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Interview: Toots Hibbert and his grandson King Trevy in Kingston

Interview: Toots Hibbert and his grandson King Trevy in Kingston

Interview: Toots Hibbert and his grandson King Trevy in Kingston

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Singing was better than boxing. You don't have to punch anyone!"


Frederick “Toots” Hibbert is, without question, one of the supreme singers in popular music. His rich, complex voice with its joyous highs and earthy lows marks him easily the equal of soulmen such as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding (to whom his singing style has been superficially compared). His catchy, deceptively simple song-writing, containing hidden depths and truths in his sometimes-cryptic lyrics, makes him a two-handed knockout artist of composition and vocal, in the mould of a Dolly Parton or a Tracy Chapman.

Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, to two revivalist preachers, he travelled to Kingston’s singing hotbed, Trench Town. In 1962, as the ska beat was cooking, he met Jerry “Mathias” McCarthy and Henry “Raleigh” Gordon to form harmony group the Maytals. A string of Jamaican number ones and Festival Song contest wins followed as the Maytals sang for top producers Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster, Byron Lee and Leslie Kong (continuing to top the charts even after Toots spent time in custody due to a wrongful arrest). It was for Kong’s Beverley’s label, as rocksteady turned to reggae, that Toots’ music is most associated. His song Do the Reggay helped popularise the new rhythm as the first recorded instance of the word.

After the unexpected death of Kong, Toots and the Maytals returned to Byron Lee. Like his Trench Town contemporary Bob Marley, he was signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, cutting acclaimed ‘70s albums such as In The Dark, Funky Kingston and Reggae Got Soul. He took the same musicians from the Lesley Kong sessions on the road (several of whom: guitarist Rad Bryan, bassist Jackie Jackson, and drummer Paul Douglas, he tours with to this day). The distinctive harmonies of Jerry and Raleigh left Toots and Maytals in the 80s but Toots’ extraordinary voice is still thrilling audiences around the world.

Despite being one of the planet’s most expressive people on stage, Toots is comparatively restrained in interviews. He rarely grants even the biggest media publications more than a few minutes of questions. So it was an honour for United Reggae to be invited to his Kingston home studio Reggae Centre for a face-to-face chat.

Inside, Toots was working with engineer Nigel Burrell on new material. They’d completed a song named Marley, whose birthday the island was preparing to celebrate the following week. Toots and his grandson, rapper King Trevy, had combined for a track called Ten Shillings - concerning the lack of financial reward given to him in the early days. It was clear during our 40 minute conversation that, having achieved lasting international success, this was an issue still very much on his mind.


Toots is not someone you can challenge in an interview or press on a point. Sometimes when recalling certain producers you could see him travelling back to that time, giving a deep unhappy sigh. At these moments it’s best to move on. At first his answers were limited to a “Yes”, an “Uh-huh” of affirmation. But gradually he began to open up about his formative experiences, being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and the inspirations behind some of his better and lesser known songs.

Towards the end, the answers again contracted and he asked if he could wrap it up soon. He strode out of the studio for a walk leaving United Reggae satisfied with a full Q&A discussion but worried he was offended by the later questions. In the meantime, we spoke to King Trevy about his contribution to Ten Shillings. In contrast, he loved talking and was overflowing with opinions.

Then Toots returned to say a few more words and was happy to pose for some pictures. As we left the complex he called us back. “Hey” he said “That was a nice interview” - flashing a smile.

You’re from Clarendon which is a very musical parish. Why do you think that is?

TOOTS: The way you grow up with your parents and enough respect and the voices coming from the blood lines. My mother and father. From God to my mother and father.

Your mother and father were both involved in Seventh-Day Adventist church. You started singing there?

TOOTS: You could say that yeah. From when I was a baby they told me. (Laughs)

When was the first time you heard your voice and thought “Wow”?

TOOTS: I heard my voice and people told me my voice is good and I’m going to be a good singer one day! (Laughs) I don’t remember who, but people always told me that.

Who were your favourite American artists growing up?

TOOTS: Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson - some great people. Female and male. I used to listen to the radio.

Were your parents happy with you listening to secular music?

TOOTS: They didn’t know!

When did you learn to play the guitar?

TOOTS: When I was going to school I saw a gentleman playing. I got to like it so I went home and made my own guitar out of bamboo. Bamboo skin. Stripped it down.

You were a boxer for a while. Who trained you? What was your fighting weight?

