THERE are some musicians who are synonymous with a certain genre, but few can claim to have named that whole style of music.
Toots and The Maytals frontman Toots Hibbert, is an iconic figure in the history of reggae. In 1968, his song Do the Reggay gave its name to a new genre springing up in Jamaica, when rocksteady was mixed with gospel and ska, then slowed down to a funky groove.
‘I’m the originator of the word reggae,’ says the 75 year-old. ‘It was after I wrote this song that everyone use the word reggae.’
Part of the name came from ragamuffin, the term for people in Jamaica who dressed scruffily and didn’t have much money. The idea was that reggae was for everyone.
‘They use to call the girls “streggay”, and I came up with the song called reggay and from then it was used for all the music.’
Born Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert, he’s been Toots for as long as he can remember, playing music on a guitar he’d made himself.
‘They always call me Toots from I was little,’ he laughs. ‘I never liked it but they always call me Toots until Toots was me and I was Toots. Maytals was the first name of the band, then it became Toots and the Maytals.’
Toots didn’t have the easiest start, being imprisoned for marijuana possession in 1966, but he was determined to be a success. The Maytals, his band with Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthiasm, won Jamaica’s National Popular Song Contest three times.
‘From church I started to sing and everybody liked the way I sang, so I kept on singing,’ he recalls. ‘The church was my musical family.’
One of his biggest hits was Pressure Drop, which launched the band’s career outside Jamaica in 1969, and has been covered by everyone from The Clash to Keith Richards and The Specials. The song was inspired by a battle over song rights, but fans loved its universal themes.
‘People didn’t pay me for some songs I wrote, that is why I sang “pressure going to drop on you”,’ he explains. ‘But everyone knows about pressure, so that’s why people like the song.’
The Maytals have released more than a dozen albums, and with their blend of reggae and ska, plus pop, blues and R&B, have helped to spread reggae across the globe. They were also nominated three times in the Grammys’ Best Reggae Album category before finally winning the award in 2004.
This week, they’re playing Bass 2018, a month-long celebration of 50 years of reggae, organised by Punch Records to honour the music from ‘the little island in the sun’. It features live music, film screenings, debates, workshops and visual arts. As well as Toots and his band, there’s influential names like Freddie McGregor, Winta James and The Mighty Diamonds.
‘It’s good there are reggae festivals in the UK,’ smiles Toots. ‘There’s not enough of them, so I am happy to support Bass Festival.
‘Toots and the Maytals, we always party party for my friends who are my fans, and I want them to hear my new song called Marley, dedicated to Bob Marley.’
Along the way, Toots has worked with most of his favourite musicians — Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Ryan Adams, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson
He says: ‘I love the times I have shared with the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, and too many others to call out all their names.’
■ Wednesday, O2 Institute, Birmingham, wearepunch.co.uk/bass-festival