AN APPRECIATION OF FREDERICK "‘TOOTS" HIBBERT by Eddy Grant
September 11, 2020
September the 11th has entered the annals of human history as not being a very good day. Yes, we all know that so-called terrorists attacked the twin towers in America's New York City and made an aborted disastrous attempt at the Pentagon. Many lives were lost and the pain will forever be felt by those who have lost family and friends, as long as there is living memory. This year 2020, the 11th of September has been marked by the passing out of this life of one of Nature's most gifted children to the world. He was christened by his family to be called Frederick but that was not part of Nature's Plan. The Universe preferred the sweet name "Toots." Yeah, short and sweet, like his sonorous patented voice that would move, not just the heads and feet but the souls of human kind of all Races, Colours, Creeds and Class. A simple, robust but gentle spirit, the likes of which we are not guaranteed to see much more of as our world becomes a more and more complicated and uncaring place.
I was introduced to his gospel inflected voice during the very early 60's as part of a vocal group called The Vikings. My mother played that record over and over in her spare moments, when she and my hardworking father weren’t out trying to earn our family’s daily bread. I had never heard music like this before but as our family of five boys were moved through the homes of friends and families, in and around London, I got to know that this sound made by The Vikings, led by this raw gospel tinged voice, was called Blue Beat. I would some years later get to know and befriend the character who created this misnomer. How was I, a twelve or thirteen-year old, who was weaned on one hundred percent proof Calypso, to know anything about Jamaican culture? But, I loved that singer in The Vikings, nearly as much as I did that other behemoth of West Indian culture, the Mighty Sparrow.
After 50 years of performing by themselves, the two mountains of Caribbean creativity in the music world finally met in Miami at the “For Jamaica” Charity Show that is dedicated to providing Jamaican made beds given freely to children of the poor.
The event took place on Saturday 21st April 2018 and was one of the last shows performed in the USA by Toots.
Upon parting Toots had promised Eddy that he would travel to Barbados if necessary to record with him. He has been a fan of Eddy’s for as long as Eddy has been a fan of his.
Money was extremely tight, so to speak; we had only lickle wata fuh drink, so how the hell could we contemplate wata fuh bathe, as the old saying goes. Not only that; this damn sound by The Vikings called "Six and Seven Books of Moses" just would not go away. So, when my mother or father wasn't in, I would do the next best thing to being in The Vikings, I would pull out my Dad's trumpet and play along with their record. "Noise fuh so," as we say in the West Indies. Well, when that blaring horn started, there was no way to hear the record. Next stop, my dear Mother, who always seemed like all good mothers, to have a few bob, or dollars, depending on which country you live in, stashed away for really hard times. "Mum I know we don't have it but I need to buy a mouth organ so I can play "Six and Seven Books" by the Vikings. All I can say is that I know why a mother's love is God's gift to a boy child. Long story short, I can't even remember if the key was right, but I know that harmonica solo inside out, till today.
After many family visits to friends who had friends from Jamaica, I heard many Blue Beat records by many Jamaican artists but alas, no more by my beloved Vikings. Many moons later, I started to hear among the plethora of voices, one that sounded like he was copying my man. I didn't pay much attention because every time I would ask the DJ, or whoever was playing, they would tell me it's a "pree" (meaning pre-released record) or “I doh know.” One day though, I got to find out that the ‘copycat’ was a group called The Maytals. To tell you the truth I was well ready to hate them, but the damn singer.... I started thinking how Life can be so rough, that a man can take food out of another man's mouth like that. But there were many other things for a young mind to absorb, like Traditional Jazz, Rock'n' Roll, Classical music, Pop Music, learning Trumpet and other instruments, oh and schoolwork as well as God knows how many sports. I'm sure you get the idea.