TOOTS: Well, not professionally but I did it at school. We never even thought about weight! No trainer. I just watched people do it and I did it. But I stopped doing that. Singing was better. You don’t have to punch anyone! (Laughs)

How did you move to Kingston?

TOOTS: I moved to Kingston because that’s where the music was happening. I had a brother living in Trench Town so after school in the holidays I would spend time with my brother. I got to meet a lot of people. I met Mr Joe Higgs and Wilson, Bob Marley, very great people in Trench Town.

Jerry and Raleigh asked me to teach them how to sing

And you worked in the barbershop for a while? That’s where you met Jerry and Raleigh

TOOTS: I worked learning barbering. I used to have my guitar, singing while there was no one there to get their haircut. I would play my guitar and then I saw Raleigh come up to me and he liked what I was doing and asked “Sing some more songs.” (laughs) Then the next day now, I met Jerry. So one day apart I met both of them. But they were all bigger guys than me you know? We could sing so they asked me to teach them how to sing.

Whose idea was it to go to Coxsone?

TOOTS: Well, no one special. (laughs) We all said we were going there, you know? But I went there and he didn’t like how I sang, so he said I must come back in six weeks’ time and go practise. I practised and I went back and he said “Come back next time”. So we went back and he said “Yeah, I love it man! Let’s do it. Do you have some more?” I said “Yeah, I have a lot more! A lot more singing” and then we started.

And then the number ones started coming… 

TOOTS: Yeah. But we didn’t get paid. We didn’t get good pay.

So that’s why after several big hits like Hallelujah, Fever, and Six And Seven Books, you decided to move on. You went to Prince Buster. And again, big hits but same problem?

TOOTS: Yeah. Yeah man.

So tell me a bit about moving over to Byron Lee and winning the ’66 Festival Song contest.

TOOTS: Well, we entered with a song called Bam Bam and after winning the festival with Bam Bam they tried to frame me with the weed! (Laughs) But I never had it. I never smoked as yet. It was after that that I began to smoke. I was there for about nine months. I had my guitar and I had my own clothes. I just sat in a big room and wrote my songs and played the guitar in there. I got my meals from home, three times a day, so they just held me there for no reason.

Coxsone didn't like how I sang, so he said "come back in six weeks' time"

Why did they try to frame you?

TOOTS: Maybe because I maybe got so many number one records. Someone was jealous that I just came from the country and was making number one records. It’s the politics.

Bunny Wailer, Carl Dawkins and Lord Creator all served time for weed around that period. They all wrote songs inside but you came out with 54-46 Was My Number – one of the biggest songs of all time.

TOOTS: Yeah but I didn’t write it off them. I just am a songwriter and a creator of words so it just came out. But [unlike what] a lot of people believe I never had a number on my door. They just held me there for bad reasons. Because I was supposed to go on a big tour to Europe and they sent someone else in my space.

TootsWho did they send instead?

TOOTS: I can’t tell you now man! (Laughs)

Before you were arrested you’d already left Byron Lee for Leslie Kong?

TOOTS: I decided before. He was the one I was working for at the time.

Several history books have claimed that you missed the rocksteady era when you were in custody but that’s not true. You did songs like Just Tell Me, which is rocksteady…

TOOTS: I did a few rocksteady. Yeah 54-46 is rocksteady. One Eyed Enos was rocksteady. A lot of songs.

The second-hand record of Just Tell Me goes for a lot of money now. Someone should reissue it.

TOOTS: Yes - I’m going to re-release it.

Then you put the word “reggae” into song.

TOOTS: Yes. It was flowing. The music was flowing all over until nobody knew what to call it. Some people called it “boogie beat” and “blue beat” and I just came up with the word reggae by accident! It was just some girl who used to be on the road called “streggae” because you’re not dressing properly. They would call you “streggae”, when you had on raggedy clothes and you didn’t dress properly. So I took it from there - straight to reggae.

Most of my songs tell a story

You’ve told the story before about Monkey Man – how it was based on Leslie Kong’s brother stealing Les’ girl.

TOOTS: Yeah, most of my songs tell a story. And history. Yeah, it tells history also. Leslie Kong did have a brother, we called him Fats. I went into the office and Leslie told me that I should write a song about him. And I said “No man!” Because this guy Fats was stouter than you and taller than you. If he held you, he could squeeze you to death you know? So I said “No, I’m not going to write no song off him”. Leslie Kong said “Yeah man. He’s not going to hurt you, man”. So I went to him and said “Mr Fats, your brother says I must write a song about you”. He said “Yeah man! Write it and let me see!” (Laughs) That’s where it began so I wrote the song called Monkey Man. Because he was very, you know, big and ugly. He was a nice guy though. He was a nice gentleman.

