When it comes to the real cornerstones of Jamaican music you will have to narrow it down to a handful who really made their mark, as true innovators, on the development of Jamaican music from ska to reggae. Jackie Mittoo is undoubtedly one of the foremost architects. Another one is Leroy Sibbles. It took a while but soon the world picked up on what happened in Jamaican music during its formative years and finally discovered what a huge importance this man had had previous to the classic works as chief songwriter and lead-singer for the Heptones trio on classic albums for Trojan and Island Records in the mid seventies. Sibbles was bandleader and arranger (after Mittoo had left for Canada) at Coxson Dodd's Studio One as bass-player with the Sound Dimension studio outfit in the late sixties and early seventies. What he did then remains as the very foundation of modern reggae music, creating basslines which has since been duplicated but never perfected. They stand out as some of the most innovative creations in the history of the music so far. And the Heptones as an entity, featuring Barry Llewellyn and Earl Morgan on harmony vocals for the most part, can never be overlooked either, being one of the most successful vocal trios to emerge from Jamaica in the sixties. Leroy is still performing and recording and reissued a series of long out-of-print solo albums from the early eighties a while back. What follows is a conversation I had with Leroy in May, 2004. My thanks to Leroy, Susan Sulman, Bob Schoenfeld, Tim P, Michael de Koningh, Teacher & Mr. T, Bill Just, Donovan Phillips, and Steve Barrow.
Q: Where were you born, it was in the Jones Town area of Kingston, right?
A: Trench Town. Yeah, I was born in Trench Town. Actually I was born on 13th Street - 12th Street I think that was, really. It's a long time now, y'know.
Q: I've never gotten the full picture of how big these places are in actual size or space, like Greenwich Town, Jones Town, Rema, Jungle,Trench Town. How big are these areas?
A: It was like inner neighbourhoods, really. It was really no big population, each population maybe about five thousand people - small, y'know. Yeah, because there were small neighbourhoods, really, with so much. It's all Kingston, but it's like areas in Kingston, nto, right, it's like neighbourhoods in your city, y'know what I mean. Yeah man.
Q: What was it like to grow up in the fifties then, in those type of neighbourhoods?
A: Oh well, back then it was rough. Because it was rough, we were ghetto people, poor people and all that, so it was as rough as it ever could have been, had been. But I guess it's not even as hard as what I am seeing now today, even today i is much harder. But we had our good times through the bad too, y'know. Oh yeah.
Q: You had said several years ago (to Reggae Quarterly) that due to the circumstances, growing up in Trench Town especially, you might as well would've become a gunman, chosen the criminal stuff. It wasn't far away.
A: Oh well, you never know! What I'm saying is I couldn't say that what I would be, but I'm saying that would be a possibility too, 'cause that's where most of the kids ended up, y'know.
Q: Rude boys.
A: Yeah. Because it was like...
Q: It was just around the corner.
A: Yes. It was right there staring in the face, y'know what I mean.
Q: Difficult to avoid too, especially in a place like Trench Town, a place notorious for having the worst criminals in town.
A: Yeah, well, a lot of people fell for that, but I didn't, so I guess it was avoidable. Depends on your destiny and your choosing too, y'know. Yeah, because we all have a say in our lives. Like I say it was there, it was a part of life that I saw too.
Q: Trench Town had the reputation from early on.
A: Yeah, it was looked at as a bad place, because it was the ghetto. I don't know, well, we didn't sit in a bad place, it was a place of our refuge (chuckles). It was there we lived and we had to see it as a good place. People of a financial standing would see it as a place of scorn, y'know what I'm saying? Looked down on such a place, yes. We couldn't do that (chuckles).
Q: Of course. I mean, you didn't know anything else.
Q: What was your family like? You were the only one who took music seriously, wanted to penetrate it more.
A: Yeah, as far as I know, yes.
Q: How big was the family?
A: Oh well, my dad had brothers and his mom was my set of family. Big, real big. Because my momma's side of the family is really big. Yeah, and my father had another side of family on his side too, so real big.
Q: Lot's of 'halfs' concerning brothers and sisters.
A: Yeah, I have like what I can tell right now, I have three half-sisters... two... no, four half-sisters, one half-brother. On my father's side, two half-brothers.
Q: So there was an older man called Huntley who taught you to play?
