As the notes are being written, Frederick Hibbert is celebrating his 55th anniversary as a recording and performing artist. Along with Henry 'Raleigh' Gordon and Nathaniel 'Jerry' Mathias, 'Toots' Hibbert formed the Maytals in late 1962. A hit act right from the start, they were unlike any other popular Jamaican group of the time in that their sound was firmly anchored to gospel, even though their songs were largely secular in content. They did not aspire to be the Temptations or the Impressions, like so many of their peers did. The rough passion in Toot's vocal delivery was much closer to the fervent, house wrecking style of the likes of America's gospel quartets like the Blind Boys of Alabama or Mississippi, and the Soul Stirrers. The Maytals had a sound like no other group in Jamaica, and in Toots they had a voice that was immediately recognisable no matter what aliases their early records appeared under in the UK - the Vikings and the Flames being probably the most famous of those.

Extraordinary prolific singles artists from the start, the Maytals issued just four albums during their first decade of recording. Their initial producer Coxsone Dodd put out their debut 'Never Grow Old' in 1965, almost three years after they cut their first session for him. Their second producer Prince Buster did not issue an album of the material they cut for him during the mid 1960s until their popularity began to grow internationally in the early 1970s.

When they moved to Byron Lee and Ronnie Nasralla's BMN label in 1965, they had a second album release the following year with 'The Sensational Maytals' on the back of winning Jamaica's first national Song Festival with 'Bam Bam'. After BMN folded in 1967, the trio quickly linked with Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong. A man noted for fairness and for paying artists and musicians in a timely and accurate manner, Kong had a small roster of artists on his Beverley's label with whom he worked over long periods of time, such as Desmond Dekker, the Pioneers and Derrick Morgan. Although there was little contractual exclusivity in Jamaican music in the 60s, people who worked with Kong tended to stick with Kong. Thus it was that the Maytals debuted on Beverley's in 1968 with the rock steady era in full swing, opening their account with '54-46 (That's My Number)' - one of the greatest records in the entire history of Jamaican music - and recorded for nobody else for the rest of the producer's short life.

When the beat started to change in late 1968, the Maytals were among the first artists (and many will say THE first) to celebrate the new rhythmic innovations with 'Do The Reggay' (sic). As their work with Kong evolved and the beat changed yet again, the trio found themselves among the standard bearers for reggae with 'Monkey Man' - an international hit in 1969 that really helped to put Jamaica's indigenous music out there for all to enjoy.

The music you hear in this new collection gathers together a big chunk of the group's recordings for Leslie Kong, and is a marvellous representation of their late 60s/early 70s catalogue, it includes the contents of two original albums, and a bunch of era-appropriate bonus tracks - as many as could be used to fill the finite running tome of a CD.

The first of the two long players, 'Monkey Man' was the group's second Beverley's album and only their fourth album overall. Beverley's was a proactive label where albums where concerned, and it's very likely that Kong would have put a Maytals album out during the rock steady era if he'd amassed enough material to assemble one. Unfortunately Toots' incarceration in late 1966 meant that he missed the first year and a bit of the most glorious era in Jamaican music, although the group made up for his absence with a vengeance when he got out thanks to instant and enduring classics like '54-46', 'Struggle', the festival song 'Bim Today Bam Tomorrow', 'Hold On' and 'Just Tell Me' before a new beat came to town and people suddenly didn't want to rock steady anymore.

The group won the song Festival again in 1969 with 'Sweet And Dandy', a charming if repetitive song about a family's preparations for a wedding. Kong assembled a now extremely rare album around the track that featured an overview of their recordings to date. Credited to Toots and the Maytals on the sleeve and just to the Maytals on the labels, in included a smattering of rock steady era tracks, some of their early reggae hits and a couple of very recent recordings like 'Monkey Man'.

The actual 'Monkey Man' album did not appear until the trio had been recording for Kong for almost two years, and had more than a dozen Beverley's hits to their credit...