You also did a nice follow up called Monkey Girl as well.

TOOTS: Yeah. Same vibes. I just did one on that because Leslie Kong said I must do one about girls to so I said “I’ll do Monkey Girl”.

Was that how it worked sometimes? Leslie Kong would give you an idea then you take it and turn into a song?

TOOTS: I wouldn’t say an idea. He’d just say “Write a song about a girl you know?” But he was a good guy. He gave me the most money. Which was about £12 to share between the three of us. So you can imagine what the rest gave us! But the time when he decided to give us some more money he said “You’re going to get some money. I’m going to give it to you”. And we went to his office and he died the same day. He had heart failure and he died the same day. So we didn’t get the money from him. I’m really sorry that he died. He was a good guy.

What inspired you to write Sweet And Dandy which won the 1969 Festival contest?

TOOTS: It’s just a story about a girl and a guy who get married. They wanted to get married but they didn’t have any money to create a big wedding so they bought a cake for £1.10 and a few bottles of cola wine and everybody dressed up in white, coming in thinking it was a big wedding. But when they came they realised that it’s just £1.10 for the wedding cake - it’s a little thing and a few bottles of cola wine. So it became no wonder it’s a perfect ponder but everybody was still dancing - sweet and dandy.

OK this is a tougher one. What about your song Blah Blah Blah - I’ve always wondered what that was about?

TOOTS: Well, people are always cursing bad words in anger. I wrote this song one day when people were quarrelling. So the idea came to me and said “It’s just blah blah blah them a cuss” Saying blah blah blah! (Laughs) It’s just blah blah blah but I turned it different but still [starts with the same letters as] a bad word do you know? Everybody catch a quarrel saying blah blah blah - everybody just cursing.

What about Peeping Tom? What is there a real Peeping Tom around at the time?

TOOTS: Yeah, I just said Peeping Tom because there was someone who used to peep on people. And then you’d not see him tomorrow and he would write about it because you didn’t know that he was watching you. (Laughs) So I called him Peeping Tom. But it could be anybody.

What about Dr Lester? One of my favourites – it’s about Obeah?

TOOTS: Yeah, well Dr Lester is a bush doctor and he is a medical doctor. He knows when to give you bush medicine and he knows when to give you an injection. He’s a great guy. So I wrote a song about him. Yeah, a real good man. He’s called Dr Lester.

Chris Blackwell didn't really promote me

Just one more question about song lyrics – was it a real girl who inspired Alidina?

TOOTS: She was a girl, but it could be anybody. She was a girl that really didn’t want to work. She wanted to look nice and she wanted everything that’s good and fancy but she didn’t want to work. (Laughs) And someone was cursing her. (laughs) “She lazy - she don’t want to work!” Saying “If you want to look nice you will have to work”. You know? It tells the story. My songs tell stories.

After Leslie died how did you decide to move forward?

TOOTS: Well, I sing. I always create songs and get stronger. I sang from a few people like Byron Lee and so forth and we got along fine. I think it was Byron Lee first then I stepped up to Beverleys - we tried all of them but all of them didn’t pay as well. But in those days money didn’t matter to us - we just wanted to get number one records.

How did Chris Blackwell get involved in your career?

TOOTS: Oh, he didn’t really get involved in my career, you know? He just loved my voice and loved the way I sing and that’s it. He didn’t really promote me, so he didn’t get involved. But he knew that I was a great artist and he wanted to work with me. We worked with him a few times and we are still working together now.

Was there any truth to this rumour that he wanted to sign you before the Wailers but couldn’t find your signatures?

TOOTS: No. I don’t think so. I don’t know of it.

In those days money didn't matter to us - we just wanted to get number one records

You took the musicians you used to play within that time on the road with you and you still play with quite a few of them today.

TOOTS: Yeah. Jackie Jackson, Paul Douglas and we have Dougie [Bryan] and we have Carl [Harvey] and some others joined us like Charles [Farquarson]. We always recorded songs together so it worked. The same guys who recorded the songs are the same guys that go on the road! (Laughs) It makes it stronger. No one can copy our sounds because it’s different.

Do you remember your first time visiting England? Was it with Dennis Brown?

TOOTS: I don’t recall. My first big concert was at Wembley Stadium in London. I played with a lot of other artists that I don’t remember them now, but it was great! (Laughs)

Why did Jerry and Raleigh leave the Maytals?

