Toots Hibbert, the hyperkinetic showman, reggae icon and leader of Toots & the Maytals, died this past September 11 in a hospital in Kingston in his native Jamaica. He was 77.
When he and the Maytals recorded Do the Reggay in 1968, it was a typical pop music attempt at creating a dance meme and selling a few records. But the term outlived the dance by decades, and Hibbert got credit for giving a name to the slinky, ganja-fueled music that had morphed out of ska into rocksteady and was slowing down into even more psychedelic territory by the time he wrote the song.
The group first connected with an audience beyond Jamaica on the wings of their appearance in the film The Harder They Come, performing the wickedly catchy rocksteady hit Sweet and Dandy live in the studio. That subtly cynical wedding-night narrative is one of the strongest tracks on the film’s soundtrack, which was the first exposure to reggae for millions of fans outside of Jamdown.
Hibbert was a consummate frontman, a ball of energy strutting and spinning and getting a serious workout in front of the band, which became known officially as Toots & the Maytals in 1972. With a sweet, Smokey Robinson-influenced delivery that became grittier over the years, and a whirling, astonishingly energetic stage presence heavily influenced by James Brown, Hibbert would typically prowl and spin across the stage for two hours or more as the group behind him vamped along.
The classic Toots & the Maytals album is Funky Kingston, also from 1972. His double live album from 1980 is the closest approximation to a show by one of the most dynamic singers ever to hit the stage: and when he hit it, you felt it. Pressure Drop, pressure drop, pressure gonna drop on you! The Clash, and eventually innumerable other punk and ska bands, would cover that song.
By the 1990s, Hibbert was already past fifty, but he never slowed down. New York concerts in the middle of the decade at places like Tramps and Irving Plaza found him working up a sweat in front of crowds of white fratboys. He knew the deal: people had come out to dance and party, and he was there to deliver. He didn’t talk to the crowd much, leading the group through expansive versions of his big populist anthems and extended dance jams that would go on for fifteen or even twenty minutes. Hibbert continued to tour relentlessly throughout the rest of the decade and beyond.
Hibbert was a consummate professional and a genuinely nice guy. He served jail time for marijuana possession in Jamaica in the 1960s – and wrote one of his biggest hits, the witheringly cynical 54-46 Was My Number while behind bars. He considered himself a Rastafarian but always sported a short haircut. When asked about his hairstyle by Rockers TV host Earl Chin, Hibbert’s response was simple: “Jah trim.” What he meant by that was that Haile Selassie also kept his hair short rather than wearing dreadlocks.
Ironically, Hibbert’s best song was a rare slow one, Get Up Stand Up. Predating Peter Tosh’s song of the same name by a couple of years, this brooding minor-key anthem is one of the most understatedly haunting calls to action ever written. Hibbert’s imperturbable energy, his quirky sense of humor and ironclad logic will be badly missed. Condolences to all those who were lucky enough to know him .