In early 1973, reggae was little more than a rumor in North America. Bob Marley hadn’t yet signed with Island Records, and few mainlanders could identify as reggae the funky island beat behind Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” or Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion.”
That all changed when The Harder They Come, a low-budget Jamaican movie from the year before, opened in art houses in American cities. It had a huge impact, not only because it featured two of reggae’s most gifted artists — Jimmy Cliff and Toots & the Maytals — but also because writer-director Perry Henzell had filmed on location and brilliantly evoked the poverty, political corruption and street culture that gave rise to the music.
Cliff plays Ivan Martin, a country bumpkin who rides a rickety bus to the big city of Kingston and quickly has his luggage stolen. Nothing can quench his ambition, however. When he finally lands a job running errands for a holy roller preacher, he delivers a package to a studio where Toots & the Maytals are recording their new single, “Sweet and Dandy.” Ivan pushes his way to the plate-glass window to watch Frederick “Toots” Hibbert and his two backing singers nail the bouncing melody to the pulsing beat.
Ivan, in his gold, puffy cap and scraggly beard, is wide-eyed in wonder, and so were we in the movie theater, for this was revolutionary music. Hibbert, sporting a double-breasted shiny shirt and a trim beard, has obviously absorbed the sound of great American singers such as James Brown, Elvis Presley and Otis Redding, but he is giving that sound a whole new purpose.
The push-and-pull beat has been turned inside out. The chunky guitar and churchy piano lean on the offbeats, while the drums and bass drop low-note bombs late in each measure. The vocals are soaked in island patois and delivered with a sweet lilt. The spiritual role that Christianity played in American R&B is filled in reggae by the African mysticism of Jamaica’s underground Rastafarian religion.
“Sweet and Dandy” was the perfect introduction to this strange music, for Hibbert’s comic description of a rural Jamaican wedding boasted not one but two killer hooks — one for the throbbing chorus (“They were dancing in that ballroom last night”) and another for the dizzying coda (“Sweet and dandy! Sweet and dandy!”).
“That was a wicked movie,” Hibbert said approvingly over the phone as he was driving his Jeep through Kingston in early August. “People learned a lot of things from that movie. People from abroad learned what Jamaica is really like and what we were going through — the whole black and white thing, the whole police and thieves thing. They said they wanted to use my song in that movie starring my good friend Jimmy Cliff, so I said yes.”
Forty-seven years after The Harder They Come opened in America, the 78-year-old Hibbert released a new studio album of newly written songs, Got To Be Tough. Two weeks later, he was dead. He had entered University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, with coronavirus-like symptoms. He was put into a medically induced coma and never woke again. He died on September 11.
He parted ways with his original triomates, Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias, in 1981 but since then had recorded with everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards to Shaggy and Willie Nelson. Hibbert had toured with The Who and the Eagles and had his songs covered by The Clash and The Specials. He was there at the beginning, and he was one of the last early giants of reggae still standing.
The one song Hibbert didn’t write for his new album was Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
“Before he died,” Hibbert explained in August, “myself and Bob were very close. We’d speak ‘I and I’ with each other. I wrote a song called ‘Redemption Song,’ and he said, ‘I like that; I’m going to write a song called “Redemption Song,” too.’
“We always said we would do something together, but he died before we could do it. So I decided to do this song with his son Ziggy. I said, ‘Ziggy, I wanted to do this song with your father, and now I want to do it with you.’ He said, ‘Sure thing, Uncle Toots.’ I love all of Bob’s songs, but this one gives me a special urge.”
Another famous son also helped make the album a reality. Ringo Starr was a big reggae fan and in the late-’70s encouraged his 13-year-old son, Zak Starkey, to listen to Hibbert and the other reggae acts who influenced the youngster’s favorite band, The Clash. Starkey, now 55, has sat in the drum chair for both Oasis and The Who, but today he has returned to his early love of reggae. He has licensed the name of Trojan Records — Marley’s original label — from BMG and launched his Trojan Jamaica imprint with Toots & the Maytals’ Got To Be Tough.
Producers Hibbert, Starkey and Nigel Burrell have given the new album the sound of Hibbert’s classic 1988 solo album, Toots in Memphis, which was produced in Memphis by Jim Dickinson with a mixed Jamaican/American band. Like that record, the new one provides unmistakable echoes of the classic sound of Stax Records and Hi Records but filtered through an island sensibility. The sustaining sounds of the organ and horns provide a welcome balance to the clipped guitars and staccato piano of reggae.
Hibbert had lost the thrilling luster of his youthful tenor, but his phrasing remained as savvy as ever. The title track offset a choppy island guitar riff with a rock-guitar solo, while Hibbert warned the listener, “If you are my friend, treat me like a friend.” “Good Thing That You Call” was the album’s most personal song, an appeal to a woman to return his phone calls, each desperate plea answered by a trombone. “Struggle” was a passionate defense of non-violent protest, and “Having a Party” delivered on the title’s promise with the record’s catchiest chorus.
Got To Be Tough was Hibbert’s first studio album since 2010s Flip and Twist. That 10-year hiatus was longer than expected, because the singer was injured during a 2013 music festival in Richmond, Virginia. A glass vodka bottle thrown at the stage cut Hibbert badly enough that he had to end his set early.
