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Traveling across the U.S. as a reggae star has its pluses and minuses. With a recent album, Light Your Light, on record-store shelves, there's no doubt that Toots Hibbert, charismatic frontman of legendary Jamaican band Toots and the Maytals, doesn't mind the exposure. His band is a crowd favorite in college towns and music festivals year-round, and inevitably, it all equates to CD sales and dollars.
On the other hand, traversing the Rocky Mountains when you're more accustomed to the dank climate of Kingston can take a traumatic toll on your health. From the sound of his breathing during our phone interview last fall, it's obvious that Hibbert is experiencing the latter. As he deeply wheezes over the telephone during the fifth week of a grueling eight-week tour, it's easy to forget that you're on the phone with reggae royalty and start recommending cold remedies instead of asking questions.
Hibbert has a bad fever and a flu that won't quit. Despite his lack of a speaking voice, though, he's got to throw it all off and be the energetic and ageless Toots Hibbert that the world expects. Reggae fans in Boulder are anticipating his presence on stage in mere hours, and he refuses to disappoint them. It's not the worst life in the world, but if this has been your seasonal routine without respite since the late 1960s, it could grow tiring.
Don't worry, though: Although the original interview wound up being postponed at this writer's request, Hibbert, over the phone a few days later, swears he's nowhere near retirement.
"I think playing reggae is what I come to do on Earth," he says. "Jah want me to do this, so he make me do it, and I'm not stopping anytime soon."
Hibbert won't answer questions about his age. But barring the unexpected, there's no reason to suspect Toots won't be playing reggae until kingdom come.
"A lot of people are guessing [my age], so I just let them guess," he says, laughing.
He's been a core member of Jamaica's music history since age 15, when the Maytals were just a trio of Kingston youths doing session work at the legendary Studio One recording studios back in 1964. At that time, the group, which consisted of Hibbert, Nathaniel "Jerry" McCarthy and Henry "Raleigh" Gordon, were singing gospel harmonies set to ska music — all of which was recorded with the famous Skatalites as Studio One's house band.
In those days, Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, owner of Studio One, had more up-and-coming talent under one roof than he knew what to do with — at the time, the Maytals were stealing the limelight from Dodd's other gospel trio, the Wailers.
"Back in those days, I'm the one who sang the most ska with Skatalites," Hibbert reminisces. "We noticed that gospel would work in ska before anyone else, and we ran with it."
Back then, reggae was evolving recording by recording, and regardless of who did what first, the Maytals were without question there during its beginning stages. So much so that the Maytals are credited with using the word reggae on wax before anyone else, for the band's 1968 cut "Do the Reggay."
The original version of the Maytals played together from 1964 until 1981, a period when they had a whopping 31 No. 1 records in Jamaica, with a hit list that included timeless classics such as "Pressure Drop" and "54-46 (That's My Number)." They're easily remembered for making The Harder They Come soundtrack sparkle, and have influenced modern-day musicians from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones.
These days, although his band is a different lineup of seasoned reggae veterans, Hibbert carries the name forward, and the Maytals put on one of the most energetic and dance-happy shows in all of reggae. They won a Grammy for Hibbert's stellar 2004 release, True Love, which featured an all-star cast of musicians (Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Manu Chao, Keith Richards), all reworking classic Maytals material.
Was it difficult trying to corral so many personalities into a recording studio for one project? Hibbert balks at the question.
"No, mon, it was easy," he says. "They're my fans, and I'm fans of theirs. We just asked everyone to pick one of my songs that they liked, and they listened to my catalog and picked. It was very easy. They've been listening to my music for years, just like I've been listening to their music for years."
True Love's solid 17 tracks got Hibbert his highest accolade yet, but he's not jumping for joy over winning a Grammy. "The people are my Grammy," he says nonchalantly. "I should have won a lot more of these awards over the years, but I take my accolades from Jah. That's enough for me."
Awards aside, the name Toots is highly revered within the world of reggae no matter what. Hibbert and the Maytals consistently open for the Rolling Stones on their periodic European summer tour, and last summer alone, he also toured with Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy Buffett and Los Lonely Boys — and headlined his own gigs. It's a big part of why he's looked at as an iron man within the genre, with good reason.
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