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R.I.P. Toots Hibbert, reggae pioneer

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Photo: Venla Shalin/Redferns (Getty Images)

Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert—known to reggae fans the world over by his stage name, Toots—has died. One of the pioneers of reggae music, and one of the longest and hardest working performers in the world of music, period, Toots Hibbert won Grammys, inspired generations to embrace the reggae sound, and helped put Jamaican music on the map in the mid-20th century. He died this week at the age of 77, from complications of COVID-19.

Born in Jamaica—and orphaned at a young age—Hibbert joined with Ralphus “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias to form The Maytals (later Toots And The Maytals) in 1962, launching a band that would one day be described by critic Robert Christgau as “The Beatles to The Wailers’ Rolling Stones.” Originally a vocal trio, the band steadily added instrumentalists to its lineup, winning the Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Contest in 1966 with “Bam Bam” (a feat they’d repeat two times in the future). The group spent the rest of the decade solidifying their place at the top of Jamaican music, with hits that included 1968's “Do The Reggay,” a track that took a name for a popular dance style at the time and wound up lending it to a whole genre of music.

That national stardom translated to international success in 1969, when the band’s “Monkey Man” crossed over to the U.K. and became a much-covered, widely beloved hit. Embraced by the ska and punk scenes, the band scored further hits with songs like “Funky Kingston”; they also picked up American recognition after contributing songs (and a performance) to the soundtrack of Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come.

And while the Maytals broke up (for roughly a decade) in 1980, Hibbert never stopped performing, employing his vocals and talent as an multi-instrumentalist to keep the music going. He also showed a marked interest in collaboration, teaming up with any number of groups who’d been influenced by the Maytals in the first place—most notably for greatest hits collection True Love in 2004, which saw the band recreate many of their greatest hits alongside everyone from Eric Clapton to The Roots to No Doubt. (Scoring the band the 2005 Grammy for Best Reggae Album in the process.)

As for Hibbert himself, he continued to tour and perform well into the most recent decade, appearing on The Tonight Show in 2018, and with an event billed as the band’s “Final Tour” set to commence in 2021. One of the most telling incidents of his latter-day career occurred back in 2013, when he was struck in the head by a vodka bottle thrown by an attendee at one of this shows. Despite suffering “extreme anxiety, memory loss, headaches, dizziness and most sadly of all, a fear of crowds and performing” after the incident, he nevertheless wrote a letter asking the judge in the case to grant the defendant leniency, writing, “He is a young man, and I have heard what happens to young men in jail. My own pain and suffering would be increased substantially knowing that this young man would face that prospect.”


Hibbert was reportedly placed in a medically-induced coma in August; a post to the Maytals’ Facebook page today announced that he had died.