Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Toots & The Maytals

"Well, he's the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet: he transforms 'do re mi fa soh la ti do' into joyful noise" - Robert Christgau

Funky Kingston (1973)

Sit Right Down/Pomps And Pride/Louie Louie/I Can't Believe/Redemption Song/Daddy's Home/Funky Kingston/It Was Written Down

“Out of all of us though, me an’ Bob were very good friends. Me an’ him used to talk more than I would talk to Peter or Bunny" - Toots Hibbert

From early 1973, this was the first Toots & The Maytals album to really get some attention, possibly in the wake of Bob Marley's Catch A Fire's acceptance by non-Jamaican, more mainstream rock consumers. Although a short album, only containing eight tracks, it contains some excellent examples of Toots Hibbert's vocal versatility, interpretive ability and sheer gruff power. For many, this album, in its original Jamaican format, is closer to the real soul of Jamaican country music than Bob Marley's output from the same era was.

There was a subsequent 1975 US release of the album that mix its three (supposed) best tracks with more from the follow-up, In the Dark. It makes for a good album, actually, but I prefer listening to both the albums as they were originally intended - in their Jamaican versions. The sound on this one is a bit more rough and ready than the more polished one found on In The Dark, though.

The songs

Sit Right Down is one of those grinding skanks which sees Toots improvising his vocals as he goes along, with consummate ease as the band and he anticipate each other's moves with perfect synchronisation. 

Pomps And Pride is another off the cuff vocal performance with a catchy chorus, albeit with pretty incomprehensible Jamaican patois lyrics.

Louie Louie is The Kingsmen's 1963 hit given the unique Toots treatment. It sounds as if should have been a Toots song from the start, so good is his reading of it. 

I Can't Believe is a cover of an Ike Turner song again taken to a higher plane by Hibbert 's skill as a vocalist. Much of it is simply "ah-ah-ah" call and response stuff but nobody does that like Toots, sounding like a Jamaican Otis Redding.

Redemption Song is not the Bob Marley song (that came from much later) and is a typical Maytals horn-powered mid-pace skank. Marley, (a good friend of Hibbert's), upon hearing Toots' song apparently said something like "I gonna do a redemption song too...", liking the title. The two had a mutual respect and friendship. Incidentally, the group also did a song called Get Up, Stand Up which wasn't the Marley song either. 

Daddy's Home sounds like an old fifties cover (I am sure it is - by Shep & The Limelites in 1961) and is delivered in churchy, gospel style by Toots.

The album's tour de force is Funky Kingston, a magnificent (nearly) five minutes of piano, guitar and drums-driven funky reggae. It highlights Toots' ability to utilise other musical styles, in this case urban seventies funk, alongside his traditional reggae sounds. The initially instrumental break just before the two-minute mark is breathtaking stuff and Hibbert's voice merges with some funky percussion to great effect. It Was Written Down is a devotional skank to finish on.

If I was forced to merge the two 1973 albums, I would take tracks 1,2,3,5 & 7 from here and merge them with 1-4, 7, 8 and 11 from In The Dark. What an album that would be, actually.

The picture below was adapted by Trojan Records for a compilation called Funky Kingston. Charlie Ace's legendary Swing-A-Ling mobile record shack sign was replaced by Funky Kingston.

In The Dark (1973)

Got To Be There/In The Dark/Having A Party/Time Tough/I See You/Take A Look In The Mirror/Take Me Home, Country Roads/Fever/Love Gonna Walk Out On Me/Revolution/54-46 Was My Number/Sailing On

"But if you give positive words, that song lives forever" - Toots Hibbert

Toots Hibbert, although a reggae legend, was not a roots man, a Rasta or a DJ. His sound was a highly individualised gospelly soulful one that was almost unique among reggae artists. He successfully merged soul, gospel, blues and rock with a solid skanking reggae beat and this album, from 1973, was a classic example of that.

The songs

Got To Be There has Toots' churchy, growling voice taking us higher and the persuasive, soulful spirituality is continued on the intoxicating and uplifting In The Dark

Having A Party has Hibbert almost rapping his lines out, ad hoc over a gentle but insistent organ-based skank. "I'm from Jamaica - I want to do my Jamaican stuff..." he proclaims over an infectious rhythm. It is not the same song as the one of the same name on 2020's Got To Be Tough album.

Time Tough is an irresistible groove, with Hibbert once again sounding as if he is making it up as he goes along, so effortless is his vocal delivery. It is a classic Maytals track, full of intuitive, almost improvised soulful skank. The guitars and bass are just sumptuous. Hibbert tells us he will take us higher and higher, and he well and truly does. These first four tracks have been the very best of Toots & The Maytals, four better ones to start off a reggae album it would be hard to find. Ok yes, Marley, I know, but you know where I'm coming from.

I See You is a (comparatively) laid-back slightly country-ish gentle song backed by some New Orleans-style horns and a funky wah-wah guitar but any Toots song is invariably not that gentle due to the character of his appealingly gruff voice. Take A Look In The Mirror is another slow number, with another real soul vibe to it.

