Toots Hibbert, Jamaica’s answer to James Brown, is 80 years old and still cranking out music that sounds as fresh as his original records in the mid-1960s. His latest under the Toots and the Maytals banner, and first full-length since 2011: the album “Got to Be Tough.”
Raised in Kingston, Toots’ career mirrored Bob Marley’s. In fact, the two, whose careers can be traced back to 1962, were contemporaries. Both got their starts with producer Coxanne Dodd at Studio One, and while Marley toured and recorded with the Wailers, Toots headed the Maytals.
But the two reggae pioneers went in different directions stylistically. While Marley eventually championed what was called roots reggae, Toots developed a more R&B style akin to American stalwarts Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
Still, Toots is credited with giving reggae its name when he christened his 1968 song “Do the Reggay.” He has said that he changed the word “streaggae” to reggae by accident, the result of which was a Maytals song. Streggae was patois for a raggedy form of dress. Marley purportedly believed that it derived from the Latin word regi, which means king.
Toots’ soulful approach to reggae set him apart, producing numerous regional hits such as “54-56 That’s My Number” (1968), “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man” (1970) and “Funky Kingston” (1973). Several of these songs appeared on the soundtrack for the Perry Henzell’s 1972 film “The Harder They Come,” a major touchstone of reggae culture.
The old saying that the more things change the more they stay the same could be the throughline to “Got to Be Tough,” which, nearly two dozen albums in, is full of messages that will resonate with today’s listeners. The title track is particularly meaningful with the constant killings of young black men happening in the U.S. and Jamaica. It includes the verse: “Your days are getting shorter / Our youths are getting slaughtered / Things maybe hard, so hard / But we have to overcome it.”
A similar theme of bewilderment runs through “Just Brutal,” which recounts: “Every time I keep remembering / What Grandfather said before he died / We were brought down here in slavery / Count out, knock out, TKO / I don’t know, what this world is coming to.”
On “Struggle,” Toots takes a stand against violence, pledging: “We got to stop the fighting / The shooting and killing / We got to stop the fighting / Got to find a way to stop it.”
Toots lightens up a bit on funkier tracks like “Drop Off Head,” “Freedom Train” and “Having a Party.” His solid band includes Sly Dunbar, Cyril Neville and Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr). Toots wrote all the songs – which alternate between reggae and R&B – except for one and produced the album. Vivien Goldman provides the liner notes.
On the record’s sole cover, a version of Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” Hibbert teams up with Ziggy Marley, who refers to him as “Uncle Toots” after the first verse. The 1977 song from “Exodus” contains one of Bob Marley’s most famous homilies: “Don’t worry about a thing / Every little thing is gonna be alright.”
With this note of optimism, Toots offers a wink and nod to his fans that, despite all the bad news of late, everything somehow just may turn out ok.