KINGSTON. — Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, the lead singer and songwriter of Toots and the Maytals and one of reggae’s foundational figures, died on Friday in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 77.
His death was announced on the band’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. “It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica,” read the statement.
The cause of death was not revealed, but his Facebook account confirmed on August 31 that Hibbert was tested for coronavirus in the last two weeks and placed in intensive care.
Hibbert’s soulful, electrifying performances thrilled live music lovers for more than 50 years and brought a distinctive Jamaican expression to international audiences.
His 1968 song “Do The Reggay” gave a name to Jamaica’s signature beat, but his artistry defied boundaries.
His vocals are an amalgam of rousing gospel, vintage soul, gritty R&B, and classic country fused with pliant, indigenous Jamaican rhythms. Hibbert brought a stunning island lilt to Otis Redding’s standard “(I’ve Got) Dreams to Remember,” he transformed Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” into a scorching serenade, and forever altered John Denver’s “Country Roads” into a beloved sing-along reggae anthem.
Hibbert’s humble demeanor and affable personality belied his towering global stature. Regarded as a national treasure in Jamaica, in 2012 he was conferred the Order of Jamaica, the country’s fifth highest honour.
“For my generation, Toots is the ultimate performer,” said Roy “Gramps” Morgan of the reggae group Morgan Heritage. “The [kind of] artist that leaves everything on the stage, physically and spiritually. Toots is the James Brown of reggae, and one of the greatest Jamaican singers of all time. You won’t find another singer that sounds like Toots and you are not going to hear that sound again.”
Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert was born on December 8, 1942, in rural May Pen, Clarendon, about 45 minutes west of Jamaica’s capital Kingston. Hibbert’s parents were preachers and he was raised singing gospel in what he calls “a salvation church.”
The hand clapping, foot stomping, and soul-shaking vocals associated with Jamaica’s Afro-Christian religious traditions, including Revival Zion and Pocomania, were essential in shaping Hibbert’s performances. Hibbert also cites Elvis Presley, gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, and soul superstars James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding as influences.
In his early teens, Hibbert moved to Trench Town, an economically poor yet musically thriving community in western Kingston, also home to future reggae artistes including Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley, who became The Wailers.
While working as a barber, Hibbert met Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias and Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and they formed The Maytals vocal trio, circa 1961, at the dawn of Jamaica’s ska era.
Matthias and Gordon had previously cut a single together and they knew Hibbert’s powerful voice would enhance their sound. The Maytals went on to release numerous singles for the top Jamaican producers of the 1960s. They signed with Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label in 1962, releasing such ska gems as “Hallelujah,” “Fever” and the exceptional “Six and Seven Books of Moses,” featuring Hibbert’s galvanizing gospel delivery.
Studio One was regarded as Jamaica’s Motown, home to many outstanding young singing, songwriting and instrumental talents, including The Wailers, Bob Andy, The Heptones, Marcia Griffiths and Jackie Mittoo. The Maytals, however, were dissatisfied with Dodd’s payments and moved on.
They recorded the rollicking “Dog War,” which alludes to leaving Dodd and working instead with his rival Prince Buster.
They made history with producer and band leader Byron Lee when their joyous ska romp “It’s You,” and its b-side, the R&B ballad “Daddy,” both topped the Jamaica charts.
In August 1966, The Maytals’ “Bam Bam,” won the inaugural Jamaica Festival Song competition, — npr.org.