TOOTS: Jerry decided to live in New York because he had a wife and he said he wanted to stay with his wife in America. And then my next brethren wanted to go to England because he said the work is too hard, you know? (Laughs) Singing is too hard! But we still communicate. One died. Raleigh died and Jerry is still living in the states. We communicate sometimes.

You’ve been nominated for the reggae Grammy five times and won it in 2004. There is a lot of controversy about the reggae Grammy every year.

TOOTS: Yeah - every time. It’s good each time it’s won. Each time someone wins - it’s good whether they win it often or not.

Both Donald Trump and George Bush’s wife have praised you. Have you ever been surprised by how far your music has reached?

TOOTS: Yes. I met them and we took pictures together on Saturday Night Live in America. Yeah, I’ve been surprised sometimes but I know that the message goes around. It keeps going around. It’s the message you know?

Love is the foundation

A lot of rock pop and country artists rate you very highly. They’ve talked about you during the BBC documentary Reggae Got Soul and you’ve recorded with them. Who do you feel most happy to have worked with?

TOOTS: Well there are so many of them that I think I’m happy with all of them! It’s true! I admire gospel singers, I admire country and western singers. I admire R&B singers. Rock ‘N’ Roll - oh Lord! Yeah man, I admire everybody because music is music and love is love. Love is the foundation.

Who are your favourite boxers?

TOOTS: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman - a lot of good boxers. The one that just won the other day. The last one that won the billions the other day - what’s his name? Mayweather! (Laughs) Mayweather is the boxer of my life. Holyfield, Mike Tyson - all these great guys.

How did it feel to get back on the road last year after you were injured by a bottle in 2013?

TOOTS: It felt good. Like a champion! Like Hulk Hogan! Grrrrrrrr! (laughs)

How do you keep your voice in such good shape?

TOOTS: I exercise. I swim a lot and I pray. Pray to God you know? I can still go high and go low. Even though I’m getting older my voice is still strong.

When you’re on stage you keep the microphone quite far away from your mouth.

TOOTS: Yeah! (Laughs) I’m not aware of it sometimes. But I don’t like to sing with it too close.

Are you worried your voice will break the mic?

TOOTS: (Laughs) Yeah! It’s true. No lie!

Tell me a bit about your studio. What are you working on at the moment?

TOOTS: Yeah, my little studio called Reggae Centre. It’s been running a few years now. About 10 years? I’m working on a whole lot of songs. We just pre-released two of them. Me and my grandson have one and I have one by myself. The one by myself is called Marley. It’s about Bob, how he was a good friend of mine and how everybody is talking about him. And the other one with my grandson is called 10 Shillings. He sings and he raps. He calls himself King Trevy and he has a good talent. It’s about how people took our songs and put their name on it and released it - making a whole lot of money - but they just gave us 10 shillings, 5 shillings, 6 shillings, nothing.


How did you both decide to work together on Ten Shillings?

KING TREVY: Grandfather called me and said “You’re need to go on this track - no ifs, buts or maybes. You’re going to do it”. It was so sudden, I like to take the beat and give it some time but I was like “Alright then, it’s cool, let’s do it”.

The message of the song is about one of the topics we’ve just talked about. How producers treated singers back in the day.

KING TREVY: Yeah, if you look at what’s happening to the music business right now - it’s getting crazy. There are no songs that teach you anything. It’s all about partying, girls, money - the same foolishness over and over.

You mention Marcia Griffiths, Bunny Wailer, Freddie McGregor, Ken Boothe and Jimmy Cliff in your verse.

KING TREVY: Basically the song is telling you that my grandfather didn’t understand the business at the time, so he’s telling you what happened to him in the past. And my verse is what I observe. Seeing the type of people who come around here with him. But what it’s implying at the same time is the younger generation need to learn about contracts, about the business side - not just the music side. Go learn about contracts, 360 deals, all these things, so when they approach you, you won’t end up in the trap.

What can we expect from you in the future?

KING TREVY: I have a new song called I Can Do It. The video is coming out. I’m also working on my album and I’m going on tour with grandfather too. I was on tour with him last year. He called me up on the stage in North Carolina to give me a feel of being up there, doing my thing in front of the crowd, so I just did a little freestyle. So this year I’m really looking forward to it.

Finally, Toots, are you satisfied with everything you’ve achieved in your career?

TOOTS: Yeah I’m satisfied. But I could be more satisfied If I was treated good from earlier. So I could do enough things for some of the people in Jamaica - for the children and for the elderly. But we still don’t give up. We’re not going to give up. Because who’s right it is must have it.

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