...And to his credit, Kong put together another album that offered a strong mix of hits and otherwise unavailable tracks to make it a worthwhile purchase for diehard fans and the casually interested alike. The oldest track on the set had also been featured on the 'Sweet And Dandy' album. Loosely based on a fairly obscure American soul 45 by Tony Fox called 'Lean On Me' that had been a small hit in Jamaica but nowhere else, 'Pressure Drop' had been a big one for the Maytals in the summer of 1969 and was one of their last 45s to feature the faster beat that's now often referred to as 'boss reggae'.

In 1972 the group mimed to both 'Pressure Drop' and its 45rpm predecessor 'Sweet And Dandy' in the film 'They Harder They Come', in a scene set in a recording studio with most of the musicians who had played on the original 45s pretending to back them up. Billed on all Beverley's 45s as 'Beverley's All Stars', said musicians were also the creative backbone of many other studio bands of the period and centred around Winston Wright on organ, Hux Brown or occasionally Dougie Bryan on guitar, Paul Douglas on drums and Jackie Jackson on bass. Most of the musicians in question would become long-time members of the Maytals' touring band when studio work began to dry up for them in the mid 70s. Jackie Jackson is still out on the road with Toots in 2018.

Those two 45s were also the last two Maytals releases on the legendary UK Pyramid label, which had been set up as part of Graeme Goodall's Doctor Bird Records specifically to release Leslie Kong productions. Once Kong threw in his lot with Trojan, the group's releases began to appear on the company's main label until Trojan gave Kong a second dedicated imprint, this one called Summit. However, the Maytals were definitely Trojan label mainstays when the 'Monkey Man' album came out.

The title track had recently gained them their only UK chart hit of the 1970s. A supremely catchy song, it spent most of May '70 in the UK Top 75 but sadly could get no higher that #47. A full 19 years (almost to the day) would pass before a reissue EP containing the original 'Pressure Drop' scraped the bottom of the Top 100 at 86 to complete the Maytals UK chart history - a somewhat meagre return for so much great music over so many years.

Other tracks that saw 7 inch issue were 'She's My Scorcher', 'Bla Bla Bla' and 'Sun, Moon And Stars' (used as the flip of 'Dr Lester'). The other tracks on the album - all of them very strong, even the free adaptation of the Plastic Ono Band's 'Give Peace A Chance' (which was itself a Jamaican chart hit) - had the faster beat, with the exception of the intense soul slowie 'I Shall Be Free' that brought it to a close. 'Bla Bla Bla' and 'I Shall Be Free' had also appeared on their previous album. doubtless Kong was anxious to release another one a) while the Maytals were as hot as they then were, and b) before the next shift in reggae's tempo made the music sound a little outdated.

In the UK the 'Monkey Man' album was rushed out in Trojan's TBL series around the same time as the Ja. issue dropped, or possibly slightly before. The 'Sweet And Dandy' album had not been issued here, and five hit singles and seven new-to-the-UK tracks for 99 pence spelled value for money in anyone's language and the album was one of the best received in that series. There would doubtless have been further 'official' Maytals albums on Beverley's in time to come. Unfortunately the great producer Leslie Kong suffered a fatal heart attack on August 8th 1971 at the age of just 38, which put paid to any further album activity...

...Well almost. In 1973 Trojan issued 'From The Roots', an excellent collection that pulled together a mixture of post-'Monkey Man' 45s, several tracks that had not hitherto been issued anywhere in the world at that time and, for some reason, re-runs of 'Give Peace A Chance' and 'Revival Reggae' from the 'Monkey Man' album - an exercise that's sensibly not repeated here. By then, the trio had moved on to record for Byron lee's dynamic set up, but apart from the absence of Kong in the studio it was business as usual musically with the same musicians involved and Warrick Lyn., who almost certainty engineered every track in this compilation anyway, promoted to the Maytals' producer.

