Toots & the Maytals

Bla. Bla. Bla.

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The Maytals ended the ska era on a decided down note. Having spent that era working with many of Jamaica's foundation producers and unleashing a flood of hit singles, the band was poised for international stardom. Toots Hibbert's arrest and imprisonment put paid to that, at least for a couple of years, as the group refused to record without him. Fans were devastated, and the world lost the opportunity of hearing the trio in rocksteady mode. The frontman's release in 1968 coincided with the rise of reggae, and the group celebrated his freedom in the new musical style with their smash hit "54-46 That's My Number." That single was recorded for producer Leslie Kong, and marked the beginning of a spectacular relationship that saw a deluge of hit 45s follow, among them a pair of Independence Song Competition winners -- 1969's "Sweet and Dandy" and 1972's "Pomps and Pride." The Maytals remained loyally and successfully at Kong's side until his untimely death in 1971. Bla. Bla. Bla rounds up 19 recordings from this period, but as the omission of "Pomps" makes clear, it's far from a definitive set. Then again, this is a good thing, for regardless of the Maytals profligacy, modern compilations tend to draw from the same restricted pool of smash hits and British club killers. This collection tries to right this wrong, and provide a more sweeping selection of songs. So, rude reggae fave "One Eyed Enos" rubs shoulders with rousing gospels like "I Shall Be Free," and skinhead stompers like "Monkey Man" skank up to slower numbers like "Pressure Drop." There's also a fine re-recording of "Bam Bam," the original, which took the honors at the first Independence Festival Competition in 1966, and there are alternate versions of a pair of singles, "Bla Bla Bla" and "Aldina." Although many of these numbers may be unfamiliar to younger fans, one should be assured that during this era the trio never cut even a mediocre number, everything was of uniformly high caliber. The backings are all equally superb and Kong's productions flawless. In its day, Bla. Bla. Bla was a crucial compilation, and has rarely been superseded since.

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