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Toots and the Maytals: An Extremely Respectable Second

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked something like this, as my son did just the other day: “Okay, I know Bob Marley is the greatest reggae dude, but who is second?”

The complicated answer is that reggae has always been more producer/songwriter-based than artist-based, and to get a true picture of reggae and Jamaican music you have to get to know the great producers like Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Duke Reid, Leslie Kong, Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, etc.

But the simple answer is Toots and the Maytals.

Frederick “Toots” Hibbert is the most soulful singer in Jamaican history, with a raw, but very musical vocal intensity most comparable to the great Otis Redding. His vocal trio, the Maytals (with Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon), is second only in importance to the Wailers in reggae history and spans the ska, rocksteady and reggae eras, with Toots still going strong today.

An excellent collection, The Very Best of Toots and the Maytals, spanning the Maytal’s career from the ’60s through the ’80s, came out a couple of years ago on Island, and it’s a thorough overview of an amazing career.

One of Jamaica’s strongest songwriters as well as a vocal powerhouse, Hibbert was born in the tiny West Jamaican village of May Pen in 1946 into a Seventh Day Adventist preacher’s family.

In his early teens Hibbert headed for the bright lights of Kingston, where he found work with a barber who encouraged him to sing while he worked. There Mathias and Gordon (as well as Rastafarians) found him, and the trio first recorded in ’62, the year Jamaica gained independence from Britain, in a wild, gospel style at Studio One for legendary producer Coxsone Dodd.

They next worked with Prince Buster and recorded the manic “Broadway Jungle,” which opens this collection. In addition to their call-and-response gospel/soul harmony style, the Maytals also distinguished themselves by singing in the patois of the typical Jamaican rather than trying to imitate American accents.

They won Jamaica’s Festival Song Contest in ’66 with the Latinesque “Bam Bam,” in ’69 with the great “Sweet and Dandy” (produced by Leslie Kong who also produced “Pressure Drop,” probably the group’s most famous song), and in ’73 with “Pomp and Pride”. The latter two songs were featured on the incredible The Harder They Come soundtrack, the most important reggae album not recorded by Bob Marley.

Other Toots classics include “Monkey Man” (covered by the Specials), “Funky Kingston,” “Reggae Got Soul,” and “54-46 That’s My Number,” the artistic product of time spent in jail in the ’60s for a ganja bust. The Maytals also recorded “Do the Reggay” in ’68, the first recorded use of the word.

If you have any deeper interest in reggae beyond Bob Marley, pick up this CD. There’s no shame in being #2.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Milo

    On April 6, 2004, Toots and The Maytals are releasing True Love, a with-friends album that I’ve had a promotional copy of for a few days. It’s excellent–definitely one to buy if you like the CD suggested by this article. I have a review on my site, if you’re interested. Click on my name to go there. -M

  • Natalie Davis


    Great piece, Eric, and thanks again for bigging-up Toots, but there are those who could make a solid case for Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney being number two. And then there are the mighty Skatalites…

    The more I think about it, though (especially if we are leaving producers and mainstream popularity — which doesn’t mean crap — out of the mix), the more I am inclined to agree with you. As Marley did, Toots radiates such warmth and vibrancy and positivity onstage. And what a craftsperson: In his quest to create quality sounds, he is very demanding of the musicians who support him. It all adds up to top-notch music. Hail Toots!

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Natalie! Very glad you liked it. Certainly my judgment that Toots is number two is just personal opinion, but I am glad to hear you agree. Between the incomparable voice, the songwriting, the longevity, the popularity, I think the case for Toots is strong.

  • :::Taylor:::

    I think that this is a very good article/biography about toots and the maytals I happen to like them and their music very much, like how you mentioned ‘monkey man’and ’54-46 that’s my number’,those are some of my favorite songs by them.They had a show yesterday at the house of blues in Anaheim, but I didn’t make it. I bet it rocked,though…I like how you know so much about them…what other raggae artists do you like?…my name is Taylor and this is my myspace name,if you have one: :::Taylor:::…just add me or something. We can talk about the music…;)

  • guxy

    hi people toots is second to no one as far as song writing is concerned he is a super tallented and ive also had the privlidge of singing with him (we sang ‘its you’) a very down too earth guy aswell (as expected of a reggae superstar 😉 from guxy of ‘stiff naked fools’