At some point in all of that, I managed to make a guitar, an electric solid body one. Then came my frequent visits to various record shops around North, Northwest and West London and befriending the people who either owned or just managed them. I could listen to all the new records from one end of the musical spectrum to the other. It is at this time that I got to know the who's-who of the wide world of music. The radio only played a distilled list of genres. They played no Calypso and no Blue Beat. By now I'm starting to get seriously into Jamaican music by way of the clubs that I'm playing in with my group The Equals and various of my friends' groups. The King of Blue Beat in the UK was Prince Buster as the young white kids were fed a solid dose of him and he seemed to be able to churn out a never-ending list of new recordings every week, on a number of different labels, owned by an old Jewish man named Mr. Emile Shalit and run by a chap named Siggy (or to Jamaicans Ziggy) Jackson. It is with these gentlemen that my friend Roy Henry worked, in a loose arrangement as what would be called today Marketing. And believe me, he was extremely effective, since he was able to cross the colour line that existed at the many white Mom and Pop shops that sold records along with other fare. When he spoke, it was sheer Oxford or Cambridge that came out of his mouth. His bearing and sartorial getup spoke of things that were not black, but he certainly was. Roy Henry was the single most important factor in my inability to get to the music of the Vikings or any music that came through any other record company than The Melodisc Group of Companies. Most of the others were either stealing music that was sent over on pre-release (or white label wherein no information regarding ownership or artist or writers and publishers were given) and of course very few people, sometimes not even the DJ's knew the relevant information on some of the recordings. More and more as I got to know the movers and shakers of Jamaican music in London, and with the oncoming demise of Melodisc and my friend Roy Henry who in a sublime moment having been asked by Mr. Emile Shalit what the music he was selling was called, said in his most erudite manner, “Let's call it Bluebeat” as the Jamaicans first started calling the imported and later home-grown music that sound systems like Coxone Dodd and Duke Reid and others played. “Bluesbeat” or “Boogie” (check “Boogie In My Bones” by Laurel Aiken). There were Blues Dances both at home and abroad as Jamaicans travelled, so Blue Beat it was, as was one of Mr. Shalit’s labels now, thus ramming home the branding. Mr. Shalit had a special relationship with Prince Buster, as kind of father and son.
Even Millie Small, who through the offices of a struggling Chris Blackwell and who broke down the white walls of resistance to Jamaican culture, could not stop the UK and the rest of Europe, especially France, talking about Blue Beat. Byron Lee, by virtue mostly of complexion and connection, tried but what was really going to do it for me was Tommy McCook and his Skatalites, with the varying line-ups of soloists, that you could depend on for great jazzy solos and an occasional drum solo from Arkland “Drumbago” Parks or Lloyd Knibbs. It is they, with their raw elemental energy that turned the tide for me and all who lived in the clubs. They reminded me of that sacred sound I'd heard as Blue Beat but which Jamaica was calling SKA most of the time. The next time I would hear that raw energy would be while I was in Guyana, my home country. It came blaring out of a sound system which we called Juke Box and it was the elusive Maytals. Oh my God! Here he was, a man I didn't know in reality but who might as well have been my brother. He sounded like the Jordanites I would listen to when I was a child in Plaisance, my little village in Guyana. Since then, most of the singers I have had any affinity for have had a modicum of that crazy unearthly sound; think Otis, James, and from the female side, think Aretha and Patti.... crazy voices, crazy like my Maytals brother who I'd never seen.
From time to time I'd hear discussions about the Maytals but while I appreciated the harmonies of the men identified as Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias, I knew that there was a mystical force that was working to bring myself and this "Toots" as my great Jamaican pal Bunny "Striker" Lee and Leslie Kong (for whose company Toots recorded) would call him. And then..... finally, after many years, the time had come. The Wailers were starting to get the attention of the white press in the UK, which was absolutely deserved, so Chris Blackwell thought he could do it again and again in the same way with Third World and my main man TOOTS.
I was invited to a press party for Toots by Warwick Lynn, I think, at Island Records’ new offices in St. Peter Square, Hammersmith, London. In those days people could smoke indoors, in offices and public places. There was a lot of it and I was extremely uncomfortable but to meet my spiritual brother??? ANYTHING!!!!
Eventually the room at Island Records became very still, and it was as though an electric charge had run through the room and all concerned became still and ghostlike as someone announced the entrance of the real mystical king of Jamaican culture. This is by no means an attempt to lessen the value of Bob, Peter and Bunny. But a cursory listen to the two entities, would immediately let you know, that everything about Toots Hibbert comes out of a long line of spiritual Jamaican practices, that even with the occasional forays into other domains, he would chose another elemental, not seeking to stray him from its root.
So in comes my regal brother, being introduced to the white press by a fake footman or some kind of an equerry, bearing a large silver platter of marijuana reefers which were rendered miniscule by the one being held by the one and only Toots. He made his circle of the room and then as if drawn by a magnet our eyes met and there was an imperceptible nodding of heads in recognition.
As I exited that room, I knew that Blackwell's magic or money was not going to make Toots into anything but what Toots was; a loving voice that will draw the world to him, when his time has come. His every breath is genuine and not to be messed with, or it would be compromised. It is exactly what took place.
