Toots Hibbert, Reggae Pioneer, Dead at 77

He leaves behind a towering musical legacy

Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals
Toots Hibbert, of the group Toots and the Maytals, in 1982.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Some great musicians leave their mark on an entire genre of music. Far fewer are the number of great musicians about whom it can be said that they’ve helped to create a specific genre of music. But for the legendary Jamaican musician Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, who died on Friday at the age of 77, literally rewriting the landscape of music was part of his legacy.

Hibbert is best-known for his music with Toots and the Maytalls, including songs like “54-46 (That’s My Number)” and “Pressure Drop.” Hibbert’s 1968 song “Do the Reggay” was, Hibbert long contended, the origin of the term “reggae.” Within Hibbert’s discography, one could find a powerful emotional range; even when the group was summoning up an abundantly danceable melody or rhythm, Hibbert’s voice could be charming one moment and haunting the next.

Hibbert was hospitalized in late August after falling ill with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. Hibbert spent part of his stay in the hospital in a medically-induced coma.

Hibbert’s musical legacy includes 31 chart-topping songs in Jamaica. Toots and the Maytalls gradually accumulated a global audience, with the likes of The Clash and The Specials covering their music. Like many a great artist before them, they made music that was unexpectedly complex. Listen to “Pressure Drop” or “54-46 Was My Number” and you’ll find plenty to appreciate on an initial listen, but there are also haunting depths to explore.

Hibbert spoke about “Pressure Drop” in a 2016 interview with The Guardian. “Pressure Drop just came to me on guitar,” Hibbert recalled. “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.” It’s further evidence for the emotional range of Hibbert’s music — and another sign of why it’s endured for so long.

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