The Maytals make for a superb backing band - organ, skanking guitars, drums and strong horns - and at times they often sound like the Stax house band, such is their tight syncopation and punch.

A Toots classic is his wonderful take on John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads with "West Virginia" substituted for "West Jamaica". Hibbert sings most soulfully as the reggae one-drop drum sound drives the song along. It is a song that was always in my mind during the time I visited Jamaica. 

Fever sees a return to an edgier, livelier skank as Toots again delivers his lines in impromptu style commanding the band in Van Morrison style, instinctively.

Love Gonna Walk Out On Me is a ballad that begins slowly before bursting out into a mid-pace reggae rhythm, Revolution is a pleasant number before we get Toots' signature song - the iconic skinhead favourite 54-46 Was My Number, with its "give it to me one time, two times, three times, four times..." calling card. 

The final number, Sailing On has Toots on real throaty form on a bar-room lament of a song.

Energy, jubilation, devotion but not preachiness - Toots reaches out to all here, whatever their faith, just make sure you have one.

Panting by Archibald Steven Forrest

Reggae Got Soul (1976)

Rasta Man/Premature/So Bad/Six And Seven Books/I Shall Sing/Reggae Got Soul/Everybody Needs Lovin'/Living In The Ghetto/True Love Is Hard To Find/Never You Change

"Reggae is a message of consolation; a message of salvation" - Toots Hibbert

Released in 1976, this is more of what it says on the cover - Reggae Got Soul. Toots once more applies his soulful voice to classic reggae skanking beats. It you have read the other reviews I have done or indeed listened to any of his music you will know what he is about by now.

The songs

Rasta Man is a lengthy, five minute plus of sleepy, almost rock steady groove with Toots sounding less clear than he normally does, coming over a bit tired. That said, it has a relaxing laid-back groove to it. It has a great horn break at the end too. Overall it reminds me of Peter Tosh's I'm The Toughest

Premature is standard reassuringly rousing without being frantic Toots fare while So Bad has slight hints of Monkey Man about it. The saxophone break is very South African township in its melodic sound.

Six And Seven Books is a brassy piece of religious devotional fare and I Shall Sing, is a Van Morrison song - a true rarity from the Moondance sessions. Quite how Toots got hold of it is not clear. 

Reggae Got Soul is a big, thumping number dominated by an almost Native American-style drum beat. Everybody Needs Lovin' is an infectious piece of seductively soulful reggae with a fine rhythm to it and Toots on his best, gruffest vocal form. It is one of the album's best cuts. Another good one is up next too, the steady grind of Living In The Ghetto.

True Love Is Hard To Find is a mid-pace groover enhanced by some nice piano and the beautifully bass, lively sound of Never You Change closes the album.

There is not a whole lot more to be said about this album, it doesn't differ too much from the two 1973 releases other than it has a better sound quality than the original release of Funky Kingston. In fact, taking all the tracks into consideration, I think I prefer it to that one and it is also more consistent in quality than In The Dark but the important thing is possibly that the good tracks on here are not as good as the best ones on those two.

Toots Live (1980)

Pressure Drop/Sweet And Dandy/Monkey Man/Get Up, Stand Up/Hallelujah/Funky Kingston/54-46 Was My Number/Time Tough

From the same period is one of my favourite live albums of all time as Toots plays Hammersmith Odeon in October 1980. It begins with an absolutely storming version of Pressure Drop and other highlights are Monkey Man and 54-46 Was My Number. An irrepressible Toots is in total control of both the band and the enthusiastic audience in a way that very few artists can achieve.

Knockout (1981)

Careless Ethiopians/Never Get Weary/Revival Time/Spend The Weekend/Two Time/Beautiful Woman/I Know We Can Make It/Missing You/Will You Be Kind

This early eighties offering from Toots is not quite up there with his best seventies work, and its better, rootsier tracks are found at the start of album. The second half is devoted to slightly throwaway love songs, but anything Toots handles has a quality to it.

The songs

Careless Ethiopians is a solid, slow, gospelly skank, backed by some nice brass and featuring that trademark gruff but melodic vocal from Toots. Never Get Weary is a sleepy groove with a slightly tired-sounding slur from Toots. Again, its feel is very gospel and it features a fine guitar solo. That righteous ambience is continued on the infectious slow, organ-powered grind of Revival Time.

Spend The Weekend ups the pace for an early seventies-sounding skank. Once more, Toots’ vocal is superb, the way he instinctively picks up the melody and rolls with it, often improvising, is at the heart of his singing. Two Time sort of sounds like early Marley in its gentle love song style. It features a nice dubby passage in it too.

Beautiful Woman has Toots getting all high-pitched on an unusually country-sounding song backed by a pedal steel guitar. I Know We Can Make It is clavinet-driven and has a “la-la-la” singalong chorus.

Missing You is a slow, gospel-influenced heartfelt number made special by Toots’ soulful delivery. It is not actually a reggae song but a soul ballad. 

The final track, Will You Be Kind, has a vaguely disco-y backing to it, with those funny electronic noises that were so popular at the time. As I said, the album is not his best, but it still contains some good stuff, particularly early on.

