The Maytals ‘Monkey Man’ / ‘From The Roots’ CD (Doctor Bird) 5/5

Toots Hibbert largely missed out on the Rock Steady era as a result of being incarcerated in 1966. However, upon release, his fortunes would change for the better and these two wonderful albums, that typify the early reggae sound, are evidence of the new sound that reached the UK via Trojan. Recorded by Leslie Kong for Beverley’s in Jamaica, the gospel-flavoured vocals immediately convey the soulful nature of the music, although the lyrics are secular in content. One of the key songs is the immortal ‘Pressure Drop’, and if one had to condense the history of reggae down to twenty songs, that one would surely feature on most aficionado’s lists – it is simply that compelling a number. Of course, the title track of ‘Monkey’ has become an enduring classic and one of several signature tunes for Toots in live performance, while a cover of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’, reveals that Hibbert was a keen listener of other singer-songwriters. He would later cover John Denver’s pop-country song, ‘Country Roads’. Other terrific compositions include ‘The Preacher’, ‘African Doctor (aka Doctor Lester)’ and ‘She’s My Scorcher’. Coupled with that 1970 album is ‘From The Roots’, which was released in 1973. While the songs are not quite as immediate as its predecessor, the music is still of a consistently high quality with Toot’s ability to tell a story to the fore. For fans of roots, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, will appeal whilst ‘One Eye Enos’ has a classic story line. In this expanded edition, three bonus cuts include alternate takes on ‘Monkey Man’, ‘She’s My Scorcher’ and ‘African Doctor’.

Inner sleeve notes here are by the regular contributor to blues, gospel and soul re-issues on ACE records, Tony Rounce, who rightly indicates the universal appeal of the singer. It is probably true to say that had Toots Hibbert been born in the United States, he could have made a successful career as a soul singer, and later in his career, he did precisely that, cutting an album in Memphis that comes highly recommended. Excellent use of graphics with label covers of the 45s from Jamaica via Beverley’s and a variety of UK labels, with the original LPs now extremely rare. One of the all-time greats of Jamaican music, this is a fine pairing of albums from a figure who is like a fine wine in that he has just got better with time. The good news for reggae fans is that Toots and the Maytals are returning to Europe this summer for a whole series of live concerts so make sure you are tuned in. As a live musical experience, they are one of the very greatest exponents of reggae music and not to be missed.

Tim Stenhouse