A Wake for Toots Hibbert, Reggae Forefather

Including remembrances from Ziggy Marley, Shaggy, Bonnie Raitt, Debbie Harry, Ben Harper, and more.

Photo: David Redfern/Redferns
Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

When Toots Hibbert died last month, on September 11, the world lost not only one of the last living patriarchs of reggae (Toots was the first to use the word on his 1968 single “Do the Reggay”), but also a global ambassador — in life and song — for joy and positivity. Born in May Pen, Jamaica, in 1942, the son of two Seventh-day Adventist preachers and the youngest of 14 children, Toots and his band The Maytals helped define the staccato, upbeat sound of ska, predating reggae by several years. Given the name “Little Toots” by an older brother, Hibbert became an early spokesman for social justice on tracks like “54-46 That’s My Number,” an anthem about a cop shakedown, penned in detention from a marijuana charge that left Toots behind bars for nine months.

In 1972, through the smoky haze of midnight screenings, the Jamaican crime film The Harder They Come, with its iconic soundtrack by star Jimmy Cliff and two tracks from Toots and the Maytals (“Sweet and Dandy,” “Pressure Drop”), broke reggae into the American consciousness. While he never achieved the massive crossover appeal of peer and friend Bob Marley, Toots never stopped touring and making music until the literal end. Hibbert was laid to rest October 15 at Saint Catherine Parish in Jamaica in a small, private funeral surrounded by his wife, children, and loved ones.

In the weeks following his death, Vulture reached out to Toots’s friends, admirers, and musical collaborators — including Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Ziggy Marley — and Trojan Jamaica founders Zak Starkey and Sshh Liguz, who released Toots’s last album Got to Be Tough on August 28, shortly before his passing. Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son) also co-produced and performed on the album.

’It was like being in a room with a Buddha’

Ben Harper: I love Toots. Full stop. He was an absolute musical king. For whatever reason, my parents, with their incredible taste in music, made sure I was at very important concerts at a very young age. So, I saw Toots at age 10 at The Roxy. And it was madness, as you would imagine, in 1979. Even at a young age, what I really dug was the cross-sections of cultures and race in the crowd. There were the rockers, that British punk component, and the straight-up rude-boy component. Everyone blended perfectly together, and it was super powerful. Not only did Toots have the mic a few feet away from his mouth, his mic of choice was a Shure 58! This is tech-geek stuff, but Shure 58’s are made for the stage so that nothing else comes through them but the voice. It’s very tight, and not an ambient mic. To project on a 58, you literally have to have your mouth on the screen. Not only was he three feet from the mic, but he was on a mic that traditionally you have to be right up on to sound decent. That’s next level.

Can you imagine seeing him at the age of 10, and then getting to collaborate with him? If that was all that happened to me in my lifetime, I’d be able to dust myself off and be as proud as anybody. Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke, and Toots Hibbert. That’s it for me, man. Stick a fork in me, I’m cooked. In the studio, we did “Love Gonna Walk Out On Me.” We rehearsed it with just him and I, with Toots on acoustic guitar. The chorus on the original version is, “Love is gonna let me down.” He stopped mid-chorus, and said to me, “Ben, I’ve always wanted this song to be ‘Love’s Not Gonna Let Me Down.’ I’ve always wished I could change it.”

Of course, he didn’t need my permission. But he asked if we could change the chorus — because that way, the song would be timeless. The song is already timeless, but that commitment to songsmith-ing and love … I was very touched. Talk about a lesson in songwriting. I imagine it’s like being in a room with a Buddha. Not to wax existential, but he carried the force of the universe, and I won’t be saying that about anyone else for a very long time. He carried a Jedi force that was humbly fierce. It’s gonna take years for me to get used to a world without Toots.

Shaggy: The first time I really got to meet Toots was when he asked me to do a version of “Bam Bam.” We shot a video for it, and it was the first time that I really got to sit, smile, and laugh with him as a person. I really loved his work ethic, and he was pretty up in age by the time I got to work with him. He was there to work, and very present for all the scenes we shot, but also very pleasant. I was a fairly new artist at the time, but my [2000] album Hot Shot was a huge success. He made me feel a part of dancehall and reggae royalty, and he embraced me.

