Ac­claimed Jamaican show­man pi­o­neered reggae’s rise

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - WORLD - By Hil­lel Italie Hil­lel Italie is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

Toots Hibbert, one of reggae’s founders and most beloved stars who gave the mu­sic its name and later helped make it an in­ter­na­tional move­ment through such clas­sics as “Pres­sure Drop,” “Mon­key Man” and “Funky Kingston,” has died. He was 77.

Hibbert, front­man of Toots & the May­tals, had been in a med­i­cally in­duced coma at a hos­pi­tal in Kingston since ear­lier this month. He was ad­mit­ted in in­ten­sive care af­ter com­plaints of hav­ing breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties ac­cord­ing to his pub­li­cist. Lo­cal me­dia re­ported that the singer was await­ing re­sults from a coro­n­avirus test af­ter show­ing symp­toms.

A fam­ily state­ment said Fred­er­ick Nathaniel Hibbert (“Toots” was a child­hood nick­name) died Friday at Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal of the West Indies in Kingston surounded by fam­ily.

Ziggy Mar­ley, son of Bob Mar­ley, tweeted about the death, say­ing he spoke with Hibbert a few weeks ago and “told him how much i loved him we laughed & shared our mu­tual re­spect,” adding, “He was a fa­ther fig­ure to me.”

A mus­cu­lar ex­boxer, Hibbert was a band­leader, song­writer, multi­in­stru­men­tal­ist and show­man whose con­certs some­times ended with dozens of au­di­ence mem­bers danc­ing with him on­stage. He was also, in the opin­ion of many, reggae’s great­est singer, so deeply spir­i­tual he could trans­form “Do re mi fa so la ti do” into a hymn. His raspy tenor, un­com­monly warm and rough, was likened to the voice of Otis Red­ding and made him more ac­ces­si­ble to Amer­i­can lis­ten­ers than many reggae artists. Orig­i­nal songs such as “Funky Kingston” and “54­46 That’s My Num­ber” had the emo­tion and call and re­sponse ar­range­ments known to soul and gospel fans. Hibbert even recorded an al­bum of Amer­i­can hits, “Toots in Mem­phis,” which came out in 1988.

Never as im­mersed in pol­i­tics as his friend and great con­tem­po­rary Bob Mar­ley, Hibbert did in­voke heav­enly jus­tice in “Pres­sure Drop,” preach peace in “Revo­lu­tion,” right­eous­ness in “Bam Bam” and scorn his 1960s drug arrest and im­pris­on­ment in “54­46 That’s My Num­ber.” He also cap­tured, like few oth­ers, ev­ery­day life in Ja­maica in the years af­ter its in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1962, whether telling of wed­ding jit­ters (“Sweet and Dandy”) or of try­ing to pay the rent (“Time Tough”). One of his most pop­u­lar and sur­pris­ing songs was his re­work­ing of John Den­ver’s nos­tal­gic “(Take Me Home) Coun­try Roads,” with the set­ting changed from West Vir­ginia to a world Hibbert knew so well.

By the mid­1970s, Keith Richards, John Len­non, Eric Clap­ton and count­less other rock stars had be­come reggae fans and Hibbert would even­tu­ally record with some of them.

Mar­ried to his wife, Doreen, for nearly 40 years, Hibbert had eight chil­dren, in­clud­ing the reggae per­form­ers Ju­nior Hibbert and Leba Hibbert.

He formed the May­tals with fel­low singers Matthias and Gor­don, started work­ing with Jamaican record pro­ducer Cox­sone Dodd and quickly be­came the star of the na­tional fes­ti­val com­pe­ti­tion that started in 1966.

The May­tals be­gan when ska was the most pop­u­lar mu­sic, con­tin­ued to rise dur­ing the tran­si­tion to the slowed down rock­steady and were at the very fore­front of the faster, more dance­able sound of the late ’60s. Their up­tempo chant “Do the Reg­gay” is widely rec­og­nized as the song that gave reggae its name, even if the honor was un­in­tended.

Katie Strat­ton / Getty Images 2017

Toots Hibbert per­forms at the Coachella Val­ley Mu­sic and Arts Fes­ti­val in In­dio (River­side County) in 2017.

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