I’m not quite sure where Frederick Hibbert, better known as ‘Toots’, is when I get through, but I’m guessing it’s Jamaica’s own back of beyond, with the phone reception poor. It doesn’t help that he’s en route between engagements, nor that he’s struggling to pick up what this Lancashire-based Englishman on the line is saying.
More to the point I get off to a bad start, following his introductory, laidback ‘Yeah, man!’ response to me asking if he’s doing okay, with a question about how life is now he’s in his mid-70s.
“No, no, no! I’m not! Where did you get your information from?”
With that we lost contact, and I wondered if he’d taken umbrage and cut me off. But I tried again and this time – while still a little testy at first – Toots was more forthcoming.
The charismatic multi-instrumentalist will be touring this August and September, back at the helm of the legendary Toots and the Maytals, one of the world’s best-loved ska and reggae groups, one he co-founded in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1961 with Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Mathias and Raleigh Gordon. They start their latest UK visit with outdoor appearances over the August bank holiday weekend at Alex James’ The Big Feastival in the Cotswolds, then as special guests that Monday, August 29, of Madness for the House of Common showcase on Clapham Common. And then comes Toots and The Maytals’ own eight-date tour, starting at Bristol’s Motion on Wednesday, August 31, and ending on Saturday, September 10 at Manchester Academy.
But that was still some way off when I tracked down Toots back home in Jamaica, the reggae legend resuming our conversation by explaining that he’s on the road so might well lose contact again. What’s more, he wasn’t quite done with me on the question of his age.
“I was born in 1945, although people believe I was born in 1942. But I can’t do anything about it!”
There’s humour in his reply this time, and I remark that it serves me right for believing what I read on the internet, before asking if he feels his age some days.
“I don’t think of it – I never think of it.”
Taking the hint, I switch from tackling Toots’ personal history to that of his band, mentioning how it’s now 55 years since the Maytals formed. Has that time flown?
“We started in 1944, while Bob Marley and the Beatles started in 1942, you know.”
I’m confused there, knowing full well Toots and the Maytals didn’t start out until the early ‘60s, with Bob Marley (another artist born in 1945) and his band the Wailers following in their wake and proving similarly influential. As for that Liverpudlian outfit he mentioned, John Lennon’s early group the Quarrymen didn’t even attract the attention of a passing Paul McCartney at a church fete in Woolton until 1957. But perhaps Toots’ point was that we become artists from birth. At least I think that’s what he meant.
“No, that’s wrong!”
That’s wrong as well? I’m not doing very well here. I think I’ll start avoiding the internet altogether from now on, I tell him.
“There were actually 14 of us.”
Wow, and was his very much a musical family?
“Yes, we were.”
I gather there was a lot of gospel music in his background, I venture.
“Yes, we grew up going to church, and that’s where I learned to sing.”
Toots certainly seems to have walked the line between his Christian and Rastafarian beliefs throughout his career.
“Yes, but Rastafari came long after that. First, I went to church with my parents, and we would sing.”
That spiritual side appears to have been the backbone in all Toots set out to achieve in music. Is that right?
He also quickly proved himself to be an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. Did that come easily?
“Yes, it come naturally.”
He might not be telling me too much, but one thing is beyond doubt – from his pioneering recordings in ska and rocksteady to helping establish what became known as reggae, Toots and the Maytals proved an inspiration for generations of popular musicians, their influence stretching way beyond Jamaica.
He’s also been covered in many different styles, from Two Tone to Dancehall, and proved an influence on so many great artists over the years – from The Clash and The Specials through to Amy Winehouse. I put this to him, suggesting that’s something to be proud of. He’s not convinced though, or at least he’s not one to lap up any flattery.
“Well, you could say that, but I’m not proud of myself. I just do what I have to do and hope to do it well. And sometimes I do it better, you know!”
His influence has certainly been recognised in recent years, to a point where he’s even been awarded the prestigious Order of Jamaica back home. I can see he’s not one to take such adulation too well though, so instead I mention his involvement as a judge for the Independent Music Awards. Is that a bit of payback for all the success he’s enjoyed from music?
“That’s just to acknowledge the work I’ve done … and who I am.”
Back in the 1960s, Toots and his band shone through, despite a wealth of talent from his home island. Going back a bit again, did he feel there was a good sense of competition with all the other acts he worked alongside, not least the Maytals’ old musical sparring partners the Wailers? And was there ever resentment from the Maytals’ camp that Bob Marley and his band became a bigger name all over the world? Or was Toots happy enough with his comparatively-modest amount of success?
