Leroy, you never minced your words in your opinion about Coxsone Dodd. He passed away now. Has that tempered your feelings in any way, or are they just as strong today?
Leroy Sibbles: "Well, what is is you know; you can't change that. Whatever the history is, it won't change regardless if it's past or present. The history is the history and you don't change that just because a guy has passed away. The truth is the truth and you shouldn't really mess with that."
You always called him an executive producer rather than a producer.
Leroy Sibbles: "That's what he was! A producer is someone who tells the musicians what he wants and how he wants it."
And he didn't do that?
Leroy Sibbles: "No! He was the one who reviewed what we did at the end of a recording day. He came in at night, listened to the stuff we had done and said yes or no. He made the final decision about what was going to be released and collected the money."
What's your take on that Barry?
Barry Llewellyn: "Well, I see Coxsone as one of the original roots producers who believed in Jamaican talent, but you have to respect everyone who was involved in it, not only The Heptones, but also musicians like The Skatalites and so on."
Leroy, what was your function at Studio 1?
Leroy Sibbles: "I arranged the music for almost everyone I met during that time. When The Heptones first got together, Barry and Earl still had their day jobs, but I quit mine. Barry what did you used to do again?"
Barry Llewellyn: "I used to be a welder."
Leroy Sibbles: "Yeah, I was a welder too, but I left that behind, stayed home and started writing and arranging tunes for The Heptones so that when they got home from work in the afternoon we would have new songs to practice. I really loved doing that."
Did you have a musical background to start off with?
Leroy Sibbles: "Not really, but maybe it was in my genes. It was in there somewhere. My great-grandmother and my grandmother were revivalists and on Sunday evenings, after my mother had finished cooking, we would sing duet songs. That came naturally to me. When I was a little kid, we only had one radio station called Radio Fusion. In the early days they played mostly foreign music, because Jamaican music hadn't really developed just yet. I listened to that music a lot and one day I found myself subconsciously putting words to an instrumental. Someone heard me and asked: "Boy, how you fi do that?" I didn't even realise what I was doing but I never forgot how that guy reacted. Taking it back to Studio 1, we went there to audition on a Sunday. We thought we were ready, because we already had recorded a couple of tunes for a guy called Ken Lack (Rocksteady producer Blondel Keith Calnek, also known as Ken Lack best-known for his Caltone and JonTom record labels that featured some of the best rocksteady songs ever recorded, red.). Recording those tunes had inspired me even more in my writing, because they were like a taste of a future to come. At Coxsone's we were auditioned by The Gaylads and Ken Boothe. They liked our songs and that's how we got in the studio."
As the story goes, Ken actually didn't really like your sound.
Leroy Sibbles: "(laughs) Yeah, true, Ken walked away actually, I'll never forget that. But when I mention that to him today, he doesn't want to hear it! (laughs) Thankfully The Gaylads liked us and that's really how The Heptones were born. Our first major release was a tune called 'Fatty Fatty' which tore the whole island apart."
That song was banned from airplay on the radio straight after its release for being to slack.
Leroy Sibbles: "Yeah, that's what they said. It was supposedly too suggestive, but we had something called the jukebox system. You had jukeboxes all over Kingston and in the rest of Jamaica too, every bar had one at the time, and that way our tune was still being played everywhere. At Studio 1 I got close to Jackie Mittoo and learned to play acoustic guitar."
If I'm well informed you learned how to play from a Rastaman called Huntley?
Leroy Sibbles: "Yeah, Huntley, that's right. You are well-informed! Why are you even here? (laughs)"
Just checking the facts I guess!
Leroy Sibbles: "(laughs) Yeah, that's what I thought!"
Huntley being a Rastaman, did anything of the Rastafari philosophy rub off on you?
Leroy Sibbles: "Yes! He gave me my first spliff, my first draw of herb, and that opened a whole new world for me. I grasped as much as I could from Huntley. After a while Jackie Mittoo introduced the bass to me. My first recording with Jackie was 'Baby Why' and after that we recorded Dennis Brown's 'No Man Is An Island' album."
Did you always record with the same musicians?
Leroy Sibbles: "Yes, because we already formed a band before we started recording. It was called The Swinging Kings. It was a promotional band for a new brand of cigarettes called Embassy King (Classic Embassy Regal King Size cigarettes, red.) with Ken Boothe taking the lead. We recorded two songs with that band 'Embassy King' and 'Without Love You Just Can't Go On'."
It's remarkable that you remember all these titles.
Leroy Sibbles: "I remember what I can, but I'm no good with dates! (laughs)"
The riddims you created at Studio 1 were and still are re-used. How do you feel about that?
Leroy Sibbles: "I've always felt good about it, because I knew I was doing something well. Of course you feel robbed too, because at the end of the day you need cash to go on, but it's really a joy to know that these works that you did so wholeheartedly stood up and were recognised by all these people even to the point that they wanted to copy them."
