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.