Toots and the Maytals - Funky Kingston Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Toots and the Maytals’ 1975 classic, which captured the country soul of roots reggae at its creative peak. 

After a shuffling drum intro, a steady groove invites us to let down our guards and open our ears. With another drum roll, the band pivots to the “one-drop,” Jamaica’s reigning rhythm since the ska days. The kick drum and rimshot anchor the backbeat, often emphasized by an organ stab, while the bass moves a simple, sinuous pattern and the rhythm guitar chops chords between each beat. To heighten our appreciation of this interlocking ensemble texture, the instruments are panned across the stereo field, the lead guitar plucking a lightly bluesy, bubbling counterpoint across the room from the steady offbeat skank.

Centered in the mix, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert begins to preach in terms downhome and direct, in a Jamaican country brogue plain enough for all to understand. Sleep won’t come. The rent is too high. Your brother can’t find a dollar, and neither can I. Time tough. In a sly inversion of hip slang, everything is out of sight, but not in a good way—life is so hard even the basics seem out of reach. Today is judgment day, so let us pray and all join in a rising refrain of higher and higher. But this isn’t about spiritual transcendence or ganja-fueled meditation. What’s getting higher is the cost of living. It’s 1974, and the future is unclear. Yet somehow this group playing secular church music in rubbery sync, with chapel-ready backup harmonies and a lead singer in the throes of ecstasy, lift the song itself up to show that deliverance is possible if we band together.

“Time Tough” immediately frames Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston as a wry testament to the shared circumstances of the black and working-class masses. It registers the depth of struggle, while offering grounds for celebrating the ways life can and does go on. As its title reveals, the album courted an international audience by nodding to what was then the latest form of black musical currency, a suggestion Toots received from Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, who was impressed by the unlikely crossover success of “Funky Nassau” (1971) by Bahamas-based band The Beginning of the End. Funky was a style Jamaican artists like Toots were proud to pull off with unique swagger.

After all, if funk registered an earthy embrace of grit and sweat, Kingston had that in spades. And if funk’s minimalist syncopation of soul mirrored a shift in the Civil Rights movement from liberal reforms to militant demands, reggae was similarly emerging as rebel music, an insurgent expression of Jamaica’s urbanizing, disenfranchised masses—black and proud and loud. Inspired by the strides and styles of their African American brethren and sistren, reggae represented a bottom-up cultural turn in Jamaican music and society, as the Jamaican people voted with their feet to dance along in diaspora rather than have their national culture dictated from above by Eurocentric local elites. Consequently, reggae’s ongoing relationship with American pop is part of what has made it legible for foreign audiences, even when they interpret it on their own terms. An early review of Funky Kingston called it “Jamaican rock’n’roll.”

Almost half a century later, in the shadow of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and other luminaries, it can be hard to appreciate the impact of Toots and the Maytals as reggae found itself on the verge of worldwide exposure. By the early 1970s, the group had earned their place among the cream of the crop, having won over Jamaican audiences for a decade beginning in the ska era, continuing through rocksteady, and helping to cement yet another turn in style and nomenclature in 1968 with their local hit “Do the Reggay.” The Maytals won the annual national Festival Song Competition three times, including the inaugural year of 1966 with the anthemic and much-versioned “Bam Bam.” The Festival’s mission was to cultivate patriotic pride in Jamaican culture, and Toots knew how to ring that bell.

Toots’ churchy, country upbringing was key to shaping his nationally resonant voice, but it was also central to his appeal abroad. Before moving to Kingston as a young man, Toots grew up in May Pen, Clarendon, a parish to the west of Kingston and part of the large swath of the island Jamaicans refer to as “country” (as in, anything outside of “town”). Learning to sing in what he described to journalist David Katz as “a clapping church,” the son of two Seventh Day Adventist preachers honed his voice like so many soul-singer counterparts in the U.S. At 13, Toots moved to Trench Town, the same downtown Kingston community that fostered Bob Marley. His prowess was quickly recognized by a couple local boys, Ralphus “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias, and they formed a vocal trio named after Toots’ hometown. The Maytals’ early recordings and performances in 1963 and ’64 reveal a clear debt to the gospel quartet, their songs closer to revivalist hymns than Brill Building confections or bawdy blues. The trio recorded for such premier producers as Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Prince Buster, but unsatisfied with the financial side of these ventures, they moved from studio to studio, eventually striking up a thriving partnership with producer Leslie Kong of Beverley’s Records, the label he named after his wife.

