The opening minutes of the BBC’s 2011 documentary Toots and the Maytals: Reggae Got Soul are filled with tributes from the likes of Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and Willie Nelson. Jamaican music giant Jimmy Cliff says that the film’s subject, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, “has got that voice. It’s totally his and there’s no one else can touch that.” Indeed, the 76-year-old Hibbert has a voice that’s at once rich, soulful, and cadenced, one that reveals its gospel roots in an enthusiastic fervor that has marked his singing since the early 1960s — years before the term reggae began to register in the music world. Hibbert, who has had a string of reggae hits over five-plus decades, earned multiple Grammy nominations and one win for best reggae album (with True Love in 2004). Toots and the Maytals appear at The Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing on Wednesday, July 24.
So familiar is Hibbert’s voice that a caller immediately recognizes him when he answers the phone. A man with a busy touring schedule, Hibbert is asked where he’s taking the call. Toots’ laugh is deep and resonant, and he pauses before he answers. “Reggae Center,” he said. “I’m here in the Reggae Center. I am in the center of reggae.” And he laughs again. Reggae Center, he explains, is his studio in Kingston — which is, of course, in Jamaica, the epicenter of the reggae world.
Toots and the Maytals have been at the heart of Jamaican music since 1963. The group began as a vocal trio, the Maytals, with Jerry Matthias and Henry “Raleigh” Gordon. After years of performing ska and rock-steady music, the Maytals added Toots to the name and with instrumentalists in the group. They pioneered the movement that would be dubbed reggae — a term popularized in Toots’ 1968 song “Do the Reggay.”
Toots, the last of 14 children, was born in rural Jamaica, and sang in his parents’ church. “Of course, I go to church in those days,” said Hibbert. “I was very godly. Sunday school was our education. I would sing with my parents, sing and shout and clap hands and praise God. Rastafari, in Jamaica. It doesn’t matter who you are — black, white, Latin — once you do the right thing, then you are called Rasta because God is present in you. God has so many names, like 22 names. He says, here you are, man. Followers of God, no matter who, are Rastafarian.”
His parents passed away while he was still young — his mother when he was 10, and his father within five years. Toots went to Kingston around the age of 15, and there he pursued boxing as well as music. But after meeting Matthias and Gordon, music became his life. As the Maytals, they had a hit with a ska number that had a serious gospel feel, “Six and Seven Books of Moses.” In addition to the group’s warm harmonies, Toots’ voice carried an audible influence from American soul and R&B, an influence that’s earned him comparisons to James Brown and Wilson Pickett.
“I used to think it was Otis Redding singing,” says Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards — who has recorded with Toots — in the BBC documentary. Hibbert readily acknowledged his debt to soul music. “Yeah, I learned from those guys,” he explained. “I didn’t know jack when I was a kid from Jamaica, and I heard all these singers from America with their love and their passion. So I brought it to my music, did what I did to each of the songs. Made them gospel. They are like my friends and my family.”
In addition to tunes of his that have become classics — “Bam Bam,” “Pressure Drop,” and “Funky Kingston” among them — Hibbert has found unlikely hits when covering tunes from other genres, most notably John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” in which the “West Virginia” in the refrain becomes “West Jamaica.” His latest effort with the Maytals is “Man of the World” — an early Fleetwood Mac tune written by Peter Green — recorded on a new compilation from the Trojan Jamaica label, titled Red, Gold, Green & Blue. The introspective lyrics seem tailored for Hibbert. “It was my idea to record that song,” he said. “It’s a pretty good song, and I’m a pretty good singer. And yes, it speaks to me. When I find a song like that, I take it.”
Hibbert’s career was threatened in 1966 when he was arrested in Europe and sentenced to jail. “I never called it jail,” he said. “I had a big room, there was no lock on the door. My number wasn’t on my clothing; they gave me my guitar. There’s a lot of politics in music and people get jealous,” he said, adding that he was framed and didn’t even smoke marijuana at that time. “Somebody paid those policemen. Those jealous people tried to hold me back, and they were not successful.” The experience resulted in one of Toots’ most popular and political of songs, “54-46 Was My Number,” released in 1968.
Ultimately, Hibbert’s message is one that ties the strengths of his singing — soul, gospel, ska, and reggae — together. “You need more than one love,” he said, referencing the late Bob Marley’s tune. “Love is the foundation of everything. Love is for the national good, for equality and justice for all.” Despite the fact that he turns 77 in December, he intends to continue carrying that message. “I’m not sickly — I’m very strong. I just need to make more music.” ◀
▼ Toots and the Maytals
▼ 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 24
▼ The Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing, 37 Fire Place
▼ Tickets $33, $38 day of show, special packages including early seating ($87) and a meetand greet ($142) available; 505-886-1251, tickets.holdmyticket.com/tickets/338841