Trying to say with certainty who invented reggae is like trying to say who invented rock ’n’ roll; it’s a fool’s errand with no clear answer.
But there are certain figures in each genre that are going to be in that discussion. In rock, it’s Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Elvis, those kinds of guys; they all had a role in its formation and dissemination. In reggae, it’s guys like Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Pioneers and Desmond Dekker. And definitely Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, who with his band, The Maytals, released the 1968 track “Do the Reggay.” That single marked the first recorded use of the word in print. You can’t discuss reggae’s origins without including Toots.
He was there in the beginning, writing and singing hits in Jamaica back when rocksteady and ska morphed into something new in the mid-’60s. And Toots, who plays an acoustic show at The Seasons Performance Hall on Friday with The Maytals, didn’t stop there. He had a string of hits in the late 1960s, becoming renowned throughout Jamaica and gaining notice in England. Then two of his songs, “Pressure Drop” and “Sweet and Dandy,” were featured in the 1972 film “The Harder They Come,” which introduced Jamaican music to audiences wider than the musicians had ever dreamed. All of a sudden, Toots went from being a star in Jamaica to a star worldwide.
“We only used to get two shillings or three shillings,” he said in a phone interview earlier this week. “We never used to get anything till the ’70s.”
In 1975, he released “Funky Kingston,” an American album with the same name and cover as one he’d released in Jamaica three years earlier. It remains his masterpiece and was included in 2003 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The magazine called it “the quintessential document of Jamaica’s greatest act after Bob Marley” and placed it at No. 378 all-time. The success of that album and the attendant notoriety solidified Toots’ reputation as a true reggae titan, alongside Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff.
“I never realized the music would be so good and get taken all over the world,” Toots says. “That’s a part of my gift. I’m a very spiritual person, so I have to give God praise for my energy and my talent.”
The discovery of the album by British punk and New Wave bands a few years later only added to its legacy. The Clash released a cover of the song in 1979, becoming another in a long line of artists to pay tribute through song. That’s something Toots, who himself often blurred genre distinctions among reggae, rock and soul, has always appreciated.
“I learn from it,” he says of other artists recording his songs. “And I’m really happy that they do it. They are more famous.”
His career, now a half-century old, has allowed Toots, who still lives in Jamaica, to see the world and to work with some of the great luminaries in popular music history. In 2005, he and The Maytals released “True Love,” which included Toots’ songs sung by the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Willie Nelson.
And last month the government of Jamaica bestowed upon him the Order of Jamaica. It was an honor that brought Toots, who did prison time in the 1960s for marijuana possession, full circle. Like Bob Dylan getting Kennedy Center Honors in 2006, Toots was a guy who was once seen as rebellious and subversive who, in time, came to be recognized by his country as part of its very cultural fabric.
“They came together, and they believe that I deserve it,” he says. “All the government people think it’s important to give me that honor. It blew me away.”
Of course, that’s not why he started playing music. And it’s not why he continues now, less than a month away from his 67th birthday. No, what keeps him going is the feeling he gets from getting up on a stage with a guitar and just singing.
“It gives me a lot of energy,” Toots says. “It gives me knowledge that I can do it for a long time.”
If you go see him Friday, you can expect a lot of the old classics, the songs he made famous and that made him famous. But you’ll hear them in a new unplugged way, because even five decades into his performing career, Toots is still trying new things.
“I never did it before,” he says of the unplugged tour and its associated album. “I said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.