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Interview: Toots Hibbert at the Brooklyn Bowl

Interview: Toots Hibbert at the Brooklyn Bowl

Interview: Toots Hibbert at the Brooklyn Bowl

By on - Photos by Gerard McMahon - Comment

"I never went to prison"  


The term ‘living legend’ – though often abused – rightly applies to Frederick Hibbert. Otherwise known as ‘Toots’ of Toots and the Maytals, he is a longstanding force of nature. A lengthy list of luminaries cite Toots - a onetime boxer and barber - as an influence, including Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the late Amy Winehouse, Madness, The Specials, Grace Jones, the Clash, Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, whilst Shaggy and Ziggy Marley acknowledge him as a role model and mentor.

Toots HibbertAn archive search reveals that when it comes to interviews, Toots has a reputation for being rushed, reserved and occasionally rude. However, having crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the privilege of an audience with him, United Reggae was not going to be easily dissuaded. True to form, Toots’ opening comment to the interviewer was: ‘I’m a very busy man. You got 5 minutes to talk to me. Ask what you want to ask, right now – quick quick - ‘cos I got to go’. However, by interview close, his tune had transformed to: ‘You are good. I like your questions Dr. Gerry. You’re coming back tomorrow night to ask some more? You’re allowed. I know that you’re a journalist, so you can go anywhere you want to go. Thanks’. Hence, Toots graciously hosted United Reggae on his tour bus after both recent sold out shows at the Brooklyn Bowl, New York.

Toots explains that the name was: ‘given to me by my bigger brother John who’s dead now. He called me ‘Little Toots’ when I was born. It was my nickname which I didn’t really like. That is why I created the name Maytals, for my singing career’. In 1972 he changed his performing name from ‘the Maytal’ to ‘Toots and the Maytals’. He explains: ‘After leaving the country I met a guy called Charlie Babcock. He was a disc jockey on R.J.R. (Real Jamaican Radio) and one time he said to me ‘Oh little Toots has come back to join the Maytals, so from then on people called me Toots. But I think Babcock talked too much in those days! I never liked it. So then people started calling me Toots and the Maytals, but my real name is Maytals, it’s my singing name, but then I had to go by Toots and the Maytals.’ 

His live shows are a ‘tour de force’. With the assistance of 8 Maytals – comprised of 3 female vocalists (including his daughter Leba Thomas, Lisa Davis and Latoya Hall-Downer), 3 guitarists (Radcliffe 'Dougie' Bryan, Carl Harvey and bass player Jackie Jackson), Charles Farquharson on keyboards and drummer Paul Douglas – it’s a high quality ensemble. Notably this ensemble was augmented briefly in Brooklyn by the talented long time Maytal guitarist Andy Bassford. And with Toots adding occasional harmonica, alongside electric and acoustic guitar inputs, it all adds up to a fine feast of music.

My greatest achievement in music is my voice, the talent that God gave me

He truly possesses a voice so deep and melodic that when he lets loose, it hits you where you’re so sensitive. It really lays you low. And well Toots knows it, as he’s wise enough to acknowledge that having ‘life’ is an achievement in itself, but ‘my greatest achievement in music is my voice, the talent that God gave me. I thank the Lord for what he done for me’. Related to that precious vocal asset, my worst memory of Toots is from a gig 30 years ago when he was spitting bullets at the engineer over the sound quality. Hence it was interesting - but no surprise - when top of the ‘musical upset list’ he put ‘bad microphones. If the mike is not good on stage it really upsets me’.

It also helps hugely that whatever the circumstance, Toots knows the importance of presenting as though he’s having a hell of a good time. And maybe he is, as he enters a different dimension come show time. On top thereof, he also works mighty hard to ensure that his audience is also having a good time. In this regard it’s notable that Toots’ first appearance at the concert venue was 6 hours before show time, when - leaving nothing to chance – he put his crew through a rigorous sound check in a manner resembling a Field Marshall drilling his troops.

Toots Hibbert

Guitarist Carl Harvey opens concert proceedings, reminding the audience that Toots invented the name ‘reggae’, via his 1968 ‘Do The Reggay’ recording and has been on the musical merry-go-round for about half a century. Harvey also advises that the artist’s career was nearly ended 3 years ago, when he found himself on the wrong end of a flying vodka bottle mid-performance. This is a sad story for Toots.

