When Frederick “Toots” Hibbert died in 2020 at the age of 77, the world lost a legend. As one of the very few artists to be considered in the same league as Bob Marley, he and with his signature group, the Maytals, were one of the key popularizers of Jamaican music, serving as a bridge between the island’s ska, rocksteady, and reggae traditions and the wider world. Here, we look back at his enduring legacy with our pick of the 10 best Toots and the Maytals songs of all-time.
10. Got to Be Tough
After over a decade’s absence, Toots and the Maytals returned in 2020 with Got to Be Tough, a critical triumph that found Hibbert forgoing the danceable love songs of the band’s past in favor of a collection of brutally honest songs that deal with everything from low wages to disappearing pensions. But as Gigwise notes, while the album may be calling the world to task, it has it dancing too, combining a politically minded consciousness with the “heartfelt and soulful nature of rocksteady and ska.” On its title track, Hibbert laments the state of the world (“Our youth are getting slaughtered”) while calling for the courage to make a change (“Things may be hard, but we have to overcome it”).
9. Sweet and Dandy
As Rolling Stone notes, this sweet little tale about a young couple throwing a wedding on a shoestring budget became one of the band’s biggest early hits, and remains one of the most popular tunes in their songbook to this day. “It’s just a story about a girl and a guy who get married,” Hibbert later explained to unitedreggae.com. “They wanted to get married but they didn’t have any money to create a big wedding so they bought a cake for £1.10 and a few bottles of cola wine and everybody dressed up in white, coming in thinking it was a big wedding. But when they came they realized that it’s just £1.10 for the wedding cake – it’s a little thing and a few bottles of cola wine. So it became no wonder it’s a perfect ponder but everybody was still dancing – sweet and dandy.”
8. Time Tough
Funky Kingston actually consists of two different albums – the first was released in Jamaica and the UK in 1973, and the second was issued in the US in 1975. Both albums share the same title and cover, and both are exceptional, but the content between the two is significantly different. If you want to take Time Tough for a spin, you’ll need to check out the 1975 edition. A penetrating examination of life in Trenchtown, it combines inciteful, socially conscious lyrics with enough ska sweetness to make you forget “I’ve got $ 400-month rent to pay and I can’t find a job/Time tough/Everything is out of sight, it’s so hard,” if even for a moment.
7. Country Road
Toots and the Maytals covering John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads shouldn’t work. It just shouldn’t. Denver’s wholesome delivery and even more wholesome lyrics combined with the band’s righteous reggae should have been a car crash. Instead, it was a revelation, with Hibbert’s soulful vocals injecting more wistful nostalgia into the song than should probably be legal. A sultry, biblical triumph, and one of the greatest covers of the song ever recorded.
6. Bam Bam
In 1966, the Maytals enjoyed their first big success with Bam Bam, a groovy piece of rocksteady that helped them win the first Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition (which they proceeded to win again in 1969 and 1972). With lyrics like “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,” it was a world away from the danceable love songs being recorded by their peers, and a big hint of what was to come next from the band.
5. Monkey Man
According to genius.com, Monkey Man was written as an affectionate dig aimed at the Maytal’s producer, Leslie Kong, who insisted that Hibbert should write a song about his brother ‘Fats.’ “I said “No man!” Hbbery recalled. “Because this guy Fats was stouter than you and taller than you. If he held you, he could squeeze you to death you know? So I said “No, I’m not going to write no song off him”. Leslie Kong said “Yeah man. He’s not going to hurt you, man”. So I went to him and said “Mr Fats, your brother says I must write a song about you”. He said “Yeah man! Write it and let me see!” That’s where it began so I wrote the song called Monkey Man. Because he was very, you know, big and ugly. He was a nice guy though. He was a nice gentleman.” It’s since been covered by a number of other artists including The Specials and Amy Winehouse.
4. Louie Louie
When Richard Berry composed Louie Louie in 1955, he probably had no idea of just how influential it would become or how many artists would come to record it. The most famous version was released by the Kingsmen in 1963. The most whacked-out version came almost a decade later on Toots and the Maytals’ album, Funky Kingston. By suffusing it with a Caribbean flair and a rootsy vibe, the band turned the garage rock classic into a festive island anthem. It might rock just as hard as the original, but it grooves to the beat of its own drummer.
3. Funky Kingston
Lester Bangs described the album Funky Kingston as “perfection, the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released.” The same can be said for its titular track, an explosive, raging slice of funk-infused reggae with a take no prisoners attitude and a deep-seated groove guaranteed to make your hips twitch. If Sly Stone had come by way of Kingston rather than California, this is what the result would have been.
2. 54-46 Was My Number
Just as the Maytals were starting to make it big in Jamaica, their ambitions were put on hold when Hibbert was jailed for possession of marijuana. When he was released 18 months later, he came out fighting with 54-46 Was My Number. Written about his time in jail, it became one of the first reggae songs to become a hit outside of Jamaica. It’s since become known as one of the all-time classics of the genre, included on numerous anthologies and covered by everyone from Aswad to Byron Lee & the Dragonaires.
1. Pressure Drop
In at number one on our list of the ten best Toots and the Maytals songs of all time is Pressure Drop. Written in response to a record company’s refusal to pay him for his work, Hibbard described the song as being about karmic justice, explaining to the Guardian, “It’s a song about revenge, but in the form of karma: If you do bad things to innocent people, then bad things will happen to you. The title was a phrase I used to say. If someone done me wrong, rather than fight them like a warrior, I’d say: ‘The pressure’s going to drop on you.”