"I think the word come from out of the air," says Toots Hibbert, credited with giving reggae music its name. "I just pick up my guitar and the words just come out, 'Do the reggay.'" Nobody knew what to call the sounds replacing ska, becoming Jamaica's favorite music in the '60s. "People used to call it what they want to call it, boogie beat or blue beat," he says, laughing. "I come up with the words, 'Lets do the reggay,' and that fit it, you know. I'm the inventor for the reggae."
The music quickly became more than just a sound. It was a lifestyle, literally words to live by. "Reggae is a conscious music," Hibbert says, calling in from a tour stop in California. In order to wear the label, the singer says reggae music has to be upbeat in tone and content. "No negative created out of hate or politics or day-to-day living, hard-life suffering. You have to be positive."
That hasn't always been easy for the man listed in the Guinness Word Records as the father of reggae. Jailed for a year for pot possession as his first tour outside his native Jamaica was about to start in '66, Hibbert was over-shadowed by the success of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. Even though he was introduced to American audiences in the '72 film The Harder They Come, in '75 he was booed on his first U.S. tour, opening for The Who.
But Hibbert got his due later that same year when he put out Funky Kingston, a record many rate as his finest. The singer redid a couple of American classics in such a way that the originals pale in comparison, reworking Richard's Berry "Louie, Louie" into something that sounded like it was being delivered by a gut-shot tent evangelist in his death throes. He may be a bit fuzzy on the author ("I have heard it was like Professor Longhair," he says laughing), but there's no way anybody could mistake his howling, boiling remake for any other artist. "I did it my way," Hibbert says.
He also changed John Denver's "Country Roads" beyond recognition, inserting West Jamaica for West Virginia in the lyrics and delivering the song like a James Brown/Otis Redding hybrid. "I like John Denver," Hibbert says, "but I just make a version of my own."
Hibbert's version of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" reinvented American soul on '88s Toots in Memphis, turning in a performance Otis would have been hard-pressed to equal. "I listened to all the great American singers," Hibbert says. "Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Otis Redding -- yeah yeah."
Hibbert has just released Light Your Light, featuring a tribute to another great American soul legend, covering Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman." "Oh God, he was very sick and I did that in the hope that if he could hear it he would revive," Hibbert says.
It's the best collection of Hibbert's work to come out since '04's Grammy-winning True Love. Hibbet says there's more on the way. "I write a lot and I have a lot of wicked good tunes to come out."
Fans have long wanted another look at Hibbert's back catalogue on the Trojan and Island labels. But as is the case with many artists from those days, Hibbert's rights and finances are in disarray. "Never treated right from the beginning. It's not just thief of money, it's thief of pride," Hibbert says, adding that he gets a bit of money from Island founder Chris Blackwell, but nobody else. "We were gonna sue them but I just don't have the energy to waste on them," Hibbert says disgustedly. "They're good for nothing."
But Hibbert doesn't look back. "I don't think on those things. I think spiritually and physically and do the best I can," he says modestly.
Along those lines, Hibbert is using his money and fame to help his fellow countrymen through his own charity, The Toots Foundation, which raises money for underprivileged children throughout the world. "I'm trying to help poor people with a school, help them to be able to see the light and to build them up educationally, physically," the singer says. "I want to build up special music houses where they could learn how to sing, learn to write music, learn to play instruments and also educate themselves.
"Anyway I can help, black or white -- that's what I want to do."
Toots and the Maytals will play the Neighborhood Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21 in advance, $26 at the door. $1 from every ticket goes to the Toots Foundation.