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If soul music is all about musical exuberance, deep feeling, and unfettered joy, then one of the most soulful records of all time was created by a genre outsider: Jamaican reggae vocalist Toots Hibbert.
Even listeners with just a cursory knowledge of reggae via Perry Henzell’s 1973 breakthrough movie The Harder They Come would be familiar with Toots. His trio the Maytals are the first to be seen performing in the film, miming their jubilant 1969 hit “Sweet and Dandy” in a Kingston recording studio. (Another Maytals song heard in the movie, “Pressure Drop,” would be famously covered by The Clash in 1979.) By ’73, Toots had been active professionally for more than a decade; veterans of the ska and rocksteady scenes, his group could lay claim to giving the music a name with their 1968 hit “Do the Reggay.” A string of gritty singles produced by Leslie Kong led to a high-profile contract with Island Records’ Mango subsidiary.
Classic albums like Funky Kingston and In the Dark followed, but by the end of the ’70s the Maytals’ gutsy brand of roots reggae was displaced in Jamaica by the digitized sound of dancehall. The group broke up, but Toots remained under contract with Mango, with his talent unabated. In a bolt of inspiration, the label brought the singer to Memphis, Tennessee, for a genre-leaping session of classic soul interpretations. In a fashion, the album anticipated the 2014 documentary Take Me to the River, which mated such old-school Memphis talents as Mavis Staples, William Bell, and Otis Clay with contemporary artists like the North Mississippi Allstars, Al Kapone, and Snoop Dogg for another fresh take on the original Bluff City soul sound.
Toots in Memphis, as the 1988 set was titled, was a natural all around. Jamaican musicians had been cocking their ears to American R&B since the early ’60s, when ska developed as a turned-around island take on the driving hits aired on New Orleans radio stations and imported to Jamdown shops and sound systems. Like many American R&B and soul stars, several of the early Jamaican singers, including Toots, were reared on gospel. And reggae covers of U.S. soul hits were commonplace from the ’60s on.
For Toots’ Bluff City session, maverick producer-keyboardist Jim Dickinson—the local iconoclast best known for his work with Big Star and Alex Chilton—surrounded Toots with skilled players from both the reggae and soul communities. The top reggae rhythm section of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare had played on nearly every major hit to emanate from Jamaica for a decade (including Peter Tosh’s cover of The Temptations’ “Don’t Look Back”). From the soul side, Teenie Hodges of Hi Records’ house band, Eddie Hinton of the Muscle Shoals studio group, and Andrew Love of the Memphis Horns contributed. To a man, the musicians understood the universal language of the Groove.
The repertoire for Toots in Memphis was tailored to the vocalist’s rough, forceful attack and freewheeling, improvisational interpretative approach. Two songs apiece were drawn from the catalogs of the late Stax Records star Otis Redding and his lesser-known but equally powerful contemporary James Carr. Hit material by Hi’s luminaries Al Green and Ann Peebles was essayed, as well as a Jackie Moore number unforgettably covered by Goldwax and Hi soul master O.V. Wright. Songs originated by Stax’s Eddie Floyd and West Coast soul man J.J. Malone and a lone original filled out the collection.
Toots rose to the occasion with in-the-pocket reggae-styled readings that equal and in some cases nearly surpass the originals. He makes Otis’ album-opening “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” completely his own, crushes Carr’s stormy “Love Attack,” works new wrinkles into Floyd’s “Knock On Wood,” and runs neck-and-neck with O.V. on “Precious, Precious.” For some Memphis soul connoisseurs, the highlight may be the nearly seven-minute version of Reverend Al’s “Love and Happiness”; many lesser covers of the tune have been cut, but the presence of cowriter Hodges on guitar, Sly and Robbie’s urgent bottom, and Toots’ stretched-out, probing reading refresh the Beale Street bar band standard.
“Reggae got soul,” Toots declared in a 1976 song. If there was ever any doubt about that, he proved it definitively on Toots in Memphis.