Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert died in Jamaica on Friday evening. While no cause of death has been given, the singer was recently reported to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and had been in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator at the University Hospital of the West Indies.
Toots Hibbert was the singer, founding member and driving force behind the seminal reggae band Toots and the Maytals. Hibbert was the first artist to use the word “reggae” on a record, on 1968 single “Do the Reggay.” While Hibbert was less well known than either of his Jamaican musical contemporaries, Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, his role in popularizing reggae music was arguably more crucial.
Like other reggae artists, Hibbert thought of reggae as a positive musical force, empowered to improve both individual lives as well as political systems. But Hibbert also brought a more diverse set of musical influences than either Marley or Tosh, and often incorporated American soul and even rock and roll in his music. Hibbert often mentioned James Brown, Otis Redding and Ray Charles as influences.
Hibbert formed the Maytals, a Rastafari word that translates to “do the right thing,” in the early ’60s. In 1966, Hibbert was jailed in Jamaica for possession of marijuana. The experience inspired one of his most famous songs, “54-46 That’s My Number.” Toots and the Maytals’ debut album, Funky Kingston, was released by Island Records in 1975. Music critic Lester Bang described the album upon its release as, “the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released.”
Toots and the Maytals released 24 studio albums and five live albums between 1964 and 2020. The band’s most recent album, Got To Be Tough, was released just last month.
In 2013, Hibbert was struck in the head by a vodka bottle thrown by an overzealous fan, which curtailed the band’s touring as a result. Hibbert spent much of his last seven years amassing a huge collection of recordings made in his home studio, with him playing all of the instruments himself. He worked with Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr, to pare down this material for Got To Be Tough. The resulting album, The Maytals’ first since 2011, is a tour de force, combining Hibbert’s lifelong passion for reggae and American roots music into a potent stew of gritty guitar, throbbing church organ, deep bass and good vibes.
Raised in a family of strict Seventh-day Adventists, Hibbert grew up singing in a church choir. He borrowed from a number of religious traditions in his music, combining elements from Rastafarianism, Christianity, African and West Indies religious practices known as Obeah and the occult.
Toots and the Maytals were the subject of the 2011 BBC documentary, “Reggae Got Soul: The Story of Toots and the Maytals,” which includes praise from a who’s who of music including Jimmy Cliff, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson and Ziggy Marley.
Accounts differ on when exactly Hibbert was born, but his management has said he died at the age of 77.