An 18-month jail sentence for what Toots insists was a trumped-up charge temporarily derailed the Maytals just as the hot new sound of rocksteady—slower, groovier songs played by smaller, more electric ensembles—began to eclipse ska’s jazz-age pomp. Upon his release in 1968, the group reconvened and recorded a song about Toots’ imprisonment for Kong, “54-46 (That’s My Number),” which quickly became the Maytals’ biggest hit. Their success continued over the next few years, and when it was time to cast The Harder They Come, the 1972 cult-favorite film and breakthrough soundtrack that introduced the U.S. counterculture to a new wave of Jamaican music, the Maytals were an obvious choice. The trio steals a scene in the film, singing in the studio as the star-struck country-boy protagonist played by Jimmy Cliff looks on, and two of the dance hall favorites they recorded with Kong in 1969, “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop,” were standouts on the soundtrack. In a documentary about Toots, label exec Chris Blackwell describes him as “easily the biggest act in Jamaica” prior to the rise of Bob Marley. As with Marley’s international success, and the aesthetic calculus made to market him abroad, Blackwell looms large in the story of Funky Kingston.

Blackwell signed the Maytals as they were riding reggae’s cresting wave, and as with Marley, he used his marketing savvy to expand the genre’s beachhead overseas. In addition to presenting the music on long-playing albums—not a common format in Jamaica’s single-driven market—he also remixed and overdubbed recordings to make them more sonically familiar to audiences accustomed to rock and pop, and he re-branded his biggest acts through rock’s established lead-man imagery. Under Blackwell’s direction, the Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailers while the Maytals were recrowned Toots and the Maytals. They were less a group than a vocal trio sutured to the house band at Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sounds studio: Toots, Raleigh, and Jerry, and a group of players called the Beverley’s All-Stars would go on to play together for decades.

Initially, Blackwell focused on the UK, a market where Jamaican artists like Millie Small and Desmond Dekker scored crossover pop hits in the 1960s, and where the Windrush generation had built a sound system culture to locally “broadcast” Jamaica’s latest hits. Under his Dragon Records imprint, a collaboration with Dynamic Sounds, Blackwell pushed two albums by Toots and the Maytals to the UK market: 1973’s Funky Kingston and 1974’s In the Dark. Sensing an opportunity in the U.S., Blackwell repackaged these recordings—along with 1969’s “Pressure Drop” for good measure—for a 1975 Mango/Island release that aimed to introduce Toots and the Maytals to the wider international audience quickly warming up to the sound of his country and countrymen. The Mango version of Funky Kingston was widely hailed by music critics as a remarkable achievement for reggae. Lester Bangs called it “perfection” in Stereo Review, and the album narrowly missed the top 10 in the Village Voice’s 1975 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, edged out by the Who by a single point. (To promote the album, Blackwell sent Toots and the Maytals on tour with the Who, as well as the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne.) Hot on the heels of The Harder They Come (1972) and Marley’s Catch a Fire (1973), Funky Kingston captured the group—and reggae—at a creative peak and offered another strategy for marketing Jamaican music to the wider world: letting it be itself.

While Bob Marley’s music has succeeded in defining reggae through its massive popularity and influence, his best-known albums are less reflective of the core Jamaican sound at the time. Marley’s first album for Island, Catch a Fire (1973), was extensively re-recorded, remixed, and overdubbed in London. Under Blackwell’s direction, the rougher, darker sound of the Wailers’ Kingston-made multitracks were filtered, brightened, and adorned with Muscle Shoals blues licks and au courant clavinets. Verses were excised to make room for Clapton-esque guitar solos, the lower frequencies of Marley’s voice rolled off to set it apart from all the mid-range clutter. Funky Kingston may have been conceived by Blackwell to target the same overseas audiences, but it differs markedly in this regard. The most Blackwell seems to have meddled is by overdubbing occasional soul-style horns from the Sons of Jungle band, a group of Ghanaian musicians based in London. In contrast to the effects-laden dub approach then taking hold among more experimental reggae producers, or the over-the-top multitracking in the world of rock and pop, the audio engineering on Funky Kingston is meant to be invisible.

