Reggae’s greatest voice goes quiet.
One death lost to this plague, any death, is one too many.
But it’s hitting musicians especially hard, stealing both lives and livelihoods with the hiatus on live concerts.
The list is too sad to recite here; it doesn’t stop with John Prine. Now another singular talent has gone. Frederick “Toots” Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals died Friday in Kingston, Jamaica, at 77.
While he arguably named the rock-steady Caribbean style he helped invent in the early 1960s with “Do the Reggay,” the singer also reached past his island style to Memphis soul. Raised by strict Seventh Day Adventist parents, he learned to harmonize in church and ever after packed a preacher’s moral force in a voice with the sonic kick of Otis Redding.
With fellow Maytals singers Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon and a deep-grooving band, Toots scored hit after hit in reggae’s early to mid-70s heyday: “Six and Seven Books.” “65-46 That’s My Number,” “Monkey Man,” “Pomp and Pride” and more. The trio was then reggae’s dominant format: the original Wailers, the Heptones, the Wailin’ Souls, Culture, Black Uhuru, the Mighty Diamonds, the Meditations, the Paragons, Justin Hines and the Dominos. Soon, white British musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the Clash adopted Caribbean syncopation and liberation politics, spurring reggae’s popularity. However, like the earlier appropriation of rocking Chicago blues, they arguably seldom matched the joyful bounce of its beat or the fervor of its message as practiced by its founding Jamaican giants.
The loudest version of any Toots hit I ever heard was in Buffalo’s Rich Stadium where the Stones boomed Toots biggest hit, “Pressure Drop,” in its 1981 tour pre-show music. But Toots’ own performance at UAlbany’s MayFest the following June stands out as a commanding peak of exuberant mastery. The inimitable reggae DJ Sir Walford grabbed my arm before the show and tugged me aboard Toots’ tourbus for an interview that was really a reunion of old friends.
Nobody expressed or gave more joy onstage than Toots, despite challenges including a 1967 prison sentence for marijuana possession and cancelling a 2013 tour after being struck onstage by a thrown bottle.
Ellie and I played his “Sweet and Dandy” at our June 1977 wedding, a time when I seldom listened to anything but reggae for fun. Toots’ albums “Funky Kingston,” “In the Dark,” “Reggae Got Soul” and “Toots in Memphis” are still in heavy rotation, and I was just discovering his comeback album “Got to Be Tough.”
This one hits hard, like a pressure drop to the heart.