RIP Toots Hibbert: Our Memories of The Hardest Working Man in Reggae
Editor’s note: RIP Toots Hibbert. The life of the hardest working man in reggae music was cut short yesterday at the age of 77. Today, we remember the man who gave us the word “reggae” and so much more through personal recollections of two concert performances…
Three o’clock… In the rain… Road block
Bob Marley’s Rebel Music lyrics weren’t on my mind on the late-January night that found me standing in front of a stage in the middle of the Cinnamon Hill Golf Course in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The lyrics fit, though… mostly.
The time, indeed, was around 3am. The conditions: pure rain. Even the roads were choked with cars. The reason, though, had nothing to do with any government crackdown. Instead the throngs were amassing in the rain and muck for music. To be hypnotized, mesmerized by the high minister of reggae. The man delivering the sermon: Mr. Toots Hibbert.
2005 Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival
The year was 2005. Toots was among a myriad of international recording artists on the bill for the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival. Like most Caribbean jazz fests, the Air J edition always branched far afield from its namesake musical styles to encompass all manner of artists. Boyz II Men, for instance, were a big hit that night. Roseanne Cash, Julio Iglesias, and Norah Jones were too.
No one, though, drew a bigger crowd or louder ovations than Toots.
The Hardest Working Man in Reggae Music
That the man hails from Jamaica really had very little to do with the incredible response he received. Neither did it matter much that he is as large and influential an icon of West Indian music as has ever lived. A true legend. The man who actually coined the word “reggae” while helping to shape the world’s most-loved Caribbean music back in the early-1960s.
The thing about Toots, you see, is that no one brings as much energy and excitement to a stage show. Toots is the James Brown of reggae music. The wild passion he always injects into his shows puts performers half his age to shame.
On that rainy night in MoBay, Toots was 62 years-young. Dawn was just a few hours away. He could’ve been forgiven for cutting his set short. That, however, was never his style.
Toots Tears Up MoBay In The Rain
The man brutalized the crowd with music that night in the most amazingly uplifting way I have ever experienced. Like the gospel masses that helped to shape his early life as the son to preacher parents in what he called “a salvation church,” Toots progressively raised the energy with each new song.
Sit Right Down. Pomp and Pride. Funky Kingston. 54-46. Pressure Drop.
Toots danced furiously with each tune, all the while furiously pumping the muscular arms of a much younger man. He was a whirling, twirling force of nature, at once defying both Father Time and Mother Nature.
The more Toots intensified the energy, the heavier the rain fell. No one ran for cover, though. There were reggae blessings being bestowed. Hallelujah, Got To Be There! Got To Be There!
It remains to this day the gold standard of live concert performances I have ever experienced anywhere; MUCH more spiritual awakening than idle entertainment.
14 Years Later in Brooklyn
Fast forward 14 years to Brooklyn, NY. Toots was there, but sadly I was not. My brother Patrick was, though. I remember him texting me with impressions similar to those I shared above about the show. Toots, the legend, was now in his 70’s. He was still killing it, though, on a level most performers can’t even begin to understand. Here’s a small taste of the show straight out of Patrick’s iPhone…
Truly, there will never be another Toots Hibbert. Not in the studio, certainly not on stage, and definitely not in my heart.
RIP Toots, and safe journey on to Zion. Thanks for the music and for giving us Bennett bros two of the best nights of our lives.
*Photo credit: Flickr user Karl Simpson