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Toots Hibbert, Ska and Reggae Legend Who Led the Maytals, Dies at 77

Hibbert’s songs include the classics ”Pressure Drop,“ ”Funky Kingston,“ and ”Monkey Man“

Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert, better known to generations of ska, rocksteady and reggae fans by his nickname Toots as lead singer of the legendary band Toots and the Maytals, died Friday from undisclosed causes. He was 77.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica,” his family announced through the band’s official social media channels Friday night.

While a cause of death has not been disclosed, Hibbert was diagnosed earlier this month with COVID-19.

Along with his band the Maytals, Hibbert had a profound influence on the development of Jamaican popular music. Contributing numerous classics during an amazing creating run from the mid-60s through the late 70s, the band was directly involved with the process by which ska developed into rocksteady, and then into reggae. In fact, the band gave reggae its name in its 1968 track “Do the Reggay.”

Born in 1942 in May Pen, Jamaica, and raised by devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hibbert sang gospel growing up before moving to Kingston as a teenager where he became active in a music scene that was just beginning to get international attention. He co-founded the Maytals, named after May Pen, with Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias in 1962. Originally a trio, the band expanded to what eventually became an evolving lineup with Toots as the most consistent figure.

The band broke out in 1966 with the single “Bam Bam,” before Toots was arrested for possession of marijuana and jailed until 1967. Upon his release, the band recorded the song “54-46 That’s My Number,” the title coming from Toots’ prison number. The song was an immediate success and became one of the first reggae tracks to achieve international attention.

Toots and the Maytals would record some of the most influential and successful songs in Jamaican popular music history and in the process help define the reggae genre. Among their most notable songs are 1969’s “Sweet and Dandy,” 1970’s “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man” (their first international hit song), and 1972’s “Funky Kingston.” Throughout their career the band was defined by their high energy voices and Toots’ distinctive singing voice deeply influenced by gospel, often compared to contemporaries like Otis Redding.

Toots and the Maytals were a huge influence on the second wave of ska, a revival of the genre in England that produced groups like The Specials, the Beat and Madness. Their music was also sampled by numerous hip-hop artists including Rebel MC and Boogie Down Productions.

The Maytals broke up in 1980, reunited in 1990, broke up again in 2013 and resumed work again in 2016. Throughout those decades, Toots continued working both as a solo artist and in collaboration with other musicians, among them Willie Nelson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Among his honors, with the Maytals he won the Grammy for Reggae Album of the year in 2004, and individually was awarded the the Order of Jamaica in 2012.