Toots Hibbert: Man of Mystery

A legendary reggae frontman likes to keep some secrets.

Traveling across the U.S. as a reggae star has its pluses and minuses. With a recent album, 2007's Light Your Light, on record-store shelves, there's no doubt that Toots Hibbert, charismatic frontman of legendary Jamaican band Toots and the Maytals, doesn't mind the exposure. His band is a crowd favorite in college towns and at music festivals, and that inevitably results in CD sales.

But the constant traveling can take its toll—especially as the man visits more temperature zones in one month than most people encounter all year. It's not the worst life in the world, but if this has been your seasonal routine without respite since the late 1960s, it could grow tiring. Yet Toots swears he's nowhere near retirement.

"I think playing reggae is what I come to do on Earth," he says. "Jah want me to do this, so he make me do it, and I'm not stopping anytime soon."

Toots won't answer questions about his age. ("A lot of people are guessing [my age], so I just let them guess," he says, laughing. Wikipedia says he's 63.) But barring the unexpected, there's no reason to suspect Toots won't be playing reggae until kingdom come. He's been a core member of Jamaica's music history since age 15, when the Maytals were just a trio of Kingston youths doing session work in the mid-'60s at the legendary Studio One. At that time, the group was singing gospel harmonies set to ska music, all of which was recorded with the famous Skatalites behind them.

Toots' career really picked up a decade later as he started recording his most classic albums, such as Funky Kingston and Reggae Got Soul. Light Your Light is a bit mellower than his '70s work, but it has its share of gems. By the time Toots and his band finish their cover of Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart," the wicked reggae groove underneath has almost made you forget it was a soul standard first. In that regard, Toots has always been good at keeping listeners on their toes, one reason he can't help but laugh at talk of retirement.

"I'm just thinking of living a good life and playing music, not retiring," he says. "I eat a lot of garlic and exercise to keep fit, so I'm not going anywhere."

jcunningham@seattleweekly.com

 
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