Toots and the Maytals: Never Grow Old

I have decided, after witnessing Mark Mallman's 53-hour concert at the Turf Club last weekend (stay tuned for photos), and watching the new documentary about Joe Strummer today, that I want to live to see the 100th anniversary of rock&roll, in 2055. (I will be 86 that year.)

My other inspiration is Toots Hibbert, who calls whatever band he's playing with Toots and the Maytals. (That's him above, Frederick "Toots" Hibbert in the center, in 1963 with the real Maytals: singers Nathaniel [Jerry] Mathias and Raleigh Gordon.) Toots is among our greatest living Jamaican soul singers, and no one in Minnesota who loves reggae or classic R&B should miss his early-evening show this Friday at First Avenue (here's my preview in City Pages). (Too bad the Black-Eyed Snakes play the night before at the Triple Rock--they'd make an inspired opener.)


The Maytals, 1963

I interviewed Toots in 2001 for City Pages, painting a flawed portrait that at least got across my feelings about "Pressure Drop." (I also added some political shade to a story that, when most people tell it, leaves out United States foreign policy in Jamaica. See also my review of Life and Debt.) There are two problems with my Toots piece: First, Hibbert is not the only guy who says he invented the term "reggae": Clancy Eccles made the same claim more loudly to reggae historian Steve Barrow.

Second, I attributed a quote from Studio One musician Johnny Moore to an interview with Mark Gorney, when in fact Gorney, an excellent and knowledgable world-music publicist for Worldisclifted the Moore quotation from a book (though he couldn't say which, when he wrote to correct my mistake). Back in 2001, Gorney had his own theory on the etymology of "reggae," which he laid out in email:

The word comes from "reggay"/"raggay," which references probably either or all of:

- "streggae," slang for loose girl

- regular, everyday stuff ("it just reggae, man...")

- "we called it raggay then because that was what the rhythm sounded like" (Ernest Ranglin, and that is an actual quote)

In my opinion it was born in the summer of 1968, mostly at West Indies Recording Ltd., by producers Lee Perry and Clancy Eccles, musicians Hux Brown, Jackie Jackson, Aubrey Adams, Ernest Ranglin, Hugh Malcolm and Gladstone Anderson, engineer Lynford "Andy Capp" Anderson and many singers such as Perry and Eccles, the Tennors, Monty Morris, and countless others. Producer Bunny Lee accurately states that it was the organ shuffle that was put in the rock steady of the same year that helped shake it up and change it, and people liked it. "Say What You�re Saying" is a great example of that, because that is rocksteady with that organ shuffle thrown in. "People Funny Boy" by Lee Perry is another example of the surging, urgent new sound, the aggressive, riffing guitar. Busting out of the somewhat rigid confines of rock steady.


Toots' guitarist Hux Brown thinks it came from Upsetters guitarist Alva "Reggie" Lewis but I don�t agree with that.

Johnny Spencer record art and the Maytals' "54-46, That's My Number" single, 1968

In any case, there's no question that the Maytals' 1968 single "Do the Reggay" helped popularize the genre name, or that "54-46, That's My Number" was either among the first reggae songs or last rock steady songs--though it's gigantic, emphatic downbeat and soulful rave-up vocal style sound like almost nothing else except other Maytals records in 1968.

Named for the identifying number that Hibbert wore while serving a 1966 prison sentence for marijuana possession,"54-46" was the first release by the Maytals for Leslie Kong, and Toots arguably never made better music with another producer. (Kong was also the man behind Desmond Dekker's best songs, and his death is the subject of much Bob Marley fan-mythologizing.)

This is the place to start for anyone getting into the Maytals--and I'm talking about the timeless, wall-shaking original version of "54-46," which appears on the still-definitive 1994 Jamaican box set Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music. Irritatingly enough, that version isn't on Time Tough: The Anthology, the least imperfect of the Toots best-ofs (which substitutes a later, re-recorded version).

My advice would be to buy both of those sets, along with the 1973 classic album Funky Kingston, and the Maytals ska compilations Never Grow Old and Sensational Ska Explosion. Skip True Love, this year's Duets-style set of collaborations, though don't tell Toots I said so. (For more discography, here's Robert Christgau's Toots and the Maytals record reviews.)


More Johnny Spencer record art, on the Vikings' "I Am In Love" single, unknown year

Triva note: Record collectors should beware that many Maytals singles were released by other producers under such contract-dodging names as the Vikings (go Vikes!), the Royals, and the Flames. I hope someone will compile all of this music onto one, stand-alone, comprehensive collection before Toots is gone. He deserves it.

SEE CRUCIAL JAMAICAN MUSIC LINKS (now moved to their own page)

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >