Toots Hibbert (Toots & Maytals): Reggae Got Soul
Ever stood at the bar, chatting to your mates about a “bucket list?” Things you must do before you die? I have. 1. Visit Cuba to photograph the old buildings and cars - and follow in Hemingway’s footsteps. 2. Make love with a supermodel. 3. Win the lottery and buy my own fishing lake! 4. Treat my family and friends with my big win, and help charity. Well, here’s something to stick on the top of yours…... GO SEE TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS IN CONCERT. I mean it. Do it. You’ll thank me in the end. Just see.
I got to see reggae legend Toots in action when he headlined the first night of the Summer Sundae Festival in Leicester. Wow! What a performance. What energy, and the man is 66-years-old. What fantastic songs. What a fantastic band. But boy….what a voice. It’s soul. It’s reggae. It’s….well, it’s Frederick Toots Hibbert. That’s what it is. There’s really only one.
80 minutes of hit after hit. Like a musical machine gun spraying joy into the audience, bullet by bullet. 'Pressure Drop. Monkey Man. Reggae Got Soul. Funky Kingston. 54-46 That’s My Number. Bam Bam.' Oh there’s just stacks of ‘em. A musical soundtrack to many lives, mine included.
The big man dressed in blue leather, sleeveless waistcoat and trousers. Hells’ angel type bandana and black wrap around shades. He looks menacing. Those thick, bulging biceps covered in sweat and that gruff, growl of a voice giving out the message that this is a man you would not want to mess with. Those white shoes never stay still for a second during his set. He bounces around the stage, turning in some nifty footwork that’d put a lot of artists half his age to shame.
A master of crowd control. A born showman. In total command of his audience, working them up and pacing his set immaculately. A consummate judge of an audience and what they want. He works them hard, and when he says put your hands in the air, they do it. Put them down now, they do it. Sing with me. They do it. They were as knackered and soaked in sweat at the end as he and the band were! He controls the band with nods and waves of his hands to signify tempo change. His crew are eager to please and it is apparent he demands perfection from everyone around him. If Toots wants it, Toots gets it. But that is the way it should be. He has paid his dues over half a century of hard graft. He knows his trade.
He gets the very best out of them to give him the concrete foundations and solid platform on which to deliver a five star performance night in, night out. I get the feeling that Toots never has a bad show. He is either flipping great or flipping good. Nothing less. He is cool personified. He looks like a superstar. I also think Toots Hibbert could sing the phone book with a reggae beat, and we’d all go out and buy it.
He really is reggae royalty. He holds the record for more number ones in Jamaica than any other artist ever. 31 to be exact. His hits have made him a global megastar and pretty comfortable – with his own major recording studio in Jamaica. His songs get covered all the time. The rich and famous want him as a friend. Jagger, Keith Richards, The Who, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson. Clapton. All mates and featured on his 2005 Grammy-winning album “True Love.” Heck, don’t forget this is the man who came up with the word “Reggae,” to describe the music they were calling Blue Beat and Boogie Beat back then. (From the Jamaican word Raggay, meaning rags or raggedy.) He 'is' reggae.
About to head off on his biggest UK tour ever, to celebrate 50 years of making music. Toots came over to do two club warm ups, before hitting the stage in Leicester and a festival in Oxfordshire. I met up with him in his hotel suite, room 614 at Leicester’s Holiday Inn. Tired after his trip from the South coast on the tour bus, with the band and crew. 16 people checked in, and all the man wanted to do was hit the hay. But me, a local radio DJ and uber producer, US legend Joe Boyd – he made the big hit “Reggae Got Soul” with Toots - we were all waiting to get some face-to-face time with Mr H. He duly obliged.
Sat in black vest and his bare feet up on the coffee table, Toots waits for my first question. Refusing my request to do pictures while we talk, citing a sore face from sunburn and his tiredness. His voice is unique, even when speaking. Imagine “Satchmo” gargling with diesel and razor blades. We are soon into territory I had been wondering whether to venture into. His so-called drugs bust on August 5th 1966, after which he was sentenced to 18 months. When he tells me what really happened, it is clear to me that the man is still hurting and has scars from the sheer injustice of a conspiracy to screw up his career and keep him down. By allegedly framing him for possession of Ganja. Even some 45 years later, he wants to talk about it and put the record straight.
“When I did my hit ‘Bam Bam,’ I was given an offer to go on my first tour of the UK. Well, some people grudged (sic) me and brought in politics. I was only a young guy when Chris Blackwell came to see me in Jamaica. I had the number one album and 31 number one records playing on the radio in Jamaica. Did ‘Bam Bam’ and Chris Blackwell heard about the Maytals, loved us and come to meet us - with a contract to take us to the UK. That was in 1966.”
