The Toots & the Maytals Songs That Will Convert Any Remaining Holdouts
When Toots Hibbert (1942-2020) passed away on September 11, the music world lost a colossal talent. Hibbert got his start in Jamaica in the early ’60s and, after forming Toots & The Maytals, began building a body of work many believe is on par with that of Bob Marley (1945-81).
Yet for some reason Hibbert never had the reach of Marley. In the streaming age, that’s still the case. On Spotify, you find Marley and his Wailers with nearly 15 million monthly listeners to 1.6 million for Toots. In terms of gross streams, the top three Marley songs have over 1 billion Spotify streams to 150 million for Toots.
Clearly, there are legions of music fans around the world who haven’t heard the power of Toots and The Maytals’ message. That doesn’t seem right, considering he coined the name of a certain genre with 1968’s “Do the Reggay.” So I felt compelled to make a list of Toots’ ska, reggae, and rocksteady tracks that caught my ear years ago and never let go.
‘Pressure Drop’ (1970) introduced Toots & The Maytals to the world
They say the classic film The Harder They Come (1972) brought reggae to a world audience, and it was star Jimmy Cliff who had the greatest showcase of all in the lead role. However, Cliff had loads of competition on the soundtrack.
At the top of that list stood Toots & The Maytals with “Pressure Drop.” Though viewers actually get to see Toots and the band do another classic (“Sweet and Dandy”) in the film, “Pressure Drop” is a shining example of the soul Toots and his group brought to reggae. Its rawness and irresistible hook haven’t aged five decades later.
‘One Eye Enos’ (1971)
“Suppose you would knock out that man’s eye / What would you do?” The Maytals make you bounce more than any other Jamaican band (Wailers included), and “One Eye Enos” is a track that features the group firing on all cylinders. From the opening drum fill to the funky organ part, this track makes you dance.
But when Toots, Raleigh Gordon, and Jerry Mathia sing the chorus, they devour listeners. Toots seems to be saying, “Think twice before you swing at somebody. What’s he gonna do with one eye?” You can vaguely preach peace and love or you can do what Toots did: Ask what an enemy would do with one eye. I know which one I’m picking.
Before Toots got his name on it, the group was simply called The Maytals, and the band was blazing by the mid-’60s. On “Peggy,” a feverish ska track, the band drew in listeners with a slick guitar riff and pulsing beat. You didn’t need to know what ska was to go along for this ride. Then Toots and his backing vocalists (backed by horn players) do their thing.
After the first verse, you get a clear-eyed look at the pure soul of Toots, who chatters away about a girl he likes with his fellow Maytals vocalists. On top of being the engine of the band, Toots was an irrepressible personality. “Peggy” brings you straight into his joy-filled, high-energy world.
’54-46 Was My Number’ (1973)
If you were lucky enough to see Toots & The Maytals in concert, there’s a 100% chance the band floored you with its live version of “54-46 Was My Number.” It’s one of the band’s signature tracks, and Toots used it to convert anyone in the audience who hadn’t yet been initiated.
On the original record, it begins like a gospel revival. In live shows, Toots and the band took the concept to another level, drawing out the intro and letting Toots get every last person in the crowd involved. As reggae hooks go, the one they eventually drop (at 2:50 in the live version) is nearly impossible to top.
By the way, Toots is singing about getting framed, thrown in jail, and getting prisoner number 54-46. (He first recorded “54-46 That’s My Number,” another classic.) “Now, someone else has that number,” he sings. Toots tells that man in jail he (Toots) might be on the outside but he’s thinking about him.
‘Bam Bam’ (1966)
If you’ve heard any Jamaican music from the past 54 years, chances are you heard the influence of “Bam Bam.” It’s been sampled, covered, reworked, and stolen countless times. Way back, Toots and the band won Jamaica’s inaugural Festival Song contest in 1966 with the track, and its power hasn’t diminished since.
“I want you to know that I am the man / Who fight for the right, not for the wrong,” Toots sings. “Going there, I’m growing there / Helping the weak against the strong.” Then, slower, nailing every syllable: “Soon you will find out the man I’m supposed to be.” It’s a mission statement as well as a masterpiece.
‘Funky Kingston’ (1972)
If you wanted to criticize some reggae artists, you could say they too often got bogged down with slow, chicka-chicka guitar riffs that didn’t jump. Toots & The Maytals refused to settle in that fashion. “Funky Kingston,” which explodes out of speakers, shows the band working at the height of its considerable, body-moving powers.
The tempo falls in somewhere around “fast rocksteady”; the piano and guitar are funky; the drums are James Brown-level; the horns and backup singers raise the stakes; and Toots sings himself hoarse delivering the lead vocal. This track was another one the band would use to knock out audiences at live shows.
‘Sailing On’ (1973)
What does a perfect
reggae composition sound like? If someone asks that question, play them “Sailing On.” Toots wrote a magnificent, circular riff on this one. You could listen to it go on forever. However, he delivers a middle section that almost matches it. (Compare the songwriting here to any Lennon-McCartney track you like.)
The Maytals were at peak form at the time of the In the Dark (1973) sessions, and the production here is on the same level. (Eat your heart out, George Martin.) But, as always, Toots takes the track over the top. “I can hear sweet vibes a singin’ / And I can hear sweet music a playin’.” Wherever Toots is now, I hope it sounds like “Sailing On.”