Toots Hibbert, lead singer of Toots & The Maytals and one of reggae's original practitioners, died on Friday night in Kingston, Jamaica. His death was first announced on the band's social media accounts. He was believed to be 77 years old. While no official cause of death was named, he was recently hospitalized with Covid-like symptoms and had been in a medically-induced coma since earlier this month.
Hibbert was born in May Pen, Jamaica but grew up in the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kingston, home to fellow Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley. He started Toots & The Maytals with his two friends Ralphus “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias and the group released their first album, "Never Grow Old," in 1964.
A few years later, Hibbert became the first person to ever use the term "reggae" in song, on the lively and rhythmic single "Do the Reggay." The track also highlighted Hibbert's tender singing voice which frequently drew comparisons to the sweet and soulful voice of Otis Redding. Perhaps as a result of the comparison, Hibbert recorded an album of hit American soul songs entitled “Toots In Memphis” in 1988.
Throughout the '60s, Toots & The Maytals enjoyed increasing success in Jamaica, releasing a steady series of local hits including "Bam Bam"—which inspired the chorus of Sister Nancy's song by the same name—and the genre-defining "Monkey Man" and "54-46 That's My Number." The latter two songs are some of reggae's most identifiable tracks. They also helped Toots & The Maytals find an international audience, particularly in the United Kingdom. A 2011 BBC documentary entitled “Reggae Got Soul,” profiled Hibbert and included commentary from Toots & The Maytals mega-fans Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
The group's big break in the United States came in the early '70s when the movie "The Harder They Come" was released. Starring Jimmy Cliff, the film tracked the journey of a young Jamaican singer from the country who moves to Kingston to follow his dreams of making it big as a musician. Hibbert appeared in the film as himself, recording the group's hit single “Sweet and Dandy” in the studio, while Cliff’s character watches in awe. The movie's soundtrack included two Toots & The Maytals tracks, the aforementioned "Sweet and Dandy" and the irresistible and instantly recognizable "Pressure Drop."
For Toots & The Maytals, "Pressure Drop," and the band's association with "The Harder They Come" brought a new level of fame, which was then immediately compounded by the release of the group's critically acclaimed album "Funky Kingston" in 1973. Writing for Pitchfork, Wayne Marshall described the album as "an authentic, unadulterated expression of Toots’ and Jamaica’s country soul." Legendary critic Lester Bangs said the album was "the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released." "Funky Kingston" also included a handful of American cover songs, including The Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" and John Denver's "Country Roads." In a nod of appreciation for his rural hometown of May Pen, Hibbert swapped out "West Virginia" for "West Jamaica."
Hibbert continued performing and releasing new music throughout his entire life. In 2005, Toots & The Maytals’ “True Love”—a compilation of the band's biggest hits, redone with stars like Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt—won the Grammy Award for best reggae album. Hibbert's final album, “Got to Be Tough,” was released just a month ago. It was his first album in over a decade and featured a version of his friend Bob Marley's hit single "Three Birds."
Hibbert is survived by his wife of nearly 40 years, Doreen; seven children; and several grandchildren. On Saturday, he was honored across social media by fans and friends including Ziggy Marley who wrote, "The Legendary Toots Hibbert has passed i spoke w/him a few wks ago told him how much i loved him we laughed & shared our mutual respect. He was a father figure to me his spirit is w/us his music fills us w/his energy i will never forget him RIP MIGHTY & POWERFUL NYAH FYAH BAL."