TOOTS & THE MAYTALS
For over three decades, Toots Hibbert’s exhortatory vocals and evangelistic stage delivery charged Jamaican popular music with the fervor of American gospel-rooted soul singers like Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Wilson Pickett.
Toots Hibbert spent his first 15 years in a small town in the Jamaican countryside; he left home for Kingston in 1961 and formed a vocal trio with Nathaniel Matthias and Raleigh Gordon. Coxsone Dodd produced their first Jamaican hits — “Hallelujah” (1963) and “Six and Seven Books of Moses” (1963) — when they called themselves the Vikings. They left Dodd for Prince Buster in 1964 and recorded “Little Slea” as the V. Maytals before deciding to work as the Maytals. In the next two years they worked mainly with Byron Lee and his Ska-Kings band. With hits like “If You Act This Way” (1964) and “John and James” (1965), they became a leading group of the ska era.
In 1966 they won the Jamaican Song Festival prize with Hibbert’s “Bam Bam.” That same year Hibbert was jailed for possession of marijuana. After his release 12 months later, the Maytals recorded “54-46,” commemorating his prison experience, for Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label. Among the Maytals’ other Beverley sides was “Do the Reggay” [sic], the 1968 song usually credited with coining the term “reggae.”
By that time Kong was releasing Maytals singles in Britain; “Monkey Man” was the first Maytals song to chart overseas (Number 47 U.K., 1970) (it was covered in 1979 by the Specials on their debut album). Following Kong’s death in 1971, the Maytals worked with his former partner Warwick Lynn and established a following.
The 1972 release of The Harder They Come introduced the Maytals to the U.S.; the film’s soundtrack featured “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop.” In 1975, now known as Toots and the Maytals, they signed their first major contract with Island Records. Island released Funky Kingston — a collection culled from Trojan’s Funky Kingston and In the Dark — which contained the Maytals’ unique interpretations of John Denver’s “Country Roads,” in which “West Virginia” became “West Jamaica.” Also in 1975 Toots and the Maytals made their first tour of the U.S., opening shows for the Who. The tour was badly planned, and the Maytals were booed off the stage at many dates. While they remained critical favorites, the Maytals could never match Bob Marley’s or Peter Tosh’s popularity.
Toots went solo in 1982, although he continued to tour as Toots and the Maytals. In 1988 at Memphis’s Ardent recording studio he was accompanied by Sly and Robbie and producer Jim Dickinson (Alex Chilton, Replacements) and recorded a set of Stax/Volt covers, Toots in Memphis. In the late-90s, Toots recorded two new studio albums, Recoup and Ska Father. Toots and the Maytals returned in 2004 signed under V2 for True Love followed by Light Your Light in 2007 which received a Best Reggae Album Grammy nomination.
LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS
Lee Fields initially made his name among die-hard funk fans with a series of hard-hitting singles recorded for various small labels during the ’70s. Everything about Fields — his look, his vocals, the grooves on his records — was so indebted to James Brown that he earned the nickname “Little J.B.” Fields never hit it big, but his rough-and-tumble singles went on to become popular collectors’ items. After a lengthy hiatus, Fields returned in the ’90s as a soul-blues belter playing to female-heavy audiences on the Southern circuit. Thanks to sample-obsessed hip-hoppers and British rare-groove aficionados, interest in obscure vintage funk reached a peak in the late ’90s, and Fields was fortunate enough to have remained active when new recordings in the style became a viable proposition. Energized by his return to raw, heavy, James Brown-style funk, Fields emerged as the leading light of the so-called deep funk movement with a series of recordings that often equaled, and sometimes outdid, his early work.
Fields released his first single on the Bedford label in 1969, “Bewildered” b/w “Tell Her I Love Her.” After the 1973 one-off “Gonna Make Love” on London, Fields caught on at Norfolk Sound; 1973 also saw the release of one of his most enduringly popular 45s, “Let’s Talk It Over” b/w “She’s a Love Maker” (though it wasn’t a big seller at the time). Another prized item was 1975’s “Everybody Gonna Give Their Thing Away to Somebody (Sometime)” b/w “East Coast Rapper,” issued on SoundPlus. Fields spent most of the latter half of the ’70s cutting sides for Angle 3, including perhaps his most sought-after single of all, “The Bull Is Coming” b/w “Funky Screw” (credited to Lee Fields & the Devil’s Personal Band, which only heightened its surface appeal). His last single with Angle 3 came in 1981, by which time he’d finally released a full-length album, Let’s Talk It Over; naturally, it also went on to become a rare and pricey collector’s item.
Fields was quiet for most of the ’80s, but mounted a comeback in the early ’90s, signing with the modern-day incarnation of the Mississippi-based Ace label. Debuting in 1992 with Enough Is Enough, Fields plied his trade on the Southern soul and blues circuit, wearing the glitzy costumes of old and crooning love songs and come-ons to largely female audiences who’d never lost their taste for his style of music. Fields also played keyboards and synthesizers on his Ace albums, which included 1995’s Coming to Tear the Roof Down and 1996’s Dreaming Big Time; he switched to Avanti in 1998 for It’s Hard to Go Back After Loving You.
By that time, Fields had already hooked up with the New York-based Desco Records, a trailblazing label devoted to releasing new material designed to appeal to old-school funk collectors. Fields guested on one track on the debut album by the label’s house band the Soul Providers, 1997’s Gimmie the Paw. He subsequently began performing live with the Soul Providers at Desco’s showcase gigs in New York, and released several limited-edition 45-rpm singles. In 1999, he became the first Desco artist to release a full-length album, the smoking Let’s Get a Groove On. Its strict adherence to organic, classic-style James Brown funk — with no synthesizers or drum machines — won admiring reviews and helped put Desco on the map with a hip underground audience that previously never would have paid attention to new Fields material.
Desco subsequently broke apart into two labels, Daptone and Soul Fire, and when the dust settled, Fields recorded for both of them. He issued two 7″ singles on Daptone over 2001-2002 (“Give Me a Chance” and “Shot Down”) and then released his next full album, Problems, on Soul Fire in late 2002. Problems again won high praise from the funk community. By the time of the powerful My World, released seven years later (for the Truth & Soul label), Fields had yet to lose a step. Treacherous followed in 2011, with Faithful Man, the singer toured globally almost nonstop, garnering universal critical acclaim.
After a short break in 2013, he headed back into the recording studio with the Expressions. A new single, “Magnolia” (a cover of J.J. Cale‘s classic tune), appeared on Record Store Day in 2014, followed by the 11-song full-length Emma Jean in early June. Fields & the Expressions continued to tour globally and opted to record with Big Crown Records, a Brooklyn-based independent started in 2016 by former Truth & Soul honcho Leon Michels. Special Night was designated a “throwback” album by its creator, chock-full of ballads and quiet storm jams.