My phone pinged at 3:30 a.m. Still asleep I grasped in the dark toward the sound, clutched the device and looked at the screen, bright light blinding me. It was Julianne, Byron Lee’s daughter. It wasn’t unusual to get a message from her–we keep in touch pretty regularly, but what could it be at this time of night? “Heather I am devastated. We lost Toots,” read the message. Toots was like family to her. Heck, he was like family to all of us. We all knew he was ailing since the news reports of his hospitalization and testing for COVID ran all through social media. His fans, thousands and thousands of them, rallied to send him healing vibes. We all thought he’d pull through, just like he had before after suffering a horrible head injury in 2013 when struck by a vodka bottle thrown by a drunk idiot at a festival in Richmond, Virginia. His return to the stage after years of rehabilitation came in August 2016 at Reggae Fest in Chicago. But Frederick “Toots” Hibbert died yesterday, Friday, September 11, 2020 at the age of 77. The world has lost a voice full of soul.
I had the pleasure of talking to Toots back in the mid 1990s when I was working on my book, Ska: An Oral History. I had requested to interview him by contacting his manager. But I hadn’t expected that Toots would call me directly, which is what he did! It was a Saturday afternoon and the phone rang. I heard his voice, thick Jamaican accent and I raced to grab my recorder. That interview is now located in the Archives of African American Music at Indiana University and will be made available to the public for research in the coming months. All of my interviews are being digitized for this purpose, for collective efforts. Here are a few words from that interview:
“When I was growing up, before I start singing, I was going to school and going to church. I’d go to government school, then I’d go to church. They sing in the church all the time. That was my kind of music—church. I grew up listening to people who can sing, like from the other churches as well as listening to the radio. I listened to Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, James Brown, a lot of great people. And I listened to them over the radio. Yeah, mon, so that’s how I come to love singing.”
“When I leave my country, I’m from the countryside, the countryside of Jamaica, May Pen. I was born down there, then I came to Kingston looking for my bigger brother, a place called Trenchtown where all the great music people live, in Trenchtown in Kingston. So I go and
look for my brother sometimes and go back to country and the next holiday came back to Kingston again in Trenchtown and visited and I meet people. I meet Jimmy Cliff and I met Bob Marley and I met other great people. They told me one day I am going to be great because they like my voice. Before I start my career, I used to do barbering. I used to be a barber and I cut hair. I learned to cut people’s hair and while I do that I get me a little small guitar, like a mandolin guitar, and I learned myself to play that. When I’m not cutting hair, I play that and I get to learn from other musicians.”
Interestingly enough, when Toots decided to try his hand in the music business, it didn’t go so well at first. He went to audition for Leslie Kong (Beverley’s) and Derrick Morgan recalled that event during an interview with me. “I didn’t start Toots because Toots came to me and I turned him down because I do auditions for Beverley’s.”
Still, Toots continued his efforts, met Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias and Ralphus “Raleigh” Gordon in 1964 and formed a singing group backed by the Skatalites, recording at Studio One for Coxsone. The sound of the early Maytals, who were later called The Flames by Island Records in England, was heavily influenced by Hibbert’s gospel roots. They frequently performed with such backup bands as The Vikings or The Royals. The first
album released by Studio One was entitled “Hallelujah” and combined Hibbert’s gospel style with ska. This blend was an immediate success.
Toots continued, “When I start singing in 1964 I did a lot of number one records. I did a song called, ‘It’s You,’ and ‘Daddy.’ Both songs, one called ‘It’s You,’ and the flip side called ‘Daddy,’ and I got number one record, two sides hit, two sides number one. I was the only singer in Jamaica that ever did that.”
Hibbert says he left Coxsone for Prince Buster because he felt he could make more money with Prince Buster, but he found that Prince Buster didn’t pay him well either. So in 1965, Hibbert and the Maytals left Prince Buster to record for Byron Lee, and in 1966 they won Jamaica’s Festival Song Contest with the song “Bam Bam” that Lee produced. Byron Lee and the Dragonaires were the backing band for this song.
Toots had success with “54-46 Was My Number” about his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for ganja possession, which he claims was a set up, as well as “Monkey Man,” a playful jab at Leslie Kong (the monkey in Anansi folklore symbolizes the white man).
