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THE HEPTONES

The vocal trio of Leroy Sibbles, Earl Morgan and Barry Llewellyn, better known as the Heptones, were one of the most popular and influential groups of the rocksteady and early reggae era. As the leading vocal harmony group at producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd's legendary Studio One, the Heptones' many hits dominated the dancehalls, inspired future singers, and provided timeless rhythms that have echoed through the decades of Jamaican music that have followed.

After struggling separately to impress record producers at auditions in the mid 60's, Sibbles, Morgan and Llewellyn joined together in 1965 and were able to make an impact on producer Ken “Calnek” Lack. Lack recorded two singles from the group, “Gunmen Coming From Town” and “School Girls;” “Gunmen,” which included elements of the “William Tell Overture,” received some radio play, but never took off. The group's big breakthrough would wait until 1966, when Coxsone welcomed the trio into Studio One.


The year 1966 was a watershed year not just for the Heptones, but for Jamaican music as a whole. It was during this period that the pulsing horns and hectic pace of ska slowed into the rolling basslines, rhythmic guitar, and smoother feel of rocksteady. This new sound was perfectly suited for backing cool-voiced harmonies, and there was an explosion of exquisitely skilled vocal groups that included the Techniques, the Paragons, the Uniques, the Melodians, and of course, the Heptones.

The Heptones' first record for Studio One, “Fattie Fattie,” contained all of the Heptones' defining elements: a love-themed lyric, a sweet but never saccharine vocal harmony, and a round, rolling bassline that was impossible to resist. It was a deserved hit, despite wryly rude lyrics that prevented radio exposure. This approach fueled a large succession of classic tunes for Coxsone, including “Pretty Looks,” “Baby,” “Party Time,” “Sea Of Love,” “I Love You,” “My Baby Is Gone,” “Ting A Ling,” “Love Wont' Come Easy,” “Why Must I,” and “Only Sixteen.” Although achingly effective when delivering straightforward love songs, the group's work could also display a bitter edge, particularly in Sibbles' sharply penned “Tripe Girl” and “I Hold The Handle.” The trio's voices were equally effective while delivering socially-themed work, notably including “Heptones Gonna Fight,” “Choice of Colour,” “Equal Rights,” “Be A Man,” “I Shall Be Released” and “Young, Gifted And Black.”

The Heptone's oeuvre for Studio One was so powerful that it rapidly became part of the bedrock of Jamaican music. The songs themselves became immediately recognizable classics, and in future decades the rhythms underlying them, seemingly incapable of staleness, would be appropriated over and over again by other artists. The group's second album for Coxsone, 1968's “On Top,” is widely considered to be amongst the greatest Jamaican LPs ever recorded.


Remarkably, on top of his vocal talent and songwriting ability, Leroy Sibbles was also an excellent bass player. Under Coxsone's employ, he devised basslines not only for his own hits, but also for numerous other Studio One classics. Perenniel re-versioning favorites like “Full Up” (aka “Pass The Kutchie”), “Real Rock,” “Satta Amassagana,” “Declaration of Rights,” “Stars,” “Love Me Forever,” “Freedom Blues,” “Ten to One,” and “Queen of the Minstrels” all bear Sibbles' imprint, profoundly influencing the bass patterns of the reggae decade that would soon follow.
 

As the rocksteady craze drew to a close in 1968, and the rawer sound of reggae began to emerge, many vocal harmony groups fractured, but the Heptones, increasingly displaying conscious lyrics and an edgier sound, smoothly transitioned into the new era. The new reggae sound was ushered in by a wave of young producers that began to supplant the influence of Coxsone and his chief rival Arthur “Duke” Reid; for a time the Heptones remained at Studio One, but acrimony over financial remuneration and perhaps the sight of greener fields elsewhere led the group to depart in 1971.

The Heptones then began a period of freelancing for many emerging producers, cutting records for Lee “Scratch” Perry, Joe Gibbs, Harry Johnson, Augustus Clarke, Lloyd Campbell, Phil Pratt, Harry Mudie, Clive Chin and others. Alongside numerous singles, the group recorded the “Book of Rules” LP for Harry J in 1973, the title track of which featured prominently on the soundtrack of “The Harder They Come.”

Despite the Heptones' musical success, in 1973 Leroy Sibbles moved to Canada, temporarily stalling the group's productivity. The year 1976 saw a return to action with the “Night Food” and “Cool Rasta” albums, cut for Harry J and Danny Holloway respectively. By this time, Sibbles's songwriting was beginning to openly reveal a Rastafarianism that had been bubbling underneath the group's earlier conscious material; the group also began to work closely with producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, with whom they had cut “I Do Love You” earlier in the decade.

The Heptones perhaps came closest to scaling the impossible heights of their Studio One output at Perry's Black Ark studio. Supported by Scratch's potent rhythms and swirling dub mixes, the group's roots capabilities found full voice on stunning works like “Mystery Babylon,” “Storm Cloud” and “Mr. President.” By this time, roots reggae had gone international, and in 1977 major label Island released a superb LP of Perry-produced material, incongruously titled “Party Time.” However, this collaboration would be all too brief.

During the 1970's Sibbles had begun to assert his creative independence by recording more and more solo sides for Scratch, Augustus Pablo, Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes and other producers. In 1977, Sibbles left the group for good; Dolphin “Naggo” Morris was recruited by Morgan and Llewellyn as a replacement lead singer. This new incarnation of the Heptones continued recording in the late 70's and early 80's, cutting albums for Winston “Niney” Holness and the Hookim brothers as well as self-produced LPs, but as reggae transitioned into dancehall the group was eclipsed by new rising stars. Meanwhile, Leroy Sibbles recorded strong solo albums, including “Now,” “Strictly Roots,” and “On Top,” but despite his popularity in Canada, his relocation impaired broader recognition of these works.

Unfortunately for the group's fans, the trio's personalities have not blended as sublimely as their voices, and personal tensions have largely kept the Heptones apart, excepting a reunion in 1995 to record the “Pressure!” album for Tappa Zukie. However, their voices are still brilliantly intact, as Sibbles demonstrated to appreciative Sierra Nevada World Music Festival concertgoers with a stellar performance in 2003. This year, SNWMF is proud to present original members Leroy Sibbles and Barry Llewellyn as the Heptones.

Sources:
Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton: /Rough Guide To Reggae/
David Katz: /People Funny Boy./
Carter Van Pelt: “Mr. Bassie Keep Playing.”
© Michael Villet, 2009

 

The Heptones Links:

The Heptones Videos:

Party Time

Rock And Come In (live)