I happened to be again in the UK, when someone told me that Toots and The Maytals would be playing the Forum in Kentish Town, in North West London, where I had grown up and first heard The Vikings record of Six And Seven Books Of Moses. Now he had the most professional band out of Jamaica, most of whom are still with him as of this writing, waiting out the Covid-19 Pandemic that prevents the incessant touring schedule in which Toots has been engaged over the many years since I'd last met him.
Now, back to two years ago (2018) and I'm in Pembroke Pines Florida, staying with my other Jamaican brother Willie Stewart, ex original drummer of the band Third World, with whom again, I have this spiritual bond. One day he tells me, that he hopes I'll stay in Florida for a few more days as Toots and The Maytals are coming to town and his company will be doing the sound and lights. I immediately said yes and knowing my brother Toots, I told Willie that I must prepare, as I know there is no way that Toots will not call me on to the stage. I had a suspicion that I would end up doing Six and Seven Books, so I went out and bought a couple of Harmonicas to get ready for that solo which I know so well. Willie had informed me of the unfortunate incident wherein Toots had been injured by a bottle thrown at the stage at the Dominion Riverrock Festival but he hoped Toots had recovered enough to tour again. That could only mean that if he was, he was going to “mashup de place” when it was showtime.
So, it's the day before the show, which is being held for a charity called For Jamaica that arranges to have beds made in Jamaica and given freely to the poor children of that country. I am there with Willie Stewart as they set up the stage and equipment. First man in was Paul Douglas, who of course I had not seen for many years. Once he saw me blink my eyes a couple of times in disbelief, said in that understated way, “Eddy, Paul man”. Oh my God instant connection as the years fly by and he is showing me his style of reggae drumming which has seen him play on probably more great Ska, Rocksteady and all forms of reggae music than any other drummer in the world. A true Jamaican drumming icon. I immediately ask for Dougie (Rad Bryan) and Jackie Jackson and was told that Jackie was back in Jamaica and only comes out occasionally on the road and Dougie was on his way over as well as my main man.
Toots charged in like the bear he was, crushing my ribs. He is so strong or maybe it's me that is so weak. Anyway we laugh as he tells me that I cannot escape, “we are going to record together, even if I have to fly to Barbados.” He was actually terrified of flying, like I was early in my career. “But for sure” he said,”this is going to happen.” Yes my big brother, you know that there are not many souls that I see in the same way. "So awright then, yuh ah mek de show den right? Yes Man, Eddy Grant bwoy, my artist, yuh nah see? see 'im deh?” as though addressing the air. And it was sound check after another big bear hug.
The next night and it was .... SHOWTIME. Everything was going as it normally does, with Toots upfront leading the charge and Paul Douglas, his general, totally in command from behind his drums, and me? well I'm happy as a sand-boy on a beach in Negril. Oh heck! I've forgotten my newly bought harmonica so there will be no “Six And Seven Books” tonight but not to worry, I'm happy, the groove is great and so is the audience. Everyone is having a great time and it's for a great cause, Suddenly the groove goes into a subdued version of The Maytals’ first Festival Winner “Bam Bam” and I hear Toots call my name. "Oh wha' de Blo' "says Willie, "bwoy yuh haffi deal wit dat now, gwaan man! Monea (Willie’s very big son) walk wid Uncle Eddy, mek sure nuh body nah get in him way.” Monea does as his Dad requires.
There is a whole other story that if my brother Toots had known, he would have never called me up on that stage. But who am I? who is Toots when God is calling the shots? God knew best all the time. It's all Nature's Plan. That's why there was that cameraman there who kept his video camera rolling. The sound will need a little work, sure, but I've seen it and it is as it should be. Two spiritual brothers just doing what is our purpose.
Willie called me one morning last week and told me that he'd been told that Toots had contracted the Covid-19 virus but it was felt that he'd be OK, because Toots' physique and health is legendary.... “don't worry man, you guys are going to make that record.” Yes bredda Willie, yea man.
Willie then called me back, some time later, to tell me that Toots was in hospital and had been put on a ventilator and had been made comatose to ease the stress of the disease. Then Friday, the morning of Friday the 11th day of September 2020, oh how I wish that day had never come.
All I can say, to retain some semblance of sanity, is that Toots lived in the NOW and believed in the supremacy of Nature, the God of all things that governs us all and whose call we must all obey.
To his entire family I wish to offer the sincerest of condolences on behalf of myself and my family and hope that you are blessed with sublime peace and understanding at this crucial time.
Ringbang For Life.