Toots continued, “I carry on and carry on and carry on until reggae start to play and then invent the word reggae. Reggae was played and no one know what to call it. I think it was in the ’60s and people always called it ‘boogie beat’ and ‘blue beat,’ and it was kind of a crazy beat that people loved but you know, white people came down from England, from America, Hawaii, all over the world and when they came to Jamaica they enjoy Jamaican music but they didn’t know what the music called, until one day, I sit down, me and my two friends that used to sing together, I say, let’s make some song and that word just come out my mouth. Do the reggay, you know? And we think it’s a joke until people take it very serious.I named the record, the style of music, called “Do the Reggay.” That’s why it’s good to be Jamaican. Because I’m Jamaican I can do all these things and a lot of people can come and enjoy, so I’m the inventor for the word reggae.”
Toots definitely helped to put reggae on the map, as well as Jamaica, with his performance in Perry Henzell’s 1972 film The Harder They Come staring Jimmy Cliff.
Over the years, Toots collaborated with dozens of musicians and artists. More recently, he was in the studio of Tim Armstrong working with him on some tunes. Tim texted me these photos on June 12, 2019 after one of those sessions.
The following is a story I wrote for the now-defunct Wax Poetics publication about Toots’ return performance in Chicago:
Never Grow Old: Toots Returns to Performing and Chicago
By Heather Augustyn
When a drunk fan hurled an empty glass vodka bottle at Frederick “Toots” Hibbert at a Richmond, Virginia music festival in 2013, striking him in the head, many wondered if he would ever return to touring. To be frank, he is not young. At 73-years-old, the vocalist who came to the attention of the world first through his appearance in the movie The Harder They Come and then in collaborations with Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt before winning a Grammy himself, the injury was especially serious. He was unable to perform. He put his touring on hold while a $20 million lawsuit was settled by his attorneys against the concert promoter and his injuries healed. The day after the settlement in March of this year, the terms of which have not been disclosed, he announced a world tour that commenced in mid-June in California.
On August 13th, Toots & the Maytals, sans the original Maytals, headlined at the inaugural Reggae Fest Chicago and event organizer Chuck Wren of Jump Up Records says it was a way to welcome the legend back to the stage. “Honestly, it was a no brainer. He had just announced that he was ready to tour again, and Toots has fans across such a wide spectrum. It was obvious he was the one to bring everyone together. All facets of reggae and world music fans know and love the legacy of Toots & the Maytals. There are only a few names that have that power!” Wren says.
The performance drew a crowd of tens of thousands and Toots displayed the same level of energy as his performances throughout his six-decade-long career. “The performance was amazing,” says Wren. “He seemed to really play the old classics including a bunch of ska gems right out of the gate! He gave the fans an amazing show. Everyone loved what they saw.”
One of those in the massive crowd who says it was his first time seeing Toots perform was Jim Cascino, co-host of the Windy City Sound System podcast. “His performance was much, much better than I ever could have expected. Because of the accident, it was hard to know whether or not he would give a good performance. Obviously head injuries are quite serious, and especially given that he was 70 years old at the time, that’s a pretty serious hill to climb. But Toots doesn’t strike me as a person that would start touring again at anything other than 100%, and that was absolutely the case at Reggae Fest,” Cascino says. “I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing him live before, so I don’t know whether his set list and performance were typical or not. But seeing him for the first time, it’s hard to even imagine that he was ever sidelined by an injury in the first place. His voice was as good as it was on his most recent albums, and he was dancing around the stage like a man who was 40 years younger! WBEZ’s Tony Sarabia introduced him by alluding to Otis Redding, which was a very accurate comparison. I definitely saw more than a bit of gospel (à la Sam Cooke) in Toots as well as in the way that he interacted with the crowd through call and response and an almost sermon-like intonation, clearly a nod back to his roots singing in choirs. I also really appreciated that he added quite a bit of ska to his set, playing tunes like Never Grow Old and Dog War, and ending a lot of the songs in a ska tempo. In an interview in the Chicago Tribune, Chuck Wren said that getting Toots would elevate the festival, and he could not have been more right. I’m so glad he was able to show to the world that he’s back in fighting form with a stellar performance in our fair city!”
Toots Hibbert continues his 2016 tour with performances in England throughout August and September, culminating with the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise in mid-November.
From left to right, Tony Gregory, Toots Hibbert, and Courtney Jackie Jackson in August 2012. Toots received the Order of Distinction for his contribution to Jamaican music.
Toots Hibbert will be deeply missed by his fans, of which there are millions. He touched so many because of his soulful voice and enthusiastic performances, but also because he understood the human condition. He told me, ““I was singing about hard times. When you go through hard times like my people have been through, you got to write about it, write a song about it. Don’t make it sound like politics. It’s not politics. Just sing about real things that can affect you and can happen to a lot of people too.” Walk good, Toots.