THE HONORABLE FREDERICK NATHANIEL "TOOTS" HIBBERT, O. J., posthumously copped the 2021 Grammy Award for Best Reggae album with his offering "Got to Be Tough which was released a few weeks before his death in September 2020.
The Award was perhaps the most fitting crowning of one of the most illustrious careers of any Jamaican recording artiste and provides another Jewel in Jamaica's crown for maintaining its lead in Reggae music.
Toots was among my top tier of Jamaican artistes and I often drew for his music as an illustration of the tapestry of the Jamaican struggle. My favorite was the anthem "Pressure Drop."
Toots was born in Treadlight district just outside of the town of May Pen, Clarendon on December 10, 1945, to parents who were both preachers in their local church. They named him Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert. The youngest of seven children, he grew up singing gospel music in a church choir courtesy of his parents. Toots moved to Kingston in the early 1960s at the age of 13, and from very early he expressed a desire to develop a singing career.
As a resident in Trench Town, young Hibbert had an interest in boxing but was convinced by his neighbours to give up the boxing and to concentrate on his singing as he had a good voice. In his late teens, Toots worked as a barber to pay his bills. He would later meet Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias, and in 1961 the three formed group “The Cherry Pies” which they later renamed “The Maytals”. The group was discovered by Lee “Scratch” Perry in an audition at Coxsone’s that same year. According to Scratch, “Toots brought with him a rich gospel-like intensity to his singing and this is what gave the group its advantage.”
Toots too admitted that for the most part his singing style was influenced by American soul singers such as James Brown, Ray Charles, and Wilson Pickett as well as his strong Seventh-day Adventist church influences. Coxsone at the time was dominating the Ska era with releases backed by his powerful house band the Skatellites and the addition of The Maytals only increased Dodd’s ammunition in this area. They released “Fever” and “Never Grow Old” but the tune which placed them over the top was the Rastafarian quasi-religious anthem “Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses” released in 1963. The potency of the tune was demonstrated in a Monday Night soundclash between Duke Reid’s Trojan and Lloyd Daley’s Mighty Matador sound system known for its high sound output at the time. Reportedly, Trojan was having most of the evening until Matador produced a copy of the acetate borrowed from Coxsone. The minute the record hit the turntable the dance was over for the Trojan as the patrons would not let the tune go.
After a two year stint with Coxsone, the Maytals moved over to Prince Buster’s studio and in 1966 to Byron Lee under whose direction The Maytals won Jamaica’s first-ever Festival Song Contest with their original song “Bam Bam.” They would repeat in 1969 with “Sweet and Dandy” and again in 1972 with “Pomps and Pride”
Toots’ career was halted in 1966 after he was arrested, charged, and sent to prison for 18 months reportedly for ganja possession courtesy of a repressive policing approach adopted by the then Hugh Shearer led Jamaican government in a bid to break the back of the Rastafarian movement. Toots would use the experience to produce the anthem “54-46 That’s My Number” a rallying cry against police brutality. On his release from prison in 1967, Toots Hibbert and The Maytals teamed up with Leslie Kong for a collaboration that yielded a string of hits including “Do The Reggay,” the big hit “54-46” and the phenomenal “Pressure Drop” a poignant protest against the systemic repressiveness of the Jamaican government that was released in 1969. The song featured in the soundtrack of the Jamaican cult film “The Harder They Come.” The group's success continued with their International hit “Monkey Man” in 1970 propelling them at home as the biggest act on the island. After Leslie Kong’s death in 1971, the group continued to record with Warrick Lyn and resumed their relationship with producer Byron Lee who renamed the group Toots and the Maytals. The group released three best-selling albums produced by Lyn and Blackwell of Island Records and enjoyed international hits with “Funky Kingston” in 1973 and “ Reggae Got Soul “in 1975. This led to them receiving an invitation to tour with “The Who” as their opening act during their 1975-76 North American tour. The tour went poorly and Toots & the Maytals' compositions would be given a second airing in 1978-80 during the reggae punk and ska revival period in the UK, when The Specials covered "Monkey Man" on their 1979 debut album and The Clash put out their recording of "Pressure Drop". In 1982, Toots & the Maytals' "Beautiful Woman", reached number one in New Zealand, but the group had already broken up. They reformed in the early 1990s to continue touring and recording successfully, releasing in the album True Love in 2004, an album consisting of re-recorded versions of their earlier hits, alongside Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Trev Anastasio, No Doubt, Ben Harper, The Roots, and Shaggy. The album won the Grammy Award that year for Best Reggae Album.
In 2006, they recorded a reggae/ska version of Radiohead’s “Let Down” for the tribute album Radiohead, by the Easy All-Stars. The album was a song-for-song makeover of the English rock band’s album “OK Computer” into reggae, dub, and ska. In August 2007 Toots & the Maytals released the album “Light Your Light” which featured re-workings of older songs such as "Johnny Cool Man", as well as new material. The album was nominated in 2008 for a Grammy in the best reggae album category.
In March 2009 Toots & the Maytals played to a sell-out crowd at Bush Hall in London after their scheduled performance alongside Amy Winehouse to celebrate their shared record label, Island Records' 50th anniversary did not materialize as Winehouse canceled. Winehouse had covered the band's "Monkey Man", and the Maytals were supposed to support her at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London on 31 May 2009.
The 2012 album “Unplugged on Strawberry Hill” gained Toots Hibbert his fifth Grammy nomination. That same year Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert was vested with the Order of Jamaica for his nearly 50 years of contribution to Jamaican music by the Government of Jamaica. He continues to represent the country worldwide as a living legend and even more so as one of the last living greats from the Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae era. Toots continued to tour with the Maytals taking his message of spiritual healing through music to the four corners of the world.
He entered the 2020 National Song Competition with the inspirational entry “Rise Up” just before resuming his hectic work schedule. He was diagnosed with Covid-19 symptoms in late August 2020 and admitted to the University Hospital of the West Indies where he transited on September 11, 2020.
Toots was a rare gem whose brilliance still illuminates the path of Jamaica's music. It was this brilliance which even after his death, still landed him a third Reggae Grammy Award on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Walk good Toots. You will be missed.
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