It took two years of phone calls and confusing negotiations to get myself invited to visit Toots Hibbert at his fortress-like pink stucco compound in the Red Hills section of Kingston, Jamaica. When I finally arrived, he wasn’t home. No one around seemed to know the whereabouts of the world’s greatest living reggae singer. His grandson, an aspiring reggae artist who calls himself King Trevi, was perched on some concrete steps and suggested that maybe Toots went to the gym. A woman hanging laundry on a rope strung across the dirt yard thought he’d gone to the country. Someone said he might be napping.
I was directed to wait in the yard, near a dusty fence painted the colors of the Jamaican flag. A dreadlocked old-timer in a mesh shirt sat on a wooden barstool under the shade of a mango tree. He advised me to stay away from the Rottweilers, which he whispered can be “dangerous.” Fortunately, I didn’t see any Rottweilers, just a hobbled orange mutt panting in the shade. Nearby, Toots’ driver and bodyguard, Courtney, who also goes by the name Wesley, was eating a to-go plate of chicken off the hood of his Toyota Corolla. I asked if he’d seen the boss. His response was garrulous but inconclusive. “Nyah, he come and he go,” Courtney said, using the name Toots’ family and close friends call him. “Every day is different, different mood and feelings. So much on his mind. Never enough time for a man like this man. He follow his own riddim. He the leader, we the follower.” Then he set the box of chicken bones on the ground for the orange dog or maybe the Rottweilers to finish.
Somewhere, not far off, I could hear music, muffled as if it were coming from behind walls: a heavy reggae bass line, clacking rhythm guitar, keyboards skidding across the top. It was a short, repeating section, booming through the hot, still air. After a while, vocals filled in the mix, rhythmic, intense:
You are taking our rights from us!
You don’t care
We didn’t get nothing! Nothing! Nothing!
The voice sounded bruised but defiant, growling and also somehow joyous. It was unmistakably the voice of Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, one of the creators of reggae music, and one of the greatest soul singers of all time, in a lineage with Sam, Ray, and Otis. With few of modern music’s pioneering voices still around or vital — his good friend Willie Nelson might be the closest comparison — Toots is a living treasure, a star whose light originates long ago and far away, but still shines brightly on us now.
Suddenly, the music stopped. In the quiet, I could hear parrots arguing in the palm trees and kids playing outside somewhere. When I looked up, out of nowhere, there was Toots, emerging from a metal door at the back of his property. He wore baggy black sweatpants and a black sleeveless undershirt, with sunglasses propped on top of his short, tightly-curled jet-black hair. Deep into his seventies, he is compact, solid, and strong, with muscled arms and the quick, efficient movements of a boxer (which Toots was as a teenager). In one hand he held a plastic cup of clear liquid, and in the other a dirty dish towel, which he used to wipe the sweat from his face, then stuffed into the neckline of his shirt.
He broke into a wide smile and waved his hands in the air. “Fireball!” he announced in greeting. “Welcome to the Reggae Center.”
This was 2016, and Toots had been off the road and at home, grounded after a fan threw a 1.75-liter vodka bottle onstage that accidentally hit him in the head during a May 2013 performance in Richmond, Virginia. He played two more shows before a doctor told him he’d suffered a serious concussion and he needed to cancel all remaining dates. Touring has been Toots’ lifeblood since the early 1970s, when his landmark album Funky Kingston (one of the greatest reggae albums of all time) made him a global superstar opening for the Who and the Eagles and helped him build a four-decade international touring machine. In the 2000s, with his James Brown-like dance moves and singularly powerful voice (even now, he rarely lifts the microphone closer than chest-high), Toots was everywhere: headlining festivals and jam-band cruises, opening the Rolling Stones’ Bigger Bang tour, showing up on New Year’s Eve in St. Barth’s with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Then it all just stopped. He didn’t play another show until June 2016. (In retrospect, Toots says he should have canceled the tour immediately after the accident for both health and legal reasons, but “that’s not my principle. A boxer never falls unless he’s hit hard.”) Two cases dragged on in the courts: a criminal trial against the 19-year-old who threw the bottle (Toots asked that he be spared jail time, but he was sentenced to six months) and a civil suit against the organizers of the event, which went on for three years before being settled out of court. The situation sent Toots into a spiral of anxiety and depression. “I’m getting better and better now,” he said. “I have headaches, and I have fears. I need to take some medications. I’ve been through a lot, but by grace of the almighty God, I keep going, man. They call me Fireball! As long as I am strong, I am young.”
