0313: “54-46 Was My Number” by Toots & the Maytals

What separates Toots & the Maytals from almost all of the first generation of Jamaican ska, reggae, and rocksteady recording artists is Toots Hibbert. Set against a traditional sound is a man whose voice is so distinctly Jamaican while also sounding so thoroughly like an amalgam of Otis Redding and James Brown. Toots possesses a raw, full-throated, fiery preacher’s voice, which seems to go against the expected construction of how ska, reggae, and rocksteady should sound but he is more than capable of making it work because, like a small town preacher, he knows what notes to hit. If you’ve never heard a Maytals song (and there’s a good chance that you haven’t because they are criminally overlooked in the US for the most part), “54-46 Was My Number” is an excellent introduction to Toots’s voice and the band’s music. The song starts with Toots yelling “Stick it up, mister!” and some back-and-forth calling with other members Henry Gordon and Nathaniel Mathias. The melody that kicks in after this is some of the best reggae ever produced; this summer drinking and summer dancing, complete with the daydreams of being on a Jamaican beach kind of melody. Bob Marley may be the face of the reggae genre but bands that preceded him like The Maytals hold the raw, connective power to it. The Maytals are credited with naming the genre. This song is an excellent example of why they were ahead of their time.

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