Obituary: Toots Hibbert – the man who coined the word reggae
One of Jamaica’s most influential musicians, he helped popularise reggae in the 1960s with songs like Pressure Drop, Monkey Man and Funky Kingston.
He even claimed to have coined the genre’s name, on 1968’s Do The Reggay.
Hibbert’s family said he had died on Friday. The cause was not disclosed, but he had recently been taken to hospital with Covid-like symptoms.
The musician was later placed in a medically induced coma, and a spokesman said the musician was “fighting for his life.”
A charismatic and soulful performer, Hibbert scored 31 number one singles in Jamaica.
Thanks to his full-throated vocals, he was often referred to as “The Otis Redding of Reggae” – but he was always Toots.
The musician was born in May Pen, a town about 30 Miles west of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, in December 1942.
The youngest of seven children, he grew up singing gospel music in a church choir – but it was school where he formed his ambition to become a performer.
“We had to sing before class, sing in the morning,” he told BBC 6 Music in 2018. “And teacher said, ‘Yeah, you have the best voice,’ and gave me good encouragement.”
His mother, a midwife, died when he was eight, with his father dying three years later. As a teenager, he moved to Kingston, where he lived with his older brother John (who had nicknamed him “Little Toots”) and found work in a barbershop.
There, he struck a friendship with singers Jerry Matthius and Raleigh Gordon, with whom he formed the Maytals.
In 1962, the year Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom, they were discovered by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, who signed them to his Studio One label.
Over the next 10 years, they released a string of hit singles including Fever, Bam Bam, and Sweet and Dandy.
But the group hit a roadblock in 1967, when Hibbert was arrested for possession of marijuana. He served nine months in jail and, on his release, recorded 54-46 (That’s My Number) – a reference to his prison number.
It became one of the first reggae songs to receive widespread popularity outside Jamaica, introducing many Europeans to the sound for the first time.
At the time, however, the word reggae didn’t exist. The music, which was an evolution of ska and rocksteady, had been called blue-beat or boogie-beat until Hibbert intervened.
“The music was there and no-one didn’t know what to call it,” he told 6 Music.
“And in Jamaica we had a slang – if we’re not looking so good, if we’re looking raggedy, we’d call it ‘streggae’. That’s where I took it from.
“I recorded this song [Do The Reggay] and people told me that the song let them know that our music is called Reggae. So I’m the one who coined the word!”