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.