Remembering Toots Hibbert

by Jay Trachtenberg

It’s not often that a musician gets credited with naming the genre of music that he/she performs.  But back in 1968 Toots and The Maytals released “Do The Reggay,” a song that heralded the bright, bubbly new sound of Jamaica as it evolved out of the cooler style of rock steady.  The name stuck and, since then, Jamaican music in all its permutations has been known as reggae.  In the next few years Toots and The Maytals would churn out a long string of hit records on the island, they would be featured prominently in the cult classic, The Harder They Come, the film and soundtrack album that introduced the music to many young Americans, and they would bring reggae to the world at large through their relentless touring characterized by dynamic, high-energy shows.  Toots is truly a Reggae Ambassador to the world.

So when word came that Frederick “Toots” Hibbert had passed on Friday, Sept. 11 at age seventy-seven from complications of COVID 19, it shook the music world to its core.  Just two weeks prior, the band had released their first new album in over a decade, Got To Be Tough, and they were poised to begin touring when Hibbert took ill.

The passing of this foundational figure in many ways marks a closing chapter on this generation of Jamaican music. Toots and The Maytals, along with the Skatalites, were virtually the last bands from reggae’s earliest days still touring on any kind of regular basis and bringing their authentic sounds to the world-at-large.

One of the music’s best singers, Toots was influenced by the likes of Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett.  One of his most beloved albums, sans The Maytals, was Toots In Memphis, where he covered a set of southern soul classics.

Touring behind that Grammy-nominated album, he played the famed Austin venue, Liberty Lunch, in the late-1980s.  The band took home a Grammy in 2005 for Best Reggae Album with True Love, a star-studded affair that revisited many of their earlier hits and featured the likes of Willie Nelson, The Roots and Bonnie Raitt.

But my favorite Toots and The Maytals albums are both from the mid-1970s, Funky Kingston and Reggae Got Soul.  They catch the band on fire and in their prime, giving you the fresh, original versions of many of the tunes found on True Love.

In May, 2007 the band was still touring in the wake of that Grammy-winning album when they came to play Austin’s La Zona Rosa.  That afternoon Toots was kind enough to drop by our old Studio 1A to chat and play a couple of tunes on acoustic guitar.  Here is that live session………

Toots Hibbert in Studio 1A

May 2007

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