If Frederick “Toots” Hibbert never became an international reggae ambassador on the level of a Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff or Peter Tosh in his 40-year career, it’s only because he was too busy being American music’s ambassador to reggae. His peerless voice — the grittiest and most gutturally soulful of his contemporaries — is a deep well of history, encompassing strains of R&B, gospel, country, even garage rock (check out his incomparable version of “Louie Louie” on the 1973 milestone Funky Kingston). It doesn’t hurt that he’s backed up by one of the island’s greatest bands, the Maytals, whose tight funk chops recall a Jamaican J.B.’s. Appropriately, Hibbert, at 58, remains the hardest working man in reggae, touring the globe and continuing to move and sweat onstage like a man half his age.
Hibbert spoke to The Reporter from a recording studio in Jamaica, where he’s currently working on the follow-up to 2004’s Grammy-winning True Love.
VCR: It seems like a lot of artists who reach your status would want to leave the island. Why do you continue to live in Jamaica?
Frederick “Toots” Hibbert: I stay in Jamaica because I see more things to write about, more natural things. More culture, more suffering things. That’s why I live in Jamaica. I love Jamaica.
VCR: Last year, Damien Marley had one of the biggest international reggae hits in a long time with “Welcome to Jamrock,” a song that’s basically about how life in Jamaica is different from the way people perceive it to be. Is the reality of life there different than what the rest of the world thinks it is?
FTH: More people believe it is maybe a paradise, but for the people living, it is like a hell. But we have good music and good people. We have bad people, because everybody is trying to survive.
VCR: Your music is less political than a lot of your peers’. Do you try to avoid politics in your music?
FTH: I try to avoid it for a long time. Even now, I don’t want to talk about it. I try to avoid politics because it’s not a spiritual thing. I try to put spiritual words in my songs. If I’m talking about love, my love is like spiritual love. It’s not about sex, but it’s sexy. I don’t want anything vulgar in my songs.
VCR: You’re credited with inventing the word “reggae” on 1968’s “Do the Reggay.” How did that happen?
FTH: I was sitting down once in the morning with my two friends, and I was thumping on my hand drum. In Jamaica, we used to have a slang word called “straggae,” so I just say, “Let’s do the reggae.” It was a slip, y’know? It was not a planned thing. People abroad heard it, because they were listening to reggae beats for a long time and they didn’t know what to call it. Some people called it “blue beat” and “boogie beat.” So I just said, “Let’s do the reggae,” and it’s coming from “straggae.” Straggae means if you don’t have on a good shirt and pants and shoes, the girls would call the guys “straggae,” not looking proper dress. That means you want to be dressed, looking good.
VCR: Did you listen to more American music than most other reggae artists did?
FTH: For sure. When I’m in the country, I used to listen to Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, all the great singers from abroad. I learned gospel, I learned R&B, I learned all these songs. And I grow up with my parents in the church. So in my live performance, you have church vibes, gospel vibes, reggae vibes, R&B vibes, all the vibes. I do a tribute to Ray Charles [sings “I Got a Woman”]. I have the release in Jamaica, and it’s No. 1 already.
VCR: You’re often called “the Jamaican Otis Redding.” Do you like that comparison?
FTH: People call me that, but I can’t sing like that. He’s a great guy, I don’t think I’m great. I have my own style, but people always say I sound like James Brown, Otis Redding, Ray Charles when he was younger. My style is like Otis, but a little different, y’know?
VCR: On 2005’s True Love, you collaborated with a lot of people — Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, the Roots, Ben Harper. Were you surprised to find out that all these artists are fans of your music?
FTH: I was surprised, because I never know there were people listening to my music. When I take it to them, everybody chose their own song, and everybody sing it so well, and I sing it with them, and it was so beautiful. I knew I would have a Grammy, because they are great people — greater than me.
VCR: How much longer do you think you’ll be playing music?
FTH: Oh, for a very long time. When I stop, I’ll have different movements to make if I’m doing my stage show. I’m a dancer, I’m a performer. I could do things so I could keep the people happy. But if my wife leaves me, then I’ll be off the road.