AS reggae stars Toots & The Maytals hit the road for a 13-date tour, Peter Mann catches up with frontman Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert

FRONTED by Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, the Maytals were formed in Jamaica in the early 1960s and, for the past six decades, have brought their immense sound to crowds the world over whilst also having worked with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow among others.

Their track, ‘Do the Reggay,’ released in 1968, is widely acclaimed as being the first to use the word reggae within it, thus developing the genre as a whole and it became the first of many which led the band to be responsible for some of the biggest hits in history.

Named in the top 100 greatest singers by Rolling Stone Toots & The Maytals have been nominated for five Grammy Awards, winning the Best Reggae Album in 2004 for ‘True Love,’ they also hold the record for most number ones in their homeland with thirty-one.

For such a history, a one which includes some twenty-three studio albums alone between 1964 and 2011, Toots and company had to start off somewhere and for Toots, recognition is afforded to none other than Bob Marley, the icon subject of the groups’ latest single.

“Everybody go to Coxsone Dodd's studio,” explained Toots.

“It was the target for everyone who wanted to sing at that time and Bob was already there when I arrived.

“There were five Wailing Wailers back then but Coxsone said he didn't like my voice at first.

“He told me to come back in six weeks’ time so I went to the country, wrote some more songs and then went back with Raleigh (Henry Gordon) and Jerry (Nathaniel Malthias), who sang harmonies.”

The trio who’d met at a barbershop in Trench Town would soon become known as The Maytals, making their debut with ‘Hallelujah’ and the hits never stopped.

“I’m from a spiritual family so we’d go to what I call clap and church,” Toots continued.

“We’d go twice a day on a Sunday, singing and praying and it was like a school as well.

“That’s where it comes from and we keep it in the music because people need that.

“They need to feel happy; it’s not just about reggae, or even music, it’s about helping them make that connection with something spiritual, which is the best feeling you can have.

“It brings people hope and it lets their spirits fly, I tell you...”

Life changed for the better in ’66 when the Maytals won the Jamaica Song Festival with ‘Bam Bam,’ until Toots was, surprisingly, arrested and spent nine months in prison on suspected, trumped-up, ganja charges and it was whilst on the Prison Farm he penned his track ‘54-46 Was My Number,’ an instant hit and one which rivals The King, Elvis Presley’s ‘Jailhouse Rock’ as the greatest prison song of all time.

“They give me my guitar and my own clothes, and I had a nice room to sit in and play,” Toots explained.

“That's where I write this song ‘54-46 Was My Number’ but that wasn't really my prison number, because I didn't have one.

“I just added that later, but I come out of jail and get to number one again, right away.”

Three years after their first success the Maytals won the Jamaica Song Festival again in 1969, this time with ‘Sweet & Dandy’ and again in 1971 following the death of Kong (producer Leslie Kong) with the track ‘Pomp & Ride’ and, within another three years, now known as Toots & The Maytals, were signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

It was there they began to make it, becoming the renowned name they have kept to this day; even after the retirement of Raleigh and Jerry in ’81.

“Anyone who appears on stage with me I call them Maytals,” stated Toots.

“We give the music that old feeling because that’s the best feeling you can have.

“I make music to bring people hope and make them happy.

“I do it in the belief that if you give people something in good faith, then they’ll take to it because they realise it’s different from everything else they’ve been listening to.”

Even now, in his seventies, Toots will be 76 in early December, is still at the top of his game, and the most recognised from his homeland. Coming to Europe, which includes a UK tour, still excites with him adding: “I'm looking forward to coming to Europe and the people there are going to get shows to remember.”

“I'm coming very hot as usual but then I work hard for people and that's why my audiences are always happy; Because I love to let people see what I have, and to share it with them.”