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Reggae Legend Toots Hibbert Dies At 77

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the biggest voices in reggae has died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE DROP")

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) I said pressure drop, oh, pressure, oh, yeah, pressure gonna drop on you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Toots Hibbert was the lead singer and co-founder of Toots and the Maytals. His voice was compared to Otis Redding's, and his stage presence helped introduce the world to Jamaican music. Hibbert died Friday in a Kingston hospital. No cause of death was announced. He was 77 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: There's a scene in the seminal 1972 film "The Harder They Come" when country kid Ivan, played by singer Jimmy Cliff, catches some heat from his boss for not getting a delivery to a recording studio on time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY COME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) If we don't get to the studio, we won't have any records for the rally.

JIMMY CLIFF: (As Ivanhoe Martin) I can take it down right now, sir.

LIMBONG: He rushes over on his bike, and when he gets there, Toots and the Maytals are in the studio recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET AND DANDY")

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) Etty in the room a cry. Mama say she must wipe her eye.

LIMBONG: Ivan watches, transfixed. Writer Lloyd Bradley says "The Harder They Come" helped introduce reggae to the rest of the world.

LLOYD BRADLEY: Toots and the Maytals were right in the center of it. And that's been a bond that's kind of never been broken.

LIMBONG: Bradley is the author of the book "This Is Reggae Music: The Story Of Jamaica's Music." And he says Toots Hibbert had the charisma and wherewithal to follow through on that worldwide success.

BRADLEY: So much about this is his presence as a performer.

LIMBONG: Toots Hibbert was born Frederick Hibbert in a small town less than an hour outside Kingston. He grew up singing gospel in church and brought that influence with him when he moved to the big city as a teenager. That's where he met two other singers with whom he formed the group that would become Toots and the Maytals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "5446 (THAT'S MY NUMBER)")

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) I said yeah. I said yeah. Listen what I say. Listen what I say.

LIMBONG: Hibbert wore his American R&B influences on his sleeve - Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Otis Redding. You can especially hear them in a song like "5446 (That's My Number)" - his prison number earned for a marijuana possession, a charge he always denied.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "5446 (THAT'S MY NUMBER)")

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) He'd say, what's your number now? I said 5446. That's my number, oh.

LIMBONG: To Hibbert, reggae had flexibility, as he told NPR in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TOOTS HIBBERT: Reggae is a kind of music that you could put music with and fill it up to get what you want out of it.

LIMBONG: He loved country music, too - so much so that he recorded a cover of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" with a slight change.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME COUNTRY ROADS")

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) West Jamaica, my mama, take me home, country roads.

LIMBONG: Despite all of these influences, author Lloyd Bradley says Hibbert was adamant that he didn't want to change the sound of Jamaican music to appeal to an international audience. He trusted that an international audience would love the sound of Jamaican music.

BRADLEY: He was uncompromising. This is what we do in Jamaica. This is how we do it. It's got little bits of country, and it's got a fair amount of soul and R&B in it. But underneath it all is a reggae beat. But this is it, and we want you to have it.

LIMBONG: Toots and the Maytals toured internationally for decades, only pausing in 2013 after a fan threw a bottle that hit Hibbert on the head. Despite a concussion and lasting injuries, Hibbert wrote a letter to the court reading in part, I have heard what happens to young men in jail, adding, quote, "my own pain and suffering would be increased substantially knowing that this young man would face that prospect." Toots Hibbert began performing again a few years later and released an album in 2020 called "Got To Be Tough."

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT TO BE TOUGH")

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) Got to be tough when things get rough. You got to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.

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