Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias, and Raleigh Gordon, all natives of Kingston, formed in the early ’60s when ska was hot. Hibbert’s soulful style led him to be compared to Otis Redding. They first recorded with producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and the resulting album, Hallelujah, offered a blend of gospel-style vocals and soul sung to a horn-driven Jamaican beat. They were popular from the start, but after recording a few sides with Studio One, they left Dodd in favor of Prince Buster. With him, they soon gained a bigger Jamaican following and also became popular in Great Britain. The Maytals began working with Byron Lee in 1966. Hits from this era include “Dog War,” “Daddy,” and “Broadway Jungle”. That year Lee & His Dragonaires backed The Maytals at the premiere Jamaican Festival Song Competition. Their song, “Bam Bam,”
won the contest and began a rapid ascent to real stardom. Occasionally, The Maytals would record with other producers, who, perhaps to keep from having to pay royalties, would put different band names on the labels such as “the Vikings”, “the Royals”, and “the Flames”. The Maytals were reaching the height of their popularity toward the end of 1966 when Hibbert was arrested for smoking and possessing ganja and was sent to prison for 18 months. Fortunately, the other two Maytals, who were best friends with Hibbert and realized that they could not possibly re-create their unique sound with another frontman, waited for him.
When Hibbert was released, the band started working with legendary producer Leslie Kong. This was a time of transition in Jamaican popular music, and ska was being replaced by the angry, violent music of Rude Boys, and this in turn was becoming reggae. The Maytals changed accordingly, but still kept that soul and gospel-influenced sound that made them unique. While in prison, Hibbert had honed his songwriting skills. Their first Kong single, “54-46 That’s My Number,” a reference to Hibbert’s prison number, recounted his experiences and suggested that he was jailed on a trumped-up charge because he was a Rastafarian. It became a huge hit in both Jamaica and England and has since become a rocksteady standard. Other major songs from this time include the scathingly funny “Monkey Man,” and “Sweet and Dandy,” which provided The Maytals with a second win at the 1969 Festival Song Competition. One of their all-time great hits, “Pressure Drop,” was from the soundtrack of the definitive reggae film, The Harder They Come. By 1971, they had not only become the biggest act on the island, they were also (thanks to signing with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records) international stars. Then Leslie Kong died. They moved on to producer Byron Lee, and though the hits continued, things began to slow down. It was Lee who renamed them Toots & the Maytals. Hibbert and the group broke up in 1981. From there, Hibbert began working with producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. He had international success throughout the ’80s and created a new Maytals in the early ’90s, continuing to tour the world with them. A major-label comeback, 2004’s True Love, found Hibbert signed to V2. Light Your Light followed in 2007.