“I was doing a free show for the students,” Hibbert recalled, “and one student who loved me so much and who had so much to drink was very high and didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t throw at me, but he threw it, and I tried to catch it, because if I didn’t it would fall right on my drummer. It knocked me in my head, a lot of stitches, a tragedy, very bad, but we overcome.”
He took a few years off from the road to recuperate and used that time to get back to songwriting. After all, it was his compositions as much as his vocals that made Hibbert stand out in the early days of reggae. This involuntary creative retreat reminded him of an earlier one in 1966.
Like Ivan Martin in The Harder They Come, Hibbert had arrived from the countryside in Kingston in the late ’50s, burning with ambition to be a singer. By 1963, he was recording as the leader of the Maytals. By 1964, he was topping the charts with a double-sided 45: “It’s You” backed with “Sweet and Dandy.”
“People got annoyed that this guy Toots came from the country and dominated everyone in Kingston,” Hibbert remembered. “They told a lie on me, and two police guys arrested me, just to hold me back, just when I was about to join the first big reggae tour to go to Europe. They said I had weed, but I never smoked weed at that time. I smoke it now, but not at that time. The judge said I could go to Richmond Farm, a place in Jamaica where I could have my own clothes, my own food and my guitar. It wasn’t a prison, but it was a big problem. I never went on that tour.”
He spent 18 months at the Richmond Farm Adult Correctional Centre, a low-security rehabilitation prison on a former banana plantation. Hibbert used his time there to write a batch of new songs, including “54-46 That’s My Number.” The song begins with a cop telling the narrator to “get your hands in the air, sir, and you will get no hurt.” The police plant some marijuana on him and haul him away, even as he insists he’s innocent. He lands behind bars with 54-46 stitched into his prison uniform.
In the middle of the song, Hibbert inserts the James Brown routine of “give it to me one time,” answered by one beat from the band, then “give it to me two times,” answered by two beats, and so on. In the last verse, the narrator concludes, “Bars could not hold me now.”
“I never had a number myself,” Hibbert stressed, “because I had my own clothes. It was just my imagination about what it would be like to be a prisoner, to not have your own clothes to wear, your own food to eat.”
Just as Johnny Cash could write “Folsom Prison Blues” without ever being an inmate there, just as John Prine could write “Christmas in Prison” without ever being an inmate, Hibbert proved that one can write a classic prison song without ever seeing the inside of a high-security prison. All three men demolished the myth that great songs have to reflect personal experience and reinforced the truth that imagination can create a wholly believable world.
At this point, in 1968, Jamaican popular music came in two forms: uptempo ska songs and slower rocksteady songs. “With ska,” Hibbert explained, “you have to get the words out in a hurry. With the slower tempo, you can sing different words because you have more time.”
But songs such as “54-46” represented a new synthesis of ska’s syncopation, rocksteady’s clarity of lyrics and a Rastafarian emphasis on spiritual and political issues. There was no name for this new sound until Toots & the Maytals released another single in 1968: “Do the Reggay.”
“In Jamaica,” he explained, “the girls called the boys streggay when they didn’t dress properly or act properly, and the boys called the girls streggay the same way. I was writing a song and I sang, ‘Do the reggay.’ Maybe it was a slip when I changed streggay into reggay, like, ‘I want to dance with the wild girl. Don’t you want to dance with me, the wild boy?’”
But even with all these hits, the Maytals and other Jamaican artists weren’t making much money. As Ivan discovers in The Harder They Come, producers had a monopoly on the whole business — from the studio to the radio to the record shops. They would offer you a small fee for your recording with no future royalties. This situation pushed Ivan into drug dealing in the movie, and it pushed the Maytals into rebellion.
“These so-called producers took all the money from us,” Hibbert said, “and gave us four or five shillings. I never earned a pound from a song. I’m from the country, so I was taught to have manners. I would say, ‘Good morning, sir. Yes, sir. No, sir.’ But after I talked to the guys, I changed my mind.
“I had this attitude that I’m not going to give them anything until we get our money. So I wrote this song that says, ‘Pressure is going to drop on you,’ meaning the pressure is going to drop on this guy, this thief. I won’t say his name, but you can look at the label.”
Hibbert’s producer at this time was Leslie Kong, a brilliant creative force but an iron-fisted busnessman. “Pressure Drop” plays on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come every time Ivan is getting mistreated by those in power, and it became Hibbert’s best-known song.
Who could resist the dramatic tension between the jittery guitar figue and the sustained melody tones of the hummed intro and the plaintive question: “Is it you-oo-oo?” The vocals then lock into the scratchy rhythm before the tension is released when Hibbert, Gordon and Mathias leap into ecstatic falsettos at the end. It’s a masterful manipulation of melody and rhythm.
“I learned to write strong melodies from going to church when we were young,” Hibbert explained. “My parents went to Seventh Day Church, and I go wherever my parents lead me. In church, I learned all these ways of a song. One of my favorite singers is Mahalia Jackson.
“I wanted my songs to have that same sing-along quality, those same words of good encouragement. Now I am a Rastafari, but I still know the good words and how to pray. Rastafari don’t go by locks alone. If you want to comb your hair, that’s OK; just think good about everybody and do the right things, whether they are white or black.”
Photo Credit: Hugh Wright