Written By: Ethan Griggs
My Music: ethangriggsmusic.virb.com
It can be difficult to trace back exactly to where reggae came from. Yes, Jamaica – obvious, but it’s somewhat of a debate exactly when and how reggae came to be. A good place to start your reggae history class would be Toots and The Maytals. First getting together back in 1962 in Kingston, the vocal trio of Fredrick “Toots” Hibbert, Nathanial “Jerry” Matthias, and Henry “Raleigh” Gordon first named themselves the Vikings and released their first single, “Hallelujah”, before changing their name to the Maytals. Once it became evident that Hibbert was one of Jamaica’s finest vocalists, the band officially bore his nickname and they were signed by Chris Blackwell and Island Records along with Bob Marley. Here are five of their top numbers.
1.”Bam Bam” from 10:30 With Tony Verity (1966)
This song was the winner of the 1966 inaugural Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition. Originally released as a single on the Doctor Bird label and then on a compilation album curated by one of Jamaica’s premier DJ’s of the 1960’s, Tony Verity, this early Maytals classic features instrumentation that hinted towards the reggae movement but that is also distinctly of the sunshine era. The group, accompanied by bassist Bryon Lee and his group the Dragonaires, sound like a Caribbean carbon copy of the Beach Boys with their three-part harmonies and Toot’s melancholy, innocent falsetto, and the song features rippling conga drums and tropical guitar underscore the trio. The lyrics of the track reflect the social and cultural change that was taking place in Jamaica at the time when ska and rocksteady were starting to harden up and form into reggae – but the Maytals weren’t quite there yet. “I want you to know that I am the man/Who fights for the right, not for the wrong” yearns Toots on this especially eclectic number.
2. “Pressure Drop” from Sweet And Dandy (1969)
In a sense, this is the first true reggae smash, but it came after the Maytals released “Do The Reggay” which is considered to be the first mention of the word. Nevertheless, “Pressure Drop” is as important a song in the reggae genre as Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” or Jimmy Cliff’s “I Can See Clearly Now”. The group sounds professional and polished, but the voice of Toots has become extremely masculine and primitive compared to their early days. The song refers to barometric pressure, a common way of predicting storms before modern weather forecasting, as a metaphor for what Toots himself called “karmic justice” to the Guardian just last year: “It’s a song about revenge, but in the form of karma… The title was a phrase I used to say. If someone done me wrong, rather than fight them like a warrior, I’d say: “The pressure’s going to drop on you.” This song, along with the 1969 album’s title track, remains a shining pinnacle of the genre.
3. “54-46 Was My Number” originally released as Trojan Records 45rpm single TR-7808 (1970)
Also on the Sweet And Dandy album was a song called “54-46 That’s My Number” which was allegedly about Toots’ time in jail for marijuana possession (although he denies that’s the reason he went to jail). The original version is nice, but it lacks the energy and the passion of its 1970 “sequel”, where the singer explains that someone else now wears his number. A celebration of liberation, the song became the biggest hit the Maytals had seen thus far and an anthem of the new Reggae movement, jumping up the charts in many countries other than Jamaica and the U.K. The 70’s were upon us, and so was this funky new thing called reggae.
4. “Funky Kingston” from Funky Kingston (1973)
Speaking of “funky”, this smash hit off of the first internationally released Island album by the Maytals is possibly the best representation of their eclecticism. There are two excellent guitars, one panned left and one right, one playing a classic funk riff and the other doing the classic reggae upbeat strums. Toots sounds as soulful as ever as his voice rips through the carnage and sings “I want you to believe every word I say/I want you to believe everything I do” before a female choir comes in to sing the refrain, sounding just like the girls’ voices on “Sing A Simple Song” by Sly & the Family Stone. It makes me wonder whether Caleb Followhill of Kings Of Leon listened to Toots growing up, because at times they sound identical in their tone and delivery. After spending nearly a decade climbing up the musical food chain, the Maytals finally saw international success with this album, which was re-released in an altered form by Island in 1975.
5. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” from In The Dark (1974)
Riding the success of Funky Kingston, the Maytals were dead set on expanding their sound even further. If you think of the polar opposite of reggae, it may sound something along the lines of American country and folk, and that’s where Toots and the gang went with their cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Already a hit in its own right, the Maytals version brings a whole new perspective to the song when they change the song’s original “West Virginia” to “West Jamaica”. If not the most original or daring of their hits, it helped propel the sales of their second Island album, In The Dark. This was perhaps the last true hit for the Maytals, as their popularity declined as the decade went on but they have always remained in the ranks among the greatest reggae and ska bands.