Sailing On: A Tribute to Toots Hibbert (1942-2020) — [B.Getz on L4LM]

In the wake of the passing of reggae pioneer Frederick “Toots” Hibbert on Friday night, Live For Live Music’s B. Getz offers up his memories of a formative live music experience seeing Toots & the Maytals in Burlington, VT in 1996.

“Right now, someone else has that number…”

So many musical icons transitioning, it’s been hard to keep up, or appropriately mourn them in such swift succession. For me, 2020 has been a year filled with reggae music and its mysticism. Something about the Rastaman, neck deep in sufferation, singing the glory of God… just really resonates in a profound way at this particular moment in time.

This journey began 24 years ago with one Toots Hibbert, who sadly and tragically succumbed to Covid on September 12th. Generally, I’ve chosen not to respond/react to every seminal/beloved artist’s passing with a personal reflection, or my writings would be filled with eulogies this year. However, Toots occupies a special space in my heart; he played an integral role in my finding reggae music and its culture at a very formative time in my young life.

Though I had a few Bob Marley and Peter Tosh albums in my teens, when it came to reggae, I was relatively uninitiated. Toots & the Maytals was my first reggae concert, in September 1996 at Club Toast in Burlington, VT. I was a freshman at Champlain College, and we’d been away at school maybe two weeks when we marched from McDonald Hall down Main Street to the venue, promptly got huge black Xs marked on our hands, and found spots near the front. Toast was jam-packed and the energy was palpable. At 18, I hadn’t been to very many nightclub shows, standing room only. I firmly remember this particular concert; it lives brightly in my mind’s eye.

Toots Hibbert took the stage with his Maytals, and much pomp and circumstance; in a matter of moments he had the entire room twirling in the palm of his hand. The singer was a force of nature, a whirlwind of song and emotion. This dude dressed in a coordinated white leather outfit (including fingerless gloves!) took a bunch of Caucasian college kids in the Northeast for a ride all the way down to the Kingston yard. Toots rolled up a fatty, and blessed us up with the finest anthems and funkiest riddims for two tremendous hours.

Toots filled the air with soaring, soulful, ital melodies, empowering chants, and unforgettable singalongs, with an inspired squad of instrumentalists holding him down, including bulbous horns that serenaded the stars. Three songs from that show that I hold dear: “Funky Kingston”, “Pressure Drop”, and my personal fave, “54-46 (That’s My Number)”. Dancing to these timeless jams, live and direct as a wide-eyed youngster who just left home to begin a new chapter in life… in a word: pivotal. And a quarter century later, this Toots trifecta still gets regular run on the ol’ jukebox.

That autumn evening in Burlington, Vermont, Toots & the Maytals delivered an uplifting, physical, spiritual musical experience, and I walked back to my dorm room from that show changed in ways that, as I delve deeper than ever in the annals of reggae music in 2020, I am still unpacking and overstanding.

The next night, we caught Maceo Parker in the very same room. Another transformative musical moment for this guy, and a story for another time. (Covid, don’t even f*cking THINK about it.)

As we celebrate the life of this seminal singer and cultural champion, I offer my sincerest condolences to his family, friends, and legions of fans the world over. I remain proud to count myself among them. Rest in Paradise, King. You Will Ever Walk With LOVE.

Toots & the Maytals – “54-46 (That’s My Number)” – 11/15/75 – Winterland Ballroom

[Video: Toots on MV]

Words: B.Getz