Since the injury, Toots has retreated to the studio, which he calls the Reggae Center, often seven days a week, birthday and Christmas included. “If I’m not in my bed, check the studio!” he says.
Despite its official-sounding name, the Reggae Center is really just a dank, airless concrete apartment with sickly yellow walls and a trickle of A/C. A TV monitor above the recording console usually plays tennis; Toots is distracted by a Roger Federer match today. “Him a fireball,” Toots admires. The only place to sit is a makeshift couch made out of the bench seat from a van. All around the room are hard drives, teetering on the edges of the console, stacked in the hallways, and propping open a door. The drives are loaded with songs Toots has recorded over the past three years — hundreds of tracks, according to his engineer, Nigel Burrell. There are protest songs and party songs, Christmas tunes, and covers of Ray Charles and Otis Redding. Often, there are multiple versions of the same track cut in different styles. Toots plays almost all the instruments and sings every note.
Most of the songs on his new album, Got to Be Tough, out August 28th, started in this room. The album, co-produced by Zak Starkey for his Trojan Jamaica label, plays like a burning plea for a world at the breaking point. The songs, showcasing Toots’ mellowed, grainy voice, and shot through with Starkey’s vintage guitar riffs (plus a few cameos on percussion from Starkey’s dad, Ringo Starr), call out the legacy of slavery and systemic racism in Jamaica, rising economic injustice, climate destruction, and Toots’ own grievances against a system that’s beaten him down. Toots never plays victim; he’s a fighter, a healer, the voice of reason.
“I’ve always thought Toots and the Maytals were the punk rock of reggae,” says Starkey. “We had a lot of reggae playing in my house as a kid, and the feeling I got from Toots was the same I got from the Who — a feeling of aggression and excitement, the songs were about something. The power in his voice is beyond anyone I’ve ever met. And he has lived through all the generations of Jamaican music. He was at the forefront at the start, and he’s at the forefront now. How incredible is that?”
“You can’t compare Toots to anybody else,” adds Ziggy Marley, Bob’s son. “Just like you can’t compare Bob to anybody. Toots is one of those unique figures. Toots is Toots. He stands alone.”
Today, Toots and Nigel are listening back to a rough mix of “Ten Shillings,” with its echoey, incantatory lyrics calling out the devious 1960s Jamaican producers who signed Toots and many other young, struggling artists to terrible contracts that handed over their songwriting and publishing rights for a few schillings, or a free lunch. This pattern of mistreatment has persisted — predatory producers and labels, inept or corrupt managers, and sometimes Toots’ own impulsive business decisions. “There are huge trust issues,” says his attorney and friend Roderick Gordon. “It’s gone wrong so many times.”
“Sometimes I think, ‘Who going to pay — how are they going to pay?’ ” Toots says, slouched over his guitar in the studio. “I’m not going to hurt anyone — I will make them pay musi-cally,” he says, stretching out the syllables. He moves in and out of Jamaican patois and, in certain moments, veers into a rhythmic, preaching cadence that calls on the Rastafarian teachings he lives by. “I feel angry. I want to hurt people. When I want to hurt people, I just tell them, ‘Pressure gonna drop on you,’ ” he says, quoting one of his most enduring hits, “Pressure Drop,” which, like many Toots songs, deals with karma and revenge. “I’m talking about if someone done you wrong, pressure gonna drop on them. You do something wrong, the coconut might drop on your head — that’s the pressure. You have to think, ‘Why that coconut fall on me?’
