Many folks think of reggae as the sound of Jamaica. And they’re not wrong! The danceable beats have that unmistakable island vibe we all know and love.
But do you know which one of the genre’s earliest artists helped form the style and gave it its name?
Today, we’re diving in to reminisce on reggae’s history.
The Father of Reggae: Toots Hibbert
In September 2020, the reggae world mourned the loss of one of its foremost pioneers. Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert, better known as Toots, passed away in Kingston from Coronavirus complications at 77 years old. But he left behind an undying legacy.
Born in May Pen, Jamaica, in 1942, Hibbert was the youngest of seven children and grew up singing in the church choir. However, he became an orphan at the age of 11 after both of his parents passed.
He moved to the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kingston to live with his brother, John. It was here that he’d meet his future bandmates. Hibbert met Jerry Matthius and Raleigh Gordon in the barbershop where he worked. By 1961, they’d formed the Maytals.
Throughout the 60s, the Maytals were one of Jamaica’s most popular bands. Toots suggested greats such as Otis Redding, James Brown, and Ray Charles influenced his music. They won the National Popular Song Contest three times with hits like Sweet and Dandy, Pomps & Pride, and Bam Bam, which later inspired Sister Nancy’s tune of the same name.
In 1968, Hibbert, who could play every instrument in the band and write songs, penned the number, Do the Reggay. He said, “…in Jamaica, we had a slang. If we’re not looking so good, if we’re looking raggedy, we’d call it ‘streggae.’ That’s where I took it from.”
Listeners would tell the artist that his genre of music was now called reggae. So, while he didn’t intend to coin the term, that’s precisely what happened.
Toots took a break from the Maytals in the mid-80s. When he fired up the band again the following decade, he did so without Matthius and Gordon. However, he continued to perform until the end of his life.
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Toots Hibbert’s Best-Known Reggae Songs
Toots and the Maytals shaped the trajectory of reggae music. In fact, without the group, we wouldn’t have the vibrant, island-inspired tunes we’re familiar with. Here are three of their greatest hits.
One of Toots and the Maytals’ most famous songs is Pressure Drop. They first recorded this upbeat tune in 1969 for their album Monkey Man.
Hibbert says the lyrics are ultimately about karmic retribution. Early in their career, they were stiffed by a colleague. Instead of seeking revenge, they penned this danceable jam. Toots sings, “If you do bad things to innocent people, then bad things will happen to you.”
However, some folks claim it’s about the collective sigh of relief from Jamaicans when the country legalized marijuana.
Regardless of its true meaning, it’s become one of history’s most popular reggae songs. Musicians like The Clash, Robert Palmer, and Keith Richards have all covered the hit in their unique styles. It also appeared in several movies, including The Harder They Come and 50 First Dates.
54-46 (That’s My Number)
In 1966, a run-in with the law threatened to end Hibbert’s career. He was arrested for marijuana possession and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Although Hibbert claims an unnamed promoter framed him for the crime, he served his time at the Richmond Farm Correctional Center.
Fortunately, he found inspiration in the experience. A few years later, the band released 54-46 (That’s My Number). Not only was it popular throughout Jamaica, but it also became one of the first reggae songs to receive international acclaim.
You can practically feel the jubilation in the celebratory jam. It’s an ode to freedom that Hibbert earned the hard way. While the lyrics tell the story of his dehumanizing arrest, it’s hard not to tap your toes to the great beat.
This is another tune that The Clash covered. Other bands, including Rebel MC and Double Trouble, also drew inspiration from it.
The first big hit for Toots and the Maytals was Bam Bam. It won Jamaica’s inaugural Independence Festival Song Competition and launched the group’s fame on the island.
The lyrics describe a peaceful man but one who shouldn’t be provoked. He’ll react with untold force when he’s pushed over the limit. One line reads, “I want you to know that I am the man who fights for the right, not for the wrong.”
In a way, this man might be Toots Hibbert himself. After all, he faced plenty of adversity throughout his career. And while he may have allowed karma to take care of those who wronged him, he always came back fighting.
Still today, Bam Bam is a beloved favorite amongst reggae fans. While countless covers and samples exist, the most famous is from Sister Nancy, who turned it into a battle cry of female empowerment.
Parallels Between Toots Hibbert and Bob Marley
While Toots Hibbert might be the Father of Reggae, the genre’s undisputed King is certainly Bob Marley. Although they had completely different styles, the two men encountered similar milestones, particularly in their early careers.
In an article for the Caribbean Beat, Garry Steckles recalls the many parallels between the two revolutionary artists.
Hibbert and Marley were both born into devoutly Christian families in small Jamaican towns before moving to Trenchtown as teenagers. Each would later join the Rastafarian movement.
The year 1962 saw inaugural recordings from Hibbert and Marley. Two years later, both men released significant pieces. Marley recorded his first hit with the Wailers, Simmer Down, and Hibbert introduced his debut album with the Maytals, entitled I’ll Never Grow Old.
Both artists struggled with sheisty business people who failed to compensate them appropriately. After tumultuous periods in the 60s, Hibbert and Marley spent substantial time in the US before signing with Island Records.
And, of course, we can’t forget how each of them would go on to shape the future of reggae music.
Interestingly, Ziggy Marley, one of Bob’s children, later recounted that Toots had been like a father to him. After Hibbert’s death, Ziggy recalled fond memories from his childhood when he’d listen to Hibbert’s music.
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What Does the Future of Reggae Look Like?
Ziggy Marley isn’t the only legacy artist carrying the genre into the next generation.
Toots Hibbert’s daughter, Leba, became the lead singer of the Maytals after her father’s death. The family’s D&F Production Company made the announcement in 2022 on what would have been the musician’s 80th birthday.
This decision came after disagreements between Hibbert’s estate and his former bandmates. They finally concluded that the Maytals’ name belonged to the family. Leba said they’ll announce a new lineup soon and plan to tour the US and UK.
But not all of reggae’s rising stars were born into the tradition. Fresh faces like Koffee, whose real name is Mikayla Simpson, are introducing updated basslines and modern twists to the genre. In fact, the New York Times named her breakthrough hit, Toast, 2019’s Song of the Summer.
We look forward to seeing how the newest cohort makes reggae their own.
Ready to add more Toots to your collection? Check out Essential Artist Collection – The Maytals.
Reggae Lives On!
Toots Hibbert undoubtedly helped mold reggae in its earliest form. From laying foundational tracks like Pressure Drop and Bam Bam to christening the name it’s known by today, his influence is hard to grasp. And while he won’t see the genre’s future, his legacy lives on.
Did we miss your favorite song by Toots and the Maytals? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments!