By Dale Nickey
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/13/20 – No less a figure than Jimmy Cliff credits Toots Hibbert with the invention of Reggae. Even the word Reggae traces back to Hibbert with his 1968 song “Do the Reggay”.
Born of Seventh Day Adventist parents on December 8th, 1942 Toots Hibbert moved to Trenchtown Jamaica after their premature death left him parentless at the age of 11. It was there he would meet the musicians that would form the nucleus of his band Toots and The Maytals in 1961. By that time, he was a skilled multi-instrumentalist who could play all the instruments required of a band format. His early passion was the music of Ray Charles as well as the hard soul stylings of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown. He mixed these influences with the Gospel and Church music he sang in his youth to create the unique style he developed with the Maytals. Indeed, one of Hibbert’s earliest recordings “Hallelujah” in 1963 tracers back directly to his Christian upbringing; at the same time, many of his songs also explored Rastafarian themes.
1966 found Hibbert sentenced to an 18-month prison term for marijuana possession; an experience that inspired one of his better-known songs, “54-46 That’s My Number”.
In 1968 Toots Hibbert started developing a brisker, brighter and more danceable sound that supplanted the more sedate rocksteady style that predominated at the time. The result was the aforementioned “Do the Reggay” which established him as the Godfather of Reggae for the remainder of his life.
In 1970 Toots and The Maytals became international recording artists courtesy of a deal with the prestigious Island Records label and Chris Blackwell. Critical love letters followed and soon Toots and The Maytals sound was exported to the rest of the world. This success also had the effect of softening the ground for another emerging Reggae superstar, Bob Marley.
Toots Hibbert’s profile was also enhanced by Toots and The Maytals appearance in the groundbreaking 1972 feature film The Harder they Come which starred Jimmy Cliff.
Toots remained active in music for the remainder of his life, nabbing a Grammy in 2005 for best Reggae album and appeared on U.S. television as late as 2018 on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Hibbert was considered Reggae royalty and played with artists as disparate as Willie Nelson and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The 2011 BBC documentary Reggae Got Soul: The Story of Toots and The Maytals is a great starting point to investigate the influence of Toots Hibbert and The Maytals on Reggae music and culture.
In 2012 Hibbert would receive the Order of Jamaica – one of the nation’s highest honors.
Tragically, 2020 found Toots Hibbert in a medically induced coma due to complications from the Covid-19 virus. On September 12 it was announced Toots Hibbert died at University Hospital of The West Indies in Kingston Jamaica at age 77. The music world grieves the passing of Toots Hibbert. His influence will remain for the ages (RIP).