Dense clouds of smoke hover overhead in Frederick “Toots” Hibbert’s dressing room after his blistering set for a nearly sold-out crowd at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York City. Toots And The Maytals are one of reggae’s most steady and influential acts, and their leader is basking in the afterglow of the energic performance that has just consumed him for the last two hours. Sitting on the edge of a tour bus-sized couch, the 62-year-old sage admits that if he had things his way he’d still be out there singing—longevity in the reggae business is probably one of its most distinguishable attributes—and Toots, often cited as the creator of the word reggae, has been doin’ it for a real long time.
But we aren’t here to just talk with Toots about his life in the business, or to praise him about his 2004 Grammyaward-winning album True Love, or to marvel at the fact that his jam “Funky Kingston” is now attributed to The Learning Channel’s tattoo docu-drama Miami Ink—no, we’re here to talk about his impressive new album Light Your Light.
Of course, we can’t ignore the love Toots gets from the crowd. Remarkably, that love keeps growing and attracting a younger audience. Maybe it’s because of the Grammy, or the Toots tribute at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, or his rendition of Radiohead’s “Let Down” for the Radiodread tribute album, or the fact that his songs are James Brown-tight and so damn true—whatever it is, Toots is staying current. “The younger generation is finding my music,” he observes. “The youth liked me a long, long time ago, but there are more now. The people want to hear songs of inspiration, songs that tell a good story. The people out there are like my family and they appreciate good music.”
“I always say you got to feel the music,” Toots says, and to make the point, he breaks into a chorus of his 1973 hit “Got To Feel (It).” Indeed, Toots’ extended family was feeling it—showering him with praises and hugs during the show. Women one-third his age were throwing themselves on stage, grabbing onto his leather-vested stocky little frame and planting kisses on his cherubic cheeks. Meanwhile, obnoxious frat boys were looking for high-fives, holding up their yellow Urban Outfitters “Jamaica” T-shirts and pointing to them as if they’d actually visited reggae’s holy land. But Toots remained cool throughout it all: big laughs, blissful smiles, appreciative handshakes, and an unbreakable, infectious spirit that followed the crowd out the door.
Toots And The Maytals have fused the sounds of soul, gospel, funk, rock, and ska into the bedrock of reggae. Until 1981, they were a trio fronted by Toots with Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” McCarthy behind him their first recordings were produced by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at Studio One in the early ’60s, with the Skatalites as their backing band. They soon left Dodd to work with Prince Buster, Byron Lee and eventually Leslie Kong, who in 1968 produced the song “Do the Reggay,” which lent a name to a unique new brand of music. According to Toots, the word derives from the Jamaican slum term streggae, which was used as slang. “If you weren’t looking good, the girls would call you streggae,” he says.
Whatever it was that defined the music, Toots fans appreciate Light Your Light. It’s a perfect mix of Maytals standards like “Johnny Coolman” (featuring Derek Trucks), Premature” (featuring Bonnie Raitt), and covers of Ray Charles’ “I Gotta Woman” and Otis Redding’s “Pain In My Heart”—a tune that Toots reproduces in a flawless mastery of Redding’s difficult range. The rest of the album is balanced by new versions of tunes he wrote in the ’60s and ’70s.
Every tune on Light Your Light is carefully constructed and polished, and Toots’s voice is so on point it hurts. His backing band is as locked into a roots groove as ever, maintaining The Maytals’ righteou
The Evolution of a Legend
Essential Must-Haves Sweet and Dandy
Sweet And Dandy is not only amazing for its raw, made-for-vinyl tracks, but it spins as a near-"best of" from the early part of the trio’s dynamic career.
Toots really began to develop his down-home blues voice here, replicating (and pulling off) odes to Otis Redding, while still retaining his rocksteady and ska feel.
People were digging "Funky Kingston" back in ’73, long before the track appeared on the opening of TLC’s Miami Ink. The album also introduced a fun rendition of "Louie, Louie."
Reggae Got Soul
Reggae Got Soul really shows Toots expressing his Rasta beliefs and experimenting with a down-tempo reggae feel.
Live at the Hammerstein Palais
A Toots And The Maytals show is an experience not to be missed, and the 1980 show at London’s Hammerstein Palais is like an audio time capsule. Toots is at the top of his game here, engaging an audience that’s clearly enthralled with his sound.
2004 (V2 Ada)
True Love is one of Toots’s most popular recent albums, thanks to the presence of Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Ben Harper, The Roots, and Ryan Adams, among others.