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Toots Hibbert, Reggae Pioneer Who Infused Genre With Soul, Dead at 77

Written by on September 12, 2020

Toots Hibbert, the reggae giant who helped bring the genre to the world with the pioneering Maytals, has died at age 77.

Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, frontman of the pioneering reggae outfit Toots and the Maytals and one of the greatest voices in popular music, died Friday evening at the age of 77.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica,” his family said in a statement. “The family and his management team would like to thank the medical teams and professionals for their care and diligence, and ask that you respect their privacy during their time of grief. Mr. Hibbert is survived by his wife of 39 years, Miss D, and his seven of eight children.”

A cause of death was not disclosed, but the reggae giant was hospitalized last month after showing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. He was later placed in a medically-induced coma where a rep for the musician said he was “fighting for his life.”

“I spoke with him a few weeks ago [and] told him how much i loved him and what he means to me,” Ziggy Marley said in a statement. “We laughed and shared our mutual respect. I am fully in sorrow tonight. I will miss his smile and laughter [and] his genuine nature. [Toots] was a father figure to me; his spirit is with us [and] his music fills us with his energy. I will never forget him. #foundingfather

“RIP TO THE MIGHTY AND POWERFUL NYAH FYAH BALL,” he added, referring to Toots’ nickname.

Hibbert’s death comes just weeks after Toots and the Maytals released their new album, Got to Be Tough, the band’s first full-length LP in more than 10 years and now a capstone for Hibbert’s remarkable six-decade career. Hibbert was instrumental in not only bringing reggae to the world, but crafting its sound and — by his own account — coining its name on his 1968 song “Do the Reggay.”

To form this new style, Hibbert infused reggae precursors like rocksteady and ska with elements of traditional Jamaican mento, as well as gospel, soul, R&B, and rock & roll. He could start a party as easily as he could deliver spiritual musings and social-justice rallying cries, all in a voice that recalled the likes of Otis Redding and Ray Charles but was always distinctly “Toots.”

Hibbert was born December 8th, 1942, in May Pen, Jamaica, a town about 30 miles west of Kingston. His parents — his father a land- and business owner; his mother a nurse and midwife — were both strict Seventh-day Adventist preachers. Hibbert, his brothers, and his sisters would spend their afternoons after school singing in the church.

Hibbert’s mother died when he was eight, with his father dying three years later. As a teenager, Hibbert moved to Kingston where he lived with his older brother John (the one who had nicknamed him “Little Toots”) and found work in a barbershop. In 1962, the same year Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom, singers Jerry Matthius and Raleigh Gordon heard Toots singing at the barbershop and the trio formed the Maytals.

The group cut a string of early singles at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, including their first hit, the party-starter “Fever,” and more gospel-inspired numbers like “Six and Seven Books of Moses.” In 1966, the Maytals won the first Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition with “Bam Bam,” a defining statement from Hibbert that opened with the lines, “I want you to know that I am the man/Who fight for the right, not for the wrong.” (The group would win the competition again in 1969 and 1972.)

In the mid-Sixties, the Maytals were at the forefront of a booming musical milieu that included other soon-to-be legends like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff. “It was competitive and friendly, a golden time,” Hibbert recently recalled in a profile for Rolling Stone.

But just as his career was taking off with a tour of England on the horizon, Hibbert was arrested in 1967 for possession of marijuana and spent nine months in a low-security prison. Hibbert maintains his innocence to this day, insinuating it may have been a setup concocted by music-industry rivals, though he never went so far as to name names. But despite this inconvenient blip, Hibbert’s career hardly took a hit: Upon his release, Toots and the Maytals recorded “54-46, That’s My Number,” a song of righteous indignation inspired by Hibbert’s incarceration that became the group’s first major hit outside Jamaica.

Over the next few years, Toots and the Maytals embarked on an incredible run that would help define reggae and see their music spread across England, Europe, and the United States. There were hit singles like “Monkey Man” and “Pomp and Pride,” and then a pair of career-defining performances — “Pressure Drop” and “Sweet and Dandy” — featured in the 1972 Jimmy Cliff cult classic, The Harder They Come. By the time Toots and the Maytals released what would become their seminal album, Funky Kingston, in 1973, they’d cultivated the kind of mystique outside Jamaica that would cement their legendary status in subsequent years.

Toots and the Maytals’ next two records, 1973’s In the Dark and 1976’s Reggae Got Soul, were equally well-received, and the band scored spots opening for acts like the Who and the Eagles. The group toured and recorded regularly throughout the Seventies, and by the end of the decade, their music was proving to be instrumental to the budding punk movement. (The Clash were one of several acts to cover “Pressure Drop.”) In 1980, Toots and the Maytals entered the record books as well, recording, pressing, and releasing a live album, Live at the Palais, in just 24 hours.

The group split in the early Eighties, and while Hibbert continued to tour regularly as a solo artist, he didn’t cut another album until 1988’s Toots in Memphis. The record paired him with the storied Jamaican duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and earned Hibbert his first Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Recording. In the mid-Nineties, Hibbert reformed Toots and the Maytals — though this time without co-founders Matthius and Gordon — kicking off another prolific period of touring and studio work.

In 2004, Toots and the Maytals released a late-career standout, True Love, a duets album that found Hibbert reimagining some of his most famous tracks with an array of guests including Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Shaggy, Eric Clapton, the Roots, Trey Anastasio, No Doubt, Keith Richards, and Bunny Wailer. True Love won Best Reggae Album at the 47th Grammys.

“As a singer, he’s amazing,” Richards told Rolling Stone of Hibbert. “His voice reminds me very much of the timbre of Otis Redding. When you hear him do ‘Pain in My Heart,’ it’s an uncanny resemblance. I think he knows himself. He’s his own man, and he knows the contribution he’s made, which is why he’s still around. You know, whenever I get a call from Toots, I go running.”

Hibbert continued to tour regularly, though in 2013, a fan threw a vodka bottle onstage during a Virginia concert that hit Hibbert in the head. He suffered a concussion and canceled his remaining shows. In June 2016, Hibbert finally returned to the stage, while he also threw himself into his work at his home studio — the so-called Reggae Center — even as he continued to grapple with headaches and anxiety related to the injury.

As Hibbert told Rolling Stone, he felt compelled to keep working in order to provide for friends and family. (Despite all his success, Hibbert — like so many reggae artists — was on the receiving end of an array of bad and exploitative contracts; he said he doesn’t even see royalties from the spins his music gets in the arrivals terminal at the Kingston airport.)

Hibbert’s work in the Reggae Center culminated in a wild, two-day recording session late last year that resulted in Toots and the Maytals’ Got to Be Tough. The album was produced by Zak Starkey, and features contributions from Starkey’s father, Ringo Starr, as well as Sly Dunbar, Cyril Neville, and Ziggy Marley, who joins Toots on a cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” As the final offering of his career, it finds Hibbert playing the role he’s always played, and communicating the things he’s always communicated.

“I don’t know how I had that idea that I would be a prophet,” he told Rolling Stone. “It was the spirit of the Lord moving through me in mysterious ways, it was inside me. To be a prophet you have to believe in yourself, believe in God, believe in what you do. You take your time, and you don’t try to show off. A prophet can be a spiritual person or a fortune-teller, but if you tell somebody something and it don’t come true, they won’t believe you anymore. I try to always tell the truth.”

From Yasuh