Toots & The Maytals Biography

Arguably, the Maytals were only ever kept from becoming ‘international’ artists by the runaway success of Bob Marley And The Wailers in the 70s. Rumour has it that Island Records’ Chris Blackwell originally only signed the Wailers because he was unable to obtain the Maytals’ signatures at the time. Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert (1945, May Pen, Jamaica, West Indies), Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Matthias/McCarthy (b. 1939, Portland, Jamaica, West Indies) and Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon (b. 1937, St. Andrew, Jamaica, West Indies) came together in 1962 at the start of Jamaica’s ska craze and began recording for Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One organization. With a hoarse vocal from Hibbert, backed by an impenetrable wall of sound, it was not long before the Maytals were the number one vocal group in Jamaica - a position they maintained throughout the 60s and on into the 70s.

They left Dodd after some massive hits and moved on to his ex-employee and arch-rival Prince Buster, celebrating with the vengeful ‘Broadway Jungle’/‘Dog War’. However, their stay with Buster was also short-lived and the Maytals moved on again to Byron Lee’s BMN stable. In 1965, they made Jamaican musical history when both sides of ‘Daddy’/‘It’s You’ topped the Jamaican charts, and in 1966 they won the prestigious Jamaican Festival Song Competition with ‘Bam Bam’. Many of their releases in these early days were credited to ‘The Vikings’ or ‘The Flames’, because, as Hibbert explained: ‘Promoters in Jamaica called us all kinds of different names because they didn’t want us to get our royalties’. The future was looking bright for the group, but Hibbert was imprisoned in late 1966 for possession of marijuana and was not released until 1968. The Maytals began work for Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label, and their first release was a huge hit in Jamaica and the UK - ‘54-46 That’s My Number’ featured one of reggae’s most enduring basslines as Hibbert detailed his prison experiences in song. This was the beginning of a hugely successful period for the group, both artistically and financially, and they recorded many classic records for Beverley’s, including ‘Do The Reggay’, one of the first songs ever to use ‘reggae’ in the title, ‘Monkey Man’, which actually reached the UK charts, and ‘Sweet And Dandy’, which won the Festival Song Competition again for them in 1969. They also appeared in a cameo role in the hugely popular film The Harder They Come, singing one of their most popular tracks, ‘Pressure Drop’.

Kong’s untimely death in 1971 from a heart attack robbed them of their mentor. Many believed that their best work was recorded while at Beverley’s; evidence of its popularity was found in the UK’s 2-Tone craze of the late 70s, when new bands took a large part of their repertoire from Hibbert’s Beverley’s songbook. The Maytals subsequently returned to Byron Lee, now the successful owner of Dynamic Sounds, a state-of-the-art recording, mastering and record pressing complex. In 1972, they won the Festival Song Competition yet again with ‘Pomps And Pride’. Through their work with Dynamic they attracted the attention of Chris Blackwell and became Toots And The Maytals. For the first time in 14 years they became widely known outside of reggae circles. Their UK and US tours were sell-outs, and Island Records released what became their biggest-selling album, Reggae Got Soul, which took them into the UK album charts. They made history again in 1980 when, on 29 September, they recorded a live show at London’s Hammersmith Palais, which was mastered, processed, pressed and in the shops 24 hours later. Few live excursions have been able to capture the feel and spontaneity of this album, which showcases the Maytals at their best - live without any embellishments. By this time, they had left their Jamaican audiences far behind, but their nebulous ‘pop’ audience soon moved on to the next big sensation. Hibbert dispensed with the services of Matthias/McCarthy and Gordon for his 1982 tour and has even experimented with non-reggae line-ups. While the Maytals have continued touring and making records into the new millennium, real lasting international success has always seemed to elude them.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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