What do you think was so powerful about these tunes that they are still standing up today?
Leroy Sibbles: "These bass lines are so powerful because they are melodious. Maybe my background as a singer helped there or maybe it was just a true gift from the Almighty to the world, because they say The Lord works in mysterious ways. We are but an instrument of his doing. I can only say it's a pleasure being one of the gifted ones."
After all these years can you still be pleasantly surprised by a new version on one of the riddims you created?
Leroy Sibbles: "Not surprised, but happy to know that it is still being used and recognised; to know that what you did was that strong. This music, like Motown music for example, will never die!"
How exactly did The Heptones get together back in the days? Where did you know each other from?
Leroy Sibbles: "I started a group in my part of the community. It had a girl on lead vocals and I did harmonies. Barry and Earl were from another area close by, heard about our group and came to check it out. We just started to jam together at one point. After a while that first group broke up and Barry and Earl came over to tell me this guy called Ken Lack was auditioning artists to record. I considered this to be a possibility and wrote two songs on the spot, 'Schoolgirl' and 'Gunmen Coming To Town'. We rehearsed these songs for two or three nights and went on to present ourselves to Ken."
Who came up with the Heptones name and what does it mean?
Leroy Sibbles: "Earl came up with that. It means something like "the irie tunes"; "hep" means "happy" and "tones" means "music"."
In those days was it harder to go out there as a solo artist then as a vocal trio?
Leroy Sibbles: "No, not really. You had a lot of solo acts too. In calypso you had Lord Creator and in Ska there was Jackie Opel, a guy that I rated very highly! It was just a choice you made and it also depended on how capable you were as a singer."
Did you model yourselves after the American rhythm & blues and soul bands?
Leroy Sibbles: "Yes, I was mostly influenced by Curtis Mayfield and I was mainly responsible for creating the harmonies that The Heptones did. I already heard all the different parts in my head when I was just writing a song."
A lot of songs that I thought were brilliant Heptones tunes, I later discovered were covers of American soul and R&B tunes.
Leroy Sibbles: "True, but we were not the only ones who did that you know. Coxsone used to go to America and bring back these tunes that he liked us to cover. John Holt, Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, they all did it."
You did two albums for Island Records, 'Night Food' and 'Party Time', the latter being a collaboration with Lee Perry. How do you remember that experience?
Leroy Sibbles: "That was a trip! It was really something different, but it's an album I was never really satisfied with. A lot of people love it, I know that, but it didn't really felt like an album of mine. It was a project that we were suggested to do and so we did, but it was different to say the least."
Barry, I was told by Cedric Myton, lead vocalist of The Congos, that you guys were also present as background vocalists on that legendary 'Heart Of The Congos' album. How did that happen?
Barry Llewellyn: "Well, that's another side of The Heptones you know. We always did background vocals for a lot of people; Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, Bob Andy and so on. We contributed to the careers of a lot of artists but we were never really recognised for it. We were there on Junior Murvin's 'Police & Thieves' album, Max Romeo's 'War In A Babylon', the list goes on and on. Whenever a producer needed some harmonies done, they called on us."
How do you feel about what's happening in Jamaican music today?
Leroy Sibbles: "It's all evolution. What is happening, I guess, was ordained to happen, so you just have to love it. It's a cycle too, because what goes around comes around. Right now they are creating a lot of roots music again and they're recording a lot of live music again instead of doing it digital. The digitalisation was tough on al lot of musicians."
A lot of the legendary studios and concert arenas now are abandoned and derelict. Do you think there's enough love and respect for the rich musical heritage in Jamaica itself?
Leroy Sibbles: "Yes, but life goes on. Things fall apart and new things develop, that's just how life is. It's sad to say. But Channel One for example they are building a new studio in another area now."
That culture of archiving things and putting them in museums, is that more of a Western thing then?
Leroy Sibbles: "Exactly! If I had had that kind of preservation feel, I would be selling some real authentic 45's now for a lot of money, believe me! I saw an original Heptones 45 on Ebay recently that went for a thousand U.S. dollars! I've lost so much stuff throughout my lifetime..."
A lot of Jamaican artists are pursuing lawsuits these days, trying to get back a little of what is owed them. Is that something you are doing to?
Leroy Sibbles: "I'm trying yes. If you got a handle on that please let me know, because I can use all the help I can get. (laughs) We are in the later stages of our careers now; we paid our dues, so we should really be getting everything that is ours: the respect, the credits and the cash!"
Leroy, thank you so much for doing this!
Leroy Sibbles: "Thank you to man, it was my pleasure."
Barry it was a pleasure!
Barry Llewellyn: "Yeah man, pleasure having the I!"