belly to belly!” You can hear us both laughing at this on the interview tape. “Reggae is the same kind of thing, you can dance in any kind of style you want to. You look at the girl, you gyrate and you do what you have to do and you enjoy yourself! There was a slang in Jamaica called ‘Streggae’ and if a girl not looking nice we called here a streggae and if we’re looking raggedy, the girl would call us streggae, so I take it from that, I think. I never planned it but I think it come along from streggae to reggae.”

Before we leave the sixties behind, I prompted Toots for the story of producer Leslie Kong’s ugly brother.

“Leslie Kong have a brother called Fats. I went up there one day to get two pounds and he told me ‘Toots, I want you to write a song about my brother, he’s very ugly. Leslie was a good looking guy but his brother was very big and and ugly. I said ‘No sir, I don’t want him to kill me! He’s a big man and I’m a little boy’ I don’t want to do it.’ Fats told me ‘Yes sir, you can write about me!’ So I wrote a song about my girlfriend hugging up Fats, I said he’s so ugly and called him ‘Monkey Man’, and I was chastising her for doing that “I tell you that, you’re hugging up the big monkey man!” A number one record for me also!”

Sailin’ On
Number one records all over the shop, and ‘Monkey Man’ would also land in the lower reaches of the UK charts at the end of the decade. Toots had conquered his home island and the seventies would see him take his irresistible combination of soul, R& B, and reggae to the world. A major step forward was The Maytals’ appearance in the movie The Harder They Come, and on the perhaps even more influential soundtrack album, which featured both ‘Sweet And Dandy’ and the great ‘Pressure Drop’, a song that would go on to be covered by The Clash. Responding to Toots’ passing, Mick Jagger tweeted “When I first heard ‘Pressure Drop’, that was a big moment.” Toots was surprised at the success of the movie which helped to launch him internationally.

“The guy was called Mr Perry [Perry Hanzell, director, producer, and co-writer] – I think he die now – he’s the one who put it together. He’s a friend of Chris Blackwell [an uncredited co-producer]. Jimmy Cliff was in the business long before me and he was the choice to be in this movie in Jamaica, he was the star. I was one of the men who was singing the songs. It was a really good thing for me and for everybody.”

The momentum built up by The Harder They Come helped bring the Funky Kingston album to international attention. The album was recorded at Byron Lee’s Dynamic Studios, then Jamaica’s best equipped recording facility and the room where The Rolling Stones would soon record Goats Head Soup. Chris Blackwell, who had released many of The Maytals sixties singles on his UK labels, put the album out on Dragon Records – an Island subsidiary – in April of 1972, a full year before Bob Marley’s Island debut, Catch A Fire. As with the latter album, Blackwell added some overdubs when he got the tapes to London, in the shape of horns from the Sons Of Jungle band. It worked. Lester Bangs described the album as “perfection”. The title track itself came about because of a suggestion from Blackwell.

“Chris get to know us more and more and we like each other. He came to me and said ‘Toots, I want you to write a song about Kingston’ because there was a song called ‘Funky Nassau’ [a hit for The Beginning Of The End in 1971]. He tutored me to write that song, Chris Blackwell is a great man. And it was number one!”

The as-good-again In The Dark was released in 1973, including re-recordings of Toots’ sixties hits like ‘54-46’ and an unlikely cover of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, although when Toots changed the lyric to “almost heaven, West Jamaica” he made it all his own. A combination of the tracks from these two LPs were released in the US in 1975 and it is this collection that found a place on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list. Writing about that record, the critic Robert Christgau would refer to Toots as “the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet.”

Pressure Drop
As if to answer this assertion, Toots released Reggae Got Soul in 1976. As well as the marvellous title track, which perfectly sums up his musical philosophy, and cuts as strong as ‘True Love Is Hard To Find’ and ‘Rasta Man’, the album also houses ‘I Shall Sing’ from the pen of one Van Morrison. The song was attempted several times by Morrison during the recording of Moondance but failed to make the final release, although the curious are directed to the deluxe edition from a few years back, where they can hear the Belfast Cowboy take a distinctly Caribbean turn.

Reggae was adopted wholeheartedly by the punks in London around this time, Don Letts spinning Jamaican sides in the Roxy, and Hibbert remained justifiably proud of this, and the aforementioned Clash cover.