“But it got messed up because of the politics in the music business then. Those days it was bad, bad, bad, bad. Those days, if someone did not want your artist to come up before their artist, you were number one and they wanted to be, they did all sorts of things to stop you. I didn’t do anything. But I got framed for possession of Ganja, which I never smoked in those days. I did not have any with me. When the case was called up, they could not show any evidence. I was taken away and locked up, and got no bail. The case came to court quick, quick, quick, quick. They did not have any proof. Found me guilty, but there was no evidence.” I was put in a cell, then we went to court. Then I got taken to Richmond Farm Correctional Centre out in the country for an 18 month sentence.” He served about a year, segregated from the other prisoners.
“My wife was able to bring me food in from my home. I wear my own clothes. They gave me a guitar and I sit and write songs every day. Including one of my big hits ‘52 46 Is My Number,’ which I record as soon as I came out. It is about my time in jail and being framed. For £30.” He was not given a number in prison, but used creative licence to conjure up his hit song while there.
“It is the same story in the song, as 30 pieces of silver in the bible. A tragedy. It went to number one. It hurts me I didn’t get to go to Europe the first time. Somebody go in my space, and it did not work out for them. I am not going to call no names. I don’t remember.” Toots laughs. But I can see the pain in his eyes, the upset of the gross injustice all those years ago that blemished his good character. You can bet your sweet bippy he knows those names!
Less than a year later, he got to come to the UK and play at Wembley and the Hammersmith Palais. “It worked out great for me. And I’m still here……………..”
Toots cites “52 46 Is My Number” as probably his favourite of all the songs he has written and sung. Because of the topic and emotion attached. “It is a tragedy. I never do anything. They sell out Christ for 30 pieces of silver. They sold me out for £30 to mess with me and my two friends. I know this because the policeman told me later on that is what happened.”
Perhaps now he is so famous and a favourite son of Jamaica, their government would consider giving him an official pardon for his alleged mistreatment back then? That would give Toots belated justice, but it would not give him that lost 18 months or erase 45 years of hurt.
With reggae roots but with that soulful voice, often likened to Otis Redding, Toots has a split personality and admits it. “Yes. I’m more than one person.” He laughs loudly. “Yes. More than one….soul voice and reggae. Yes, I think so. I am two people. That is correct. People found out I have a different voice to what you would expect. A different tone of voice. I can sing in many styles. Versatile. So it does not bore people. To be different. “
How does he handle fame? “I never feel great about myself. I never feel proud of myself. But there are people who call me great and are proud of me. I am happy with that. Yeah man….”
Toots tells me he does not want any negative people around him. Only positive people. You can tell his band, crew and management team have huge respect for the man. Yes, he pays their wages but they know how damn good he is, and beneath that undefeated ex-boxer frame beats a heart of gold and a decent man. He has come a long way from working as a barber in Jamaica. He ain’t done just yet, either.
This tour celebrates 50 years? “It is a long time, but it is also just like yesterday. It has developed over that amount of time. Love is the foundation of everything. I feel something is happening with my music every day. Feel it building up in momentum still after 50 years.”
When the original Maytals split in the 80s, Toots took time out to spend time with his religion. “Part of the time I was learning to pray among the Rasta man.” Perhaps he felt the need to heal himself after the injustice of his arrest and imprisonment some years earlier. It seems he found inner peace and injected that into his music. Off stage he is very quiet. Laid back and utterly chilled out. Others may fuss around him, but he stays calm and detached. On stage, not the case……he explodes like a box of fire crackers chucked onto a blazing fire. You can see and hear his soul on show to the world when he sings. Not an act. His truth.
“Reggae music is foundation music. It is the Ghetto music. It fortifies the whole world with flavour. Reggae music is simple yet so hard to play. The feeling it generates is not coming from a drum machine or computer. It comes from human feeling, from the soul. It speaks to the soul. Reggae music is good for you.”
“When I was coming up to record first time, Alton Ellis told me that Toots, one day you are gonna be a good singer. He died the other day. Laurel Aitken was a good guy too,” Toots tells me. Coincidentally, ska pioneer Laurel was a friend of mine and lived just a few miles from the hotel where we are speaking. He is gone now too.
Another sadly deceased star is Amy Winehouse. She brought Toots’ music to the collective consciousness of the masses when she covered the great “Monkey Man.” “She was going to do more of my songs. She was nice. I love her. I love what she did. She wanted to do a lot of my compositions and she was talking about it. We planned to meet each other, but we never got to do that. She is going to be always in my memory, and all her family have my condolences. Oh boy…I wish she was here. She was beautiful, and I am so sorry what happened to her.” Toots looks genuinely upset.
He was featured in the recent TV documentary “Reggae Brittania". It concluded that reggae has had its day. “It is not true. Reggae will never finish. Never have its day. They should say today is reggae’s day, not that it is finished.”
With the current riots and civil unrest in the news, Toots says he has the perfect song for these troubled times on his next CD, which is due out next year.” I want to leave it as long as possible and get it good and right. That will be more up-tempo. More ska, mixed with rock and roll and gospel.” That CD will feature guests including JJ Grey and Spooky. Toots has not decided which label gets it as yet. If they see his current shows, they’ll be begging him to sign.
