By Stephen A. Cooper
In his rollicking tell-all book, “The Half That’s Never Been Told: The Real-Life Reggae Adventures of Doctor Dread” (Akashic Books 2015), Gary Himelfarb a.k.a. “Dr. Dread” and the founder of “RAS (Real Authentic Sound) Records,” wrote of Toots Hibbert: “[H]e is the Otis Redding of Jamaican music. He’s toured with the [Rolling] Stones and has had the likes of Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and Willie Nelson pay tribute to him on record.”
Echoing this high praise in a documentary about Toots’s life called “Reggae Got Soul” (airing on the BBC in 2011), renowned reggae historian Roger Steffens said: “I found some words in a British encyclopedia that sum [Toots] up that I’d like to share with you: No artist ever painted a broader and truer canvas of daily life in Jamaica than Toots. The full-blooded celebrations of ‘Sweet and Dandy’; the screaming cry against injustice in ‘54-46’; The harsh strains of ghetto life in ‘Pressure Drop’; the sheer exuberance of first love in ‘It’s You’; the happy companionship of ‘Never You Change’; the ever-present threat of violence described in ‘Bam Bam.’ That’s Toots.”
Also appearing in the documentary, Bonnie Raitt observed: “I think the reason Toots resonates so much with the rest of the world, and especially America, is he is just a badass soul singer”; and, distinguished music critic Anthony DeCurtis declares: “Toots’s voice is one of the great musical gifts of our time.” All of this happens in just the first nine minutes of the hour-long film! Afterwards, the moving, awe-inspiring tributes – from a vast number of equally impressive luminaries in music – just keep on coming.
And so dear reader, I’m sure you can imagine just how humbled I felt walking into Toots’s trailer to interview him shortly after he headlined the ninth annual Reggae on The Mountain in Topanga Canyon, California; upon leaving the stage there were deafening chants of “Toots! Toots!” from ecstatic festival-goers who knew they’d just been a part of music history, and who desperately wanted to hold on to Toots’s magical, legendary aura, just a bit longer. Instantly put at ease by Toots’s friendly, extroverted manner, I interviewed this one-of-a-kind figure in music; what follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Toots, thank you for blessing Reggae on the Mountain with that great performance!
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) Oh, we didn’t have enough time to make it “great”!
Q: I heard you had some bus trouble getting here?
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) Oh Lord!
Q: So Toots, this was your first time [performing] at Reggae on the Mountain. How was the crowd and the experience for you?
Toots Hibbert: My experience was very, very strong. To see so many people out there – and this was my first time. And it won’t be the last.
Q: Great! Awesome. Now, an article in Rolling Stone magazine announcing this tour that you’re on said you have recorded a whole heap of new material. And you sang at least one of these new songs tonight, right?
Toots Hibbert: Yes!
Q: “Marley” was a new song. Were there any other new songs that you sang tonight – that I may not have caught?
Toots Hibbert: No. That is the only one I want to release [and promote right] now.
Q: When will you be releasing your next new album?
Toots Hibbert: Uh, I don’t have a good plan yet. Because there’s so many good songs. And you know when I [perform], people always want to hear [all of my] old number one [hit] songs dem.
Toots Hibbert: So we’re going to find a way out of it, me and my management, and um . . . .
Q: Do you have a title for [your new] album yet?
Toots Hibbert: No.
Q: Are there any collaborations with other artists on your new album?
Toots Hibbert: Some. Not really a lot. It’s [going to be a] surprise. Maybe four.
Q: Four collaborations?
Toots Hibbert: Yes. Maybe I’ll get more. But we don’t know [how many there’ll be] right now. The songs are very good: I play the guitar, I play the bass, I play the keyboard –
Toots Hibbert: I play everything.
Q: Every instrument?
Toots Hibbert: Every instrument. And I produce this myself, as I used to produce all of my songs. I wrote them. I built them. I put it up, and I break it down. And I mek it to be real good.
Q: Toots, in a documentary about your life that aired on the BBC in 2011, you said you were maybe 8 years old when your mom passed –
Toots Hibbert: Yeah.
Q: – and then, you were only 14 to 16 years old when your father died. And you were the last of fourteen children. And every day you walked 5 miles from home to school.
Toots Hibbert: Yeah.
Q: But despite all of this sufferation [and more], there is such a joy in all of your songs. Can you explain how that could be – how were you able to be so joyful [in your music]?
Toots Hibbert: Because I go into a spiritual home, my family. I’m very spiritual. You have to go to the church. You have to love certain respect, and manners. And to know how to treat people. Black and white. We all must come together by the rules of right. No one is better – no black people are better than white people; no white people are better than black people. Everywhere I go, I have that international power: from my parents, [and] from God. So we just have to appreciate my audience, appreciate you, appreciate everyone.
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