"54-46 Was My Number"
...by Toots and the Maytals
Toots and the Maytals have been coming around for so long now that news of their arrival is taken in stride, much like the way one might embrace a change of season or impending weather. They started out as a trio called the Maytals back in the early 1960s with the gospel singers Henry Gordon, Nathaniel Mathias, and Frederick Hibbert, a church-raised R&B-ish singer from Clarendon, Jamaica, otherwise known by his nickname: Toots. This little group could not only sing like angels, but they wrote hit songs as well and were on the upswing when Hibbert got nailed for weed and went away to prison for a year and a half on a possession charge. He cried innocent in a song he wrote while locked up called “54-46 Was My Number”: “Get your hands in the air, sir,” Hibbert calls in a voice that is heartachingly comparable to that of Ray Charles, “And you will get no hurt, mister.”
The Maytals are credited by some with the first use of the word “reggae” (they spelled it reggay) and became a hit-singles factory when Hibbert got out of prison. They released winners deep into the ’70s, which is around the time that a record label suit decided they should become Toots and the Maytals. And for a time after, the group seemed omnipresent, headlining everything from festivals to cheesy campus venues. They even made it onto the soundtrack of Jimmy Cliff’s ultra-popular film The Harder They Come. But the Maytals never generated the waves that their pals Peter Tosh and Bob Marley did among concertgoers and record-buyers here in the States. They split in 1981, then came back in the ’90s with different members. Now 71, Grammy-award-winner Hibbert, that most soulful of Jamaican singers, appears to have no “off” switch.