MARLEY - & ME! Reggae pioneers Toots and the Maytals are heading for Nottingham - and they still believe in that "old feeling".
Having toured with the likes of Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, The Who and the Rolling Stones, and shared tracks with an array of celebrities such as Willie Nelson and Keith Richards, Toots' latest single Marley, is about the late reggae icon Bob Marley.
Toots and Marley were both relative unknowns living in Trench Town when they first became friends, and their mutual respect would last until Marley's death in 1981.
"Bob and myself, we talk a lot, and we always have good times with each other," he recalls. "I remember him saying he wanted to be a dreadlocks Rasta. I said that was all right with me but I'd rather keep grooming my hair, y'know? I say I want to be a comb-head like Marcus Garvey and Emperor Selassie I, who everybody worship and yet neither of them wore dreadlocks."
He and Marley met in the very early 60s at the infamous Studio One.
"Everybody go to Coxsone Dodd's studio," he says. "It was the target for everyone who wanted to sing at that time and Bob was already there when I arrived. There were five Wailing Wailers back then but Coxsone said he didn't like my voice at first. He told me to come back in six weeks' time so I went to the country, wrote some more songs and then went back with Raleigh and Jerry, who sang harmonies."
Toots met Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and Nathaniel "Jerry" Mathias at a barbershop in Trench Town where he would cut hair and entertain the customers by singing and playing a fourstring ukulele. The three of them became known as the Maytals and after they'd made their debut with Hallelujah.
Toots, real name Frederick Hibbert, learned to sing in his local church choir in Denbigh, in the Jamaican parish of Clarendon. That's where he grew up but those gospel influences were instilled in him from childhood and they've never left him.
"I'm from a spiritual family so we'd go to what I call, 'clap and church'" he says. "We'd go twice a day on a Sunday, singing and praying and it was like a school as well. That's where it comes from and we keep it in the music because people need that. They need to feel happy. It's not just about reggae or even music; it's about helping them make that connection with something spiritual, which is the best feeling you can have. It brings people hope and it let their spirits fly, I tell you..."
In 1966 the Maytals won the Jamaica Song Festival with Bam Bam, produced by Byron Lee. Things were looking up. Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell offered him a UK tour but then Toots spent the next nine months in jail on trumped-up ganja charges.
"We'd bought two motorbikes with the money we got from Bam Bam. I was riding my bike and Jerry was riding his bike going to Ocho Rios to do a show and that's where the grudge came in because this policeman stop Jerry, saying he wasn't licensed to carry Raleigh on his pillion. The policeman tell him to go to the police station, so I leave my overnight bag with the police and ride back to Kingston to get our manager. They wait until I come back then this policeman open my bag and say he find ganja in it. It was like a joke because I never even smoked weed at that time."
Toots spent the next eight months on a prison farm.
"They just hold me there for no good reason and they know it. They give me my guitar and my own clothes, and I had a nice room to sit in and play my guitar. I have my own meals as well that my wife bring me. That's where I write this song 54-46 Was My Number but that wasn't really my prison number, because I didn't have one. I just added that later, but I come out of jail and get to No. 1 again, right away. Boom!
"Reggae is a rhythm that's mixed up with all different flavours, like ska and boogie woogie but nobody know what to call it at the time," he explains. "It might be blue beat or whatever but there was this talk in Jamaica where if a girl was looking good we call her streggae, y'know? It was just slang really but I take it and coin the word 'reggae' by mistake."
Following Raleigh and Jerry's retirement in 1981, he kept the name Toots and the Maytals, although his musicians now assumed the mantle of Maytals.
"Anyone who appears on stage with me, I call them Maytals," says Toots. In 2004, he won a Grammy for True Love - an album packed with celebrity guest stars such as Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, No Doubt and Bootsy Collins, who joined him in reworking some of his best-ever songs. An artistic and commercial triumph, True Love put him back in the spotlight and subsequent releases have continued to mix gospel, blues, country and soul influences with his classic reggae sound.
"We give the music that old feeling because that's the best feeling you can have. I make music to bring people hope and make them happy. I do it in the belief that if you give people something in good faith, then they'll take to it because they realise it's different from everything else they've been listening to."
Even in his 70s, Toots is still the most soulful vocalist to ever come out of Jamaica. From the minute he walks onstage, the excitement builds and the audience is soon won over. Toots' highoctane shows are the closest you'll get to religion outside of a revivalist meeting and he'll be coming to Nottingham in October.
"I'm looking forward to coming to Europe and the people there are going to get shows to remember," he promises. "I'm coming very hot as usual but then I work hard for people and that's why my audiences are always happy, y'know? Because I love to let people see what I have, and to share it with them."
| Toots & The Maytals will perform at Nottingham's Rock City on October 24. Ticket are available from alttickets.com for PS32.45 including a booking fee.
Toots spreads the word