Because of how I started, by making these hybrid-style records and having a lot of success, there were not a lot of people in dancehall and reggae that were quick to embrace me. They didn’t think I was authentic, and thought I was just making pop music. Toots really understood what I was doing, which was breaking barriers and stigmas, and helping the culture. He was one of the few who really put his arms around me, along with Robbie Shakespeare. A lot of people weren’t as kind, and it could be boiled down to their own frustrations or jealousy. Toots was never that guy. He made me feel valuable, and a part of this elite group of reggae artists.

Bonnie Raitt: His songwriting also sets him apart — inspirational, truth-telling about how we should and do treat each other. Like Mavis and the Staple Singers, his songs of positivity, justice and uplift are part of what endears him to so many millions. And as for groove — I dare anyone to not be moved to dance by the irrepressible rhythm, energy, and sheer joy that pours out of every note he sings. No one loved performing more than Toots. We met a while back but became friends after I cut “True Love is Hard to Find” on my Nine Lives album in ’86. One of my greatest joys was getting to record that song as a duet, as well as “Premature” with Toots and his incredible band in the early 2000s, then perform together on TV and at festivals.

Zak Starkey: Toots recorded very elaborate demos from his studio, Reggae Center, in Kingston. He sent us about 40 or 50 great fucking songs. We met with Toots, and told him what we thought, and how it should be done. We took the songs to our studio, along with Sly Dunbar and Cyril Neville, and put the songs in order. Toots played bass and most of the keyboards and organ himself. He directed us, and sang the guitar parts at me. I went to L.A. with the Who, and started to edit the tracks. We stayed at my dad’s studio for a couple weeks, and while we were there, he put his head round the door and suggested some percussion. He said, “That one needs a cowbell, this one needs tambourine.” With my dad and music, he’s usually right. Toots’s only real notes were to turn his vocals up, and make them drier. His voice was so good that you didn’t need to add anything to it.

Jason Fine (Editor, Rolling Stone): His voice, even towards the end, was on another level. As he got older, and lost some of his range and nuance, he had a graininess to his voice that gave it even more resonance. The last time I saw him perform was about nine months ago in Brooklyn, and I was noticing how he rarely lifted that microphone close to his mouth. He had such control and power that he could fill the theater with very little usage of the mic.

’How many artists can take credit for naming a genre?’

Debbie Harry: I can’t remember specifically when Toots first came into my life, but I was immediately really turned on by the music. I’m a huge fan of Toots to this day. In the ’70s, we had a gig down in Austin, and we saw Bob Marley play a show. I was so excited by the response and the reception the music was getting. I’ve been watching this fabulous Bob Marley documentary series on TV, and there’s several interview clips with Toots. I love his whole ambiance and facade. There was a sweetness to him, and in a way, it reminded me of Flavor Flav. I’m not the best historian about this stuff, but I remember how reggae was being played in the ’60s, but it was very on the DL. They used to have free concerts in Tompkins Square Park, and the kids would get up and do it. It was such a great period for new forms of music. I just fell in love with reggae. I don’t know … I was smoking a lot of pot, I guess. We were also big fans of Mighty Sparrow, which was more of a Calypso thing. All that stuff was coming around, but it wasn’t getting a big boost commercially.

Chris Stein (Blondie): I remember seeing [1972’s] The Harder They Come as a midnight movie. I was always really fond of the deconstructivist aspect to reggae, where these guys were breaking down existing pop songs, and putting them back together in this whole new style. I’m still really into reggaeton, those split beats are really sexy to me. It was a natural progression to early hip-hop for us, like when we did “Rapture” with Fab Five Freddy. Those slower grooves are still really sexy to me. Toots was great, man. He really deserved more of a boost in his lifetime.

Ziggy Marley: I’ve known this man for a long time. I called him father; he was just like mine [Bob Marley] in many ways. This is how we treat the elders and patriarchs on Jamaica: We call them fathers, and we all have more than one father. He wasn’t the flesh father, but he was the spirit father. He was the patriarch for the music that I practice and that I love.

