Toots Hibbert, one of reggae’s founders and most beloved stars with classics such as “Pressure Drop”, “Monkey Man” and “Funky Kingston”, has passed away. He was 77 years old.
Hibbert, frontman of Toots & the Maytals, had been in a medically induced coma at a Kingston hospital since earlier this month. He was admitted to intensive care after complaints of breathing difficulties, according to his press secretary. It was revealed in local media that the singer was awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test after showing symptoms.
News of the five-time Grammy nominee’s ill health came just weeks after his last known performance, on a nationwide live broadcast during Jamaica’s emancipation and independence celebrations in August.
A family statement said Hibbert died at the West Indies Teaching Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica on Friday, surrounded by his family.
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Ziggy Marley son of Bob Marley tweeted about the death saying he spoke with Hibbert a few weeks ago and ‘told him how much I loved him we laughed and shared our mutual respect’ , adding, “He was a father figure to me. ”
A muscular ex-boxer, Hibbert was a conductor, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and showman whose concerts sometimes ended with dozens of spectators dancing with him on stage. He was also, in the opinion of many, the greatest singer of reggae, so deeply spiritual that he could turn “Do re mi fa so la ti do” into a hymn. His raucous, unusually warm and rough tenor was equated with Otis Redding’s voice and made him more accessible to American listeners than many reggae artists. Original songs such as “Funky Kingston” and “54-46 That’s My Number” had the emotional and appealing and response arrangements known to soul and gospel fans. Hibbert even recorded an American hit album, “Toots In Memphis”, released in 1988.
Never as immersed in politics as his friend and great contemporary Bob Marley, Hibbert invoked heavenly justice in “Pressure Drop”, preached peace in “Revolution”, righteousness in “Bam Bam” and despised his arrest and imprisonment for drugs in the 1960s in “54-46 This is my number. He also captured, like few others, daily life in Jamaica in the years following its independence from Britain in 1962, whether it was recounting marriage hassles (“Sweet and Dandy”) or when trying to pay the rent (“Time Tough”). One of his most popular and surprising songs was his retouch of John Denver’s nostalgic “(Take Me Home) Country Roads”, with the setting changed from West Virginia to a world Hibbert knew so well.
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As with other reggae stars, Hibbert’s sequel exploded after the release of the landmark 1972 film, “The Harder They Come,” which starred Jimmy Cliff as a poor Jamaican who moved to Kingston and dreams of a career in music. The Jamaican production was a word of mouth success in the United States, and the soundtrack, often ranked among the greatest in movie history, included the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” and “Sweet and Dandy”.
Hibbert also appeared in the film, as himself, recording “Sweet and Dandy” in the studio while Cliff’s character watches in awe. Around the same time, the Maytals signed with Island Records and released the acclaimed album “Funky Kingston,” which critic Lester Bangs called “the most exciting and diverse set of reggae tracks in the world. only one artist to date ”. (The album will eventually be released in two different versions).
By the mid-1970s, Keith Richards, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and countless other rock stars had become fans of reggae and Hibbert would eventually record with some of them. A 2004 tribute album, the Grammy-winning “True Love,” included cameos by Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Ryan Adams and Jeff Beck. Hibbert was also the subject of a 2011 BBC documentary, “Reggae Got Soul,” with Clapton, Richards and Willie Nelson among the commentators.
An appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in 2004 brought Hibbert an unexpected admirer, the show’s guest host Donald Trump, who in his book “Think Like a Billionaire” remembers hearing the Maytals repeat: “My daughter Ivanka had told me how bad they were, and she was right. The music relaxed me and surprisingly I wasn’t nervous.
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The Maytals were originally a vocal trio with Hibbert, Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias, the group later adding instrumentalists such as bassist Jackie Jackson and drummer Paul Douglas. They went their separate ways in the early 1980s, but the following decade Hibbert began working with a new line of Maytals.
Hibbert’s career was cut short in 2013 after suffering a head injury from a bottle of vodka thrown at a concert in Richmond, Va., And suffering from headaches and depression. But by the end of the decade he was performing again and in 2020 he released another album, “Got To Be Tough,” which included contributions from Ziggy Marley and Ringo Starr, whose son, Zak Starkey, has served as co-producer.
Grammy nominations for Hibbert included Best Reggae Album of 2012 for “Reggae Got Soul” and Best Reggae Album of 2007 for “Light Your Light.” Hibbert was ranked # 71 on a 2008 Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Contemporary Singers. In 2012, he received the Order of Distinction from the Government of Jamaica for his outstanding contribution to the music of the country.
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Married to his wife, Doreen, for nearly 40 years, Hibbert had eight children, including reggae performers Junior Hibbert and Leba Hibbert.
Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert (“Toots” was a childhood nickname) was born in May Pen, Clarendon Parish. He was the son of Seventh-day Adventist pastors and remembered miles of walking along dirt roads to schools, hours of singing in church, and private moments listening to American radio stars like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley.
As a teenager, his parents were deceased and he moved to Trench Town in Kingston, where the local music scene was thriving, moving from street parties to recording studios and attracting future stars like Bob Marley and Desmond Dekker. He formed the Maytals, named after his hometown, along with fellow vocalists Matthias and Gordon, began working with Jamaican record producer Coxsone Dodd and quickly became the star of the national festival competition which began in 1966. The Maytals (eventually renamed Toots & the Maytals) won the inaugural year with “Bam Bam”, won in 1969 with “Sweet and Dandy” and 1972 with “Pomp and Pride”. Hibbert joked that he thought it was best to start skipping the festival because winning came so easily, even though he returned in 2020 with the brilliant and inspiring “Rise Up Jamaica”.
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The Maytals started when ska was the most popular music, continued to increase during the transition to slow-motion rocksteady, and were at the forefront of the faster, more dancing sound of the late ’60s. Their upempo vocals “Do the Reggay” is widely recognized as the song that gave reggae its name, although that honor was unwanted.
“If a girl didn’t look that pretty or she wasn’t dressed properly, we would say she was streggay. I was playing one day and I don’t know why but I started singing: ‘Do the reggay, do the reggay’ – it just stuck, ”he told the Daily Star in 2012.“ I would have maybe kept calling it streggay if I had thought about it any longer. It would be something – everyone was dancing to streggay music.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.