To mark the passing of Toots Hibbert (of Toots & The Maytals) GARY STEEL whips out his 2004 interview with the reggae icon.
“I get annoyed when people talk about reggae,” says Toots Hibbert, of Toots & The Maytals. “They just talk about Bob Marley. People should know that I’m the inventor.”
Damn right. Hibbert has gone down in history as the man who coined the word ‘reggae’. Imagine that! He’s been playing ska since the early 60s, and was there at the precise moment the musical form transgressed its boundaries and became the exquisite downbeat flavour of Jamaica.
And it was Hibbert whose reggae broke the new music form through to an international audience with his music for the film The Harder They Come, along with Jimmy Cliff and others.
But Bob? “Heh-heh-heh! They did a lot of promotion with Bob. So a lot of people they believe it’s just Bob Marley. They don’t know better, they thought reggae was just one group alone, Bob Marley’s Wailers, you know?”
If Hibbert is honest in admitting that Marley’s iconic status pisses him off, there’s not a trace of bitterness in either his rather hazy replies, or in the amiable music assembled on his new album, True Love.
Not an album of new material, True Love is really a way to reiterate Hibbert’s importance to a new audience: Toots & The Maytals songs are revisited in collaborations with the likes of Keith Richards, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, The Roots, No Doubt, Jeff Beck, Shaggy, Ryan Adams, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and others.
And in Nelson’s case, it’s one of the septuagenarian’s own songs that gets re-worked, reggae style.
“The song that he wanted to do, some artist did it already,” says Hibbert. “So I say a long time I have wanted to do one of his songs, so I go and do the rhythm… I love his songs very much.”
Unlike some of reggae’s other trailblazers, Hibbert has always expressed a love for soul, and oddly, country music. One of his 1970s hits was a cover version of John Denver’s redneck lament, Take Me Home (Country Roads).
Had Denver not topped himself in one of them flying jalopies, would he have been on True Love to re-work this hardy perennial?
“He would, he would. I wanted to do ‘Country Roads’. I love it very much,” he rasps. “He plays so gently with acoustic guitar.”
Another catalogue casualty was the NZ number 1, ‘Beautiful Woman’. Trouble is, New Zealand and Nigeria are the only countries that bestowed chart success on the song. “No-one knows that song. Not popular.”
Other Toots & The Maytals classics are given run-throughs, including Reggae Got Soul, and Hibbert’s groundbreaking protest song ’54-46′, which comments on his late 60s marijuana bust and subsequent incarceration.
“People tried to frame me,” says Hibbert. “I didn’t have anything like that. I never smoked. So I wrote the song about it. They tried to stop my career.”
It’s been a long career with many ups and downs, but Hibbert is gratified that he no longer has to face the ignorance of some of the rock audiences he faced in the 1970s. On one infamous American tour with The Who in 1974, Toots & The Maytals were abused and booed off the stage.
Hibbert chuckles at the memory. “They didn’t advertise me. Wherever we went we get great money to sing for about eight seconds! There was no hard feelings. We would go on stage and just run right off!”
* True Love is out now on V2. Toots & The Maytals perform with Burning Spear at the Logan Campbell Centre on April 15.
Note: Sometimes phone interviews can be really torturous. You’re generally limited to 15 or 20 minutes and there’s no time to establish any rapport or, in the case of Toots Hibbert, get acclimatised to the accent. Toots spoke in a thick Jamaican patois and there are chunks of the interview transcript that I simply could not decipher. On top of that, it’s just overwhelming having just a wee bit of time with a music legend whose career had, by this point, already spanned the better part of 40 years. It’s a weird feeling now that the voice coming down that line in 2004, however briefly, was Toots, and that now that voice is silent.
Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, O.J. (8 December 1942 – 11 September 2020.