Growing up, I remember knowing his music and his albums before meeting him. He was a great singer, and when we recorded, he just did his thing. He was full of improvisation, but he doesn’t have to do it over and over again. He would just do it one time. He wouldn’t do multiple takes, or try to make it perfect. It was one time, and that’s it. Powerful voice, man! Powerful! And my father and Toots were peers. There was no rivalry. They respected each other. They were all part of the same effort to push the music out of Jamaica to the world. Toots and the Maytals was in England at the same time my father was there, and through music, Bob expressed his affinity for Toots. When Bob sang in “Punky Reggae Party,” “The Maytals will be there!” That’s the respect that Bob had for Toots, and Toots respected Bob.

Ben Harper: Here’s a funny story: Toots was the musical guest on SNL in 2004, and I’m embarrassed to say that it was Trump hosting that night. It was Bootsy Collins, Toots, and the Roots, along with Jack Johnson and me doing “Pressure Drop.” From what I understand, Toots is the only individual to be allowed to smoke weed on SNL. I’m talking the entire 30 Rock was lit up the entire time. You could probably have seen smoke coming out of the windows. I remember it was a big scandal. People were constantly running around, saying, “Please, Mr. Hibbert, if you could not smoke right now!” It was pandemonium, with people in suits with notepads, the fire marshal, all running around, freaking out about Toots smoking weed. But the smoke never went out.

At a certain point, everyone just surrendered. To my knowledge, he was the only one to ever be allowed to consistently smoke in the building. And you don’t have to ask how good Toots’s shit was. It put Humboldt to shame, and he’d mess with you. There’s a countdown before the host throws it to the musical guest, and I was sitting down playing lap steel. Jack was standing up, and right as Trump was saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Toots and the Maytals,” Toots yelled at us, “Hey Jack, what song we playing?” Jack looked at me in complete panic, and I was freaking out. Without missing a beat, Toots started doing the opening hum to “Pressure Drop.” He was just fucking with us, and he knew exactly what he was doing. You could see on our faces that shit had just hit the fan, temporarily. When he gave us a smile and a wink, I was like, “Oh, no he didn’t” [Laughs].

Jason Fine (Editor, Rolling Stone): Being in Jamaica with Toots was like walking around Nashville with Johnny Cash. When you arrive in the airport there’s Toots music playing on the sound system. He was one of the biggest legends of reggae music, but he was also driving around town in his Honda Prelude saying hi to people and going to lunch. A Toots sighting wasn’t rare — he was kinda everywhere in Kingston. One time I was with him just before Christmas, and we had dinner at the Terra Nova Hotel. There was a band playing for an office Christmas party. The band was playing reggae, and I could see Toots looking across the table, kind of checking it out. He was getting revved up, and he just couldn’t help himself. He got on stage and sang about four songs with the band. People were freaking out. You’re at an office Christmas party and suddenly Toots Hibbert is on stage. He was one of the people. All over Kingston, Jamaica — that was Toots. There was so much joy being with him, so much that it was like a full-contact sport. You were drinking, hugging, and laughing with him, and it certainly wasn’t about ego. It wasn’t about success or being a star. It was about a connection with him, the music, and the world around Toots. It was always about helping people.

There are artists whose journey, when they write, is to solve or make sense of something in their personal lives. Toots was trying, in real, everyday ways, to make people feel better. That was his journey, to express the kind of pain that he felt and had been through not to help himself but to help other people going through that pain. I was thinking about Brian Wilson, and the enormous pain that he had in his music. He was trying to share that pain to make other people feel good, and there was so much beauty in the sadness of his music. With Toots, that sadness came out in joyfulness, but underneath that joy was so much pain. His biggest songs, like “Pressure Drop” or “54-46 That’s My Number,” have became all-time party anthems. But they’re really painful songs. “54-46” was written while he was incarcerated in a low-security facility on a marijuana charge. He was basically put on ice for nine months. He had a drive, since he was little, to be generous and help people.

Michael Franti: Toots was always welcoming to other artists, and that’s rare. A lot of artists show up at a festival and want their privacy. I respect that, but Toots was always someone who was happy to say hello and give you a big hug. When we were working in Jamaica, his wife would come to the studio and bring food for everyone. He was just a beautiful spirit. He invented the term “reggae,” and how many artists can take credit for naming a genre? Who invented the term “rock and roll”? I don’t know who invented the phrase “grunge.” It’s crazy to think I knew someone in my lifetime that actually created a word that a great deal of the world knows.

It’s Bob Marley. It’s Jimmy Cliff. It’s Toots.