A: Yes. Yeah man, he gave me the introduction to my guitar playing, y'know.
Q: Who was Huntley, if you could give me the background?
A: Yeah, he was a dreadlocks who was living in Trench Town, living close approximately to where I lived, so it's a person that I saw every day. He was a real good man, a Rastaman, and he used to make bamboo flute. He used to play the guitar, so when I bought my first guitar I went to him for instructions of what to do next (chuckles). Now I've got this instrument now I want to learn to play. Yeah man, and he showed me what he could and I also have that like a sponge, man. That was my own personal guitar, yunno, 'cause I was learning electrical welding as an apprentice, and I was putting some money together. So when it was really substantial enough to get a guitar, I bought an acoustic, a used acoustic guitar, y'know. Yeah man, and went to bredda Huntley who accepted me, showed me all that he could.
Q: How old were you then?
A: About sixteen... somewhat, yeah.
Q: What was the previous experience where singin' was concerned?
A: Well, my grandparents were revivalists, they had an African kind of thing going, y'know, where they congregate and do their... that's what they call them revival and church thing. You know, I grew up around a lot of that. And then my mom now, we used to sing together on Sundays - a lot. In the First Born an' t'ing we used to do a lotta duet songs, 'cause she can hold her own in the music thing. We used to do a lot of that, y'know.
Q: You had your singin' sessions in the kitchen after dinner.
A: Yeah, yeah. After dinner, y'know, we used to sing a lot of duet songs.
Q: What sort of songs are we talkin', like a lot of gospel or Top 40 songs on the radio, that sort of stuff?
A: Oh, the regular was the popular stuff at that time, like a lot of duets like Keith & Enid, a lot of male and female duets, like songs like (sings): 'You're mine and we belong together...' - you remember that duet song?
Q: Um, no, it doesn't ring a bell.
A: A male and female duet song from, y'know, maybe late fifties, early sixties or whatever. Yeah.
Q: What influences are important from the early days, speaking both foreign and local artists, what you picked up during those times?
A: All right, mostly foreign stuff, R&B, a lot of groups - Temptations, Impressions, y'know.
Q: The usual suspects.
A: Yeah, yeah. Mostly the American Motown stuff, I used to looooove the Motown stuff! All the Motown singers was like real nice.
Q: So you preferred the slicker Motown stuff to southern soul? What about the Stax, Atlantic type of music, soul with a rougher edge to it?
A: Yeah man, we used to listen to a lot of that soul, I used to love Otis, Otis Redding. Ohhh, yeah man! Even right now today, he's one of the best. James Brown, loved James Brown, y'know, Sam Cooke. Yeah.
Q: Would you say you patterned your songwriting after somebody, like one of those when you began to write?
A: No, no. No, not really. No, it was pure natural inspiration. Yeah man, pure natural inspiration. I always strived to be as original as I could make myself. Not even thinkin' that was what I'm doing, but that was what was happenin', y'know.
Q: Can you recall some of the earliest songs?
A: Yeah, the very first song I wrote, very first two songs was 'School Girls' and another one called 'Gunmen Coming To Town'.
Q: Right, that 'Gunmen Coming To Town' was recorded for Caltone.
A: Yeah, yeah. Both of them, both two songs.
Q: Now, about the formation of the Heptones, Barry (Llewellyn) and Earl (Morgan) was living in the same area?
A: Yeah, they were.
Q: You met them in the neighbourhood, or you met them, like, at school or something like that?
A: No, just after seventh jam, y'know, we used to have a night jam. All the kids who were like musically inclined would get together at the corner and would be singin'. They heard about this, those two guys, and they came over to adjoin us, and we had a lot of jammin' going on until we three decide that we would put another group together. And as we did that, through we heard that Ken Lack, Caltone, were seeking for artists, we went on audition and oh... I wrote those two songs, ca' I wasn't even writin' before that! I wrote those two songs just for that purpose. And we practiced it a couple of nights and decide that we gonna try it out, y'know. We were accepted and we recorded right away - Heptones were born.
Q: This was in '66?
A: Yes, somewhere around there.
Q: So what became of this release for Caltone?
A: He left the business, I don't know what happened to the records. If you ever talk to Earl Morgan, you can ask him. Beca' he is the one who have these things selling, he is selling everybody's record right now.
Q: (Laughs) Should belong to someone else I guess...?
