Song of the Week: “54-46 Was My Number,” Toots and the Maytals

Click here to listen to “54-46 Was My Number,” by Toots and the Maytals

Jamaica is well known for a couple things, among them rum and reggae. Some types of rum that are known worldwide, like Appleton Estate or Myers’s. They’re justifiably famous products, but a little predictable.

Then there’s the other stuff—kept under the counter or dripping from a still in the hills. It doesn’t have the same kind of name brand recognition, but if you’re getting a little bored with Appleton or Myers’s, it can be just the thing to spice your night up. Funkier, dirtier, a little more complex.

As with rum, so with reggae. Bob Marley is Appleton Estate—omnipresent and rightfully respected. Toots Hibbert and his band the Maytals is Wray and Nephew White, a type of overproof rum that is popular in Jamaica but doesn’t have the same type of appeal elsewhere. It’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful.

“54-46 Was My Number” hits like a double shot. Hibbert starts with a soul-style phrasing on the opening line, which has a touch of gospel theater about it. When the band comes in with the archetypical steady, thumping rhythm, they sound rawer and a little more primal than Marley and the Wailers, particularly Hibbert’s vocal, which owes more to Otis Redding than anyone else. The squelchy, reverb-heavy guitar and late ‘60s organ sound (is that the riff from “Palisades Park” played in half-time at 2:30?) also give it more variety than the typical listener might expect from a reggae song.

More than any other genre except perhaps for funk, reggae is all about tuning into a groove and then riding it through. It’s not always dedicated to Dylanesque imagery or blistering guitar solos so much as a constant smooshing of a primal rhythmic button. Toots and the Maytals do this very well. The breaks, “give it to me…one time” and so on, might seem gimmicky, but they’re stop-time technique. You don’t really appreciate the rhythm until it’s snatched away from you. And Hibbert’s scatting over the last half of the track could read like filler, but it’s oddly compelling. His vocal improvisations further emphasize the offbeat, creating the organic pulse that’s so essential to reggae.

There’s a lot more nooks and crannies to explore in reggae—and a lot more interesting artists to sample. There’s nothing wrong with Bob Marley, but if he’s the only name you know, you’ll miss out on some seriously good stuff. So while there’s a time and a place for your Appleton Estate, or God forbid, Captain Morgan, never be afraid to ask for what the locals are drinking. You’ll be happy you did.

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