Reggae got soul: half a century on, Toots and the Maytals are still gigging

Toots Hibbert formed the Maytals in 1961. On their 50th anniversary tour, he’s playing at a venue near you. Chris Salewicz salutes reggae’s prime mover

A little over two years ago, at the tiny Bush Hall in West London, I saw one of the most riveting musical performances I have ever witnessed. It was by Jamaican singer Toots Hibbert, who had been chosen to close the 50th anniversary celebrations of Island Records, founded by his fellow islander Chris Blackwell.

It was long since Hibbert’s biggest UK chart hit, the Reggae Got Soul album in 1976, but picking him – still built like a boxer – for the show was perfect. In 1968, when his group the Maytals released their Do the Reggay tune – employing a characteristically Jamaican misspelling of the word ‘reggae’ – it was the first record to use the term.

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Toot's gruff vocal strength earned him the title of ‘the Jamaican Otis Redding’

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Should we be surprised that he was so in the vanguard of trends? Hardly. In the 1960s, the Maytals were the biggest group in Jamaica, working at first in the earlier forms of ska and rock steady, and eclipsing the upstart Wailers, among them Bob Marley, who were their main rivals.

For over two hours at Bush Hall, in an extraordinary controlled display of constant energy, the charismatic Jamaican vocal legend held the sweating crowd rapt, clearly not taking seriously his then-64 years. Time had not in the least diminished the gruff vocal strength that in the 1970s earned him the title of ‘the Jamaican Otis Redding’.

Toots and a version of the Maytals – Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon (the other pair of vocalists having departed long ago) were, earlier this year the subject of an excellent BBC4 documentary. He is presently embarking on his own 50th anniversary tour of Britain, celebrating his time enjoying a performing career.

Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, born in 1945, was a native of May Penn, a town in the middle of Jamaica. He moved to Kingston, the capital, when he was 13, and learnt to be a barber. “I make my little four-string guitar and people listen to it in the barber’s shop. One day Raleigh come down and say, ‘Teach me how to sing.’ I meet Jerry the next day, and we sit under a guinep tree, and everybody just start to sing. I teach them harmony. I teach them how to write song. And they teach me how to grow up.”

In 1961 they became The Maytals, a Rasta word, said Hibbert, meaning ‘to do the right thing’. They recorded the song ‘Rosemarie’, one of his first compositions, for King Edwards, a legendary soundsystem operator.

Almost immediately they moved to work with Coxsone Dodd, whose Studio One label nurtured most of Jamaica’s greatest musicians. They also recorded with Prince Buster, Duke Reid, and Mrs Pottinger, celebrated eminences grises of the local music scene. “We don’t get no money really,” said Hibbert without complaint. “In those days we get a pound or two pounds. Maybe five pounds. And we share it, the three of us. And it go on like that for a long time.”

Produced this time by Byron Lee, and sung to a galloping ska beat, some of this early material  notably the classic ‘Daddy, She Will Never Let Me Down’ and ‘It’s You’ – is on 1965’s The Sensational Maytals album, which is again available.

After serving two years in prison following a ganja bust in 1966, Toots put out ‘54-46 That’s My Number’ for Leslie Kong – another timeless hit, covered by Bono for a Nelson Mandela tribute – that pre-dated the sound of reggae. Other renowned new songs from the group included ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘Pressure Drop’, featured along with their ‘Sweet and Dandy’ in the 1972 Jamaican film The Harder They Come.

Signed to Island Records, Toots and the Maytals – as they had been renamed – produced a number of archetypal records that served to introduce reggae to a maintream audience, notably the Funky Kingston and Reggae Got Soul sets.

But it was the ‘Do the Reggay’ song, Toots Hibbert insisted, that moved his work to an entirely new level: “Everyone who listen to my song after that, they tell me that they feel a different spirit, that I revive their spirit. If they was down, the music just lift them up. So I was really proud of that, and it wasn’t me by myself – it was the power of the Most High.

“I say, up until now, if I’m doing something I have to do it with a certain spirit, to make sure the Father appreciate it. He give me the talent, really.”

And we give thanks and praise.

On his 50th anniversary tour, Toots and the Maytals will be playing 15 dates around the British Isles between 28 August and 15 September. For more information, visit the official website