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On 11 September 2020 the music world lost one of its greats to Covid-19, yet many people have never heard his name. Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert was a trailblazer in Jamaican music. He pioneered reggae, and was one of the most influential Jamaican songwriters of all time, which, in a field encompassing Bob Marley, is quite a claim. But, throughout his career, Toots had more number ones in Jamaica than even Marley did.

Born in May Pen, rural Jamaica, Hibbert moved to Trenchtown in Kingston and there teamed up with Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias McCarthy to form The Maytals. The group combined the up-tempo beat of ska with the smooth harmonies of the Four Tops to form a sound that was distinctly Jamaican, yet distinctive in Jamaica. On top of the classic ‘changa’ guitar rhythm and syncopated beat of the 50s and 60s, they added melodious basslines, distinctive horn punches and layered guitar, while Hibbert — dubbed the Jamaican soul singer — fronted the group with his powerful and emotive vocals. This distinctive sound brought The Maytals much success under sound system mogul, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, and they scored many ska and rocksteady hits. Hibbert did not just solidify these genres though, he helped create one, credited with coining the term ‘reggae’ in his 1968 song ‘Do the Reggay’.

“Throughout his 60-year career, Toots refused to be confined by genre.”

Throughout his 60-year career, Toots refused to be confined by genre. This shines through in the Maytals’ renowned 1972 album, Funky Kingston. The titular track was a response to the funk/soul classic, ‘Funky Nassau’, written to show American audiences that Jamaica had soul too. Alongside self-penned classics like ‘Pressure Drop’ and ‘Time Tough’, Hibbert transforms the rhythm and blues song, ‘Louie Louie’, into a driving reggae number, replete with punchy horns, rippling organ and an energy that makes it more than a cover; it becomes Toots’ own. The same treatment is even given to John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’, rejuvenating the hollow crowd-pleaser into a song of joyous reminiscence.

The impact Toots had globally on the music industry is evident in his 2004 Grammy-winning album True Love. This album features a selection of Hibbert’s greatest hits, performed with musical legends such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt and Bunny Wailer. Toots inspired these artists, so much so that Eric Clapton even admitted being too daunted to ad-lib vocals with him. True Love showcases the ability Toots’ music has to cross divides and speak to audiences around the globe, taking his thoroughly Jamaican back catalogue and adding rock guitar lines, blues vocals, slide guitar and American accents. But despite the clash of cultures, this album is a triumph. The various styles blend seamlessly to create new hits out of old classics, while still retaining the soulful reggae groove.

True Love showcases the ability Toots’ music has to cross divides and speak to audiences around the globe, taking his thoroughly Jamaican back catalogue and adding rock guitar lines, blues vocals, slide guitar and American accents.”

However, in 2013, at a concert in Virginia, Hibbert was struck on the head by a bottle thrown from the crowd. The born performer became afraid to go on stage and even lost his ability to write songs or remember lyrics. For years Toots secluded himself in his home, unable to perform or record new material. But, in spite of this he still pleaded with the judge to show leniency to the crowd member responsible, true to his mantra of forgiveness and acceptance.

2020 should have been a triumphant year for Toots: he had finally managed to face the recording studio again and was ready to begin a new chapter of his musical career. After over a decade, Toots and the Maytals had a new album. This would be their last album, Got to be Tough, which was released to critical acclaim on 28 August, just two weeks before Toots’ death. Though we will never get to see it now, Got to be Tough gives us a taste of what we could have expected from Toots. It is full of powerful songs with fierce messages that bring to mind the force of Bob Marley’s political reggae. Hibbert even gives a nod to his old friend with a cover of ‘Three Little Birds’, featuring Marley’s son, Ziggy. This version takes the easy-going hit and moulds it into a song with anthemic power, where the idea that “every little thing’s gonna be alright” is a political cry for freedom. Hibbert returns to the music scene with a statement of intent, asserting his position right alongside Bob Marley.


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Mountain View

A Love Letter to... Louis Armstrong

I was meant to see Toots and the Maytals at Brixton Academy on 16 May this year, but obviously this never happened. The pandemic arrived, lockdown was imposed, and the gig was postponed until 2021. When I listened to their music it would fill me with eager anticipation; the wait would only make the realisation of the dream that much better. But then, at the end of August Toots was admitted to hospital in Kingston and two weeks later, despite positive signs, died from Covid-19. Now I will always regret that I never got to see the legend himself, whose music inspired my long love of ska, rocksteady, and of course reggae.

The appeal of Toots’ music is as strong now as ever; with its upbeat melodies, soulful vocals and thumping basslines. Through his music Toots’ legacy deserves to live on and rise to greater heights, remembered as a reggae pioneer, soul singer, Jamaican icon and musical legend.

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