“These are natural feelings,” he continues. “Things that happen to me. That’s how I write. That’s why people can relate to it. The Lord is good, the Lord is great, but I’m getting fucked!”
On a recent winter morning, Toots squeezes into the back of Courtney’s silver Corolla for a drive into the farmlands outside Kingston. In the town of Portmore, we stop at a bar that’s really just a concrete foundation and three walls painted in hues of orange with a warped plywood counter. Toots says it’s too early to drink beer, so he orders rum instead: white, overproof Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum, which he asks for in a plastic cup, pours a few drops into his dry cupped hands, rubs them together, then knocks cups with Courtney. “Fireball!” he shouts, as he takes a slug. “Good Lord!”
“Fireball,” says Courtney, slowly.
“Heeeey—ey—ey,” shouts Toots. “Me name is Nyah! Me eat fire! Dem haffa admire!” He drinks the rum.
“Fire!” yells Courtney.
It is not clear why we landed in Portmore, or if it’s a stop on the way to someplace else. But it’s also hard to imagine anything more fun than roaming the Jamaican countryside with Toots on a Monday morning. Courtney, at the wheel, cranks up a CD of Toots singing a staggering, faithful version of the Otis Redding classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” which he cut recently at the Reggae Center. The track rattles and distorts at top volume, with Toots singing along from the back seat. The song plays eight or nine times in a row; each time, near the end, Toots barrels into the last lines — “I can’t stop now/Please, please don’t make me stop now” — with a glorious, screeching falsetto, sounding less like he’s pleading for a lost love than the chance to carry on his career a little longer.
Courtney is a steady presence by Toots’ side, six feet of solid muscle, fiercely loyal to the boss. Whatever Toots needs, Courtney provides, from stage security (since the bottle incident, Courtney stands near Toots during every show, arms crossed, scanning the crowd) to building furniture for the studio or accompanying Toots as he carouses around the Kingston hotel bars, often spontaneously jumping onstage to sing a few songs. “You never know what come, moment to moment,” says Courtney, solemnly. “We must always be ready.”
I ask Courtney if drinking ever gets in the way of his duties. “I follow the boss’s lead,” he says. “I do what he does. Always been, always will be.”
Toots, who has been flirting with the skeptical female bar owner, chimes in: “We all drinking. And we all working. We always working. In our minds!”
Toots is a whirlwind of moods and motion. He’s joyous and unpredictable, a thrill to be with but also occasionally mystifying, navigating life by some bent logic invisible even to those close to him. Large quantities of ganja add to the haze. Time is meaningless in Toots’ world: If you have a meeting set for 6 p.m., he may show up at 4:30 or he may show up at 11. In public, he rolls up like a reggae superhero, in a matching Polo or Hugo Boss sweatsuit and Rasta skullcap, freshly trimmed black beard, laughing, yodeling, dancing, air-boxing, holding babies, and offering “wireless” fist bumps to friends and strangers. (Toots is a germaphobe and doesn’t like touching people’s hands, which as it turns out is prescient for these times. So far, Jamaica has had minimal coronavirus cases, yet Toots — like all artists — was forced to postpone all of this year’s tour dates until 2021. In private he’s more pensive — a worrier, spinning theories, second-guessing himself, reinterpreting events. His reasoning seems to often be governed by emotional currents more than static facts, so his stories don’t always fit together, and the meanings change depending on how he feels.
This is especially true when he sits down for an interview. He laughs shyly, frequently deflects, doesn’t remember, and changes the subject. He seems uncomfortable being asked to make sense of his life. Even though he is proud of his achievements (he will often remind you that he invented the word “reggae,” which is arguably true, in the title of his 1968 song “Do the Reggay”), he is also extremely humble, focused on the work that still remains. “When people say I’m great,” he says, “I say I’m not great, but I will try to be great one day.”
In the car today, Toots’ ancient flip phone rings nonstop: He intercedes in a family squabble, conducts a live radio interview, checks in on his older sister Icilene (the last of his 14 siblings still living), and inquires with a friend about slaughtering two goats he plans to roast for a party. In between, he barks directions at Courtney, who at one point I notice has been driving in a giant square around the same plot of farmland, round and round.