Bonnie Raitt: I fell in love with Toots and The Maytals from their performance in The Harder They Come [the hit indie film that blasted reggae into the U.S. music scene in 1972]. I grabbed every record I could find after that. Like Ray and Otis, Toots is one of the greatest soul singers I’ve ever heard. That rough, powerful R&B/gospel style just cuts through with equal parts fire and tenderness. Along with the Maytals and their virtuoso musicians, Toots created some of the most iconic reggae records in history.

Shaggy: I was born in Rae Town, which is downtown Kingston, and lived in different tenements around Jamaica. And I was raised by my grandmother, who was a devout Christian woman. The only music she played besides gospel was Toots and the Maytals. She always cooked Sunday dinner, so Toots was our Sunday music. He was her Jamaican artist. He was a force to be reckoned with in the game. Along with Jimmy Cliff, they didn’t just make great Jamaican music. They made timeless music. I grew up knowing Toots was a staple in the game. Bob Marley was a staple in the game. You don’t say, “Toots was dope when he was hot.” There’s no hot-or-cold scenario. It’s Bob Marley. It’s Jimmy Cliff. It’s Toots.

He was one of the warmest, most real people I’ve been blessed to know. He was so beloved the world over and I just wish to God he could have stayed with us a bit longer. After all he’d been through in recent years — to be starting his triumphant return with a new album — and then be cut down is truly tragic. We will keep his legacy and his memory alive always and be grateful for the gift he will always be.

Chris Stein (Blondie): I was always a really huge fan, and those guys [Toots and the Maytals] should have been in the Hall of Fame years ago. I don’t know if he’ll get in posthumously, but it’s way overdue. They were hugely influential. There was a bowling alley off of University Place [in Manhattan] that would play rock music, and I remember being up there bowling a long time ago, and “Funky Kingston” was blasting in the background. I remember thinking that it was perfect bowling music [laughs]. I saw them only one fucking time, sometime in the ’90s. It was in a bar downtown on lower Broadway. There were only about a hundred drunk college kids, but it was an amazing show. In a way it was sad, because they should have been at a much larger venue. We talked to him once on the phone about three years ago, because he wanted to do a version of “The Tide is High.” Sadly, it never came out.

Zak Starkey: He’s the greatest musician and songwriter I’ve ever known. Working with him, he was the most fun hang but also the most serious about the music. He had a symphony in his head, and knew how to get it out of the players. He had the same kind of energy and life force as Keith Moon, Liam Gallagher or Pete Townshend. A true force of nature. We thought he was going to make it, and pull through. One hundred fucking percent.

Sshh Liguz: Toots would always do a knuckle bump, but he wouldn’t actually touch your hand; it was his way of not getting sick on tour. He’d do the bump motion and say, “Wireless.” As we got to know him, we’d just say, “Wireless” when we’d see each other. That was trademark Toots. It feels like a cruel twist of fate that he was just gearing up for his comeback. He never went away, but he was loving the reception this record was getting. The people got it, and for us, that’s one small thing that we hold with us, is that he got to experience that. Wireless! Long live Toots!

In the months leading up to Toots’s death, Pete Lawrie Winfield, frontman for the U.K. electro-pop outfit Until the Ribbon Breaks, worked with Toots on a “reimagining” of “Got to Be Tough,” the title track off Toots and the Maytals final album. Over rap beats, Toots warns, “Got to be smart / living in this time.” The accompanying video, created by Winfield, serves as a haunting, visual call to arms against police brutality, highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement and power of protest; all proceeds on Bandcamp from the video will go toward BLM.

Pete Lawrie Winfield (Until the Ribbon Breaks): I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to present this to Toots just a few weeks before his passing. I made it not only as my own small way of giving voice to what is such an important movement, in such a crucial time, but also, because how often do you get the opportunity to work for an actual legend? We continue to lose our heroes year after year, those who literally dedicated an entire lifetime to fearless expression, inspiring entire generations, future artists, and giving voice to the silent. Remarkably, at 77, Toots was still doing exactly that — still singing about the injustices of a world that will be worse without him. Rest in blaring horns and dub sirens, Toots. I think I know which kind of peace you preferred.

A Wake for Toots Hibbert, Reggae Forefather