“It was a big thing, and it’s a big thing still. I wrote good songs and people can listen and also, if they want to, do a version, because the knowledge in the song is there, the words are correct. It’s a good thing when The Clash did that, and The Police did something like that too.”

While I’m not sure if Sting’s lot actually recorded anything by Hibbert – perhaps Toots is thinking of The Special’s seismic cover of ‘Monkey Man’ – The Maytals did release a great version of The Police’s ‘Canary In A Coalmine’ on a tribute album in the nineties.

In 1988 Toots completed a circuit that began back in his youth when he recorded the Toots In Memphis album with Jim Dickinson in the city that gave us Elvis, covering Al Green, Eddie Floyd and Otis himself.

“My first listening to the radio that captured my ears was Mahalia Jackson, then Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, and all those great singers. Then James Brown, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett. A whole lot of listening I did and I say ‘one day I will be singing just like that.’”

Keith Richards said, at least once, that he heard Toots singing and thought it was Otis Redding. Toots remembered how the Memphis recording came about.

“I think it come to me from Sly, of Sly & Robbie. Sly say ‘you can sing this song, man, you have a close voice to Otis. They knew I don’t just have one tone of voice, I have many different voice. People believe I sound like Ray Charles, I sound like Otis, I can sound like Al Green if I want to, so I did it. I also did quite a few others of Otis Redding, but I don’t release them yet. They’re wicked! As soon as this album go off, all these songs will be considered.”

Sweet And Dandy
Toots would win at The Grammys in 2004 for the great True Love, an album of duets with famous guests like good friends Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards.

“A lot of great people,” was how Toots remembered it. “Keith, Willie, they’re good friends to me. Rock n’ roll, classic, they all mix up in one.” Hibbert had a long association with The Stones, and Richards in particular, opening for them several times and recording a version of ‘Start Me Up’ for yet another tribute album. As well as the essential ‘Careless Ethiopians’ – the highlight of True Love– Richards would later release a duet with Hibbert of ‘Pressure Drop’, presumably from the same sessions. The success of the album raised Hibbert’s international profile again.

“For sure, and when I go on tour I sing a lot of these songs to make people happy so they keep on loving me.”

In 2006, Easy Star All-Stars released their reggae/dub re-reading of Radiohead’s OK Computer – the best record that Oxfordshire’s ‘finest’ ever had anything to do with – and Toots was there again, taking the lead vocal on ‘Let Down’. Apparently, it was a challenge.

“It was a tough song, man, a hard one to sing. The arrangement was different but when I understood it, it was good.”

Reggae Got Soul
Our time was coming to a close so I wondered aloud if Toots could hear any of his influence in modern reggae artists like Chronixx or Mortimer. He didn’t think so.

“No, not really no, but they’re doing well and I wish them a lot of success, I love their music.”

I couldn’t totally agree with him there, as I reckon his soulful voice is easily detectable in the likes of ‘Skankin’ Sweet’ or ‘Lightning’ but this prompted my last question, about the continuing popularity of reggae music all over the world. Hibbert had a simple answer.

“Real reggae never changed,” was how he explained it. “Those of us who are still alive got to put words together and call it reggae. If you don’t put good words together, it’s only streggae, but the reggae music of wisdom and knowledge and understanding, bringing the message to the people, is a special music, just like R&B and American music also carries a message and other music, man, carries different, different messages, and I like them. The reason why reggae is so popular is that it tell a story. It’s a fashionable music that can play anytime. The real good ones, like my kind of song, can play for children in school, it is not a vulgar music. Reggae is a natural music.”

Before I let him go, I did a bit of gushing, and I’m not embarrassed about it either. I told Toots how much his music has meant to me since I first heard it as a teenager and that I think – I know – he is one of the greats, up there with Otis, Merle Haggard, The Stones, Howlin’ Wolf, and all the other music that means so, so much to me. When was I going to get the chance again? I wasn’t, as it sadly turned out.

Toots took this with good grace, as expected, and said he hoped to meet me one day. I was taken aback by this, as you would be, and told him how I actually shook his hand after a show in Vicar Street.

“We will shake hands again!” he laughed, and then he was gone.

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