Toots Hibbert Tribute : Bonnie Raitt on the Reggae Pioneer
In 2004, Bonnie Raitt teamed up with Toots Hibbert for a joyous cover of his reggae classic “True Love is Hard to Find.” It was a huge moment for Raitt, who had been a major fan of Toots & the Maytals since she heard him on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come in the early 1970s; she also covered “True Love” on her own album Nine Lives in 1986. That cover led her and Hibbert to become friends. Their 2004 collaboration was the first of several, including a new version of Hibbert’s 1976 song “Premature,” and an appearance together on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. “I was going to watch it yesterday, I was just too sad,” Raitt says. Hibbert died Friday evening in Kingston, Jamaica, after showing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. He was one of the last living original pioneers of reggae and one of the greatest voices in popular music. Just days earlier, Hibbert had released Got to Be Tough, his first new album in more than a decade. Jason Fine chronicled Toots’ life and journey back to music with a deep Rolling Stone feature last month. Here, Raitt shares her memories of Hibbert, who she calls “an incredible musician. Just all spirit and fire.”
I saw Toots in San Francisco and sat in with him a couple years ago when he came back after his accident. I’ve never seen anybody enjoy performing as much as he did. The relationship he had with his fans was so palpable. Nobody loved playing live more than Toots.
I first heard him when The Harder They Come came out in America and I was living in Cambridge [Massachusetts]. It just exploded onto the scene, and John Hall from Orleans, who was a really good friend, turned me on to a lot of reggae. I became such a Toots fan because he reminded me so much of the great soul singers, Otis Redding and Ray Charles. You know, “Take Me Home Country Roads,” “Louie Louie,” come on! He was unbelievable. I used to go combing through record stores to get his stuff. Pretty soon he and Marley, and all the guys on the Harder They Come soundtrack, became big stars.
When I talked to Rolling Stone for that wonderful piece, I told the dramatic story of the time I was playing a club in Boston. They said, “He’s over there,” and I literally couldn’t see him. He stood up from the couch and his arm came through the smoke first. And then he just appeared like an apparition. It was so great. Years later, we did “True Love is Hard to Find” and “Premature.” To be able to put the headphones on and have the Maytals coming out of my earphones, and singing one of my favorite songs ever with Toots, it was like a peak experience. It was also like a recreation of that first meeting, because there was so much [smoke] when he opened the vocal booth door. It was like when you step out of the shower and there’s just steam. I don’t know how he can sing like that on that Unplugged on Strawberry Hill documentary. It’s just him and an acoustic guitar and percussion and his daughters singing backup – it’s hours of him singing, and he’s smoking herb. As a singer, I was completely knocked out that he had the stamina physically. I think the fact that he was a boxer made a difference. He was doing one-armed pushups when he was 68.
I love that he was married to Doreen for 40 years and had eight kids. He was so happy that his kids were going into the field. Taj Mahal was telling me last night that Junior [Hibbert’s son Junior Toots] sounds almost identical to him. I knew his daughter sang, but I’m gonna check out Junior too. I wish I’d had more time to go to Jamaica, where I’ve never been. Toots was always inviting me. But then that accident happened. I was going to go down for one of his big birthdays and surprise him and I couldn’t come because he was recovering.
Reading about Toots reminded me of how international his following was. It’s going to leave a huge hole in reggae. Maybe his son will carry on the torch, because there’s nobody that plays that music these days. It’s not a modern style of reggae.
He was just an incredible musician. Just all spirit and fire. What was that word that he kept calling himself in that article? Fireball. I love that. That’s what he is: He’s a fireball, you know. He was just a force. And as somebody who is just a few years younger than him, he was a real inspiration for how vital you can be when you get a little bit older.
I was talking with Taj last night. We were talking about the first time we saw Toots, our favorite songs. Taj recorded with him. I think Taj made it possible for Toots to come down to New Zealand. He called Toots and said “Hey, your record’s number one down here,” and made it possible. I was going to ask Toots to sing a song with me on my next record. I’m gonna do the song anyway. I’m glad that Toots knew how much he was loved.