In memoriam: Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, O.D. (1942 – 2020)

par Richard Lafrance

A giant of Jamaican music has left us

On Friday, September 11, Chris Blackwell tweeted, “Toots has been a giant of Jamaican music for almost 60 years”. Blackwell has signed Hibbert to his Island Records label in 1971, shortly after Bob Marley & The Wailers, predicting an international career for both. DJ and radio host David Rodigan described Hibbert as “one of the great iconic figures in Jamaican music, [whose] unrivalled, soulful, passionate voice touched the world”.  Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert died at the age of 77 after being hospitalized last month with symptoms related to COVID-19.

Toots Hibbert, Raleigh Gordon, and Jerry Matthias formed the Maytals in 1962, and recorded a number of ska titles, including “Six And Seven Books of Moses”, at the famous Studio One. They would later work with Prince Buster at the height of this musical movement, but also with Leslie Kong and Byron Lee. In 1966, the trio won the first edition of the Festival Song Contest, a singing competition developed following independence to promote the island, with “Bam Bam” – one of the most sampled Jamaican songs to date – and then two more times, with “Sweet & Dandy” in ’69, then “Pomps & Pride” in ’72.

In 1966, as his star was rising, he claimed that jealous industry people arranged for him to be arrested for possession of ganja. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, following which he composed one of his greatest hits, “54-46 Was My Number”, in reference to his prison identification. His most famous achievement was certainly his invention of the term “reggae” for the song “Do the Reggay” (1968). The song marks the musical turning point at the end of the short rocksteady period from 1966 to 1968, and fuses local mento, calypso, ska, and rocksteady influences with those of American blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.

Hibbert, born in rural Clarendon County, grew up singing gospel music in a Baptist church choir, and was first influenced vocally by Ray Charles and then Otis Redding, whom Jimmy Cliff introduced him to early in his career. With the Maytals, he had more than 30 number ones in Jamaica from 1963 onwards, often influenced by biblical and rasta passages and references, far more than anyone else in the last century. He has inveterate fans in all musical spheres, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, UB40, and Amy Winehouse, to name but a few.

Toots Hibbert was featured in the 2011 BBC documentary Reggae Got Soul: The Story of Toots and the Maytals, which is described as “the untold story of one of the most influential artists to ever emerge from Jamaica”. It features testimonials from Marcia Griffiths, Jimmy Cliff, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Ziggy Marley, and Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. His album True Love (V2 Records) revisited his great classics in the company of contemporary artists, most of whom are listed above, in addition to Jeff Beck, Ben Harper, No Doubt, The Roots, Trey Anastasio, Ryan Adams, and The Skatalites. True Love won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2004. This probably makes him the Jamaican artist with the most collaborations with international stars.

Last month, the artist nicknamed Fyah Ball! released his first album in 10 years, Got To Be Tough, recorded at his studio, the Reggae Center, and on which he plays all the instruments, a concept borrowed from Prince that had been on Hibbert’s mind for a long time. Tragically, it will be his final musical testament.

Toots Hibbert is survived by his wife of 39 years, “Miss D”, and seven children.

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