One William Connor Lewis received a six-month jail sentence for throwing the bottle – despite Toots’ generous pleadings that he be spared a custodial sentence. In 2014 Toots filed a $20m. lawsuit against Venture Richmond – organisers of the outdoor festival in Virginia, where he was struck on the head by the bottle - for negligence in planning security and alcoholic beverage sales. Hibbert's attorneys said that their client received a concussion and was left with an altered personality, was destitute and depressed and forced off the road for 3 years.

Earlier this year the claim was settled, with both parties to the case asking the judge to dismiss the case. Neither party to the proceedings disclosed the settlement details. However, Toots tells United Reggae that: ‘I had a case and I lose the case because of bad representation’. Despite claiming that ‘he’s not really worried about gold and silver’, when it comes to the bottle case, he insists that: ‘I’m going to get what’s rightfully mine, because they didn’t give me a fair deal, Richmond, Virginia. So I’m going to get the right lawyer to implement this case over again’. However, subsequent communications with the Toots’ camp reveal that this appeal may not actually materialise. Related thereto, on the subject of regrets, Toots adds: ‘Regrets in life is when you’re singing and someone throws a bottle and knocks me in the head and I end up not winning the case, because I have the wrong advisors and wrong lawyer.’ But on the subject of his recent return to touring after a 3 year gap, he feels that he’s ‘coming on the road now more stronger. I’m very strong, I feel stronger.’

I’m very strong, I feel stronger

Turning to Toots ‘live’, it’s impossible not to be swept off your feet by his performance of almost 2 hours’ duration. Starting with ‘Reggae Got Soul’, it then moves through a slew of household hits, including ‘Pressure Drop’, ‘Pomp and Pride’, ‘Time Tough’, ‘Sweet and Dandy’, ‘Louie Louie’, ‘Funky Kingston’, ‘Bam Bam’, ‘Country Roads’, ‘Beautiful Woman’, ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Love So Strong’, ‘54:46’ and with a bow to Willie Nelson via ‘Still is Still Moving’.

Toots HibbertGiven that Toots holds the Jamaican record for (31) No. 1 hits – for which he points out ‘and all I get for these hit songs is 3 shillings’ - he has quite the treasure trove to draw on. This enables variety in each performance, albeit without diluting devotion to the top tunes. Whilst the rhythm is regular reggae, the feel is frequently a mesmeric mix of country, soul, rock, funk, ska, rhythm and blues and rocksteady. Indeed, the musical tone occasionally struck leaves one wondering if this magician is running some kind of Deep South Baptist gospel music revival session, rather than a reggae concert! He successfully elicits the full range of emotions from his audience - from tears of loss and pain to tears of laughter and passion, as he suggests that: ‘sometimes you have to take the time and sing in praise to the way of God’.

Despite growing up singing gospel music in a choir, Toots rather cryptically explains that: ‘I’m not religious, I’m Rastafari – it’s more like Christian. Religion is not so good for me.’ Turning to homophobia, a bête noire of the rasta and reggae fraternity, Toots’ wisdom and compassion is evident in his contention that: ‘My view about Rasta is that it should be upright and show respect and love to each and every one. People must not find themselves in any bad ways that then let people say bad things about Rasta – live upright and do good, so that people will see you for your good works and as a result glorify Rasta and the Lord. I have a feeling that everyone should live as the Lord created us, but I understand that everyone has a different way, so we should respect it – mutual respect’.

The common Rasta reservations about politics and politicians also feature when asked about his favourite political personalities. He explains that he’s got none. Even when prompted on the stature of the late Nelson Mandela, he insists that: ‘he’s my favourite guy, my favourite brother, but not as a politician. Also I think that former American President Obama is one of the great people. But the likes of Elvis Presley, James Brown and Michael Jackson are really my favourite brothers in the USA’.

