Traveling across the United States as a reggae star has its pluses and minuses. With a new album, Light Your Light, on record shelves, there's no doubt that Toots Hibbert, charismatic frontman of legendary Jamaican band Toots and the Maytals, doesn't mind the exposure. His band is a crowd favorite in college towns and music festivals year round, and inevitably, it all equates to CD sales and dollars.
On the other hand, traversing the Rocky Mountains when you're more accustomed to the dank climate of Kingston can take a traumatic toll on your health. From the sound of his breathing during our recent phone interview, it's obvious that Hibbert is experiencing the latter. As he deeply wheezes over the telephone during the fifth week of a grueling eight-week tour, it's easy to forget that you're on the phone with reggae royalty and start recommending cold remedies instead of asking questions. He's got a bad fever and a flu that won't quit. Despite his lack of a speaking voice, though, he's got to throw it all off and be the energetic and ageless Toots Hibbert that the world expects. Reggae fans in Boulder, Colorado, anticipate his presence on stage in mere hours, and he refuses to disappoint them. It's not the worst life in the world, but if this has been your seasonal routine since the late 1960s without respite, it could grow tiring.
Don't let this worry you, though: Hibbert swears he's nowhere near retirement.
"I think playing reggae is what I come to do on Earth," Hibbert says via phone a few days later (at this writer's request, the original interview was postponed). "Jah want me to do this, so he make me do it, and I'm not stopping anytime soon." He won't answer questions about his age. "A lot of people are guessing, so I just let them guess," he says laughing. But barring the unexpected, there's no reason to suspect Toots won't be playing reggae until kingdom come.
He's been a core member of Jamaica's music history since age 15, when the Maytals were just a trio of Kingston youth doing session work at the legendary Studio One recording studios back in 1964. At the time, the group, which consisted of Hibbert, Nathaniel "Jerry" McCarthy, and Henry "Raleigh" Gordon, were singing gospel harmonies set to ska music — all of which was recorded with the famous Skatalites as Studio One's house band. In those days, Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, owner of Studio One, had more up-and-coming talent under one roof than he knew what to do with — at the time, the Maytals were stealing the limelight from Dodd's other gospel trio, the Wailers.
"Back in those days, I'm the one who sang the most ska with Skatalites," Hibbert says, reminiscing. "We noticed that gospel would work in ska before anyone else, and we ran with it."
While historically this may not be precise, at the time, reggae was evolving recording by recording, and regardless of who did what first, the Maytals were, without question, there during the beginning stages of reggae. So much so that the Maytals are credited with using the word reggae on wax before anyone else, for the band's 1968 cut "Do the Reggay."
The original version of the Maytals played together from 1964 until 1981, but during that period, they had a whopping 31 number-one records in Jamaica, with a hit list that included timeless classics such as "Pressure Drop" and "54-46 (That's My Number)," among others. They're easily remembered for making The Harder They Come soundtrack sparkle, and they influenced a number of modern-day musicians, from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones.
These days, Hibbert carries the name forward, although his band is a different lineup of seasoned reggae veterans that put on one of the most energetic and dance-happy shows in all of reggae. They were recently awarded a Grammy for Hibbert's stellar 2004 release, True Love, which featured an all-star cast of musicians (Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Manu Chao, Keith Richards... etc.), all reworking classic Maytals material.
When asked if it was difficult trying to corral so many personalities into a recording studio for one project, he balks at the question. "No, mon, it was easy," he says. "They're my fans, and I'm fans of theirs. We just asked everyone to pick one of my songs that they liked, and they listened to my catalog and picked. It was very easy. They've been listening to my music for years, just like I've been listening to their music for years."
The solid 17 tracks got Hibbert his highest accolade yet, but he's not jumping for joy over winning a Grammy. "The people are my Grammy," Hibbert says nonchalantly. "I should have won a lot more of these awards over the years, but I take my accolades from Jah. That's enough for me."
Awards aside, the name Toots is highly revered within the world of reggae no matter what. He consistently opens for the Rolling Stones every summer in Europe, and last summer alone, he toured with the Stones, Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy Buffett, and Los Lonely Boys as well as headlined his own gigs. It's a big part of why he's looked at as an iron man within the genre and feels so keen about continuing to make music.
Light Your Light is less of an international production than True Love; Raitt makes a guest appearance, but the album's mainly an in-house one. The few covers that do show up are like audible slices of heaven. With Hibbert's raspy drawl, his reworking of Ray Charles' "I Gotta Woman" sounds like a perfect fit, as entire stanzas pass by in which it's nearly impossible to distinguish the vocal differences between the two great singers. And by the time the Maytals get finished with Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart," the wicked reggae groove played underneath it makes you almost forget it was a soul standard first. In that regard, Hibbert's always been good at keeping listeners on their toes, and it's one reason he can't help but laugh at talk of retirement.
"I'm just thinking of living a good life and playing music, not retiring," he says. "I eat a lot of garlic and exercise to keep fit, so I'm not going anywhere."