Budding crank journalists take note: the secret to my success is simple. Interview a musician over the age of 40, profess your undying love of his/her work, remark that he/she never got his/her due, and sit back as the over-40 musician in question proceeds to explode in an orgy of repressed frustration. What fun! In the grand scheme of things, TOOTS HIBBERT isn't as full of rage and resentment as I might like, but he's pissed-off enough to be highly entertaining.
And who can blame him? To the casual fan, it would be easy to assume that Bob Marley was the sole creator and standard-bearer of reggae music, and on the seventh day, he rested. Marley's status as icon is secure; his name ranks among the most celebrated figures in 20th-century pop music.
None of this is lost on Hibbert. A contemporary of Marley's, Hibbert and many others played central roles in the evolution of reggae without enjoying anything like Marley's notoriety. As front man of Toots & the Maytals, Hibbert was in fact a huge star in Jamaica and England from the early 1960s on, dating back to days when rhythmic Jamaican pop music was called ska or rocksteady. As the tempo of the music changed from the frantic scuffle of ska to an easy, loping skank, Hibbert coined a new phrase with his hit "Do the Reggay."
"At that time in Jamaica, it was called ska, then after that, rocksteady, then after that, reggae," Hibbert says in a patois thicker'n Dubya's skull. "I recorded 'Do the Reggay,' so I was the inventor of that word. The music changed. Ska was quicker than reggae; rocksteady was slower than reggae. They used to call reggae bluebeat and boogiebeat until I say, 'Let's Do the Reggay.'"
Hibbert isn't shy about claiming credit for his work, nor should he be. Toots was a pioneer and a kick-ass singer, but he never received his due in the history books or in his record sales, and he'd like to set the record straight.
"I am the inventor of reggae," he says, point blank. "I become international for so long. I had the No. 1 hits in Jamaica, 'It's You' and 'Daddy.' This was before even 'Do the Reggay.'"
Hibbert—who also recorded the original reggae standards "Pressure Drop" and "Monkey Man," among others—figures he didn't get his props for several reasons: manager/Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell's promotional efforts on Marley's behalf; Marley's premature death; and Hibbert's refusal to grow dreadlocks, the visual trademark of most reggae artists. "I was very good friends with Bob Marley, but it seems he [gets all the credit] because of Chris Blackwell," Hibbert says, all-a-fuming. "He managed both of us. He was the first white man that came to Jamaica interested in artists like myself. He give me a contract before Bob Marley and [signed] Jimmy Cliff even before us. Jimmy Cliff is a great guy, too. We don't get the credit that we should get. The Natty Dreads come up, and maybe that influence him because I am Rasta, but I don't use the dread[locks], you know? Dread is not really appropriate to my knowledge. I think maybe that made a difference, but I don't want to say. Bob Marley and I were very close friends. We used to be very nice together, but when he was alive, he was so famous. Chris made so much money off him; he kept him more famous, and it was like we weren't alive. And then you get so much more honor when you die."
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It's safe to say that Hibbert's hyperaggressive style probably also played a role in holding him back. Marley was the Smokey Robinson of reggae—his music was sweet, warm, soothing, melodic. Hibbert, conversely, was reggae's Otis Redding—tuff, sweaty, steely, jacked up on testosterone. His voice doesn't do much for white people soaking in their Jacuzzis; his sound is undiluted rude-boy funk from the mean streets of Kingston.
"Well, I have a different tone of voice, a different style," Hibbert concurs. "The R&B style and the gospel style and the reggae style, I go from the church. The church contain all these good, different style—the slow R&B, classical music, Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Mahalia Jackson. All the great singers come from the church, and I emulate them. I also love country and western. These sounds was just blowing in the wind because Jamaica always try to create things, but reggae come from Caribbean sources and suffering people: our music. It comes from the church. In Jamaica, everyone love the reggae, but in pop music, they come up with a lot of different vibe. We sing the words to be real; the words have to say something. It is not a girly-girly thing; it's not a lovey-lovey thing, you know? The songs, the music go where you should go."
By now, you, too, know where you should go. Skank over to the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Tuesday night to see Toots & the Maytals (it must be noted, however, that the original Maytals are long disbanded and the handle has become a generic appellation for whoever's backing Hibbert). He's exquisite.
Toots & the Maytals perform at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Tues., 8 p.m. $18.50. 18+.