By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Stern Grove hosts a rare double bill Sunday, bringing together pioneering reggae outfit Toots and the Maytals and soul great Lee Fields and the Expressions to share the stage.READ MORE: San Francisco Schools, Public Health Dept. Partner to Provide Campus COVID Vaccinations
Fronted by legendary vocalist Fredrick “Toots” Hibbert (who began singing gospel music in a church choir as a child), the group came together as the Maytals in Kingston in 1962 as a vocal trio Hibbert formed with Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Mathias. Their initial success came with singles the trio recorded in collaboration with producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and backing from his studio house band the Skatalites — initially overshadowing the chart performance of Dodd’s other vocal group, the Wailers.
However, the Maytals would eventually bring on their own group of musicians and rechristened the group Toots and the Maytals. The band took first prize in the inaugural Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition with their original song “Bam Bam” in 1966, but later that year suffered a setback when Hibbert was arrested and jailed for 18 months after a marijuana bust.
Once the singer was released, the Maytals started their collaboration with producer Leslie Kong, scoring a string of hits that would stretch into the next decade with such smash songs as “Do the Reggay” — the first song to use the word “reggae” — “Pressure Drop” and “54-46 (That’s My Number),” which scored the band another Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition win in 1969. Their 1970 hit “Monkey Man” got Toots and the Maytals noticed by Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell, who signed them as the imprint’s first reggae act (even before Bob Marley and the Wailers).
Toots and company would rise to greater fame with the inclusion of two songs on the soundtrack to the landmark movie The Harder They Come starring fellow Jamaican artist Jimmy Cliff. The band’s landmark ’70s albums Funky Kingston, In the Dark and Reggae Got Soul showcased Hibbert’s songwriting and fiery, soulful delivery that earned the singer comparisons to such R&B greats as Otis Redding and James Brown. A tour supporting British rock band the Who in 1975 further broadened their audience.
The group exerted a huge influence on both the punk scene (the Clash would famously cover “Pressure Drop) as well as the British ska revival that began in the late ’70s. Hibbert spent much of the ’80s working as a solo artist, but by the following decade he had convened a new line-up of the Maytals and has remained a popular live attraction ever since.READ MORE: Small Earthquake Rattles East Bay Hills Near San Ramon
In 2004, Toots released True Love, a collection of new recordings of his classic songs that were made in collaboration with an array of music royalty including Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. The album would go on to win the Grammy Award for best reggae album that year. Toots and the Maytals bring their infectious grooves and sweet reggae sounds to Stern Grove with R&B veteran Lee Fields and his backing group, the Expressions.
Much like his fellow soul singers Bettye LaVette and the late Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, gritty funk shouter Lee Fields delivers impassioned, heart-on-the-sleeve vocals that hearken back to the music’s classic ’60s era. Fields started his recording career in 1969 after relocating from his home in North Carolina to New York City while still in his teens.
With moves, a sound and even a physical resemblance to James Brown, Fields earned the nickname “Little J.B.” and recorded a cover of Brown’s 1959 hit “Bewildered” for his first single release on the Bedford Records label. He would put out a number of funk 45s for a variety of different labels during the early ’70s while sharing stages with such notables as Kool & the Gang and O.V. Wright. He would work with the label Angle 3 Records during the latter part of the decade, eventually issuing his first full album, Let’s Talk It Over, in 1979.
While his mix of sweaty funk workouts and soulful ballads didn’t find an audience at the height of the disco era (Fields would eventually start working in real estate to support his family during the 1980s) the effort later became a coveted collectors item, selling for hundreds of dollars. Fields would return to music during the ’90s, initially recording a couple of synth-heavy soul/blues albums for Ace Records before connecting with Gabriel Roth and Phillip Lehman and their NYC-based imprint Desco Records for a series of singles that were a throwback to Fields’ earlier James Brown-inspired work.
That label would evolve, splitting into Daptone Records and Soul Fire Records. The two companies would feature Fields and Sharon Jones on a number of 45s and albums, elevating the singers as two of the foremost classic ’60s sound and funk revivalists of the 2000s. Fields has put out a series of outstanding R&B albums, most recently issuing the acclaimed 2016 effort Special Night on Big Crown Records.
The singer’s uncanny vocal emulation of James Brown led him to provide the singing voice for the Brown biopic Get On Up in 2014. Along with his talented backing band the Expressions, Fields and company have established a well-deserved reputation as a scorching live act that has become a staple of music festivals across the globe (their main stage set at Outside Lands in 2017 was a highlight of the three-day fest in Golden Gate Park). The two acts team up at Stern Grove this Sunday for what is sure one of the highlights of the Grove’s 82nd season.MORE NEWS: Analysis: Newsom Landslide Provides Little Reassurance for Democrats in 2022
Toots and the Maytals and Lee Fields and the Expressions
Sunday, July 21, 2 p.m. Free