That evening, after a nap and a few hours in the studio, Toots shows up at the Terra Nova Hotel, one of his favorite hangouts, looking fresh in a matching red-and-black sweatsuit. He announces he’s going on a five-day weight-loss program that dubiously consists of “biscuits and fruit juice,” but when the waitress comes, he orders fried shrimp, no salt.
“I’m not sick,” he tells her, “but I want to be healthy!”
“Fried shrimp is not really healthy,” she says, and persuades him to order steamed shrimp with broccoli instead.
He admits that he feels a lot of pressure to relaunch his career at a time he would prefer to slow down and that he carries a burden of responsibility to support his family, which includes his wife of 39 years, Miss D, seven kids (an eighth — another daughter — passed away), along with grandkids, nieces, nephews, and others he’s informally adopted or taken care of over the years.
“It’s still hard, I’m trying, I’m pushing,” he says, speaking in staccato phrases, working the rhythm of the words as much as the meaning. “I work hard. I am not afraid to work. But time is running out, and I feel that. I don’t want to work so hard now. But it’s coming up fast, fast. Good times gone, good times still coming, by and by. I have to work, and it keeps me young. People look to me every day, every night, every minute, every hour, to take care of them, and I need to do that. I need to be the leader, everything else follows.
“This is my last chance, man,” he adds quietly. “I gotta do this now. Every day I’m getting older. But I still have my strength, so now it’s time.”
Another morning, we load into Courtney’s Corolla to drive to the countryside to visit Toots’ sister, Icilene, who still lives in the simple wooden cabin where Toots and his siblings were raised in the agricultural hub of May Pen, 55 kilometers and a world apart from Kingston.
Icilene, who goes by Birdy, isn’t feeling well, so Toots wants to bring her a bottle of noni juice, a Jamaican herbal cure-all derived from the noni fruit that smells like stinky cheese and tastes appalling but is used to alleviate infection and pain. He visits frequently, usually at night or in the early morning, and is reluctant to make the trip today. “I cannot show myself there,” he says. “People come down and trample me. I’m very famous down there. And famous all over the island! And all over the world! When you are famous, you have to give people a lot of motivation and direction. It’s like a prime minister, you know? If I came with 100,000 Jamaican dollars it won’t be enough.”
Everywhere we go, Toots gives. One afternoon during Christmas season we did the rounds in his black Lexus, distributing small bundles of cash to gas-station attendants and waiters and hotel staff, anyone he thought needed it. This is normal practice. “Sometimes my work, when I drive him, is just to give. We drive around and give money, or food, or medicine,” says Courtney. “Every day! Every time! Oh, my God! When the phone rings, it’s always somebody that wants something. He always help them. That’s Fireball,” he says, with a snap of his fingers. “He give it all away.”
Toots has always been motivated by generosity. At the May Pen Primary School, he gave away his lunch to kids who had nothing to eat. “The first time I did that my father beat me, because I come home hungry. He said, ‘Where’s your lunch money?’ ” Toots mimics a child crying. “ ‘I gave it away, Daddy.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because some children’s mouths wide and hungry.’ My father don’t bother to beat me again. He say, ‘OK, I’m going to give you enough you can give some away.’ ”
Toots’ parents were both preachers in a strict Seventh-day Adventist church (his mother was also a nurse and a midwife), where he and his brothers and sisters would sing after school. “Everybody love me,” Toots remembers. “I learn that manners is the foundation of respect. I teach that to my grandchildren now. Too much anger, that’s not good. If you want to have a hunger, have a hunger to do good, not to do bad. That is the way to do it, I’m in a hurry to do good!”
He starts yodeling, then singing. “Hey-ey-ey-ey ey-ey-yeeee! Made up my mind, to do good all the time, all the time I pride myself walking on the line. When I was a little boy, my parents used to say, ‘Toots, a man must do good all the time.’ All the time, all the time . . . yay ey-ey-ey-yeeee.”
