Toots and the Maytals are one of the most influential reggae bands in the world. Their frontman Toots – aka Frederick Hibbert – is credited in the Guinness Book of Records for inventing the name “reggae”.
Born in Jamaica, Toots moved from his small home town to the capital Kingston in 1961 to pursue a career in music.
He grew up surrounded by gospel music in the church, which is where he found his voice.
A vast array of musical influences has meant that Toots had produced an exciting fusion of music.
In some songs you can hear the gospel influence come to the forefront. On others it’s like he sat down and wrote a song with rock and roll legend Little Richard, who he heard from a young age on the radio in Jamaica.
We met last week as he visited London to play at the Barbican as part of his world tour promoting his new album, Flip and Twist.
The timelessness of Toots’ own brand of reggae, and his huge cross-generational appeal, made me forget that he has been working and recording music for decades. He is now 65, and sometimes seems tired from the stresses of touring.
He spares some time to have a brandy and a chat. He told me, “Coming to London is like a second home. Britain is always in my heart when I’m in my yard.
“The new album is all about different types of music, that’s why I called it Flip and Twist. R&B, classical, blues, culture style, rock and roll and jazz – it’s all there.
“My parents were in the church and that’s where my career started. And I listened to great singers such as Ray Charles, James Brown and Elvis Presley – they gave me so much and people always told me that I sound like them so I thought ‘OK, I’ll go with that’.”
Inequality has shaped Jamaica, and the lives of the thousands of people trying to make it in the music business.
The Harder They Come, the great film about reggae in Jamaica, charts the struggle for recognition and a way out of poverty. Released in 1972, it stars reggae singer Jimmy Cliff and features Toots.
The film made the US music industry sit up and take notice of reggae, and Toots and the Maytals feature prominently on the soundtrack.
Toots started the Toots Foundation to channel funds to projects for underprivileged children and communities. The work is mainly done in Jamaica.
Toots told me, “I started the foundation so that everyone can give a dollar and spread it around. We give it to cancer charities, hospitals and schools. We want to do it in Africa and all over.”
Despite being very aware of inequality and poverty, Toots now distances himself from the militant politics of his early music. Instead he prefers to talk of changing people’s state of mind and getting rid of the “ungodly” thoughts that apparently create them.
“I want my music to make people happy, and forget about loneliness.”
“In my music I want to teach the youth of today about the reggae songs – not ones that make people think about guns and violence.”
Heading to the Barbican I feel a sense of unease about the show to come – will Toots still have the energy and magic of performance?
Another reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry warms up the crowd, and then Toots enters.
The mostly young, mostly white crowd whoops with excitement. The man on stage is entirely different to the slightly sleepy one I met that afternoon. He’s dressed in one of the most astonishing outfits ever seen, either on or off stage.
The stage lights bounce off his gold, jewel-encrusted baseball cap atop an extravagant lace and gold trim military jacket and red, gold and green chunky high-top trainers.
Soon everyone is up on their feet and dancing on the steps, making all the Barbican’s seating pointless.
As the classics begin, the atmosphere becomes electric. The intro to the band’s signature Pressure Drop is temptingly strummed and even the old people can no longer resist the urge to dance.
Toots and the Maytals’ new album Flip and Twist is out now. For tour dates and more go to www.tootsandthemaytals.com
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