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Interview: Toots Hibbert (2012)

Interview: Toots Hibbert (2012)

Interview: Toots Hibbert (2012)

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"Leslie Kong was nice... I wish he was alive today"

Sampler

"I can talk to you for a few minutes".

"Toots" Hibbert sounds tired. His voice is a wheezy husk, a thousand miles down from the roar that has been evangelising at audiences all year from Jamaica to the USA to London - where he is speaking on the phone from a hotel somewhere in the west of the city. He's been over to promote his latest release, his first ever acoustic album, 'Unplugged On Strawberry Hill', and had a night almost entirely devoted to himself at the hugely anticipated 13-date Respect Jamaica 50 independence celebrations at the Indigo2. But by the heavy sound of the 69 year old's breathing down the line, the jubilations have taken their toll.

Toots Hibbert

Despite owning one of the most expressive timbres in popular music - as rich, strong and complex as a Hennessy and Guinness served with a dollop of ice cream - Toots is not a correspondingly expressive interviewee. When asked about the first time he picked up an acoustic "box" guitar in his home town of May Pen, Clarendon, he audibly shrugs "From the beginning". Does he use the guitar to write his songs? "Generally, yeah". He is not impatient or impolite. He simply won't be drawn.

The singer Enos McLeod, a contemporary in early 60s Kingston when he and Hibbert were making their way in the music business, sheds more light on those foundation days. "When I first saw Toots come to Trenchtown as a youth from the country, as a town guy you'd say 'Oh look a country guy' and look down on them. But he'd be playing his guitar like hell!". The son of two preachers, Toots' now famed revival church style of performance was unusual at the time. "I would say 'What's wrong that that jonkanoo guy?' Jonkanoo business like a festival. I didn't rate that" continues McLeod "But then he went to Coxsone and started doing well".

Frederick Hibbert completed the trio the Maytals (said to be a fusion of 'May Pen' and 'ITal') when "Jerry" Matthias and "Raleigh" Gordon found him singing in a Trenchtown barbershop. Their golden harmonies were the perfect backdrop to Toots' rough edged burr and in 1962 they impressed Coxsone Dodd of Jamaica's answer to Motown, Studio 1 Records. In David Katz' biography of Lee "Scratch" Perry, 'People Funny Boy', Scratch claims to have been the one who persuaded Dodd to take the group on after they auditioned at Coxsone's shop on Orange Street. Toots doesn't remember having to audition or Perry's role. "I was never involved with him" he says bluntly "I just got straight in there and record".

When Toots does open up, it's to share facts that can easily be accessed on his Wikipedia page. Asked for his memories of Jamaican Independence he is quick to turn the conversation from the ska days to how he was the first to sing the word "reggae" in 1968's Do The Reggay. "Well the music was playing... ska music was playing and we were listening to it on the radio and getting involved with the music. Then the beat come up from Jamaica reggae, in '68 and I coined the word 'reggae' to the beat." Tellingly, he skips over the interim rocksteady period: for he spent much of 1966 and 67 in prison for possession of marijuana, the inspiration for the Maytals hit 54-46 Was My Number. The establishment has warmed to him considerably since then. On October 16th, after this interview was concluded, he was awarded the coveted Order of Jamaica, one national honour higher than the Order Of Distinction, which he already held.

He's keen to point out his record tally of Jamaican number one singles "I ended up having 31 number ones on the radio stations in my career".  And he's proud to be a multiple winner of the island's Festival Song, taking the inaugural gong  in 1966 with the Byron Lee-produced Bam Bam, before returning to clinch the prize in 1969 and 1972. "Winning the first festival song contest... in those days you had to write very good songs to enter the competition. And I did one. I did it three times and got number ones three times in that competition. With Bam Bam, Sweet and Dandy, Pomps and Pride".  His favourite victorious composition bar his own was 1971's Cherry Oh Baby by Eric Donaldson: "That was a good festival song".

Although Toots dispensed with the equally ear-catching Matthias or Gordon in the 80s he still uses musicians from his past in his touring band. However for 'Unplugged on Strawberry Hill', cut outdoors at Island Records founder Chris Blackwell's former plantation property of the same name, the likes of long-time bassist Jackie Jackson and guitarist Carl Harvey weren't present. "Yeah, it's just because it was a special project - acoustic - and I used my son to play the bass, I played the guitar, my friend played the congos. It was just a thing that we drew to see what it would look like".

The new record features rough, resonant sketches of seventies hits such as Sweet and Dandy, Monkey Man and Pressure Drop. These were originally voiced for Leslie Kong, the Chinese Jamaican whose bouncy pop reggae rhythms carried the Maytals to national and then international fame. Kong died of a heart attack in 1971 but not before he propelled the group to getting signed by Blackwell at Island. "He was nice," says Toots of his friend "He gave a good vibes and was just cool and... I wish he was alive today".

What does Toots think of Jimmy Cliff (Order of Merit) his former Kong and Island stable-mate, releasing his own critically acclaimed Rebirth in the same year? "I don't hear it as yet but I know he always has good albums".

And as a festival champion what does he make of the official 2012 song for 50 years of Independence, the Shaggy-led ensemble On A Mission? "Not so good really but it is a good tryer. Shaggy is one of my favourite deejays but everybody has their own taste for Jamaica's 50th!" he laughs "I don't have much to say about that!"

Toots may not be a fan of that song yet he likes to keep his hand in with younger generations. He's recorded with Shaggy (a recut of Bam Bam) and Anthony B (Pomps and Pride). "Another friend of mine" who "is doing good" is Mr Vegas, who covered Sweet and Dandy on his JA50th tribute set Sweet Jamaica and could be said to have brought back Toots' revival style to the dancehall with 2008's I Am Blessed. Is there a preferred modern artist? "Every one of these artists. Shaggy is one of my number one artists, you have Beenie Man, you have Capleton, I can't even call names".

The power of Hibbert to touch the hearts of the unlikeliest people was in evidence at his Respect Jamaica 50 show in London when he discovered he had a fan in Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of George W. "The daughter of President Bush was there and she enjoyed it and we met each other and had a good time. Everybody was happy". This revelation came only a few months after the comedian Bill Cosby announced that, thanks to one of his grandson's CDs, Toots was one of his favourite singers. "The Cosby family adore my music. It's a good thing and I appreciate it".

Having released his best album in decades - what are his plans for the future? "I'm going to do some research to get a good company to make sure these songs publishing are all over the world." His next longplayer, he warns with a laugh, will be "uptempo and glamorous!"

From a Bush to a Bill Cosby, Toots' voice can cross any boundary or border. It's a voice that still sounds magic - although, like many an old school magician, when it comes to his craft, Toots doesn't give much away.

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