When Frederick “Toots” Hibbert died on Friday (Sept. 11) at the age of 77, the world lost one of the greatest musicians of his era, a powerful voice and a pioneer in several genres and the person who, as frontman of seminal group Toots & the Maytals, coined the word reggae with the 1968 track “Do The Reggay.” His death inspired tributes from the likes of Mick Jagger, The Who, Bonnie Raitt and Ziggy Marley, whose father Bob Marley is arguably the only reggae artist whose fame and influence outstrips that of Toots.
Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1959 and worked with both Marley and Hibbert, as well as other Jamaican reggae legends like Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear and Black Uhuru, spoke to Billboard this week about Hibbert’s passing, which came after a short hospital stay and a brief, encouraging missive from his family that the musical icon was getting better.
“It’s incredibly sad that he’s gone,” said Blackwell, noting he spoke to Hibbert’s daughter the day before he died and that he had appeared to be improving. “His spirit — he was laughing always, an incredible person. He was just a joy of a human being, a really special person.”
Blackwell first met Hibbert in 1961, the year before he moved to England to establish Island initially as an outpost for Jamaican music in London, licensing the records recorded by sound system DJs like Coxsone Dodd and Leslie Kong of artists like Hibbert, Cliff and Desmond Dekker and releasing and marketing them in England. Later, Blackwell signed Toots & the Maytals to Island Records, releasing and co-producing first the iconic album Funky Kingston in 1972, among several others.
“I met Toots very early, and was totally blown away by his voice and his energy. He was just somebody, you just loved him,” Blackwell said. “People just caught on to his lyrics and what he did, plus his incredible voice. His voice was super powerful, I mean incredibly strong and big, if you know what I mean.”
Hibbert is credited not just as a pioneer of ska and reggae, but with bringing impeccable songwriting and soul elements into the genres, as evidenced by iconic tracks like “54-46 That’s My Number,” “Pressure Drop,” “Sailing On” and “Time Tough,” as well as putting his own particular spin on tracks like Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” and John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Robert Christgau once referred to his voice as akin to Otis Redding, while comparing the Maytals’ place within reggae to The Beatles, with Marley’s Wailers as The Rolling Stones.
“I think his music, what he has done in his life, will become recognized and collected in the same kind of way that Bob’s music has over the years, where people who like Bob Marley like almost every record he’s ever made, that kind of thing,” Blackwell said. “Unless they’ve followed Jamaican music, a lot of people probably wouldn’t have known him that much. But once people do hear him, I think there’s every chance he could get the same kind of global following that Bob has got.”
Lately Hibbert had been back in Jamaica, recording what would be his final album, Got To Be Tough, which was released Aug. 28, with Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey. It was the Maytals’ first album in over a decade.
“He was gifted with ideas for songs, and also with an incredible, amazing voice,” Blackwell said. “He’d been going, what, 58 years? I mean, that’s pretty fucking amazing.”