Toots Hibbert: The Force of Life & Love in Music

Was Toots and his 1968 hit “Do the Reggay,” responsible for popularizing both the name and form of reggae that, a few years later — and in no small part thanks to Robert Nesta Marley — became world music in every sense of the word?

Maybe. What matters more is the song itself, and the man singing it. This voice made the message impossible to ignore.

Toots and the Maytals are correctly credited for helping make reggae music resonate. Listening to anything from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s (and beyond, of course) causes one to realize that Toots, as much as any other front man, made reggae inevitable. The secret power of this music, which often sounds ebullient and irresistible (you know, the kind of music you play at a beach bar while drinking beers), often concerns itself with issues of injustice (easy to find) and justice (difficult to attain) and oppression, particularly the class and race constructions that have made existence historically more difficult for men and women born with darker skin.

Toots became a legend, and is mostly known for a handful of indelible hits, including the ubiquitous “Pressure Drop,” (if you can listen to this song and not want to jump up and dance, check your pulse) and the one-two punch of “Sweet and Dandy” and “Funky Kingston.” For good reason: those three songs constitute a career, and legacy most musicians would kill for.

But there was so much more. You can go deep with the earlier stuff (much like Marley’s ’60s sides, full of joy and a fresh, if not yet fully formed combination of music and message), and you should be surprised to the point of giddiness at how catchy songs like “Six and Seven Books of Moses,” “Monkey Man,” and especially “Never You Change” are.

Like most music freaks who discovered reggae during the crucial post-college years, having memorized Legend and needing (much) more, I came to Toots via the incendiary soundtrack to The Harder they Come, which is like grad school: after this you’re either all set or you’ll inevitably become obsessed and dive into deep waters that restore and refresh and whose bottom you never reach.

An absolutely critical step in my evolution as a reggae fanatic was acquiring Time Tough: The Anthology (back in the days when one acquired CDs). To say it was a game changer is very much an understatement. For years this was a go-to gift for friends who were curious why I couldn’t stop talking about — and listening to — reggae. Ever since, it’s an easy and automatic recommendation.

This is art that recommends itself; from the sheer bliss it delivers, once you hear it, you want to hear more, and you never want to stop. Take the tune that gives the anthology its name, a socially conscious romp that has the power to make you want to dance while the roof caves in all around you.

Maybe you’ve heard Toots rework “Take Me Home, Country Roads;” if not, this might be the gateway you need.

Toots became a force, and stayed one, spreading the gospel well into the 21st Century. I never tire of pointing people toward Easy Star All-Stars Radiodread, the miraculous 2006 tribute to Radiohead’s OK Computer. Even as an elder statesman, Toots had the pipes and the power to make your feet move and heart smile.

Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, and without whom reggae music would arguably never have made it westward, knew and loved Toots, and he should have the last word: “I’ve known Toots longer than anybody — much longer than Bob (Bob Marley). Toots is one of the purest human beings I’ve met in my life, pure almost to a fault.”

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