The consummate vocal group, the Maytals are inextricably tied to Jamaica's musical history, and their long and prolific career has seen the group at the forefront of virtually every shift in musical direction up until the ragga era. Their influence has been so vast, both on their homeland and abroad, their canon of music so immense, that in many ways no band better represents the island's sound than their own. The Maytals formed in 1962, bringing together the vocal talents of Frederick "Toots" Hibbert, Nathaniel McCarthy (aka Jerry Matthias), and Henry "Raleigh" Gordon. Matthias was the only one of the trio with any name recognition. Born in 1939, in Portland, Jamaica, the singer had moved to Kingston and cut a single for producer Duke Reid in 1958, while still in his teens. However, the song wasn't successful enough for Reid to record the youngster again. Hibbert hadn't even gotten that far.
Born in 1945, in May Pen, Clarendon, the young hopeful had received his musical training singing in the local church choir. At 15, he came to Kingston and there continued singing, entertaining the customers at a barber shop where he worked. They loved him, and immediately recognizing his talent, something that can not be said for Derrick Morgan and producer Leslie Kong. When the teenager auditioned for them in 1961, the pair immediately sent him on his way. Gordon the eldest of the three, born in 1937 in St. Andrew, had yet to even try his luck. Individually, they'd gotten nowhere, together they'd conquer the world. Once hooking up and choosing a name (the Maytals was Gordon's suggestion), the trio began making the studio rounds and now virtually every producer was jumping to record them. In the end, the Maytals chose Coxsone Dodd. Their debut single, "Hallelujah," was a revelation. These were the earliest days of ska, and the song's jumped-up beat, part boogie, part something so new it barely had a name, and the Maytals enthusiastic delivery was so astonishingly different, that Jamaica couldn't help but take notice. Part of the Maytals' success was in giving voice to their deeply religious beliefs. Religion plays an important part of people's lives in Jamaica, and the trio's exuberant performances made plain their true devotion, with their best songs bringing all the excitement of a revival tent straight onto record. But the same can be said for many gospel groups, what stood the Maytals apart was the song's fabulous ska arrangements.
By the end of 1963, the trio had recorded a string of classic cuts for Dodd. Many were religious numbers -- "Marching On," "Shining Light," "I'll Never Grow Old," "Study War No More," "Matthew Mark," and their smash hit "Six and Seven Books of Moses" (which was actually overseen by Lee Perry), but not all. "Sweet Sweet Jenny," "Just Got to Be," the fabulous doo-wop "Are You Mine," all dealt with this world, not just the next. So many hits, yet the trio was seeing little of the proceeds and to add insult to injury, Dodd was licensing the Maytals' singles to the Island label in the U.K. under a variety of pseudonyms, including the Flames and the Vikings. As the producer refused to make amends, at the end of 1963, the Maytals left in search of greener pastures. Dodd, of course, still controlled their back catalog, and in the new year released Presenting the Maytals, an extraordinary set that included many of their hits for him. The album proved so popular, that it was reissued in 1986 as Never Grow Old -- Presenting the Maytals. The Heartbeat label has also reissued the record for American audiences to enjoy, buttressed by bonus archival material. A second set, Life Could Be a Dream, appeared in 1992, and together with Presenting rounds up most of the singles the group cut for Dodd. The trio now began making the studio rounds, cutting excellent singles for a variety of different producers and labels. "Joy and Jean" and "Let's Jump" was overseen by Sonia Pottinger, "Come Into My Parlour" and "I Am in Love" were cut for Deanne Daley, "Someone Going to Bawl" and "He's the Greatest" were recorded by Vincent Chin, while Leslie Kong, who had by now seen the error of his ways, cut a trio of songs with the group, "John James" and "Neither Silver or Gold" included.
Along the way, the Maytals also stood in as Desmond Dekker's backing group on several of his early singles, most notably the seminal "King of Ska." For these sessions they appeared under the alias the Cherry Pies. However, it was Prince Buster that oversaw the Maytals' biggest hits from this period, "Domino," "You Got Me Spinning," "Bet You Lied," and the mighty, yipping "Broadway Jungle" (aka "Dog War") amongst them. Although these exuberant jumped-up ska numbers are the best remembered, the Maytals also recorded a clutch of religious-themed cuts for Buster, including "Judgement Day" and "Light of the World." Prince Buster Record Shack Presents the Original Golden Oldies, Vol. 3 bundled up a dozen of the Maytals singles for Prince Buster. Across the mid-'60s, the hits flowed like a river in spring -- "So Mad in Love," "My Darling," "Never You Change," and so many more. In 1965, the trio entered the studio with Byron Lee and recorded The Sensational Maytals, an album worthy of its title, which spun off two more massive hits, the insistent "It's You" and the exquisite ballad "Daddy," the Maytals at their soulful best. The Dutch label Jamaican Gold would later reissue this album under the title Sensational Ska Explosion, and append eight alternative takes as an extra incentive. The following year, the trio won the inaugural Festival Song Competition, with their rudeboy classic "Bam Bam," also overseen by Lee. The Maytals were now shifting gracefully into the new rocksteady era, and should have been one of the era's leading lights, instead the trio would sit it out almost in its entirety. Later this year, Hibbert was arrested for possession of marijuana, and sentenced to an 18-month jail term. Matthias and Gordon chose not to continue without him, and although the former singer did cut a few singles with Ewam McDermott under the moniker Ewam & Jerry, the Maytals remained on hiatus until Hibbert's release. Once out, the trio immediately went into the studio with Leslie Kong and recorded the triumphant "54-46 Was My Number" (and indeed that was Hibbert's prison number). The single was a smash, as was its follow-up, the appropriately easygoing "Do the Reggay," the song that named the new dance, which then named a whole new musical style. Now accompanied by the Dynamics, the Maytals made up for lost time with a vengeance, releasing a flood of singles and chalking up hit after hit. There was the innuendo-laced "One Eyed Enos," the powerful "We Shall Overcome," the Rastafarian-themed "Sun Moon and Star," and the follow-up to "Dog War" -- "Schooldays." During this same period came the sublime "Pressure Drop," later covered to much effect by punk heroes the Clash, the catchy hit "Peeping Tom," and the absolutely exquisite "Sweet & Dandy," whose fabulous harmonies helped win the trio the 1969 Festival Song competition.
