Toots, frontman of reggae band Toots and the Maytals chats with Kevin Cooper about sustaining an injury whilst performing in 2013, his friendship with Jimmy Cliff, inventing the term reggae and their forthcoming tour of the UK
Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, the frontman of Toots and the Maytals, was born in Clarendon, Jamaica, and is the youngest of seven siblings. Forming The Maytals, who became one of the best known ska and rock steady vocal groups, the Maytals had a reputation for having strong, well-blended voices.
However, the group’s musical career was interrupted in late 1966 when Hibbert was jailed for 18 months for possession of marijuana. He stated that he was not arrested for drugs, but while bailing out a friend. He also admitted that he made up the number 54-46 when writing 54-46 That’s My Number about his time in jail.
Sweet And Dandy and Monkey Man were the group’s first international hits. By 1971, they had not only become the biggest act on the island, they were also (thanks to signing a recording contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records) international stars.
Whilst busy preparing to travel to the UK for their forthcoming tour, Toots took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Good morning Toots how are you today?
Hi Kevin I’m very well thank you.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to me today.
That’s ok and thank you too for wanting to speak to me. It’s my pleasure.
It’s not every day that I get to speak to a living legend.
How’s life treating you today?
All is ok at the moment. I feel very blessed at the moment.
Before we move on let me just say that I came to Wolverhampton to see you and Jimmy Cliff perform at the Civic Hall around four years ago now but you didn’t perform. May I ask why that was?
I remember that. Well let me tell you that I was feeling sick and didn’t think that I would be able to perform.
Back in May 2013 you were struck on the head with a vodka bottle while you were performing in Richmond, Virginia. You suffered concussion and received a nasty head injury. I have to ask, are you now fully recovered?
Yes I am ok now. It has taken me quite a while but I am now once again able to sing in front of a live audience. It was a nasty incident but all is now well.
Are you looking forward to once again touring here in the UK?
I really can’t wait to tour the UK man. Touring is what I do and I just can’t wait to be back out on the road over there in the UK.
On Thursday 8th September 2016 you are playing at Rock City here in Nottingham. Do you enjoy your time spent here in Nottingham?
We always have a good time up there in Nottingham (laughter). There is always a very good turnout of people to come along and see the show. The people are always happy to see us.
Are we going to be seeing any new material by Toots anytime soon?
(Laughter) well I have recorded a new album and I am just waiting to release it.
Can you tell me anything about the album?
No (laughter). I will tell you that this album will definitely be released over there in the UK.
Your songs have been covered by many artists, The Clash, Amy Winehouse and The Specials to name but a few. Do you have a favourite cover version of a Toots song?
Yes that’s right, many artists have covered my songs. But do I have a favourite, no not really. Everybody did well and I love them all.
On 31st May 2009 you were supposed to support Amy Winehouse at the Shepherds Bush Empire but Amy was forced to cancel the show. Did you ever get to perform with her?
No, unfortunately she passed before we had the chance to work together. It makes me sad that I will never get to work with her now. I really did like her work and felt privileged to be able to call her a friend. I did like her version of Monkey Man very much.
What was it like working at Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s Studio One having The Skatalites backing you?
It was good and very nice. We all had fun when working there. Everything felt so easy for us when we were in there recording. It was a really good time for us.
Who has influenced you along the way?
When I first started out in music I would listen to Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, James Brown and most of the rock and roll artists of the day. I loved Jimmy Cliff back in the day and still do.
You and Jimmy Cliff have got a very special relationship haven’t you?
Me, Jimmy and Bob (Marley) all had a very special relationship. We all used to have some great times together which for today I will keep to myself (laughter).
What do you think to what I call White Reggae; the likes of UB40, Ali Campbell, The Police and all of the other white artists who play reggae?
Well they all try to play reggae and I like them for doing that. It seems that everybody likes them and they do a good job. However, they are not doing it to help the likes of me or Jimmy Cliff, they are all doing it to help themselves. All that I hope that they do is write good songs and play good music.
In 1972 you had two songs, Sweet And Dandy and Pressure Drop featured on the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come. Do you think that helped you?
Yeah man that really helped us. It helped show the rest of the world exactly what reggae was all about.
Is it true that it was you who coined the term reggae?
Yes it was me that invented the word reggae.
And just where did that come from?
This is a true story. There is a word we used to use in Trench Town called ‘streggae’. That was used by the guys if a girl was walking by and the guys would look at her and say “Man, she’s streggae” which means she wasn’t dressed well, so they would say that she look raggedy. The girls would also say that about the men. One morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, “OK man, let’s do the reggay” It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing “Do the reggay, do the reggay” and by doing that we created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound its name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things.
Where did the name Toots come from?
They have told me that when I was a baby my older brother John would call me Tuts and it just came from that.
Back in 1971 you signed a recording contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. How did that work out for you?
Well I have to be honest with you and tell you that Chris Blackwell didn’t do anything for me. He did a lot for reggae music but he didn’t do anything for me. He’s a good guy who did things for other people but for some reason best known to him he didn’t have the time for me.
On that note Toots let me thank you once again for taking the time to speak to me. I am looking forward to seeing you here in Nottingham.
Thank you and when we see each other in Nottingham we will speak some more. Bye for now.