Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, the Grammy-winning Jamaican singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and leader of reggae/rocksteady/ska band Toots & the Maytals, has died at age 77. The tragic news comes exactly two weeks after the release of Got to Be Tough, Toots & the Maytals’ first album in 10 years, which had been critically hailed as one of the best of Hibbert’s six-decade career.
“It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica,” read a statement posted on Toots & the Maytals’ social media pages on Sept. 11. “The family and his management team would like to thank the medical teams and professionals for their care and diligence, and ask that you respect their privacy during their time of grief. Mr. Hibbert is survived by his wife of 39 years, Miss D [Doreen Hibbert], and his seven of eight children.”
While a cause of death was not given at press time, it was reported on Aug. 31 that Hibbert had been admitted to the intensive care unit at the University Hospital of the West Indies while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, but was “in good spirits” and “showing signs of improvement.” On Sept. 1, it was revealed by his Jamaican publicist that he was “fighting for his life” and had been placed in a medically induced coma, although another statement released at that time said he was in stable condition and “receiving around-the-clock treatment to ensure his body can recover.”
Hibbert — one of reggae’s most charismatic frontmen and one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers, whose soulful voice was often compared to Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett — was born the youngest of seven children on Dec. 8, 1942, in May Pen, Parish of Clarendon, Jamaica. After a move in his teens to Kingston in the early ‘60s, he formed the popular vocal group the Maytals, who won the Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition three times and — despite a temporary setback when Hibbert was imprisoned in 1966 for possession of marijuana — went on to become one of the most important and influential acts in reggae history. In fact, Hibbert was the first artist to even use the word “reggae,” in the 1968 song “Do the Reggay.”
Toots & the Maytals — who to this day hold the record for the most No. 1 hits in Jamaica, with a total of 31 — recorded some of reggae’s most iconic and beloved classics, including “Pressure Drop,” “Sweet and Dandy,” “Funky Kingston,” “Monkey Man,” “Bam Bam,” and “54-46 (That’s My Number),” the latter inspired by Hibbert’s 18-month stint in jail. By the early ‘70s, they had signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records and broken out internationally. In 1972, they contributed two songs to and appeared in The Harder They Come, the Jimmy Cliff film notable for introducing Jamaican music to a wide American audience. Throughout the ‘70s, Toots & the Maytals continued to cross over by touring with British and American acts like the Who, Jackson Browne, Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. In the early ‘80s, the Maytals were hugely influential on second-wave ska acts like the Specials, who covered “Monkey Man,” and punk bands like the Clash, who covered “Pressure Drop.” Hibbert broke up the Maytals around this time, in 1981, so he could study Rastafarianism, but he reformed the band in 1995.
Toots & the Maytals’ influence then continued into the 2000s, as evidenced by their 2004 LP True Love, which won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album and featured all-stars like Trey Anastasio, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, No Doubt, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and the Roots. In 2011, the band was the subject of the BBC documentary Reggae Got Soul: The Story of Toots & the Maytals, which included appearances by Blackwell, Clapton, Cliff, Raitt, Richards, and Nelson as well as Ziggy Marley and Sly & Robbie. Hibbert was conferred with Jamaica’s fifth-highest honor, the Order of Jamaica, in 2012. Despite an accident at a 2013 gig — when an intoxicated concertgoer threw a vodka bottle that struck Hibbert in the forehead and reportedly led to the singer being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury — Hibbert and his band returned to the concert circuit in 2016, playing festivals like Coachella, WOMAD, and Glastonbury the following year.
Toots & the Maytals’ Got to Be Tough, which was the first Maytals album that Hibbert had produced himself, was released on Aug. 28 on Trojan America, the boutique reggae record label co-founded by Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr. The comeback album was another all-star affair, featuring contributions from Starkey, Starr, Sly Dunbar, Ziggy Marley, and Cyril Neville.
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