Toots & the Maytals

54-46 Was My Number: Anthology 1964-2000 (Sanctuary Records)

Once upon a time, reggae was ordained as the next big thing. No fooling. Several mid-1970s critics actually predicted the Jamaican genre was going to hit our shores like a musical squall.

Um, not quite. Instead -- for many listeners -- reggae's legacy lingers in two ways. One is the near-mandatory inclusion of at least one Bob Marley disc in every self-respecting boomer or stoner's music collection. The other tribute is more dubious, manifesting itself in the inevitable barroom yahoo who yells "Ja man!" at the first hint of a tropical bass line on the jukebox. Those seeking something deeper owe it to themselves to track down this budget-minded collection.

The anthology documents a formidable band that got lost in Marley's overblown shadow. Vocalist Toots Hibbert never caught on in the United States the way Marley did. Nor did he score the Elvis-cum-Jesus fame that Marley's ghost still commands. And that's a shame because one could argue that Toots and Company were the better band. Their writing was tight, their rhythms brawny. And few singers pack the vocal chops that Hibbert -- with his powerful, burlap-wrapped-in-silk tone -- displays on every recording. The Maytals came up from the same droning ska roots that most Jamaican bands -- including the Wailers -- did in the early 1960s. But all that changed for the Maytals when they cut the scary "54-46, That's My Number" -- where Hibbert recounts his life of crime and incarceration. After that, there was no turning back. Darker and even more unnerving classics, such as "Pressure Drop," "Struggle" and the apocalyptic "Funky Kingston," soon followed.

All of that and more is collected here, but it's not all Third World noir. Toots could just as easily fall into a soulful groove, such as the one he demonstrates on the transplanted cover of John Denver's "(Take Me Home) Country Roads." You can almost feel the sand between your toes.

 
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