Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert is the man who invented reggae – literally. The frontman for Toots and the Maytals is credited with coining the term, and is also one of the style’s biggest stars. He’s notched a phenomenal 31 number-one singles in Jamaica – the most famous being incarceration anthem ‘54-46 (That’s My Number)’ – over the past five decades. Following the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, what better time to hear from the man behind its most renowned musical export?
He could cut your hair (and box your ears). ‘My first job was barbering. I can still trim hair. I also used to train for boxing in my youthful days. I fought my schoolmates. I always won my fights – my hands are very quick and my legs are very quick, like Muhammad Ali.’
Without him, reggae just wouldn’t be reggae. ‘I’m the one who invented the word “reggae”. The music was played in Jamaica, and nobody knew what to call it. They called it “boogie beat” and “blue beat”. And there was a slang term in Jamaica called “streggae” – if the boys aren’t looking so good to the girls, the girls just say, “streggae”. So maybe I changed that word from “streggae” to “reggae”. One Sunday when we sat down [to write], me and my two friends in Kingston, I just said, “Do the reggae.” And that was the song [‘Do The Reggay’] that coined the word “reggae”. I never knew then what it was going to be today.’
He was banged up in Jamaica, though not in prison. ‘They put me in a soldiers’ dormitory – kept me away, because I was going to get my first big tour in the UK when I won this festival [the Independence Festival Song Competition in 1966] with a song called “Bam Bam”. It made me number one. They kept me up at this place called Saint Mary. I don’t remember whether it was for eight months or eight weeks, but I was there. That’s why I wrote this song, called “54-46”, which went to number one when I came back out. I was number one before, and I was number one again.’
He played his worst gig in the US, and he blames The Clash for it. ‘The Clash loved my music, and they invited me to [play with them]. But they never did the advertising. They paid me about US$40,000 [Dhs147,000] to sing for two minutes. When we went there, people didn’t know who we were. They just booed at us. Then two months later, when we went back by ourselves, at that same place that we played, we filled it out. Why can’t we ever have people just respect us, you know? They learned after that. They learned who we were.’ Interview: Jonny Ensall. Pressure Drop – The Golden Tracks is available now on iTunes.