Toots’ father was a local landowner who had several businesses: Toots points out the Butter Nut Bakery, where he learned to bake bread as a kid, and the fruit stand his parents operated. “My dad was a hard worker, and he used to take a drink also,” says Toots. “He was very strong. When he shake your hands, it burns you.”
We pass the church where his parents preached, which Toots says he’d like to buy and renovate. “I couldn’t dance because I grew up in this church,” he says, with a laugh, “but after I grow up and go to Kingston and saw what’s going on, that’s when I start to watch James Brown, Wilson Pickett. That’s when I start to move!”
We pull over by the open fields of Western Park, brown grass littered with trash. “I used to run up and down here all the time, it used to be so beautiful,” he remembers. “It used to be clean, rain would fall every day. It don’t fall every day now.”
Toots grew up in the hillside Treadlight district, where he still owns land on Hibbert Boulevard, named after his father. Toots’ extended family occupy the tin-roofed plywood cabins along the roadside, and his parents are buried behind Birdy’s place at the top of the hill. “My father own most of this and way back into the bush,” he says. “This is the real me.”
Toots’ mom died when he was eight, and his dad died when he was 11, so I ask if it was hard to lose his parents so young. “Yes, man,” he says. “But my father was old when he died. He was 114.”
I point out that this means his father was 103 when Toots was born. “Yes, man,” he affirms, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. (In the same conversation, he said that his father was born in 1906, which would have made him 47 when he died.)
When we arrive at Birdy’s place, Toots insists I go alone to deliver the noni juice while he waits in the car. “Tell her take care of herself, and tell her that I want her to drink this, and tell her don’t put it in the fridge, and tell her I love her, my sister. Tell her don’t put it in the fridge.”
Birdy greets me warmly, holding my hand as we sit on the porch and talk about her life and her brother. She explains that she’s aware of how big a star Toots is, but as a strict Pentecostal her religion does not allow her to listen to the secular or Rastafarian-inspired messages of reggae, so she has never listened to Toots’ music or seen him perform live. “I love my brother,” Birdy says. “He always said he would be a prophet.”
I ask Toots about this. “Yes, always,” he says. “I don’t know how I had that idea that I would be a prophet. It was the spirit of the Lord moving through me in mysterious ways, it was inside me. To be a prophet you have to believe in yourself, believe in God, believe in what you do. You take your time, and you don’t try to show off. A prophet can be a spiritual person or a fortune-teller, but if you tell somebody something and it don’t come true, they won’t believe you anymore. I try to always tell the truth.”
When Toots was a teenager, he left May Pen for Kingston to stay with his older brother John, who lived in the Trenchtown ghetto and worked as a cook. (John had a special fondness for his younger sibling and nicknamed him “Little Toots” when he was a baby.) “There was no highway then,” says Toots. “It was just country roads — very rough, big, deep potholes — and the bus would drop in there, flat tires. Country-style. People riding their horse or the donkey all the way into town.”
The trip was only a couple of hours on the back of a truck but Toots had never been outside of May Pen, and he got off too soon, in a manufacturing city called Spanish Town. “I thought I’d arrived in Kingston, so I hop off the truck! I go back home and explain, and they say, ‘No, that don’t sound like Kingston at all!’ So I have to try and go back again. And the second time I made it. I realized right away that Kingston is a very special place. It was pretty back then, no potholes, no goat holes, no bushes, everything whitewashed. Everything clean. It was a strange city, a place you could find almost everything.”
Toots got a job in a barbershop, and he would sing as he cut hair, mostly Bible songs. From the start, there was something distinctive in Toots’ grainy, expressive wail, a mix of soul and country that he picked up from listening to American radio and channeled through the church music of his childhood. “My style is different than anyone’s back then. They say my style is like country & western, and they didn’t like it at first. But they love my vibes, and many people say to me, ‘Man, you gonna be a good singer one day.’ ”
In 1962, Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom, and Kingston was swept up in hope and pride — and music. Rural kids like Toots flooded the city looking for work, and slums like Trenchtown became hotbeds for an evolving new sound (from ska to rock steady, then reggae) that mixed gospel, soul, and traditional Jamaican mento with Rastafarian spirituality.
