Frederick "Toots" Hibbert: The reggae king of Kingston

Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert is credited as the man who gave a name to the music of Jamaica. Forty years on, he is still keeping the faith, as Fiona Sturges finds
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The Independent Culture

Frederick "Toots" Hibbert, the leading light of Toots and the Maytals and the man famed for giving reggae its name, is sitting in his record company offices in West London reflecting on the state of contemporary music. "I know what the youth of today are short of: good lyrics and positivity," he says jovially. "There's too much negativity in music. If you are negative, you don't have a real message. When we started we sang about the life we lived, the life we wanted for the future. Reggae is message music. The message has to be happy otherwise who is going to listen to you?"

True to his word, Hibbert's new LP, True Love, is an album that induces feelings of such happiness and warmth that it makes you wonder if someone has spiked your morning tea. It features joyous re-workings of classic Maytals anthems such as "Pressure Drop", "54-46 (That's My Num- ber)", "Reggae Got Soul" and "Monkey Man", alongside a host of pop luminaries such as Keith Richards, Ryan Adams, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Shaggy and Eric Clapton.

"Everyone just do it for me as they are all my fans," Hibbert beams, his Jamaican accent apparent, when I remark upon his starry address book. "They know my style and they love my songs. I have a lot of new material that I don't want to release yet. Why release new tracks when you have these great songs? I want to make sure real reggae is heard by the younger generation. I think people have lost respect for the rhythm. Drum machines and computers have come in and taken away a lot of virtue from reggae. This album is a reference point for the younger generation."

For nearly 40 years Hibbert has been a giant among Jamaican musicians. Between 1963 and 1982, with the Maytals, he produced a hit-strewn back catalogue. Over the years, countless musicians have paid tribute to the Toots legacy. "Pressure Drop" has been recorded by The Clash, Joe Jackson and Robert Palmer, while the British reggae band Aswad covered "56-46 (Was My Number)".

Hibbert says his naming of the genre on the 1968 single "Do The Reggay" was pure accident. "There's a word we used to use in Jamaica called 'streggae'," he recalls. "If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say 'Man, she's streggae' it means she don't dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This 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 created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound it's name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it's in the Guinness World of Records"

Hibbert grew up in rural May Pen, about 30 miles west of the capital, Kingston, and began singing alongside his parents at the local Baptist church. "There wasn't much instruments in our churches, a piano maybe but that's all, so people's voices become music. When I started singing people looked over at me and say 'Where does this sound come from?' I had a very high tone. They say 'When you get big you going to be a great singer.' So you see I grew up knowing I would be great."

As a teenager, Hibbert was inspired by the American singers he heard on the radio, including Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard and Otis Redding as well as the home-grown artists Jimmy Cliff, Derrick Morgan and Clancy Eccles.

At 15 Hibbert moved to Kingston where he tried his hand as a boxer. "I didn't want to do it professionally," he explains. "In those days it was very tough to be what you wanted to be. I had to choose between two things - boxing or singing. I realised singing was harder but was much more spiritual. It was better than hurting someone."

In 1963 Hibbert hooked up with Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and Jerry Mathias as Toots & the Maytals and began working with the producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd at his fabled Studio One. The Maytals' most prolific period came while working with Leslie Kong, who produce a string of hits, including "Do the Reggay" and "Monkey Man".

In 1967, Hibbert's career was almost derailed when he was arrested for possession of marijuana and jailed for nine months. "They frame me," Hibbert roars. "They put something in my bag. It was a very cruel thing." On the night he was arrested, Hibbert says he was on his way to a show and had stopped to bail a friend out of jail. He was carrying a bag containing his stage suit but neglected to bring his driver's licence. "[The police] told me I needed a licence to bail the person out, so I left my bag there and went back to get it. When I came back, they say they find ganja in it." It was while in prison that he penned the hit "54-46 (That's My Number)," the title of which was inspired by his prison identification number.

Island Records signed the band in the early Seventies, after which they released the classic album Funky Kingston, an uplifting blend of reggae, soul and gospel. In 1973 their music found an even wider audience when "Pressure Drop" appeared on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, the landmark film starring Jimmy Cliff that chronicled, among other things, the hardships suffered by Jamaican musicians. It was a subject to which Hibbert could relate. Now, nearly 40 years after his career began, he's still locked in a battle with former record companies to extract royalties and win back his publishing rights.

"The people who handled my career didn't tell me about the money I was earning," he says bitterly. "They trick you and make you sign things and they don't give you a lawyer to see that everything's good. They took my material and make sure they get to keep it for life. That's not satisfying. I'm taking everybody to court, man. Everybody going down."

The original Maytals went their separate ways in the early Eighties, leaving their singer to pursue a solo career. Now at 59, Hibbert's not so keen on the lifestyle of a touring musician but says he still gets a thrill from playing live. "There's nothing that compares with the feeling of showing the younger generation what real music is all about."

'True Love' is out on V2 on Monday. Toots and the new Maytals begin their UK tour at Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12, on 7 June