Frederick Nathaniel "Toots" Hibbert passed away peacefully on September 11, 2020, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 77. The cause of death was not revealed, but his Facebook account confirmed on August 31 that Hibbert was tested for coronavirus in the last two weeks and placed in intensive care.
Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert (Toots was a childhood nickname) was born on December 8, 1942 in May Pen, Parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, and grew up singing gospel music in his church choir. He was the son of Seventh-day Adventist ministers and would remember miles-long walks along dirt roads to schools, hours of singing in church and private moments listening to such American stars on the radio as Ray Charles and Elvis Presley.
When Toots was a teenager, he left May Pen for Kingston to stay with his older brother John, who lived in the Trenchtown ghetto and worked as a cook. (John had a special fondness for his younger sibling and nicknamed him "Little Toots" when he was a baby.)
While working as a barber, Hibbert met Nathaniel "Jerry" Matthias and Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and they formed The Maytals vocal trio, circa 1961, at the dawn of Jamaica's ska era. The Maytals is named for Hibbert's hometown May Pen. Matthias and Gordon had previously cut a single together and they knew Hibbert's powerful voice would enhance their sound. The Maytals originally were a vocal trio with the group later adding such instrumentalists as bassist Jackie Jackson and drummer Paul Douglas. Hibbert could play every instrument used in his band.
The group started working with Jamaican record producer Coxsone Dodd and quickly became the star of the national festival competition that started in 1966.
In August 1966, The Maytals' "Bam Bam" won the inaugural Jamaica Festival Song competition, held annually to coincide with the island's Independence Day celebrations.
Hibbert was arrested shortly after The Maytals' victory and sentenced to 18 months for possession of marijuana; he described the incident as "political, a means to keep me down."
Hibbert said he had never smoked ganja at that time and insists that he was set up, possibly by a rival manager who wanted another artist to break out. He spent about a year in a low-security facility called Richmond Farm, where he was allowed to play his guitar and eat home-cooked meals. But the confinement forced him to cancel his first overseas tour, to England, which was scheduled for two weeks later, and set his career back at a pivotal moment.
At the time of Hibbert's release from jail, the jaunty ska beat created in Kingston studios had slowed down and morphed into rocksteady. The reunited Maytals began recording for producer Leslie Kong; their first release "54-46 (That's My Number)," which Toots wrote about his prison sentence (54-46 was Toots' prisoner ID number), became The Maytals' biggest hit of that era and had remained a staple in Hibbert's live shows.
The group's 1968 single "Do The Reggay" was the first song to use the word "reggae" naming the genre and introducing it to a global audience.
As with other reggae stars, Hibbert's following soared after the release of the landmark 1972 film "The Harder They Come", which starred Jimmy Cliff as a poor Jamaican who moves to Kingston and dreams of a career in music.
Chris Blackwell signed The Maytals to Island Records and changed their name to Toots and the Maytals, with Maytals now referring to the backing singers and the band members. They released several influential albums for the label, including "Funky Kingston" (1975), "Reggae Got Soul" (1976) and, following the departure of Matthias and Gordon, Hibbert's solo album "Toots in Memphis" (1988). The latter, accompanied by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, aka the historic rhythm section Sly and Robbie, was critically acclaimed and earned Hibbert his first Grammy nomination.
The group broke up in the early 1980s, but the following decade Hibbert began working with a new lineup of Maytals.
In 2005, the group won its first Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with "True Love".
Hibbert was the subject of a 2011 BBC documentary, "Reggae Got Soul", with Clapton, Richards and Willie Nelson among the commentators.
Toots and the Maytals were the musical guests on Season 29, Episode 16 of Saturday Night Live which aired on April 3, 2004.
Hibbert's career was halted in 2013 after he sustained a head injury from a vodka bottle thrown during a concert in Richmond, Virginia and suffered from headaches and depression. But by the end of the decade, he was performing again, and in 2020 he released another album, "Got To Be Tough", which included contributions from Ziggy Marley and Ringo Starr, whose son, Zak Starkey, served as co-producer.
Hibbert was ranked No. 71 on a "Rolling Stone" magazine list, compiled in 2008, of the 100 greatest contemporary singers.
In August 2012, he received the Order of Distinction by the government of Jamaica for outstanding contribution to the country's music.
Married to his wife, Doreen, for nearly 40 years, Hibbert had eight children, including the reggae performers Junior Hibbert and Leba Hibbert.
Toots Hibbert with his Order of Jamaica award, Aug 2012
Toots is a whirlwind of moods and motion. He’s joyous and unpredictable, a thrill to be with but also occasionally mystifying, navigating life by some bent logic invisible even to those close to him. Large quantities of ganja add to the haze. Time is meaningless in Toots’ world: If you have a meeting set for 6 p.m., he may show up at 4:30 or he may show up at 11. In public, he rolls up like a reggae superhero, in a matching Polo or Hugo Boss sweatsuit and Rasta skullcap, freshly trimmed black beard, laughing, yodeling, dancing, air-boxing, holding babies, and offering “wireless” fist bumps to friends and strangers...
In private he’s more pensive — a worrier, spinning theories, second-guessing himself, reinterpreting events. His reasoning seems to often be governed by emotional currents more than static facts, so his stories don’t always fit together, and the meanings change depending on how he feels.
Posthumous 2021 Grammy Award
Toots and the Maytals won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with "Got To Be Tough" on March 14, 2021, six months after its legendary lead singer died from complications of the Coronavirus.
This is the seventh nomination for frontman Toots Hibbert and sixth overall nomination for the Maytals. Their previous nominations were "Toots in Memphis" (1989), "An Hour Live" (1991), "Ska Father" (1999), "Light Your Light" (2008), and "Reggae Got Soul: Unplugged on Strawberry Hill" (2013).
On August 28, 2020, Hibbert released the final album of his career. Two days after the release of "Got To Be Tough", Hibbert was admitted to Kingston's University Hospital of the West Indies.