“A lot of great singers came down from the country to the cities at this time,” says Toots. “I didn’t know of such excitement before that, there was hope for the future. We thought. It didn’t work out exactly. It didn’t work out for the poor. It worked out more for the rich.”
Toots formed a group with two Trenchtown kids, Jerry Matthius and Raleigh Gordon, who had heard him sing at the barbershop. They called themselves Maytals and began singing in the fast-paced ska-harmony-trio style. “We were bad, man!” Toots remembers. “All the way, full harmony. People start to hear me and they say, ‘What? I never heard no voice like this.’ ”
Toots auditioned for Kingston’s top producer, Coxsone Dodd, at his famed Studio One in Kingston. “Coxsone told me, ‘Your voice is strange, it’s different, come back in a few weeks time.’ Of course I come back with the same voice! He sent me away and I come back again. After six weeks, he says, ‘All right, you got any songs?’ ”
Toots recorded eight tracks that day, he recalls, including a rudimentary but soaring ska song, “Hello Honey” (a line he still occasionally breaks out when he meets women). “For that song, Coxsone gave me one patty,” says Toots. “I was very hungry, and I love a patty, and that’s what I got paid for my first song.” (Toots’ first official release, “Hallelujah,” from 1962, may also have been recorded that day, but when it was released overseas, it was credited to the Vikings, and he didn’t receive credit for the song till years later.)
Many of his early songs rewrote Bible teachings, but then Toots stumbled on a way to write from his own point of view. “I realized it’s like you’re writing a letter to a girl; it’s got to sound like you mean it! I fill up the notebooks, like writing love letters. I have this talent from God that I could write a song about you before I even put it on paper.”
The Maytals’ string of early Studio One singles, including their first island hit in 1963, “Fever,” and the stunning “Six and Seven Books of Moses,” are raw and exciting, featuring close harmony singing and backed by Dodd’s daring, jazz-schooled house band the Skatalites. By the mid-Sixties, the Maytals were Jamaica’s top group, with Bob Marley and the Wailers coming up behind them. “I met Bob [Marley] down on Orange Street,” says Toots. “Lee Perry, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Ken Boothe, all friendly and righteous. It was competitive and friendly, a golden time.”
Ziggy Marley, who calls Toots “a father figure” and appears in a version of his father’s tune “Three Little Birds” on Toots’ new album, recalls Bob and Toots spending time together in the Seventies at the Marley compound at 56 Hope Road. “It was like a community,” Ziggy says. “It was all of these great artists who interacted with each other in a camaraderie type of way. Like a soccer team. They respected each other,” he says. “They were educated in ways that the education system couldn’t give them. They were coming from the country and grew up being around nature, grew up with spirituality, grew up with ethics.”
“Bob and I were friends for a long, long time,” says Toots, quietly. “Most people don’t know how close we used to be. We didn’t spend a lot of time together, but when we do see each other, it was meaningful. We talk a lot, we share thoughts over a lot of things. We figured and planned because we saw that this music was becoming bigger than we thought it could, bigger than us, as big as the world.”
In 1966, the Maytals won the first Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition (which they won again in 1969 and 1972, and Toots is a finalist again this year) with Toots’ breakthrough song, “Bam Bam.” The song, later reprised as a massive hit by Sister Nancy, is a thrilling statement of moral clarity and purpose, a huge step from the Motown-influenced love songs and dance-floor instrumentals most ska and rock-steady artists were writing at the time:
I want you to know that I am the man
Who fight for the right, not for the wrong
Going there, I’m growing there
Helping the weak against the strong
Soon you will find out the man
I’m supposed to be
Not long after winning the song festival, Toots and the Maytals were on the way home from a concert in Ocho Rios, on Jamaica’s north coast, when they got pulled over on their motorcycles by the police and taken to the station house. Toots, eager to resolve the issue, left his suit bag behind and rode into Kingston to retrieve the Maytals’ manager. When he returned, the officer had searched his bags and informed Toots he’d found marijuana. “He said he found herb, and he said, ‘I’m gonna lock you up too!’ And that was the bam bam that happened to me.”