A: Yeah. Yeah, it belong to somebody else. I guess he have enough rights to these stuff too, 'cause he hasn't been paying either. So I guess that's what he's workin' on.
Q: What became of Caltone himself, Ken Lack?
A: I don't know, I couldn't say. I thought he left Jamaica a long time ago.
Q: Nothing happened to the Caltone release, so after he shut down, what did the group do next?
A: Yeah, well, that kinda brought us more serious in the music thing, y'know, reaching that far. So we decided on now... I decided on writing like crazy now. I started writing for the group like crazy and arranging and put in all of my things together, because this was like a new experience, right, and I liked it, I loved it. So in the daytime the other guys would be out hustlin' and I would be at home writing. When they come in at night, I would have the whole complete thing there, putting it right in front of them, every man's part, the individual parts. You know, it's so many parts and everything, and the whole thing worked out.
Q: Did you write totally on your own without any input whatsoever from the others?
A: Well, they come with a little ho and a little ha, y'know, but most of the writing were done by me. And we had a thing like this: if you come up with a song then you sing it, whoever write the song would be the person who sings the song, who leads it. And you can notice that they weren't leading much songs.
Q: Barry is the one who has done the rest of the songs during your time with the group, apart from the odd song by Earl. But when did he, or they, start to seriously contribute songs to the group?
A: Yeah, well, he still has a few songs now and then. During all that time they were doing one or two songs, on each album you could hear that too. But not much. I were doing all the writing, all of the arranging and all them things there. And teaching, because these guys heads were tough too, y'know, to hold a harmony. Like you give a guy a certain set of notes, you'd never get them the same. You'll be getting flat notes and short notes and guys not remembering his part, the next day you will have to start all over again and even when you gonna record it you have to be... you know?
A: Yeah. This was kinda hard for me too after a while, it strained the hell out of me.
Q: Frustrating, eh?
A: Oh God, man! What a frustrating... it was a strain!
Q: Well it's tough for one man to keep it together for three.
A: Yeah, because I have too much things to think of, y'know, too much parts to play, man.
Q: It's not that hard to imagine you even going onstage with this to worry about, because there you have to be on-key and deliver the way it should be, right then and there. No retakes.
A: Do the t'ing as it should be. Scared like hell too!
Q: You have them behind you to think of as well.
A: Yes, you're not sure what they're gonna be coming out there doing.
Q: It could turn out to be a mess.
A: Yes man! I was nervous as hell! You see I have the best of my time right now, yunno, now that I am doing solo work. Sometimes I come out with some nice bands and I don't have all that headache anymore. It's much less. I enjoy some of this time here right now, man, so much, I'm telling you. Even when we going onstage, backstage before we hit it, you've gotta remind the guys this part and then I'm there biting my nails and crossing my thing hoping that this gonna be a good show 'cause the guys gonna hold his thing. Earl Morgan was the one, more than even Barry, yunno, Earl was no singer - never was. Yeah man, I could have taken any other two guys and do the same t'ing, I'm telling you. But because the work I'm putting into them...
Q: Did you go to any other producer before Coxson, when the Caltone thing didn't do you much?
A: No. We went right to Coxson and we were accepted, we never had a problem being accepted.
Q: You had some members from the Gaylads doing that audition for you?
A: Yeah, and Ken Boothe.
Q: You still remember that day?
A: We went there, on a Sunday it was, and when it was our time to sing I was playing our guitar and we sang and...
Q: Was that BB from the Gaylads sitting there?
A: BB Seaton and another one, I don't remember if it was the other main guy or... I don't remember who it was, but I'm sure I remember it was BB Seaton - and Ken Boothe. And Ken Boothe walked away...
Q: (Chuckles) Walked away, huh?
A: Yeah, walked away like 'Ohh, I'm not impressed'. This guy sound like... like they said something like 'these guys sound like some foreign group', or something like that. And just walked away. And the guy in Gaylads said: 'We like them!' If it was for Ken Boothe maybe all now we wouldn't be singin'.
Q: (Laughs) You've reminded him about this afterwards a few times, I guess?
A: Yes! Whenever I remind them they're denying it, y'know. Yeah man, they don't even admit that now!
A: Yeah man, won't even admit to that right now. Everybody want to seem like the good guy, what they did. False. Seem like a good guy, man. 'I'm a good guy...'.
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