Leroy ‘Heptones’ Sibbles
@ the Indigo 02
31 July 2012
Click an image to enlarge.
As ska slowed to rock steady in the mid to late 1960s, Sibbles
occupied a key position at the 13 Brentford Road studio of Clement
“Coxson” Dodd. In addition to his work with The Heptones,
Sibbles was a session bassist and arranger at Studio One during
a time that much of Jamaica’s most enduring popular music
Sibbles and Heptones’ co-founders Barry Llewellyn and Earl
Morgan met in the mid 1960s, around the time Sibbles’ first
group auditioned for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio. Reid
declined the opportunity to record that group. Llewllyn and Morgan
recruited Sibbles and formed the Heptones, and Ken Lack of Caltone
accepted the trio was accepted for a session. Sibbles describes
the initial chemistry of the three singers. “It’s
a spiritual thing . . . cause is not nothing that was planned that
we said ‘this is exactly what we wanted.’ We came from
Trenchtown. As kids growing up, the direction was there for us.
It happened. Like magic. It was nothing that we studied . . . When
we get together, that magic always comes about.” The
trio’s initial recordings for Lack were “School Girls”
and “Gun Man Coming to Town.” Though the songs didn’t
achieve hit status, the latter composition made the playlists at
Radio Jamaica Rediffusion (RJR) and fuelled the trio’s determination.
In the early years, Sibbles was arc welding during the day and
managed to buy a guitar with the money he saved. “The
guys were still doing their day jobs, and I stayed home and start
writing almost every night. I was writing and arranging, and I loved
it. Putting all those ideas that I didn’t know I had in me
just pouring out like water. Everyday I wrote a new song and every
night the guys would come to rehearse . . . I started picking up
guitar lessons from this Rastaman named Huntly, he was the first
to show me the scales, and I started to learn chords and positions.
I was so hungry to learn . . . The more I learned, the bigger songs
I could write. The whole thing was a new life, a new world . . .
Everywhere you saw me I had my guitar back then. I wouldn’t
go nowhere without it. I would be writing songs, and inspiration
would be flowing like water, anywhere - daytime, night time, wherever
The Heptones were among the most prolific and influential groups
of the rock steady era, along with the Pioneers, Gaylads, Paragons,
Hamlins, Uniques, and Techniques. Signature Heptones songs included
“Baby,” “Get In The Groove,” “Ting
A Ling,” “Fattie Fattie,” “Got To Fight
On (To The Top),” “Party Time,” and “Sweeting
Talking.” The group’s Studio One output has been collected
on albums The Heptones, On Top, Ting A Ling, Freedom Line, and the
more recent Heartbeat anthology, Sea of Love.
In retrospect, Sibbles regards the Heptones’ album On Top
among his best work. “On Top pleases me very much. It is a
work that I am really satisfied with a song called ‘Love Me
Girl,’ I like that. And another called ‘Guiding Star.’
The other song that I like from the On Top album is called ‘Pure
Sorrow.’ I like the progression in that song.”
The transition from the blazing rhythms of ska to its mellower
offspring, rock steady, was one of the most important changes in
the history of Jamaican popular music. Rock steady was characterised
by several elements. Most prominent was the drop of snare drum on
the third beat of the measure (which would also be found in reggae).
Rock steady adapted from ska a rhythmic emphasis on every upbeat,
but the rhythm guitarist played this part instead of a saxophonist.
Rock steady was more rigid than later reggae, which would readapt
some of the looser polyrhythmic characteristics of Jamaican mento,
particularly the use of triplets. The “big band” horn
melodies of ska were broken down to sax and trombone for rock steady
but remained an essential melodic component of the music. Sweet
vocal harmonies like those of the Heptones, influenced by North
American soul and rhythm & blues, were also key ingredients.
Sibbles recalls how the Heptones fit into the musical landscape
of the period. “When we were listening as kids to music,
it was ska. Bob Marley was doing ska. Toots & the Maytals, Delroy
Wilson was doing ska. Even as a kid . . . I was singing some Delroy
Wilson songs, which was really up-tempo . . . Then, when we got
together, our kind of music was much slower than the ska thing.
I would not say that the Heptones were the ones who changed the
music, but we know that we were responsible for the change too.
Because when we started, we started with songs like ‘A Change
Has Got To Come.’ And it was much slower than what was happening.
We were a part of the change for sure. We started doing songs like
‘Ting A Ling A Ling,’ and dem songs deh.”
“The first time I heard my song on the radio was the
thrill of my life . . . I run out of my yard down the lane. ‘Listen!
That’s me!’ Yeah, like ‘the British are coming,’”
Beyond his work as a singer/songwriter, Sibbles’ contribution
as a bass player to the collective output and enduring legacy of
Studio One is perhaps his greatest achievement. Sibbles was encouraged
to learn the bass by Jamaican musical giant and Studio One keyboardist
/ arranger Jackie Mittoo, who needed a bass player for live performances
of a lounge trio.
When Mittoo left full time duties at Studio One, Sibbles arranged
sessions, sang harmony, and played bass as a part of the studio
crew variously known as the Soul Vendors or Sound Dimension. These
musicians, with the notable aid of engineer Sylvan Morris, dropped
their rhythms behind vocalists Bob Andy, Alton Ellis, Horace Andy,
Carlton Manning, The Abyssinians, The Gladiators, Willi Williams,
Ken Boothe, John Holt, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Slim Smith,
and scores of others. Sibbles was a key contributor to tracks like
Roy Richards’ “Freedom Blues,” “Love Me
Forever” by Carlton & The Shoes, “Satta Amassaganna”
and “Declaration of Rights” by the Abyssinians, “Stars”
and “Queen of the Minstrel” by Cornell Campbell, “Ten
To One” by the Mad Lads, “Door Peep” by Burning
Spear, and instrumentals like “Real Rock” and “Full
Because of the Jamaican process of versioning and the liberal recycling
of rhythms in subsequent years, many of the songs, rhythms, and
melodies written and recorded during the rock steady era continued
to adorn the sound of Jamaican music for the next 30 years. The
best known of all of Sibbles’ collaborations is probably the
instrumental “Full Up,” popularised internationally
by Musical Youth’s recording of “Pass the Dutchie,”
an adaptation of the Mighty Diamonds’ “Pass the Kutchie.”