The following year, the Maytals finally released a new album, From the Roots, amazingly only their third, but put matters to right with a second set, Monkey Man, a year later. Both sets were overseen by Kong and were filled with so many hits that both are familiar to most readers, as this is where most latter-day compilations draw their material from. The title track to the second set was another massive hit, and actually just snuck into the Top 50 in Britain in 1970. Of course "Monkey Man" was later resurrected by Two Tone icons the Specials, but in its original, less-frenetic version, the song was a humorous tribute to their producer Kong. Two compilations are drawn from this period, Do the Reggae: 1966-1970, released by the U.K. Attack label, which culls heavily from the Kong era; and Bla Bla Bla, from the French label Esoldun. The great producer died unexpectedly in 1971, but just before his death, he'd been overseeing the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come, which starred another one of his artists, Jimmy Cliff. the Maytals' inclusion on The Harder They Come soundtrack brought the trio further international attention, but like many of Kong's acts, the group were briefly left reeling by the producer's death. However in 1972, the trio were back in action with a new name, Toots & the Maytals, and were hard at work on a new album at Byron Lee's Dynamic Sounds Studio, with Warwick Lyn, Kong's former assistant, overseeing the sessions. The end result was Slatyam Stoot, and a new Festival Song Competition winner "Pomps and Pride." The following year's Funky Kingston was overseen by Island label head Chris Blackwell along with Lyn and Dave Bloxham, and contrary to its title was more soul than funk, and remains the trio's most musically adventurous album. 1974's In the Dark was equally eclectic, funkier than Funky and included some unexpected covers as diverse as John Denver and Michael Jackson. Island would cull from both albums for the 1975 album Funky Kingston, which should not be confused with the original album. Two years passed before the arrival of Reggae Got Soul, the trio's debut for the Island subsidiary Mango, which impacted almost as hard in the U.K. as in Jamaica. Hibbert now turned much of his attention to setting up his own Righteous label. The trio continued recording however, releasing a steam of spiritual numbers that were intended for local audiences, and thus still remain mostly unknown outside Jamaica. In 1979, however, they returned to the studio to finally record a follow-up to Soul, the jazzier Pass the Pipe.
That summer the trio delivered a fiery set at Reggae Sunsplash. 1980 brought two new albums, the studio Just Like That and the live album Toots Live, recorded at a Hammersmith Palais London show that same year. Not only does the latter set hold the record for the fastest album release ever -- it was available 24 hours after the show itself, but also captures the fierceness of the trio's live performances. Knockout appeared in 1981; it was to be the original group's final album. The Maytals split soon after, going out with great dignity. They recorded one final gift to their fans, a new version of "Bam Bam" for the Countryman soundtrack, and made a final appearance at Reggae Sunsplash in 1982. Their set at the festival was released as a live album the following year. Hibbert continued recording throughout the '80s as a solo artist, often experimenting with other styles of music.
As a new decade dawned, however, the singer relaunched the Maytals with new members and embarked on a series of live performances. The new look trio appeared at Reggae Sunsplash in 1993 and again in 1994, and continued to tour at home and abroad. Hibbert also launched a new label, Alla Son, on which the Maytals' 1997 album Recoup and its follow-up, 1998's Ska Father, appeared. Both sets offer new versions of classic cuts as well as new material. With such a sparkling back catalog, the ultimate Maytals' compilation would require a multi-disc box set. As that has yet to appear, there are a number of lesser offerings to choose from. In 2000, Polygram released Very Best Of, which does indeed select many of the best songs for this single disc set. More sprawling is the two-disc Time Tough: The Anthology from Mango. Covering the original group's entire career, it's heavily weighted toward the '70s with the previous decades dismissed with a measly nine tracks. However, the songs are carefully chosen and the set includes a clutch of rarities. Music Club's The Very Best of Toots & the Maytals covers the same period as Anthology's first disc, and arguable does it better. ~ Jo-Ann Greene