Even though Toots Hibbert coined the term “reggae,” artists like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff took the limelight from him, becoming the faces of the genre.
Yet, Hibbert had that raspy, soulful voice that so many have compared to Otis Redding’s. And, at least according to one critic - the revered Lester Bangs - Hibbert was both more talented and important than Marley.
“My style is different from his,” Hibbert said of the late Marley. Then he adds, diplomatically: “But he is my favorite singer from Jamaica.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hibbert and Marley were friends. Hibbert has a pretty impressive list of buddies in the business. His previous album, “True Love,” featured guests like Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Ben Harper. And he pals around with people like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
“We (Toots and the Maytals) just finished opening for the Stones,” Hibbert said. “We opened another leg for Dave Matthews. And we opened for Jimmy Buffett.”
Born Frederic Hibbert in 1945, Hibbert started out singing gospel music in his native Jamaica at age 7. He helped form the Maytals when ska was hot in the `60s. But just as the band was gaining momentum in 1966, Hibbert was arrested for possessing marijuana.
“We were trying to go on our first big tour,” Hibbert said. “We would’ve been touring Great Britain, then we go to France and Germany and Belgium.”
Hibbert denies ever owning the pot; He said he was set up by someone who wanted to stall his career.
“This certain artist tried to make it instead of me, but they didn’t make it,” he said. “They flopped. They helped me more because I think about it, and I keep singing about it. And I get a No. 1 record about it.”
That record was “54-46 That’s My Number” - a reference to Hibbert’s prison number - which became one of the first reggae songs to garner airplay outside of Jamaica. In 1971, the band would get further exposure when their song “Pressure Drop” appeared in the reggae documentary “The Harder They Come.”
And then there’s the word “reggae” itself, coined by Hibbert.
“There’s a slang in Jamaica called `streggay,’” he said. “If you see a girl walking and she don’t have no shoes on, the guys call her `streggay’ - we don’t want to talk to her. And if we don’t have any shoes on and the girl sees us walking raggedly, she calls us `streggay,’ and she don’t want to talk to us. So we came in after a streggay and said, `Let’s do the reggay!’”
The band’s song “Let’s Do the Reggay” forever associated the style of music with the word. As a result, Toots and the Maytals’ place in music history was secured.
Not that it guaranteed success.
When Toots and the Maytals opened for The Who in 1975, they were booed off the stage.
Hibbert said fans weren’t expecting a reggae band to open for the rocking Who because they weren’t advertised.
“They say, `No, no, no’ because it’s a rock `n’ roll crowd,” Hibbert said. “And, you know, rock `n’ roll is a part of my career. I love rock `n’ roll ... But they paid us well - and it’s a part of my history.”
While the Maytals might not have been rocking enough for Who fans, they can crank it up. (The Stones’ “Start Me Up” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” are a couple of the rock songs they’ve covered.) Like Taj Mahal, Hibbert’s versatile voice and ability to interpret songs uniquely allows him to delve into several genres, like rock and soul.
Hibbert enjoys the comparisons to Redding and other soul legends.
“I listen to Otis,” he said. “He’s one of my tutors. Also Ray Charles. When I sing my songs, people always ask me about them.”
The just-released new album by Toots and the Maytals, “Light Your Light,” is part soul and part reggae with songs made famous by both Redding and Charles, plus new takes on older Maytals work. A prior album, “Toots in Memphis,” featured Hibbert singing reggae versions of soul songs made famous on the Stax label.
“Maybe next time I’ll go straight-up R&B,” he said.
He could certainly pull it off. But right now, fans and critics appreciate the blend of soul and reggae. The “True Love” album from 2004 earned the band a Grammy. And the new album is a strong candidate to win them another - something Hibbert’s manager is hoping for.
“He wants Grammy and nothing less,” Hibbert said. “Me, I don’t care.”
Hibbert, now celebrating his 45th year as a recording artist, is more concerned with making a mark on music and influencing younger generations.
Today’s music, he said, is too superficial.
“All these youth today, they have to listen to Bob Marley songs, my songs, Jimmy Cliff’s,” he said. “They have to listen to us to learn something.”