We speak about him having to sing the same hits night after night, but he loves it. “ Never get fed up singing the hits because people always want to hear them. I only get fed up when the microphone and sound is not right, and the guys do not understand how to make the levels right. I do not want feedback. It needs to be right or I am irritated and distracted.”
He is thrilled to see his audience ranges from youngsters of 14, 15, 16 up to pensioners. Black and white alike. And judging from the gig I saw, they all seem to know the words to every hit song. “It has always been like that for my music. I have never had one flop concert ever. If people know I am there, they always come. I then always give them a good performance and the hits they want to hear. Give them what they want and leave happy. It keeps me going and I love it.”
He reveals me how it hard it used to be when he was starting out, to sing and to play instruments. But now, it is just natural and easy for him. Toots love of music was born in him and he sang in the choir at church. He was crackers about cricket and boxing when he was a lad. Undefeated as a heavyweight, he wanted to be a boxer for his living. He moved to Trenchtown to be with his brother, a chef at the University hospital there, and made himself a guitar. “More like a ukele with 4 strings.”
Listening to Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Elvis, Mahalia Jackson. He became a barber, but met up with Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias, forming in 1961 a group called The Maytals. Their early recordings were incorrectly attributed here in the UK to The Flames and The Vikings. They got a break when the song “Bam Bam” hit the charts, and many more followed.
Signing to Island records made them international stars. They feature on the soundtrack to the movie “The Harder They Come,” and in 75-76 they toured the USA with The Who. Their fame hit the heights again here in 78-80, when the Specials covered “Monkey Man” and the Clash did “Pressure Drop.” They were even mentioned in Bob Marley’s song “Punky Reggae Party.” In 2006 they cut a ska version of Radiohead’s “Let Down” for the tribute album “Radiodread” by the Easy All-Stars. In 2008, they were nominated for a Grammy for their album “Light Your Light.” In 2009, they should have appeared with Amy Winehouse at Island’s 50th anniversary bash in London, but she was forced to cancel.
Toots taps his watch, to signify my time is up, after just 23 minutes. I am supposed to have an hour for our chat and pix. But he needs sleep. We will finish it off at the show, he tells me. I leave and he goes to bed. “You’ve done well to be with me this long,” he laughs.
Fast forward a few hours. Toots steps into a silver Mercedes outside the hotel to go to the venue for the show. The crew are already there. The band and backing singers travel in a fleet of cars, and I am invited to join them. I share with guitarists Carl Harvey and Radcliffe Bryan, and the very lovely Leba Thomas, Toots’ talented daughter. She opens the show and sings in his trio of backing singers (with Maria “Twiggi” Gittens and Latoya Hall Downer.) We get to the gig and pile into the dressing room. Soon, Toots wants the dressing room cleared while he prepares for the show. It’s done.
Attention to detail by crew, band and management, last minute checks and the pit crammed full of eager photographers…..it’s show time. 10.15pm. The hall is absolutely rammed. Leba starts the set with a few songs with the band. She is a big talent in her own right. Then that moment arrives. He is there. The place goes bonkers. There is an electric atmosphere. The snappers snap. Me included. Toots stands at the back of the stage by the amps to start with, and sings his heart out. That voice is pure gold. The infectious chug chug of the guitars by Carl and Radcliffe, the pulsating bottom end of original bassist Jackie Jackson. The classic groove on drums of reggae master Paul Douglas, an original Maytal. The three girls Leba, Twiggi and Latoya a whoopin’ and a wavin’. Charles Farquharson on keys.
This band and singers are magnificent. But all eyes are on the man Hibbert. And boy does he turn in some nifty footwork for a chap heading for 70. Puts me to shame on the dance floor. He has enough energy to power Kingston. A magician. Creating musical magic. A look at the faces of the crowd told a story. Many had broad grins, were dancing like their lives depended on it and seemed almost breathless and in awe. I have not seen that since seeing Aretha or Stevie in concert. This is real love, coming off the stage from Toots and being sent back from his fans. Not seen anything like it for many years.
I sense he has seen some stuff and lived a life that would make a hell of a book or film. You can hear it and feel it - in his voice, his delivery and his songs. Passion. Pain. Joy. Happiness. Love. Loyalty. Loss. Respect. It is all there if you listen, and you have a soul.
Seeing a live band these days is not cheap. As an escape and an investment in a few hours of entertainment. With cost of tickets, petrol, beer and food, perhaps babysitters too, it better be worth it. Trust me, tickets for Toots’ tour are a sound investment with a superb return. One of the top ten best live performances I have ever witnessed in 33 years of seeing zillions of shows worldwide.
That man should be honoured for his contribution to music and making this world a happier place. How I’d love to see TV footage of when her Maj’ slaps that sword down on his shoulder? “Arise Sir Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert.” Yeah Maaam.
• His UK tour starts on 28th August when they headline the Rhythm festival, Bedfordshire. It takes in Newcastle, Glasgow, Leeds, Dublin, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Liverpool, Brighton, Brixton Academy London, IOW, Oxford, Cardiff and ends on 15th September at Aberystwyth.
Pix: Simon Redley
Words SIMON REDLEY