Last week I got the news that Frederick “Toots” Hibbert had been put into a medical coma after being hospitalized with Covid-19. When I woke up this morning and saw that he had passed away, I wasn’t surprised, but it’s funny how expecting news doesn’t make it any less sad when you get it. Toots was a giant in music, and especially in the ska world, I’ve been part of for so long. It’s very likely that many of my all-time favorite bands wouldn’t even exist without him.
I fell in love with the song Pressure Drop when it appeared in the movie “Grosse Point Blank,” which I’d go so far as to say is my all-time favorite movie. The version in the film, and on the soundtrack, is from the Specials 1996 album “Today’s Specials.” That album, made 12 years after their previous album, only featured some of the original lineup is somewhat reviled, and with generally good reason, it isn’t very good. Despite that, their cover of Pressure Drop, with vocals from Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, is terrific. From the opening organ to the closing fade out as they sing, “Pressure’s got a drop on you,” it’s simply perfect. It’s faster than the original and more than a minute longer but the vocals, organ, and sped up beat make it a vital and joyful song. I couldn’t begin to guess how many times I’ve played it while singing along at the top of my lungs while driving around in my car, or how many times just hearing it has made me feel better. It’s a song that simply makes me happy, no matter which version, but this one in particular.
“Which version?” is not an entirely unusual question when talking about songs, but with Hibbert’s masterpiece, it’s something of a larger question. There are a LOT of covers and versions from the man himself. If you look the song up on Spotify, you can see a lot of them, although it’s by no means a comprehensive list. Everyone from the Clash, Robert Palmer, Keith Richards, to Willie Nelson has taken a crack at the song. I have almost a dozen in just my personal CD/Record/MP3 collections. It’s a bit like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in that so many people want to take a crack at it. Unlike “Hallelujah,” however, almost every version is worth listening to. That’s not to say it’s better than “Hallelujah,” but it’s a different kind of song.
At its very core, Pressure Drop is joyful. It’s impossible not to tap your foot or bounce your head along to it. The original, produced by the great Leslie Kong, is so full of life it’s almost overwhelming. Toots gravely baritone sweeps and soars over the music with an energy and confidence that feels bursting at the seams. The small studio it was recorded in could barely contain the sonic force he could muster. It’s incredibly life-affirming, and no wonder so many artists and bands find themselves performing it.
Another of my favorites is from Toots 2004 album “True Love.” It’s an album of re-recordings of his classic songs with different musicians. For “Pressure Drop,” he teams up with Eric Clapton. Clapton’s guitar dances around the track as Toots older and somehow bigger voice belts out of the lyrics with as much love and passion as the original. The whole album is a lot of fun, especially “Funky Kingston” recorded with the Roots and Bootsy Collins, but the “Pressure Drop” always makes me smile.
I was lucky enough to see him perform two years ago at the Mighty Mighty Bosstones Cranking and Skanking festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. The festival was in a concrete parking lot on a warm day with a massive lineup of bands I love. The Pietasters, Fishbone, Big D and the Kids Table, The Bouncing Souls, and more. It was a great day and a great show by the Bosstones to close it out, but unquestionably the highlight was Toots and the Maytals.
Toots was 76 at the time and had lost none of his presence or energy. He commanded the stage like a preacher delivering a particularly cracking sermon. He ripped through most of his classics and even played an excellent new song called “Marley.” My brother and I were enraptured, knowing we were seeing something special, and then he played Pressure Drop.
My brother loves the song Pressure Drop as much as I do. There’s something magical about seeing a song so important to you played live for the first time. It’s both validating and fulfilling at the same time. We both knew that we were lucky to get to see the performance and hear that song. With today’s news, it drives home how lucky we were even more.
This year has been awful, and Covid has robbed us of so many people. It’s almost incomprehensible. It’s taken so much from us, and now it’s taken the chance for anyone else to experience what we did that day in Lowell. It’s taken from us all the music that Toots would have created and all the joy he would have brought people. He was a giant on this earth, and his legacy will always shine brightly.
So few of us get the chance to create something perfect in our time here, but Toots did with Pressure Drop, and I’ll always be grateful.
Rest In Power.