An attractive feature of Toots is his generous acknowledgement of the band members’ contribution to the live show. In addition to ensuring that they’re all introduced to the audience, he takes time to do some hugging in appreciation of their input on various songs. This accomplished high energy 71 year old showman also knows how to hold his audience’s attention. If he’s not swinging the microphone stand over their heads, he’s shaking their hands or engaging in an effective ‘call and response’ via ‘give it to me 12 times’ or ‘now it’s your turn … now it’s my turn … now it’s everybody’s turn’ routine that could go on for ever. Toots then teases them by lying that: ‘You’re the first audience ever to do that’. Little wonder that he’d proclaim ‘there’s no business like show business’ - and after 50 years in the trade he should know.

Asked about his interests outside music, Toots advises that it’s: ‘to help people, black and white and the sufferahs – ‘cos I know about suffering - but I’m never outside music, I’m always inside music, helping people to help themselves’. As a result, when it comes to his own pleasure spot he confides that: ‘What I enjoy most about the music is enjoying the people, my audience and my musicians and my back-up singers. I enjoy that the best’.

I’m always inside music, helping people to help themselves

This fits with his aspiration for the future, as he explains: ‘My remaining ambition in life is to keep playing music and meet the people of the world and to make them comfortable with my music and words – words of consolation, with a message of salvation, because life is worthwhile living, once you live it in the right and proper way.’ On a practical level for his many fans, the good news is that he has ‘more than one album coming out next year, drawn from over 300 songs. I’m just waiting for the record company to deal with me’.

Toots is also magnanimous enough to acknowledge that ‘a lot of people’ have had a positive influence on his life. On the music front these include ‘the people I once played with and Elvis Presley, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley - and there are other great people in Jamaica, like Sly and Robbie, Freddie McGregor, there are so many of them’. His career was given a major fillip in the 1970s when – along with a group of other successful Jamaican reggae artists – he was signed to Island Records by the much maligned Chris Blackwell. Despite Blackwell’s dubious reputation in some reggae circles, Toots is cautious in his commentary: ‘Chris Blackwell gave me my first tour in England and he will always be a friend of mine, but … well there is a ‘but’, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.’ In previous interviews, Toots – like many before him – has bemoaned Blackwell’s failure to invest more heavily in his career. Interestingly, Blackwell is renowned for his commitment to Toots, telling reggae specialist David Katz: ‘I’ve known Toots longer than anybody – much longer than Bob (Marley). Toots is one of the purest human beings I’ve met in my life, pure almost to a fault’.

Toots Hibbert

When asked about his greatest disappointment in life, Toots keeps things upful and nimbly avoids the question: ‘Disappointment? No disappointment is great, I don’t like to be disappointed.’ Nor does he like the company of ‘negative people’. However, on an equivalent theme it is widely reported that in late 1966 Toots was jailed for 18 months for possession of marijuana and subsequently (in 1968) wrote what is probably his favourite song - 54-46 That's My Number’. This classic commentary about his time in jail includes a proclamation of innocence, that it was all a ‘set up’. However, he now asserts: ‘I never went to prison. When I first won the music talent festival in Jamaica (with ‘Bam Bam’) people begrudged me the success and paid the police £12 to find ganja on me. They were just trying to stop me from going on this tour. Because Jamaica in those days was not logical. People planted ganja on me, but there was no ganja. I was framed for possession of ganja, which I never smoked in those days’. Subsequent communications with the Toots’ camp elicited an explanation that he was ‘confined for 18 months NOT jailed – it was time in confinement’. On this ‘hair-splitting’ point it is notable that various sources contend that Toots was ‘confined’ at both Tamarind and Richmond farm Correctional Centres. Interestingly, shortly after this confinement, Richmond farm played host to another famous inmate, as Bunny Wailer spent 14 months there in 1967/8. Like Toots, Bunny also confided to United Reggae that he was the victim of a ganja possession ‘set up’.

I’m happy from singing my songs for the people wherever I may be

Wrapping up proceedings, Grammy winner Toots summarises his current state of mind and raisons d'être: ‘I’m very happy. I’m happy from singing my songs for the people wherever I may be, I’m happy teaching the children and teaching all the big people or adults that listen to my songs. You see they learn from it, because a good song tells a story. And my songs tell a good story. And I’m happy by making money too’.

Well done to Toots and his Maytals - and it’s good to have them back on the road. Next time they visit your locale, take time out to savour their sweet sound – as Toots sure does generously share his gifts. It’s an uplifting experience, that will surely do you a power of good. Toots makes the world a happier place.

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