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Toots’ roots

Jamaica’s other reggae star gets his second wind

Neither Frank Sinatra nor Carlos Santana appears on Toots and the Maytals’ latest album, True Love. Sinatra, like Marley, Hendrix and Elvis, missed out on a duet because he’s dead. Santana—the modern master of the atypical musical tag team—didn’t have time to collaborate because he was (and this is just a guess) already recording tracks for the follow-up to Shaman with Kenny G. and David Hasselhoff.

While Santana stayed home and Sinatra stayed dead, seemingly everyone else in the world of music showed up to play with Toots on True Love. Over the album’s 15 tracks, 20 guest stars lend a hand—and these aren’t your B-list stars (like Kenny G. and Hasselhoff). We’re talking Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Trey Anastasio, Bootsy Collins and Ben Harper.

Why so many guests? Well, there are a couple theories—none of which, sad to say, could be vetted by Toots himself, who just got back from Australia last week and wasn’t granting any interviews. Kate Hyman, who was in charge of A&R on the True Love project, claims that the record was a way for Toots to actually make some money. There is also the possibility that Toots’ guests just wanted a chance to give props (and a helping hand) to an underappreciated living legend.

Bonnie Raitt, who joined the band on “True Love is Hard to Find,” had this to say in the liner notes about working with Toots: “Toots has been a favorite for so many artists across so many genres for years. Finally, he’ll break out to the wider audience he deserves.”

Raitt speaks the truth. Toots is one of the original architects of reggae, and his music has been covered by island music devotes like the Clash, the Specials and the Skatalites. In fact, if it weren’t for Bob Marley’s Michael Jordan-like stranglehold on the genre—which isn’t really his fault, since he’s dead, too—Toots and the Maytals would be known by millions, not just reggae diehards.

Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, like Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, moved to Kingston from the Jamaican countryside in the ’60s and formed a vocal ska trio. By the late ’60s, the Maytals (Toots, Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias and Raleigh Gordon) had gained a reputation as passionate, energetic performers, which they finessed into recording sessions at the legendary Studio One with Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. The group’s popularity grew with more recordings and the top prize (for their song “Bam Bam”) at the first Jamaican Festival Song Competition. Only the Wailers could compete with the Maytals as Jamaica’s premiere vocal trio.

While the Wailers went on to become Bob Marley and the Wailers—one of the most iconic bands in music history—the Maytals’ career stalled when, in late 1966, Toots was handed 18 months in jail for possessing (and smoking) marijuana. After Toots was finally released, and the Maytals regrouped, Marley was already well on his way to eminence and the light, happy sounds of ska were being replaced with harder-edged reggae.

This change in popular sounds at least fit with Toots’ change of mood. While in prison, he wrote songs like “54-46 That’s My Number” (Toots’ inmate number). And “54-46” was Toots’ first hit after being released. Many more Jamaican hits followed, as did appearances on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come—also featuring a young Jimmy Cliff, and one of reggae’s greatest various-artists compilations. But try though they might, the Maytals just couldn’t catch Marley, and Toots—like Jimmy Cliff, Joseph Hill and Burning Spear—was relegated to cult status.

Over the last 25 years the original Maytals have broken up, and Toots (with a new version of his backing band) has recorded a half dozen albums and toured the world—which brings us to True Love and Toots’ latest effort to bust out of his cult status. As stiff and stodgy as the record industry is, Santana’s strange multi-platinum comeback at least proved that, with the right collaborations with today’s stars, music dinosaurs can live again. And Toots may be just the man for an overdue rebirth.

He’s pushing 60, but still performs with Marley-meets-James Brown energy. His soulful voice has only improved with age. And he’s certainly picked the right constellation of stars with whom to collaborate. He’s also not piggybacking his comeback on music written by his many musical guests, a la Santana on Rob Thomas’ “Smooth.” With the exception of “Still is Still Moving to Me,” written by Willie Nelson, every track on True Love is pure Toots. Granted, there are no new songs—the Toots originals on True Love are classics unearthed from his 40-year back catalogue. It’s these great compositions that make True Love so much better than Supernatural.

Yes, Jeff Beck’s guitar histrionics are a bit much (but when aren’t they?), and Bonnie Raitt can make even the best song sound like adult contemporary shlock. And come to think of it, Clapton’s wah-wah pedal seems a bit out of place. But a few missteps aside, Toots and his collaborators kick a lot of ass. “Funky Kingston,” featuring Bootsy Collins and the Roots, preserves the island flavor of the original while adding a ’70s P-Funk groove. And, unlike Clapton and Beck, Trey Anastasio doesn’t get in Toots’ way or try to outshine him. He just rides the backbeat.

As good as parts of True Love are, it’s also good to know that Toots’ tour to support the album will be guest-star-free. With all Toots’ energy, the guitar doodling of Beck or Anastasio would only be a distraction anyway.

Toots and the Maytals perform at the University Ballroom this Friday, April 30.

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