Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 1998

Toots and the Maytals

What do you get when you take a pound of funky reggae, three quarts of R 'n' B, eight ounces of Gospel, and ten tons of Soul, and beat well? You get Toots!

On the 10th of December (this century), deep in the countryside of rural Jamaica, one of Reggae's supreme voices wailed its first cry. Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert, better known to us as "Toots," is part preacher, part Otis-channeler, eclectic Coptic visionary, and Jamaican Soul Man No. 1--a timeless, legendary, immensely satisfying and distinctly unique musical force who has given energy and inspiration to countless individuals.

The parish of Clarendon, on the western side of Jamaica, provided the spiritual backdrop for the evolution of Toots' soul-reggae extravaganza. His father preached in church--"I grow up way in the country, in May Pen, Clarendon," says Toots. "Singing I was taught from the church, from when I was a baby. I grew up into the gospel church, Seventh Day Adventist, and I hear people preach and people sing." And Toots began to sing--finding his voice in the ecstatic din of the Jamaican rural church. However, competing for attention from the island's youth was another sound to be heard in and amongst those dirt lanes and simple houses--that modern invention called the transistor radio. The refined, urban visions of Ray Charles and Otis Redding hit Toots' ears and he loved what he heard.

Drawn to the bright lights of the city, Toots found a job at a barbershop in Kingston, where he impressed patrons and passers-by with his vocal talent. Also impressed were Kingston friends Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias, and the three agreed to start a vocal trio. In 1963, Toots, Raleigh, and Jerry queued in line with other eager youth for an audition at Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd's fabled Studio One on Brentford Road, in the hopes of being chosen to make a Ska record for Sir Coxsone. They passed the audition (thanks in part to Coxsone's A&R man Lee Perry), and into the studio they went. Toots went back to his gospel roots, and the Maytals emerged with an album's worth of Old Testament-inspired Ska.

In 1966, Toots, had the misfortune of being framed on a trumped-up ganja charge--but he served only 6 months before finally being released. He turned his time behind bars, right down to his prison number, to his advantage with the rocksteady smash "54-46, That's My Number," In late 1968, the cool rocksteady beat evolved into a faster, brighter, more danceable sound and reggae was born. Toots heralded the new sound with the seminal, complex groove monster "Do the Reggay"--"the new dance, going around the town." Toots wanted "to do the reggay with you".

1n 1973 Toots appeared on the big screen in The Harder They Come, the first Jamaican feature film ever made. Toots' rousing "Pressure Drop" was on the movie's soundtrack. This LP, along with Bob Marley and the Wailers' two first albums, forced Americans to take note of that volatile little island in the sun, which previously was just a tourist destination. Toots began work with Island records boss Chris Blackwell, who had been releasing Maytals' 45s in the UK since the ska days. Slamming into high gear, Toots ripped through "Funky Kingston." All who heard the LP remarked on his (shall we say . . . different) version of the late John Denver's "Country Roads."

In 1975 Toots and the Maytals performed on both coasts of the U.S. In 1976, with help from musicians like keyboard prodigy Steve Winwood, Toots came out with the classic album, Reggae Got Soul. With Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias, and Dynamites Paul Douglas, Jackie Jackson, Winston Wright, Hux Brown and Dougie Bryan (the same musicians that had been recording with him since 1969), Toots hit the road in support of the album and thrilled audiences with his knock-out 2-hour reggae-soul revue, the likes of which had never been seen before. From '76 on, he leapt and pranced on European and American stages.

In 1979, Toots recorded Pass The Pipe, one of the warmest, smokiest, most soulful reggae albums ever made, and somewhat of a tribute to Otis Redding. 1980 saw Just Like That and 1981 Knock Out, which was Toots last release on Island. Toots quit working with the Maytals, went solo and won acclaim for his Jamaican re-working of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."

In 1988, Toots went further back to his American roots and paid tribute to Stax/Volt with Toots in Memphis. The album was nominated for a Grammy. In 1996 Island Jamaica released a double CD Time Tough--an anthology which is the most comprehensive Toots' collection to date.

Still on the road and dazzling audiences the world over, Toots has been belting out his repetoire of songs for 35 years, but it hardly shows. Think how many generations of people Toots and his dedicated musicians have delighted, enlightened, and inspired, not through preachy didacticism, but through a truckload of wholesome, funky reggae. What is so refreshing about Toots' live shows today is that not only do they have such cathartic power, but they offer young people a real, living example of how reggae used to be.

Speaking of the state of Jamaican music today, Toots says: "Real reggae is roots, and the rest of what is coming out is branches. Reggae music always be on top. You have to have something with a gospel feel. It's wicked, you know? It's Roots, Rock, Reggae. The roots--that's what I am."

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