Toots says he had never smoked ganja at that time and insists to this day that he was set up, possibly by a rival manager who wanted another artist to break out, not Toots. He spent about a year in a low-security facility called Richmond Farm, where he was allowed to play his guitar and eat home-cooked meals. But the confinement forced him to cancel his first overseas tour, to England, which was scheduled for two weeks later, and set his career back at a pivotal moment.
“They were trying to slow me down, stop my career from taking off,” he says. “It was political. I can’t say any more.”
Fifty-four years later, the injustice still feels raw. “I was angry,” Toots says. “I’m angry still.” The betrayal has made him suspicious and distrustful even today, and has caused him to keep his circle of influence small, perhaps missing opportunities along the way.
“So many people say they can help me,” says Toots, “but then they rip us off. We don’t know how to operate in this business, and many times we trust people we shouldn’t trust. One time a manager came to me, seemed very professional, loved my music. And he said no one is giving you the money you should get from your songs, sign this — and he gave me a blank page of paper. ‘If you sign this, it will give me the rights to collect the money for you.’ Then I never see him again. It’s hard for me to work in this kind of way. I think about music, not about business.”
If anything good came of his time in prison, it’s a song: “54-46, That’s My Number,” his signature, like Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” or Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” which lightly fictionalizes Toots’ experience to create a sublime three-minute anthem against injustice that is one of reggae’s most exciting recordings ever and its first international hit.
That song lifted Toots’ career, and in the early Seventies he became one of Jamaica’s top musical exports. (Toots is still a major ambassador for the island; his music often greets tourists on continuous loop in the arrivals terminal at Norman Manley airport. “Who gets paid for that?” he asks. “Not me.”)
Toots’ breakthrough came in 1973, with the classic Funky Kingston, co-produced by Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, who also co-produced Marley’s breakthrough Catch a Fire that year. Blackwell says he met Toots in the late 1960s, in the studio when the singer was recording with producer Leslie Kong. Blackwell had heard a song called “Funky Nassau” and gave Toots the idea to do a tune about his own hometown. “I told Toots he’s gotta give us a hit about Kingston, and he did,” says Blackwell, who brought in Steve Winwood to play organ. “Anything Toots sang he gave everything. He’s pure, he’s totally honest.”
Critic Lester Bangs called Funky Kingston “perfection, the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released,” and Rolling Stone, reporting from the San Francisco stop on Toots’ first U.S. tour that year, called it “a long-awaited emergence from the mist of legend.”
“I had never heard a reggae soul like that before,” says Bonnie Raitt, who, like a lot of fans, discovered Toots from his incredible performances of “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop” in the 1972 cult film The Harder They Come. “This was long before the internet, so you had to search this stuff out in specialty stores that carried reggae 45s and collections.
“Musicians just loved him so much and played him all the time,” Raitt says. “I think the Stones and the English bands had a lot to do with the popularity with Toots and Bob Marley. And once you see them and hear them, you feel it — the magnetism and the power of the artists that come out of that small island has impacted music all around the world since.”
“As a singer, he’s amazing,” adds Keith Richards, who has known Toots since the Seventies and recorded the track “Careless Ethiopians” with him for Toots’ 2004 duets record, True Love, which also featured Raitt, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Jeff Beck. “His voice reminds me very much of the timbre of Otis Redding. When you hear him do ‘Pain in My Heart,’ it’s an uncanny resemblance. I think he knows himself. He’s his own man and he knows the contribution he’s made, which is why he’s still around. You know, whenever I get a call from Toots, I go running.”
