In 1966 Toots and the Maytals won Jamaica's National Popular Song Contest with "Bam Bam," but everything was put on hold after Fred "Toots" Hibbert was wrongfully arrested on a ganja smoking charge. Toots wrote this song about his time in jail.
54-46 was Toots' prisoner ID number during his servitude; he made the recording shortly after his release. He told Uncut magazine about it in 2020:
"I never smoked weed in those times. I never do nothing like that. I was just finished leaving school, but I won this festival (the inaugural Jamaican independence festival popular song competition) with 'Bam Bam' and people get jealous, and frame me for weed. I got the chance to meet some people, one of them was Chris Blackwell, and after the festival I was supposed to go away on my first Europe tour, but then some kind of musical politics came in. They couldn't do nothing else than what they did because they didn't have goodness in them heart for me. It was politics. I never go to prison.
They bring me to a special place, where I have my own clothes, I got my own food from my home, I got my guitar, I got all the comforts that I have at home.
They get to hold me back from my success. It's a long story. So what did I do? I wrote a song about it. I still have to feed on my enemies who did it. It was three persons. I can't call no names, but I think they all died now. They were in the music industry, or something like that. But I have a good mind for them."
Originally released on January 1, 1968, the song was a huge reggae hit in Jamaica. It samples the riddim from "Train to Skaville" by Toots and the Maytals' contemporaries, The Ethiopians.
A follow-up version released a year later, "54-46 Was My Number," was one of the first reggae songs to receive widespread popularity outside Jamaica. Toots and the Maytals later included that track on their 1973 international album In the Dark.
The closing refrain of The Clash's 1978 track "Jail Guitar Doors
" features Joe Strummer singing "54-46 was my number, right now someone else has that number" in tribute to this song. The Clash later recorded a cover of the Maytals' "Pressure Drop
Rebel MC and Double Trouble based their 1989 UK #3 hit "Street Tuff" on this song's bassline.
The song appears in the 2010 sci-fi film Repo Men.