“There is always competition. It’s like politics. But we don’t think like that, although people always cheer for me and they cheer for Bob Marley. People may think Jimmy Cliff was the greatest and they may think Bob Marley was the greatest. I don’t even think about that.”
I guess that above all there was always plenty of respect for each act.
From working with Prince Buster and Byron Lee onwards, Toots has been at the forefront of Jamaican music. Who would he say he learned most from within the industry?
“They were before me … but I came along, y’know.”
He’s clearly not taking me up on that question either, and I don’t pursue that line, switching tactics and leaving aside further questions about who he felt he worked best with, citing the likes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Chris Blackwell at Island, and so on. Instead, I bring up his forthcoming UK dates. It sounds like a great time to catch such a rightly-revered band. Is he excited by the thought of his return?
“Yes, I’m looking forward to that. I’ve a lot of friends in the UK, because I’m the one who coined the word ‘reggae’ and was the inventor of the word ‘reggae’, so I’ve a lot of friends there.”
I was hoping to bring that up – the Maytals’ Do The Reggay, from 1968, is widely acknowledged as the first song ever to feature the term. And Toots and his group certainly helped popularise the reggae sound with hits like Pressure Drop (later covered by The Clash) and Monkey Man (later covered by The Specials and then Amy Winehouse).
Then there was perhaps the song they’re most associated with, 54-46 (That’s My Number), Toots’ memorable take on his 18 months in prison from 1966 for possession of marijuana. And from early hits like Sweet and Dandy through to ‘70s successes Funky Kingston and Reggae Got Soul and beyond, the Maytals hold the current record of number one hits in Jamaica, with 31 chart-toppers altogether.
His band have also toured with the likes of The Rolling Stones and Sheryl Crow, while Toots has guested with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Meanwhile, among five Grammy nominations, his band won a 2005 award for Best Reggae album with True Love, their hits re-recorded with artists such as Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, No Doubt, and Shaggy.
Furthermore, five years ago Toots came out 71st in Rolling Stone’s top 100 greatest singers, Bonnie Raitt calling him ‘one of the most powerful and original soul singers ever’, singling out his ‘gruff, classic style’. The US magazine added that classic Maytals singles like Sweet and Dandy and Monkey Man ‘set a template for a couple of generations of ska revivals and garnered the Jamaican singer well-earned comparisons to Otis Redding. And as Toots himself said at the time, “A hundred years from now, my songs will be played, because it is logical words that people can relate to.”
Unfortunately, he’s been absent from the stage for almost three years after suffering a head injury caused by a drunk fan throwing a glass bottle during a festival performance in Richmond, Virginia. But thankfully, after intensive medical therapy, Toots has been cleared by his doctor to resume touring this year. And as he recently told his UK publicist, “It has been a difficult three years, but I am very happy to be able to now get back together with my musical family and prepare to share my music once again with my incredible fans.”
I don’t bring that up this time. Instead, running out of time with my brief slot, I ask – as he mentioned Jimmy Cliff before – about his experience of being involved in The Harder They Come, the cult 1972 Jamaican movie where the soundtrack included The Maytals’ Pressure Drop and Sweet and Dandy.
“Ah yes, that was a good experience.”
Again I wait expectantly for more illuminating detail, but he doesn’t venture any more, and I’m as good as out of time, his next caller already waiting. Finally, I quickly ask, if there are young musicians out there who like what they’ve heard of Toots and the Maytals (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t?), what advice would he give them after 50-plus years as an innovator in his field?
This time he opens up a bit more, just when the clock has ticked down.
“I’d wish them to listen to music from me … and Jimmy Cliff … and Bob Marley. Young people should listen very attentively and try to write good lyrics and be creative to produce good music. And to do that they have to listen and learn, and pay respect to us – the original singers of reggae music!”
Well, I can’t argue with that logic. In other words – learn from the master. And with that Toots is away, after a brief apology about the quality of the reception, promising better next time.
“When I come to London, we will talk again!”
I look forward to it, Toots. And here’s to that latest Maytals tour, as one of the great names of ska, reggae and rocksteady returns to our shores.
Toots and The Maytals’ UK tour dates: Wednesday, August 31 – Bristol Motion; Thursday, September 1 – Cardiff Tramshed; Friday, September 2 – Brighton Dome; Tuesday, September 6 – Canterbury Marlowe Theatre; Wednesday, September 7 – Norwich UEA; Thursday, September 8 – Nottingham Rock City; Friday, September 9 – Newcastle The Boiler Shop; Saturday, September 10 – Manchester Academy.