This being 2020, the tragedies keep accumulating, and the latest one is truly saddening to me: Jamaican music legend Toots Hibberts died yesterday from COVID-19 related illness. I have always been public about my love for Toots and the Maytals' music, and was excited to hear that Toots released a new single just about a month ago. My first exposure, as a youth, to Toots' music was through the Clash cover of Pressure Drop... if you like a band, seek out the music of the bands that inspired them, and you won't be disappointed.
Like so many musicians, Toots got his start singing in a church choir as a kid, and throughout much of the 60s, he sang in vocal groups. Things get particularly interesting with the release of Bam Bam, which in 1966 became the first Jamaica Independence Festival song winner:Toots career was briefly sidelined when he served a jail sentence for marijuana possession, an experience that inspired his anthem 54-46 That's My Number: He was instrumental in the formulation of reggae music (here's a good primer on the distinctions between ska, rocksteady, and reggae music), and his song Do the Reggay lent its name to the genre: 1969 saw the release of Pressure Drop, the song which ultimately formed my introduction to Toots' body of work. The song was featured in the film The Harder They Come, which brought Jamaican music to a global audience: Toots had a knack for singing about the plight of the disadvantaged, and Time Tough is a perfect anthem for the overstressed and undercompensated: Toots wasn't always a poet of privation, many of his songs were joyful, and Monkey Man, a tale of losing a girl to a dummy, managed to be simultaneously lugubrious and hilarious: Pomps and Pride, the 1972 Jamaica Independence Festival Popular Song winner, is an exhortation to stop crying and to be happy in the moment: In the mid 1970s, Funky Kingston was conceived as a project to bring Toots music to an international audience familiar to funk and R&B music: I'm saving my favorite song by Toots and the Maytals for last... I'm not one to claim a particular favorite song, because my musical tastes tend to depend on mood, and it's impossible to narrow down any 'favorite', but if I were injected with sodium pentothal and put under duress to name a favorite song, there's perhaps a 70% chance I'd say Sweet and Dandy, a song I posted an analysis of years ago. It's a... uhhhh... sweet and dandy song about a family talking through a young couple's pre-wedding nervousness, and it's a pure, unadulterated joy to listen to. Here's the song as featured in The Harder They Come: Could there be a more perfect song? Years ago, I went to a local coffee shop to see a friend play, and after the performance, the barista and I started talking about music, and he ended up putting Sweet and Dandy on repeat and we sang along multiple times. About a year afterward, he ended up working at the cafe at my workplace, and we instantly returned to Toots. Toots was a nonesuch. He may not be as well-known as Bob Marley, but I think he was more of an innovator. I have to confess that I prefer Bob Marley's Redemption Song, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't listen more to Toots: Thankfully, Toots left us with one last album before he went on to the Great Beyond, one last, appropriate gift to help us cope with these tough times: If you are new to Toots, here is a full concert with Toots at the height of his powers: And here's a documentary exploring Toots' role in the evolution of Jamaican popular music genres: What a life! What a performer! It's been sad to hear of Toots' illness, sadder still to learn that he succumbed to it, but the way to remember the man is to blast his music, and there are hours worth of sheer listening pleasure. I've already listened to Sweet and Dandy a half dozen times today, which goes a long way toward making the sadness bearable.