Two-Chord Vamps

Alex Abramovich

Toots Hibbert performing with the Maytals at the Rudolstadt Festival in 2017. Photo © Schlore

The lack of specific dates speaks to the poverty that Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert was born into in May Pen, in south-central Jamaica, some time in 1942. He was the youngest of 14 children, or seven. Both his parents were preachers in what Hibbert sometimes called ‘a sort of clapping’ church. But when he was eight or thereabouts (these numbers vary too), Hibbert lost his mother, and a few years later his father. By 13, or 15 or 16, he was in Trench Town, working as a barber, boxing as an amateur, and singing. He must have cut hair for several years. Most interviews and articles you’ll find skip forward to 1961 or 1962, when, together with Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Matthius and Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon, Hibbert formed the Maytals.

Hibbert sang straight ska at first, and went on to sing straight rocksteady and reggae, and the Maytals made a number of exquisite doo-wop recordings. (I can’t listen to ‘Daddy’, which Hibbert recorded several times over the years, without thinking of my mother, who died when I was seven.) But at heart, Hibbert was a gospel singer. In the context of secular music, that meant he sang soul: and as a soul singer, it makes as much sense to compare him to Otis Redding, James Carr, Wilson Pickett and O.V. Wright, as it does to Jamaican contemporaries like Ken Booth, Slim Smith and Bob Marley. He doesn’t suffer from the comparison. The depth and elasticity of his voice; the startling, Ray Charles-like leaps he’d make from baritone to falsetto; the sense that, no matter how powerfully he sang, there was far more in reserve.

He was also an excellent, underrated songwriter, but his sweet spot – he returned to it again and again – was the simple-as-day two-chord vamp: ‘Broadway Jungle’, ‘Bam Bam’, ‘54-46 Was My Number’ (there’s an incredible performance from 1975). A less likely comparison that comes to mind is to another past master of two-chord vamps: Lou Reed. In the Velvet Underground, Reed was invariably drawn to I-IV progressions. Hibbert favoured more joyful jumps from the tonic to the dominant (I-V). But either way, the results don’t resolve as pop songs tend to. They rock or sway, back and forth, endlessly, agelessly, ecstatically. (When Hibbert wrote I-IV progressions, as he did on the flat-out gospel song ‘I Shall Be Free’, the band sounded remarkably like the Velvets, by way of Booker T. and the MGs.)

Which is to say, it’s not just his voice: the Maytals played spiritual songs at the most basic, structural level because, for all the bad breaks he got, that’s exactly how Hibbert wanted it. As a performer, he was optimistic and joyous. He insisted that songs like ‘Bam Bam’ – which won Jamaica’s first National Festival Song Competition, in 1966 – connected with people because they were simple enough for children to understand. And he made sure all his songs – even if they dealt with violence and deprivation – conveyed a positive message. (Jim Dickinson, who produced Toots in Memphis in 1988, once told me that Hibbert refused to sing anything negative, even on a covers album: ‘He wouldn’t sing “I can’t stand the rain.” He wouldn’t say those words. “I really love the rain against the window,” he would say.’)

‘Reggae is a message of consolation; a message of salvation,’ Hibbert once said. ‘The youth are going to the school and they have to listen to the words. The parents have to listen to the words. God has to listen to the words. So, we have to make it positive.’

Lesser men would have been bitter. At Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, where the Maytals started out, they recorded eight songs in one day. ‘When we finish,’ Hibbert recalled, ‘all of these people just give us food to eat. Like, they sent to the bakery to buy lunch, but they just come up with … patties. When you eat that you feel good about it, but you don’t get no money. So I sing my song, and that’s what I got. Every one of us gets one patties each, and we sing the song. We never know that we should be getting paid.’

Then the Maytals went to work with Prince Buster and recorded ‘Dog War’ (‘Broadway Jungle’ by another name), which describes their experience of working with, and getting away from, Dodd: ‘When we really don’t know this jungle/Which way to jump and dance/Jump in the line/Rock your body in time.’ But if you look at the record label, you’ll see that Prince Buster – Cecil Campbell – gave himself the sole songwriting credit.

So it went, for years on end. A drug bust (a frame job, he claimed, convincingly) sent Hibbert to prison for close to a year, just as his star was rising in 1966-67. In 1980, the Clash released a cover of ‘Pressure Drop’. But ‘White Riot’, the Clash’s first single, released in 1977, inspired by the 1976 Notting Hill riots, bore a startling resemblance to another Maytals song, called ‘Scare Him’. It made sense, of a kind, for Joe Strummer to sing about wanting a ‘white riot’ – a riot of his own, following the example of the ‘black man [who] gotta lotta problems’ – to a tune that a black man had written. But I’ve never seen the debt mentioned and can’t help but notice the royalties went to Strummer and Mick Jones, not Hibbert.

Last month, the Jamaica Observer ran an article about ‘Bam Bam’ – which turns out to be the most sampled song in reggae, starting with Jamaica’s Sister Nancy, whose near-cover was sampled, in turn, by Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, Kanye West and not a few others. Hibbert never got royalties on those recordings, either, or even his own. ‘Not a cent,’ he told the Observer. ‘I am the writer, the arranger, composer, the singer, and the producer of the original song.’

Bam Bam is a very dear project to me,’ Hibbert said, ‘because it was my first festival song winner. When I saw what was going on in the world, what the world was coming to … I came up with “what a bam bam,” to talk about what I saw around me, the fighting, the taking things that was not theirs, the killing.’

Hibbert was in the news quite a bit last month because, working seven days a week in his home studio, the Reggae Center, he’d recorded his first album in more than a decade. Rolling Stone ran a long profile. (‘Despite its official-sounding name, the Reggae Center is really just a dank, airless concrete apartment with sickly yellow walls and a trickle of A/C,’ the magazine said. But what else would the Reggae Center look like?) The Guardian published an interview that turned out to be Hibbert’s last. On 2 September, five days after his album came out, he was transferred to a hospital in Kingston and placed in a medically induced coma. Nine days later, Hibbert died, another casualty of Covid-19.


  • 16 September 2020 at 1:47am
    Simon Wood says:
    His songs are enduring poems. He died the same day as Conran and the last night of the proms, so to speak.

  • 21 September 2020 at 12:33pm
    John Hayter says:
    Thanks for this. Toots was a giant.

  • 24 September 2020 at 7:27pm
    Ian Hoare says:
    Excellent piece on a great man. Thanks.

  • 25 September 2020 at 12:53am
    Amit Pandya says:
    We came from different worlds entirely, yet Toots and the Maytals offered me hope and comfort when I was suffering and inspiration to live in joy. Thank you Toots.