Toots And The Maytals are celebrating their 50th anniversary with their biggest ever UK tour later this month. Frontman Toots Hibbert, the reggae pioneer who even invented the term, tells Andy Welch about his remarkable career and early years back in Jamaica.
The name might not be as familiar as, say, Bob Marley - a man synonymous with Jamaica's finest export. But without the work of Frederick Hibbert, as no one calls him ("Toots will do just fine"), it's unlikely any reggae albums would be sitting on the shelves of music lovers around the world, least of all the ubiquitous Marley compilation Legend. The original Toots band line-up, including Henry 'Raleigh' Gordon and Nathaniel 'Jerry' Matthias, are about the embark on their 50th anniversary tour. It's an incredible achievement; half a century of recording music and travelling the world, spreading their joyous reggae music. Plans for the forthcoming tour, which kicks off in Newcastle later this month, were roughly drawn up over a year ago.
"We wanted to create something special for the 50th anniversary. It's going to be a year-long celebration, if we can keep it up," says Toots, rubbing his eyes. "I'm still trying to wake up, I've been working so hard," he adds in the thickest of Jamaican accents, undented by his many years travelling the world. "I rest a lot, but I don't sleep enough. I must be looking rough." In fairness, he doesn't. He's 65 now, and still in good health. From his broad chest and shoulders, it's not hard to see why he tried his hand at boxing before turning to music. His bright turquoise satin shirt is grabbing all the attention today, though, while his knitted hat in black, green and gold is a reminder of his Jamaican homeland. "You should see me when I've had some sleep," he says playfully, eyes finally widening. "I'll look even better!" Toots moved to Kingston in the early 1960s. He'd grown up singing gospel music in church and after arriving in Jamaica's capital, formed The Maytals.
They quickly became the most talked about group on the island and won Jamaica's prestigious National Popular Song Contest in 1966 with Bam Bam. "That was the first song that got us lots of attention," he says. "People came to Jamaica to see us from all over. That's when Chris Blackwell came and gave us a contract for our first big tour in the UK."
Unfortunately for Toots, his meeting with Island Records' founder Blackwell - a key figure in popularising reggae around the world - was also his first taste of ruthless record industry politics. "There were certain artists who were being carried," he explains. "Companies wanted their artists to come up and be famous before me. At festivals, they were promoted ahead of others, and busloads of people brought in to cheer for them. "Even then, people still clapped and sang my songs instead. They were asked to clap for one band, but they ended up clapping me!"
Toots was then jailed for cannabis possession - a crime he denies to this day. "I was framed," he says. "People got jealous and other artists couldn't get the same love as me. I never had any weed on me. "While the 18-month sentence put a block on the band's rise, it did give Toots time to write one of his signature tunes, 54-46 That's My Number. A huge hit upon release, it was one of the first ska songs to receive worldwide recognition and was later covered by The Clash. Now in 1968, Toots And The Maytals continued where they'd left off, going into the studio to record with Leslie Kong. As well as producing a batch of new music, one of their songs, Do The Reggay, was more significant. Although it was spelt differently, it was the first time the word 'reggay' had been recorded.
"I was the first!" he says, proudly. "Reggae as we know it was played in Jamaica, but no one knew what to call it. It was roots, boogie beat, ska, rocksteady and other things. That was when I came up with reggae. "It came from nowhere, it just happened. There's a slang word in Jamaica that you use when a girl isn't looking so nice, you call her 'Shreggay girl'. We weren't looking so nice then, like raggedy, we didn't have decent clothes, so I said reggay. Shreggay to reggay. I coined that. Inventor. "It's a little word, but a big word too. I wrote Do The Reggay to let people know that our music had a name."
Since his early years, Toots, thanks to the success of hits such as Pressure Drop, Monkey Man and Sweet And Dandy, has crossed over from the reggae genre, going on to work with stars as diverse as The Who, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, No Doubt, Ben Harper and The Roots. At Glastonbury four years ago, Amy Winehouse took to the stage with her own rendition of Monkey Man: "She was a beautiful girl, and I'm sorry she was taken so young," says Toots. "She did one of my songs already and was planning to do more, and to meet me. She loved my songs, and I loved hers. Such a pity, a beautiful girl, and her style was so different and fantastic." No one is more surprised than Toots, that his success has lasted like it has. In just 2005, Toots And The Maytals' album True Love won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. "I didn't know I'd carry on this long. I never thought about it. I just wanted to make good records and create good sounds. I thought we'd just be in Jamaica, but then I came over here and realised how well it was going.
"Other people were trying to be No 1, so we had to make sure we were good enough to beat those people. That's what we did, and then I realised it was all over the world.
"We didn't get proper pay in those days, a few shillings for a No 1 song. Somebody was making money but it wasn't us. I never knew that until I came over here. People sing my songs word for word all over the world now, and that means more." Toots is happy to be back in the UK, although the recent riots worried him. "I used to spend months and months here," he says. "I've been to Brixton, Manchester and Birmingham. I came here three days after the riots and was still seeing bad things. We're going backwards. It's not a good thing. "More people need to come to my shows. I make people happy. And that's what everyone needs." Extra Time - Toots and the Maytals :: Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert was born the youngest of seven children on December 8, 1945, in May Pen, Jamaica. Toots And The Maytals hold the record for most No 1 singles in Jamaica, with 31 chart-toppers to their name. Toots was raised as a Christian and still practices religion. Many of his Jamaican peers converted to Rastafari, but he kept with his original faith, although he has written many songs about the subject.
For More info on tour dates check Toots and The Maytals
source : halesowen news (by Andy Welch)
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