Little examination of Jamaican popular music is necessary to reveal the creativity of Leroy Sibbles. The charismatic singer, bass player, arranger, and songwriter is best known for his work as lead vocalist of The Heptones, but a closer look at his session career reveals an enormous contribution to the feel and direction of Jamaican music through one of its most creative eras.
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 was recorded.
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 fueled 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 anywhere without it. I would be writing songs, and inspiration would be flowing like water, anywhere — daytime, nighttime, wherever I am.”
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 characterized 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.