Making It All Up

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Every so often, a venue will bill a concert as being by “one of the originals” or by a “pioneer” in a style of music. Friday’s concert by Toots and the Maytals at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz is definitely the real thing, however.  In case you didn’t know, Toots and the Maytals is the band credited with coining the word “reggae.”

Band founder Frederick “Toots” Hibbert was born in Maypen, Jamaica.  The youngest of seven children, he grew up singing gospel music in the church where his father was a preacher. “I grow up way in the country,” Hibbert said. “Singing I was taught from the church, from when I was a baby. I grew up into the gospel church, Seventh Day Adventist, and I hear people preach and people sing.” Like many other Jamaican youngsters, Hibbert was entranced by the music he heard on the radio, songs by Ray Charles and Otis Redding. In his early teens, Hibbert abandoned his country home and went to seek his fortunes in Kingston.

In the city, Hibbert found employment in a barber shop, where he would sing to the customers. He met Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias, and the three friends formed a band called the Maytals with Hibbert singing lead vocals. The band’s name was a reference to Hibbert’s home town of Maypen.

The time was the early 1960s, and the popular music in Jamaica was ska. The Maytals auditioned at Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s famous Studio One, and earned the chance to make a record.  When the band got into the studio, after hearing them sing the session musicians encouraged Hibbert and his band mates to look for a more original sound. “When they come in, they were basically doing a Temptations impression,” recalled trumpeter Johnny Moore. “We encouraged them to go deeper into themselves and find something original.” Hibbert went back to his gospel roots and wrote an album’s worth of music including “Matthew Mark” and “Six and Seven Books.” 

By the mid-60s, ska and rocksteady were giving way to a new style of music on the island and the Maytals were quick to adopt the new, danceable form in their song “Do the Reggay.” “There was a slang, like a nickname for someone who don’t dress properly – like if you are barefoot, people would call you ‘streggae.’  So one Tuesday morning, we just said ‘let’s go along and do some reggae,’” said Hibbert. “Those days we’d just make stuff up, anything.  So we just say ‘Do the reggay, do the reggay,’ and that’s it.  And nobody paid it any mind until it started to go all over the world.”

Toots and the Maytals toured the world for many years until disbanding in the early 1980s.  They were featured in the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” considered one of reggae’s landmark events.  The group reunited in the 90s and is still touring and recording.  The band won the 2005 Grammy award for Best Reggae Album for “True Love.”

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, March 23, 2006

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