The previously unheard tracks were probably recorded not long after those featured on the 'Monkey Man' album, all of them featuring the kind of fast, bouncy rhythms of that period and all of them as strong as anything that Kong released during his lifetime. It's possible that he was readying a second Maytals album himself for release on Beverley's and decided not to put these tracks out once the beat changed again in 1970 - we will never know for sure. Thankfully the group's growing global popularity sent Trojan off to raid the vaults and they found enough to put together 'From The Roots' - which, unlike 'Monkey Man' was issued as a full price album in the company's TRLS series.

The only tracks to have seen previous service on 45 was the rocking 'Dr Lester' (sometimes known as 'African Doctor') which had been coupled with 'Sun, moon And Stars' from the 'Monkey Man' set on both Beverley's and Trojan, and 'Thy Kingdom Come' - Toots adaptation of 'The Lord's Prayer' - issued as a 45 just a couple of months before the album's release but audibly a couple of years older than its 1972 release date. A quick scan of the track listing will reveal the presence of 'One Eye Enos', but like the version of 'Peeping tom' on the 'Monkey Man' album it's an early version that would be re-recorded and issued on 45 in 1971 on Summit.

Pretty much any of the other tracks could have been strong selling singles in 1970. One can assume that Kong had some tough A&R choices to make in deciding whether or not to put them out as 45s. All are vintage Maytals, with toots bringing his full-on gospel fire to, frequently, the simplest of songs and investing each one with a commitment seldom heard in the works of others. Raleigh and Jerry's backing responses are straight out of church and such a necessary part of what made the Maytals so compelling to listen to in their golden years. Some of them sound like they might have been titled by Trojan rather than by Kong - '9 O'clock' for example should really be called 'Loving Sister', while 'Loving Spirit' is obviously meant to be titled 'Deep In My Soul' - a title under which it did eventually appear as a bootleg Beverley's 45 in the early 21st Century.

The frantic 'Pee Pee Cluck Cluck' was also bootlegged as a lookalike Pyramid 45 in the early Noughties. One would imagine that Kong only refrained from releasing his own 45 of it in 1969 because he'd already issued a not-dissimilar Pioneers track of the same title during that year. All of the aforementioned could easily have sustained the group's hit run, as could 'Koo Koo'  and 'Gold And Silver' (or 'Gola Silver' as the Trojan typesetter seemingly misheard the title!). Not that it needed sustaining of course as tracks like 'I Feel Alright', '54-46 (Was My Number)' and the remakes of 'Peeping Tom', 'One Eye Enos', their BMN ska hit 'It's You' - all with the classic, harder reggae beat of the early 70s - were doing that perfectly well by themselves.

After Kong died in the early autumn of 1971, the Beverley's label gradually wound down before grinding to a halt in early 1972. Trojan kept releasing Kong's Maytals productions on 45 until well into 1972 with six more singles on Summit and Trojan coming after the producer's death that also included a terrific 'Walk With Love' - their last single to be released in Jamaica before Kong's passing, issued posthumously here - the funky 'Johnny Cool Man', a cool remake of 'Never You Change' and ending with 'It Must Be True Love' in the spring of 1972. By that time they were also issuing recordings by the soon-to-be-permanently-rebranded Toots and the Maytals from sessions for Dynamic Sounds' Jaguar subsidiary. The transition was seamless and the trio went on to enjoy enormous and sustained global popularity that by rights should have been theirs years before 'Funky Kingston' and 'Take Me Home Country Roads' put them firmly in the full glare of the international spotlight.

Nearly half a century after these epochal recordings were made, Toots Hibbert is still out on the road taking his musical message to crowds of happy people whose parents may not even have been born when the Maytals were in their pomp. Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias are long gone, but Toots keeps it in the family by employing his daughter and a friend as the other vocal component of the Maytals. A violent and unprovoked attack during a concert a few years ago upset Toots so much that he was unable to work for some time, but happily he has recovered to the point where he can perform again. Long may that continue to be the case.

Here are more than two dozen examples of early reggae at its finest. As they are by the Maytals, you would and should expect nothing less.

Stick it on Mister...

Tony Rounce - 2018



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