This lack of aesthetic intervention seems all the more remarkable given how Funky Kingston is so musically invested in genre outreach. Proof of concept and point of pride, the title track offers the clearest example. Built around a one-chord bassline that would make Bootsy Collins grin, “Funky Kingston” carefully balances soul and funk with a solid foundation of one-drop drums and a steady offbeat skank from the piano and rhythm guitar. Eventually, the group indulges in a lightly pedantic James Brown-style breakdown, as Toots brings the instruments back in one by one: “Let me hear your funky guitar … now reggae.” There’s even a guitar solo, though it hardly approaches the blues-rock pyrotechnics that, say, Wayne Perkins added to Marley’s “Concrete Jungle.” The sax here, as with the other horn overdubs on the album, feels gratuitous, but it fits enough to fly. A fusion-forward experiment that could have fallen flat, the song manages to transcend gimmick by mining common ground.

While Funky Kingston is often as cosmopolitan as Marley’s music, it is also more local in character and address. Toots’ sound is grounded in a rural Jamaican sensibility that runs parallel to other sites in the diaspora shaped by similar historical forces: legacies of slavery and colonialism, rural peasantry and urban migration, Afro-Christian approaches to worship, music, and dance. While the son of two preachers from May Pen enjoyed a certain privileged access to Jamaica’s “country soul,” as Charles Hughes might put it, Toots also admired such country-soul brethren as Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown, all of whom he names as favorites. We might hear these godfathers of soul, however, less as novel influences Toots sought to emulate than as kindred contemporaries rooted in the same Afro-Christian traditions that encourage the spontaneous expression of sacred experience. In this musical communion, individuals develop distinctive voices that can sing along with others but still be heard as apart, producing an audible texture of integrative, community engagement. Like so many of his American peers and idols, Toots developed his broadly resonant voice in this sacred context, a medium for collective sentiment, drawing on the powers of fervor and faith, falsetto and distortion, ad-libbed interjection, wordless groans, and other sympathetic vibrations.

Toots’ original, downhome hymns all have this character, of course, but his ability to be heard as an individual among the broader collective comes into starkest relief on Funky Kingston when he turns to cover songs. On “Louie Louie,” Toots and company bring an old I-IV-V cha-cha-chá back to the Caribbean, crisping up the Kingsmen’s sloppy rock version by re-infusing some of the staccato polyrhythms that initially inspired Richard Berry to rewrite a local hit by L.A.’s biggest Latin band. For his customized version of John Denver’s “Country Roads (Take Me Home),” Toots makes the song his own by resetting it in “West Jamaica,” seasoning with gospel interjections, and making a foreign “country” song seem utterly at home in the Jamaican countryside. Jackie Jackson adds a little oom-pah to his bassline, but otherwise, the band fully transforms the song into an easy-skanking one-drop.

For all the nods to soul, funk, rock, and country—references that local audiences would have taken in stride as part of the modern Jamaican soundscape—Funky Kingston nevertheless sounds like an authentic, unadulterated expression of Toots’ and Jamaica’s country soul. With even greater hindsight, the album seems far more prophetic for Jamaica’s lane in the global mainstream than Marley’s exceptional reach. Despite being conceived as a sales pitch, Funky Kingston is, like the best Jamaican crossovers, full of songs geared first and foremost toward Jamaican listeners and local sound systems. From 1980 forward, as roots reggae gave ground to a next-generation style even more locally focused and coded—soon to be known simply as dancehall, after its primary site—the Jamaican artists, from Yellowman to Vybz Kartel, who have enjoyed the warmest embrace abroad have been those who, for all their winking nods to foreign musical kinfolk, insist on pleasing funky Kingston first.


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Toots and the Maytals - Funky Kingston Music Album Reviews Toots and the Maytals - Funky Kingston Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, April 07, 2020 Rating:

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