Frederick Nathaniel "Toots" Hibbert, OJ (8 December 1942 – 11 September 2020), was a Jamaican singer and songwriter, the lead vocalist for the reggae and ska band Toots and the Maytals. A reggae pioneer, he performed for six decades and helped establish some of the fundamentals of reggae music. Hibbert's 1968 song "Do the Reggae" is widely credited as the genesis of the genre named reggae. His band's album True Love won a Grammy Award in 2005.
Hibbert was born on 8 December 1942 in May Pen, Parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, the youngest of 14 siblings. He grew up in May Pen Clarendon and every morning Toots would walk 5 miles to school and 5 miles back in the evenings. Hibbert's parents were both strict Seventh-day Adventist preachers so he grew up singing gospel music in a church choir. Both parents died young and, by the age of 16, Hibbert was an orphan who went to live with his brother John in the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kingston. While working at a local barbershop, he met his future bandmates Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias.
Hibbert, a multi-instrumentalist, formed Toots and the Maytals in 1961. He could play every instrument used in his band and would later cite Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown as key influences. According to Hibbert, Maytals is a reference to the Rastafari term for "do the right thing". There are also statements attributing the source of the name to Hibbert's hometown of May Pen. The band was originally a trio with Gordon and Mathias, and later added Jackie Jackson and Paul Douglas.
The Maytals became one of the more popular vocal groups in Jamaica in the mid-1960s, recording with producers Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster, Byron Lee, Ronnie Nasralla, and Leslie Kong. This success included winning Jamaica's National Popular Song Contest three times with songs Hibbert wrote: in 1966 with "Bam Bam," 1969 with "Sweet and Dandy" and 1972 with "Pomps & Pride". Toots recounted in an interview that in 1966 when he entered the National Song Festival with the song called “Bam Bam,” the bus loads of people that other artistes brought to cheer for them cheered for Toots instead.
In 1966, Hibbert was sentenced to 18 months in prison for possession of marijuana. This experience provided the inspiration for one of his best known songs, "54-46 That's My Number". Hibbert was one of the first artists to use the word "reggae" on a record, in 1968 "Do the Reggay".
Toots’ Star Rises
As with other reggae stars, Hibbert’s following soared after the release of the landmark 1972 film, “The Harder They Come,” which starred Jimmy Cliff as a poor Jamaican who moves to Kingston and dreams of a career in music. The Jamaican production was a word of mouth hit in the U.S. and the soundtrack, often ranked among the greatest in movie history, included the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” and “Sweet and Dandy.” Hibbert also appeared in the film, as himself, recording “Sweet and Dandy” in the studio while Cliff’s character looks on with awe. Around the same time, the Maytals signed with Island Records and released the acclaimed album “Funky Kingston,” which the critic Lester Bangs called “the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released.” (The album would eventually come out in two different versions).
Grammy nominations for Hibbert included best reggae album of 2012 for “Reggae Got Soul” and best reggae album of 2007 for “Light Your Light.” Hibbert was ranked No. 71 on a Rolling Stone list, compiled in 2008, of the 100 greatest contemporary singers. In 2012, he received the Order of Distinction by the government of Jamaica for outstanding contribution to the country’s music.
Married to his wife, Doreen, for nearly 40 years, Hibbert had eight children, including the reggae performers Junior Hibbert and Leba Hibbert.
Through The Years
The Maytals began when ska was the most popular music, continued to rise during the transition to the slowed down rocksteady and were at the very forefront of the faster, more danceable sound of the late ‘60s. Their uptempo chant “Do the Reggay” is widely recognized as the song which gave reggae its name, even if the honor was unintended.
“If a girl didn’t look so nice or she wasn’t dressed properly, we used to say she was streggay. I was playing one day and I don’t know why but I started singing: ‘Do the reggay, do the reggay’ — it just stuck,” he told the Daily Star in 2012. “I might have stuck with calling it streggay if I’d thought longer. That’d be something — everyone dancing to streggay music.”
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Jacqueline Cameron is an editor/writer with years of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to reporting. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. She is a trained engineer and musician and loves to see people transformed through her work.