When Raitt first met Toots, in the Seventies, backstage after a club gig in Cambridge, she remembers that “he was literally hidden behind smoke on the couch. Then he stood up just like an apparition. It was fantastic because he was so mystic.” Years later, when they duetted on “True Love Is Hard to Find,” the highlight of the 2004 album, she says, “He was hidden by the same cloud of smoke! He’d come out, and I couldn’t even see him. The stamina of that guy blows me away, his vocal prowess and the fact that he can sing like that, especially because he smokes herb. Or maybe that has something to do with it.
“He’s a person of such historic significance,” Raitt goes on, “like an Elvis, or a B.B. King, and he’s so gracious, so approachable. I wish he had an easy life, with so much more renumeration for his work. Somebody that’s worked as hard as he has and is in the position of cultural esteem for so long, he should be, you know, a millionaire living on easy street with a private plane now.”
A few days before Christmas, Toots sits on a barstool in the Reggae Center, listening to the final tracks for Got to Be Tough, his first new release in more than a decade. The record almost fell apart before it started, held up by a tense standoff over the contract. Finally, two days before Starkey had to rush off to L.A. for his other job as the drummer for the Who, Toots showed up at the studio in Ocho Rios and cut 10 tracks in two manic, rum-fueled, all-night sessions. “It was difficult, yeah, it aged me, but it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever been involved with,” says Starkey. “Once we got going, it was on. We both sat on the couch, with the amp pointing at us. It was so loud, Toots was loving it. He’s just singing guitar lines that we have to work out really quick, record them, then on to the next one.”
Toots’ first album in a decade is similar in spirit to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, a statement of resilience and purpose rare for an artist in the sixth decade of his career. Today, Toots listens to the songs blasting out of the monitors with his eyes closed, intent, totally still, hard to tell whether or not he likes what he hears.
After a few songs, he says he’s weary and walks out into the yard. “I’m very proud of what I’ve done and the love I’ve given,” he says. “But it’s getting harder and harder to give the love the people need, and they need it now more than ever. No time to waste.”
He says he woke up happy this morning, sipped some sorrel juice his wife made, then hit the gym, where he danced and boxed with a trainer. On the way home, things started to go downhill, as the phone started ringing and he began the daily frustrations with agents, managers, lawyers, and publishers to keep the Toots machine moving forward.
The mangoes aren’t ripe yet, but tiny bird peppers are growing on a bush underneath the tree. He picks two green peppers, and instructs me to pop one whole into my mouth and swallow without chewing. “It’ll pick you up, good for your circulation,” he says. He eats his first, but chews it rather than swallowing, then erupts into a coughing fit, sweating and drinking water.
Over dinner at Jojo’s, a hideaway in the center of New Kingston where Bunny Wailer’s son Asedenaki is DJ’ing deep reggae cuts, Toots again alludes to the unnamed forces that led to his 1966 arrest. He veers a bit closer to an explanation. “I was going too fast, I have a lot of Number One records, just came from the country, and people were jealous, man. They wanted to put someone else in my place. When they let me out, I never spoke about it.”
There are “some secrets that must be revealed,” he continues, but then backs away. “Too dangerous, man,” he says.
As usual, Toots has a lot on his mind. “It is time to get off these computers,” he says. “These machines knock out your spiritual self. You allow it to tell you things, and you should not, because you do not learn, you do not retain. You lose it all in the machine, then everything you know it’s not inside you, it’s outside you. Everybody believe in the computer. If you want to know something, you say, ‘Where my phone! My phone knows!’ But what about what you know, what you feel? It’s lost.”
We make plans to go to the beach the next day for a swim, then lunch at Screechie, his favorite seafood spot. When Toots shows up at my hotel around noon, there is no talk of the beach. He’s alone, which is rare, and he seems reflective, mellow, in a way I haven’t often seen him. Over a bowl of “rasta pasta” (with red, green, and yellow peppers), he says that he’d like to open his own restaurant, a “hideout” called the “Reggae Center Restaurant,” a spot where he can create “a vibe” without outside interference. “I want a place that is truly my own, where no one will steal from me and people can feel happy.”
He’s quiet, leans back, and cradles his hands behind his head. He looks almost peaceful. “Try it,” he suggests. “It gives you a new way of thinking.”