Toots and the Maytals Do the Reggae, and so Much More

Toots Hiibbert invented reggae.

Well, he didn’t invent the music itself – reggae had been around in some form for years – but he coined the term.

“Reggae had been playing all the time, but people didn’t know what to call it. People called it boogie beat and blue beat and things,” explained Frederick “Toots” Hibbert. “Even before there was a song in Jamaica called ‘streggae’ – you know, if you see a guy walking down the street and he doesn’t look so great and you don’t want to talk to him, he’s streggae. So one morning I was playing my guitar, just trying to create something and that word reggae just came out, so I worked it into a little song.”

That song, “Do the Reggay,” became a huge hit in Jamaica, but then again, so did lots of Hibbert’s songs. Toots and his band, the Maytals, hold the record for the most number-one hits in that country: 31.

And even if Toots didn’t invent the reggae sound, he came as close to perfecting it as any other artist. Early Toots and the Maytals records pack a punch by taking a slow, chugging rocksteady beat and contrasting it with Hibbert’s strikingly strong vocals. Hibbert’s voice, a brilliant blend of gospel and American R&B influences, combines the grit of Otis Redding with the range of James Brown – in short, he’s one of the all-time great vocalists, regardless of genre.

Throughout the ’60s and the ’70s, Toots and the Maytals were one of the most popular bands in the world. Although the band’s popularity was waning by the early ’80s, the last decade has seen an increased interest in their music. In America, the third-wave ska revival of the late ’90s brought Hibbert renewed attention, while in Jamaica many dancehall artists began referencing and sampling old Maytals hits.

“Yeah, they do that because the songs are good,” Hibbert said. “It’s hard for them to find such arrangements and such songs, y’know? So the younger generation, they have to go copy my songs. They youths, they have to take something from those songs, and that’s the way they learn to create. That’s how they learn how to create beats, create rhythm, create words and make reggae continue to be high.”

Oddly enough, on Hibbert’s latest album, True Love, he reworks his own hits, albeit with a laundry-list of American artists including Willie Nelson, Trey Anastasio, the Roots, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt and No Doubt.

“I take the Jamaican roots to the American roots with all these great singers that take part singing my songs with me,” Hibbert explained. “They’re great songwriters and I think that if you take the roots and the roots and put it together then you have this album, one of the best albums that the youth could listen to. They could learn something from this album.”

Hibbert’s been heavily promoting the album, appearing on Saturday Night Live and playing up to six shows a week. It’s hard to attend these shows without noticing how strong his voice is after all these years. Hibbert, who admits that sometimes the touring schedule makes him feel tired, follows a strict regime to keep both his voice and his body fit.

“I hardly sleep and I don’t take anything,” he explained. “I use water to gargle and if I smoke then I brush my tooth before I sleep and then I wake up and I gargle and I hardly eat a lot of things, you know? I don’t know, I’m looking fat sometimes, but I hardly eat. But I exercise a lot. I do my skipping and my shadow boxing and everything.”

Hibbert says his shows are crowd pleasers.

“We go after the feel of the R&B vibe, you know? That’s a good thing,” he said. “People know that when they see Toots and the Maytals they’re gonna get ska, they’re gonna get reggae, gospel, R&B vibesâÂ?¦ they’re gonna get everything.”

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