Title: Got To Be Tough
Artist: Toots & the Maytals
Label: Trojan Jamaica/BMG
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: June 12, 2020
It is hard to imagine a title more fitting for Frederick “Toots” Hibbert’s final album than Got To Be Tough. The legendary Jamaican reggae pioneer, who died at age 77 on September 11, 2020 from COVID-19 related complications, experienced more than his share of hardships. Orphaned at the age of 11, imprisoned in his twenties for possession of ganja, and severely injured during a music festival in 2013 by an inebriated bottle-wielding fan, Toots was a survivor. What was meant to be a comeback album for Toots & the Maytals, the ska and rocksteady collective Toots led for nearly 60 years, instead serves as a poignant tribute to the much beloved musician and his indomitable spirit.
In a 2008 interview with ska historian Heather Augustyn, Toots explained that his music reflects his understanding of the human condition: “I was singing about hard times. When you go through hard times like my people have been through, you got to write about it, write a song about it. Don’t make it sound like politics. Its not politics. Just sing about real things that can affect you and can happen to a lot of people too.”* The inevitable struggles through hard times and against injustice remains a constant theme in Toots’ final album. From songs such as “Just Brutal” with the refrain “everything we do is just brutal, I don’t know what the world is coming to,” and “Warning, Warning” where he admonishes, “I’m giving you a warning, please don’t take it for granted,” Toots always stays on message.
Joining Toots on the album are Sly Dunbar and Cyril Neville on drums and percussion, longtime Maytals guitarist Carl Harvey, keyboardist Steven Stewart, and of course an extended horn section. While some of the tracks, such as the opener “Drop Off Head” and “Freedom Train” have a rocking rhythm and blues vibe, others such as “Stand Accused” maintain a more traditional reggae groove. In the title track, “Got To Be Tough,” Toots sings the prescient lyrics, “But just in case you never know, or maybe you forget, your days are getting shorter.” In these times, that’s something we must all remember. Farewell Toots, you won’t be forgotten.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
*This interview is part of the new Heather Augustyn Collection at the Archives of African American Music and Culture. Read more in this issue of Liner Notes.