In 2019, Jimmy Cliff said he considered Frederick “Toots” Hibbert and the Maytals’ 1962 album Never Grow Old the birth of the reggae genre. The two singers often pushed each other artistically through friendly competition, with Cliff also recruiting Toots and the Maytals to appear in The Harder They Come. Following the death of his longtime friend and tourmate “Toots,” fellow reggae legend Jimmy Cliff spoke to Rolling Stone Saturday about the Maytals’ singer.
Toots, he’s out there somewhere now vibrating. Toots was one of the artists that I really loved and respected, because way back in the days, Toots was one of the people that got me into smoking herbs. They used to laugh at me, ‘Hey, take a draw, man.’ He was such a creative artist. People don’t know how creative he is. He’d start talking about something, then he’d take up a guitar and put [the song] down right away. That was one of the great things I’ll always remember about him, how creative he was.
Toots man, the world will always remember him. He has that amazing, unique voice. Back in the days when we used to do shows all over Jamaica — we had our little competition with each other, but it was all fun because we inspired each other — I used to sing some Otis Redding songs in my act, and the artists that were more inspirational to [Hibbert] were like Ray Charles. But after those shows, he became so taken up with Otis Redding that he started singing Otis Redding songs, and then he wrote this great song, a huge hit in Jamaica, called “Daddy.”
When Toots first came to Beverley’s Records — because I started quite a few years before him — he auditioned for myself and Derrick Morgan, and we turned Toots down. We said, ‘You sing like a cowboy,’ and [we mocked how] he played his guitar left-handed… He was hurt, and he left. And a month after that, he made this huge hit. He went to Coxsone [Dodd], another one of the producers, and made a huge hit. When he saw us, he said no words. Just looked in our eyes.
“Sweet and Dandy” was already a hit before The Harder They Come, and that is one of my favorite Toots and the Maytals songs. Toots is such a natural artist, so he was not used to miming, but he had to mime that song for the film. So it was difficult for him: He’s not a mimer he’s a natural. So it gave him a little trouble, but he had it down after a while.
Jerry and Raleigh, [The Maytals’ Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias], they were also very good friends of mine. We were so close on all of those concerts that we were doing all over Jamaica. They’d go down to a river before showtime, always trying to find a river [to smoke at]. ‘C’mon Jimmy, take a draw.’ But I was not into smoking, it was such a strange thing.
What a soul, what a personality, Toots. He’s like the sun. When he walks in, he lights up the place. Whether it’s a show or he’s just walking. He was always saying hi to everyone. What a spirit that man was, what a soul.
The last time I saw him, he came around my studios, about three years ago, with his one man kutchie. But we spoke occasionally, on the phone. It was the same kind of comradeship we had, like with him, Desmond Dekker, because we were all Beverley’s artists, even Bob Marley. Toots, I’ll always remember his kindness. He was such a kind man.
From our religious background, our concept of when someone cross over — we don’t say they “pass away,” we say “cross over,” they just go to the other side of existence, there’s no such thing as death — and then they go out there and they vibrate for however many days before they go to a higher height. But Toots, the way Toots lived his life, I’m sure his soul got to move on. The soul can reincarnate from 24 to 24,000 times, it depends how you lived your life. But with Toots, I can’t see Toots coming back to this planet. He’s evolved. He’s completed his task that he has to do on this planet.
And his new album [Got to Be Tough]. I love his new album! His new album is one of the best he’s done. He just leaved us with that great album, and gone! It’s one of his best definitely, without a doubt. He had some great songs prior to this, but it took him so long to make this new album. But he left us with something great.
His spirit will always be resonating with us. His soul will always be resonating with us and the people who loved his music.