Soul Man 

Legendary reggae singer Toots Hibbert doesn't need bling to sing.

click to enlarge The always high-energy Toots Hibbert performing at Maymont in 2011.

Thomas Smith

The always high-energy Toots Hibbert performing at Maymont in 2011.

Reggae royalty is coming to Brown's Island.

Toots Hibbert, once a country boy raised in the parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, grew up singing gospel in a large Baptist family before moving to urban Kingston as a teenager. There he worked as a barber and thrilled customers by singing sweetly soulful music with his grainy, honey-rich vocals.

Sought out for his talent, Hibbert launched the Maytals, a group featured on the popular 1971 film soundtrack, "The Harder They Come," which helped introduce reggae to the world.

His subsequent career has seen highs and lows: From a jail stint in Jamaica for marijuana possession in 1966 (Hibbert tells me he was not a smoker at the time but was framed with ganja because of his group's quick success) to a number of hits that became reggae classics, such as "Pressure Drop," the ska-favorite "Monkey Man," "Time Tough," and "54-46 Was My Number," a reference to his jail term.

His most recent album, "True Love," featured his classics performed with big name guests such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, and took home the Grammy for best reggae album in 2004. Side trivia: fan Matt Groening named "The Simpsons" character, Dr. Hibbert, after him.

Speaking in his unmistakable Jamaican patois, Toots recently chopped it up with Style from a hotel room in Portsmouth, N.H.

Style Weekly: What was your earliest musical memory?

Toots Hibbert: I grew up listening to radio a lot. I listen to all the great American singers: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Jim Reeves. People tell me I sound like Otis Redding.

I can hear that. What makes a good song for you?

First, you have to have a good voice to sing it. Then you have good lyrics and that mean cultural words. No nursery rhymes, no bling-bling, no nonsense. Since I was a boy singing, I want to make people remember me. To sing reggae, you can't sing idiot words or words to hurt people. That's not reggae, that's streggae.

At your age, how do you maintain such high energy on stage?

Well, I hardly sleep. Don't like sleep. From 1969, maybe I sleep five hours a night. I eat a lot of garlic, I pray to God, I live good with people. And when I work, I give the audience the energy and they give it back to me. I feed off it.

Some critics say a song like "Pressure Drop" presages early, socially conscious hip-hop. Do you agree?

Yeah well, I wrote it [for a man in Jamaica] who gave me ten shilling to work. And when we take it to the shop it was bad, ten shillings never good; couldn't change it or buy anything. So I write about that person, "pressure gonna drop on him." He knows that I'm talking to him and when it drops, "you gonna feel it." [laughs]

Why haven't there been many dub versions of your songs?

Because everyting go on CD, most of the dubbing happen only on vinyl, so ... I recorded a tribute to Ray Charles just last month that is actually number one in Jamaica right now and I gonna do a dub of that. Coming up end of this year, I have a new double album on my own label that will have a few [Charles] tributes on it.

Do you see money from the Leslie Kong reissues?

No money. I get my little performance royalties. But I don't get my real money yet. I got lawyers all over the world trying to get it [laughs]. Leslie Kong was one of the best producers in Jamaica. He's not like the rest of them, you know? He promised to give me some royalties but he died and his family didn't give me the money. So I don't blame him. The others have no conscience.

Anything else planned for the future that I can mention?

I gonna give help to people who need help with my foundation, building up hospitals and workshops, young people learning trades. I gonna call it, maybe, Toots Hibbert Foundation, based in America, gonna operate in Jamaica.

Toots and the Maytals perform for the Cinco de Mayo festival with Bio Ritmo, Fighting Gravity and Wrinkle Neck Mules at Brown's Island Friday, May 5. Tickets are $8 in advance or $10 at the gate.



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