Review: Toots & The Maytals – Got To Be Tough on Trojan Jamaica

by Gerry McMahon

The recent passing of Frederick Hibbert – otherwise known as ‘Toots’ of ‘Toots and the Maytals’ –was surely a sad day for reggae. Beyond claiming to be the first to label the genre, via Do The Reggay’ way back in 1968, Toots laid claim to the Jamaican record of (31) No. 1 hits. Indeed, his back catalog would fuel any night-long party, with tracks like ‘Reggae Got Soul’, ‘Pressure Drop’, ‘Pomp and Pride’, ‘Time Tough’, ‘Sweet and Dandy’, ‘Louie Louie’, ‘Funky Kingston’, ‘Bam Bam’, ‘Country Roads’, ‘Monkey Man’, ‘54:46’ and many more capable of lifting the roof and long outliving their creator. Though Toots is no more, to coincide with his departure he has left us with his first new album in a decade, entitled ‘Got To Be Tough’.

This nicely packaged (with lyrics) 10-track compilation – with Sly Dunbar, Zak Starkey, and Cyrill Neville amongst others onboard – may do little to augment Toots’ legendary status in the reggae community, but it does serve to confirm his extensive musical prowess. And that is as you’d expect, from a man whose influence extended to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the late Amy Winehouse, Madness, The Specials, Grace Jones, the Clash, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt, whilst Shaggy and Ziggy Marley acknowledge him as a role model and mentor.

‘Got To Be Tough’ opens with a bluesy rock and roll type rendition of Drop Off Head’, as Toots takes some fake friends to the task before ‘Just Brutal’ adopts a similar style to complain about a slew of the world’s ills. Thereafter, the album’s title track serves up a reggae rhythm as Toots issues a range of personal and global warnings, before the organ-infused ‘Freedom Train’ lists many of modern life’s shortcomings. This sets the scene for ‘Warning Warning’, with the reggae rhythm accentuated by some brilliant brass (and much more besides), whilst Toots extols the virtues of righteous living.  

Then ‘Good Thing That You Call’ eases the pace, with an imploring and emotional take on the all-important theme of reconciliation, before ‘Stand Accusedkicks in with vivacious and varied rhythms, as the influence of Toots’ church-going childhood prompts lyrics of morality. Of course, it’s this very facility to span styles that often-enabled Toots the magician to leave the impression that he was running some kind of deep south Baptist gospel music revival roots session, rather than a reggae gig!

Ziggy Marley joins in on vocals on the next track, with an up-tempo version of his late father’s classic ‘Three Little Birds’. But Bob needn’t worry, as this take – though welcome – is unlikely to supersede his ever-popular original version. This is followed by ‘Having A Party’, a track that aptly summarises the effect of a Toots’ concert. Though betimes befuddled by the absence of a good microphone or good marijuana – and that was before the ill-effects of being hit with a bottle on the head – when it came to ‘showtime’, as with this album, Toots delivers.  This upbeat, fast-paced ska type track just wants to have ‘a party, all night’ in a manner often induced by Toots live. Let’s hope that’s what he’s having right now. 

The album closes with another hot stepper in ‘Struggle’, as (the allegedly non-political) Toots empathizes ‘with the sufferers, advising us to co-operate and ‘stop the fighting, the shooting, and killing’. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that Toots was forecasting his own departure on this album, given such lyrical offerings as: ‘It’s not so easy to carry on’, ‘Your days are getting shorter’, ‘too much crazy things has been going on’ and ‘I don’t know what this world is coming to’.

Those fortunate enough to have passed time with Toots will identify with businessman Chris Blackwell’s summation: ‘I’ve known Toots longer than anybody – much longer than Bob (Marley). Toots is one of the purest human beings I’ve met in my life, pure almost to a fault’. Such is his popularity that – in the post-Covid-19 world – Toots was already booked up to headline a host of festivals around the world. Alas, this man, who did generously share his gifts, via uplifting musical experiences that served to make the world a happier place, is no more. However, as he reminded this reviewer a short while back, the good news is that he has ‘more than one album coming out next year, drawn from over 300 songs. I’m just waiting for the record company to deal with me’. Clearly there’s no stopping this dear departed man.

Long live Toots.