Sibbles’ legacy also endures in Horace Andy’s tribute
to him, “Mr. Bassie.” Also well known is the ubiquitous
“Real Rock” instrumental, later voiced by Willi Williams
as “Armagideon Time” and internationalized by the Clash.
The bass parts Sibbles and others developed in rock steady utilised
a rhythmic space found in later roots reggae, where the notes weren’t
necessarily played or sustained on each downbeat of a 4/4 measure.
But Sibbles further differentiates his style from his bass playing
contemporaries like Jackie Jackson, Boris Gardiner, and Aston Barrett.
“When I started playing professionally, I created my style.
I realised that most musicians start before the down beat or on
the beat. So I created a thing after the beat. And that took off,
and right now it makes me stand out in the history of reggae music
as a bass man.”
Other musicians involved in the Studio One rock steady sessions
included Richard Ace on keyboards; Bunny Williams, Joe Isaacs, and
Fil Callendar on drums; Eric Frater and Ernest Ranglin on guitar,
and the often underappreciated horn section of Felix “Deadley
Headley” Bennett on saxophone and Vin Gordon (a.k.a. “Don
D. Jr.”) on trombone.
Controversy over Dodd’s contribution to the musical product
at Studio One will continue forever, but predictably, Sibbles corroborates
the claims of his colleagues that Dodd’s role was generally
limited to the business side of the operation. “Coxson is
known all over the world as the producer. But we studio musicians
were producing the songs. Coxson was the executive producer. That’s
what Coxson is . . . Dodd don’t know a G note from a F note.
He can’t identify a musical instrument’s chord or key,
or nothing like that. But he has the studio, and he has the finance
to do it, so that makes him an executive. The producer is the guy
who sits inside and . . . gets into his soul to find the right thing,
or the thing that works.”
“That’s the only part of the Studio One experience
that bugs me. Because that is the inspiration that God gave me,
for me to live off too.”
After growing frustrated from high demands and lack of remuneration
at Studio One, Sibbles and the Heptones recorded for other producers
including Lee Perry, Harry Johnson, JoJo HooKim, Niney The Observer,
Clive Chin, Gussie Clarke, Lloyd Campbell, Prince Buster, Ossie
Hibbert, Phil Pratt, Harry Mudie, Geoffrey Chung, Danny Holloway,
Rupie Edwards, and Joe Gibbs. Sibbles recalls his association with
Joe Gibbs with some irritation. “I’m the first person
who ever helped Joe Gibbs in the music business. Joe Gibbs came
to town, to Kingston, and opened a little electronic shop, repairing
transistor radios and stuff. That is what he started out doing.
He had a little shop downtown on Parade. And he met me, and he wanted
us to go into the recording business. And he got this little singer
called Errol Dunkley, who sings “every man does his thing
a little way different.” Then Joe Gibbs called me, and I would
sit down with Errol Dunkley and work the songs out to get them ready
for recording, with my little box guitar. And I would straighten
these songs out for nothing at all, free of cost.”
Other Heptones releases from the early ’70s were Book of
Rules (Trojan) and the lesser-known Harry Johnson-produced album
Cool Rasta (Trojan), recorded just before the group benefited from
the internationalisation of reggae via Island Records. The Danny
Holloway-produced “Night Food” and Lee “Scratch”
Perry-produced “Party Time” were the fruit of the association
with Island. Sibbles left the Heptones from 1977 to 1995.
As a solo artist, Sibbles worked with Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’
Barnes, Lloyd Parks, Sly & Robbie, Augustus Pablo, and Lee Perry,
but primarily produced himself. Sibbles moved to Canada in 1973
and became a sizable pop reggae star, but he feels in retrospect
he lost touch with the currency of Jamaican music. “I
think that moving to Canada was the worst thing that I ever did,
because I just went so far and couldn’t go no further there.
I was trying my best to keep up as much as I could, but I lost touch
with what was happening here in Jamaica.” In Canada,
Sibbles won a Juno award, recorded an album for A&M and cut
several good albums for Pete Weston’s Micron label. These
include one of his best albums, Strictly Roots, a heavy drum &
bass workout backed by the Roots Radics.
In recent years Sibbles has been working on new material at his
studio in Kingston. He is also producing for popular artists, up
and coming lyricists, and composing new songs. In the near future,
he plans to release more original material.
Despite his ambivalence about certain aspects of his career, Sibbles
has always felt that music is his raison d’etre. “After
a while one day I sat down and said ‘my God this was my destiny,’
ya’know this music thing and what ever power it was, was showing
it to me all the time from when I was a kid . . . it took me all
my lifetime to realize that, yeah mon. I realise I was made for
“When I was from about nine years old, I used to have
a vision. When I sleep at night, I used to see myself float off
the ground to the height of a telephone pole. I was floating . .
. and a crowd would gather and would be pointing up at me. And I’d
be looking down at them . . . and that vision used to haunt me.
And I could never understand what that meant. And it was . . . while
I was living in Canada, . . . the vision start coming back to me
again. And it hit me one day, and you know what I saw out of that
vision? Myself on stage . . . I’m telling you . . . I was
made for this . . . And no matter where I go in the world, whenever
I sing for people, they understand, they love it, and it comes naturally.”