Got To Be Tough (2020)

Drop Off Head/Just Brutal/Got To Be Tough/Freedom Train/Warning Warning/Good Thing That You Call/Stand Accused/Three Little Birds/Having A Party/Struggle

"I loved his 'Three Little Birds' song an’ I told him I might just end up sing it one day. I did it over with his son, Ziggy Marley, for my label an’ I plan to release it soon” - Toots Hibbert

Veteran reggae front man Frederick “Toots” Hibbert is back, at the venerable age of 77, with his first album of original material in ten years. It is a mesmerising mix of rock, bluesy brass, funky soul and reggae which is not surprising, given that Hibbert was always far more blues, soul and gospel than he was roots.

Sly Dunbar is on drums and Zak Starkey plays guitar (something I didn’t know he did) to great effect on what is a very impressive-sounding, musically varied album.

The songs

Drop Off Head is a punchy, horn-powered raw-sounding grind as opposed to reggae. It is more deep funk than reggae in places. Check out those superb saxophone breaks. It reminds me of something else, something that isn’t reggae but I can’t put my finger on it - something from Robert Plant’s solo work maybe. 

Just Brutal is almost a rock song, with its huge, thumping beat, blaring horns, gospelly female call and response backing vocals and Hibbert growling away like a demented fire and brimstone preacher. Once again, this is a fair way removed from pure reggae. Hibbert says he “just doesn’t know what this world is coming to...”. You and me both, Toots.

A brassy UB40-esque reggae groove is heard on Got To Be Tough, the UB40 reference was a pertinent one because this is not a rootsy track, it is an accessible, commercially-sounding one. It is enhanced by a wailing rock guitar solo too. 

Freedom Train is a upbeat piece of organ and lively skanking powered gospelly rock. The horns punch their way into the track like one time boxer Hibbert would have done in his youth.

Warning Warning is the first song that is instantly recognisable as Toots & The Maytals - skanking along as it does like Pressure Drop, with Hibbert’s voice coming over in suitably gritty fashion. This is a great track. 

Good Thing That You Call is another muscular rock and horns number with Toots’ voice finally showing a few signs of age, but no matter, all respect to the great old man. 

Stand Accused is a big, bassy, robust thumper of a song - slow in pace but full of power and fervent resonance, augmented by an excellent dubby bit a minute or so in. There’s a melodica in there too, adding to the dubby feel.

Ziggy Marley joins Toots for an almost unrecognisable, horn-drenched and breakneck paced, almost psychedelic cover of Marley’s dad’s Three Little Birds. The two singers trade vocals like punches. It works, though, becoming virtually a new song. The typical Toots sound is there on the suitably energetic Having A Party while the closing Struggle once again perfectly merges rock and reggae, most gloriously. I love the Clash-esque riffs at the end too.

This is a really good, refreshing album from a mighty man who still has something valid to say  (many of the lyrics are admirably militant). You can’t keep the best of us down. Toots is one of the best.

Unfortunately, that last sentence now reads 'was' one of the best. The great, great Toots Hibbert sadly passed away on September 12th, 2020, aged 77. This album stands as his final testament. God bless you.

Reggae Greats

54-46 That's My Number/Reggae Got Soul/Monkey Man/Just Like That/Funky Kingston/Sweet And Dandy/Take Me Home Country Roads/Time Tough/Spiritual Healing/Pressure Drop/Peace Perfect Peace/Bam Bam

"Etty in a room a cry, mama said she must wipe her eye..."

While Bob Marley is obviously the Jamaican artist that everybody speaks of first, in reverential tones, respect must be given to Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, who is truly one if the great soulful reggae voices.

A mixture of middleweight boxer meets revivalist preacher, he has a gravelly, rough voice but also an intuitive vocal timing that could command a tune from beginning to end. Need evidence? Just listen to his classic 54-46 Was My Number. He masters it enough on the original cut, but performed live, it becomes a tour de force, which is quite apt, as Toots is a force of nature.

The upbeat ska-ish rock steady beat of Pressure Drop is just simply exhilarating as is Monkey Man. These are copper-bottomed classics of late 60s/early 70s reggae. Toots’s churchy growl just making them something really special. Other highlights are the catchy Time Tough; the gospelly fun tale of a Caribbean wedding that is Sweet And Dandy; the punchy reggae funk of Funky Kingston and Toots’ reggae take on John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads, with its “almost heaven - West Jamaica” opening lyric.

This is a more than acceptable introduction to this legendary reggae voice.

Related posts :-
Bob Marley
Jimmy Cliff
Harder They Come


  1. I like Toots and the maytals so much better than most of the other reggae bands cuz they did a lot more covers of great songs. I like reggae best when they do covers of familiar songs that I already like. I was never very impressed with the song writing of all the reggae guys. Toots and the maytals did a ton of great covers. I had this one really cheapo compilation by them a long time ago that was loaded first grade songs. And of course Louie Louie is the best one of all.

  2. Toots is a great interpreter of songs - one of the all-time greats.

  3. Would you believe that the legendary Toots Hibbert passed away on the 12th September, the same day we wrote these comments. RIP.