Leroy Sibbles: Photo by Beth Kingston
Leroy Sibbles has had a career like no other in reggae. It could be argued that he is the single most influential singer and musician in the history of the music.
His singing with the Heptones, and as a solo artist, is terrific, but that is only part of the story.
It is his work as an arranger and bass player at Studio One, that has had an even larger, and longer lasting impact on Jamaican music. Some rhythms never die, or even get old. I really enjoyed our telephone conversation, which was packed with enthusiasm and insight. As you will probably guess, I was calling him from Canada. Thanks again to Leroy, who was very generous with his time. Thanks as well to: Charlie Morgan, Carter Van Pelt, Al Blanck, and Jackie Watson.
What part of Kingston are you originally from?
From Trench Town, Western Kingston.
And you, Barry and Earl lived in the same neighborhood originally? Yeah.
How long were the Heptones together before you recorded for Caltone?
It was like about .. within a month, you know.
Really, that's quick.
Yeah. It was really a short thing. We met, and like, within maybe a week, or a couple of weeks, or whatever, more or less ... the guy came and told us this Caltone fellow was having auditions - was looking for artists to record. And we jumped at the opportunity, and that's when we formed the Heptones too. Because we weren't really together before that.
You did at least one song, called 'Gunman Coming To Town' ...
Yeah, and another one was called 'School Girl'.
So you just did the two?
Yeah, we did the two.
I don't know much about Ken Lack (Caltone). I've never really seen any CD's or anything ...
Yeah, I know, he's not big. It was like he was trying to do something, and he just got out of the business from early. I think he is in New York somebody told me ...
It's possible. I haven't seen him in many years - a long time.
I once read that you used to hang around with the guys from the Pioneers, in those early days.
Yeah, yeah. In the early times, a long time ago. We were friends, and we used to practice together, and stuff like that. Yeah, we used to hang out at night time.
Do you remember your Studio One audition?
Yes, oh yes. That was with ... we went there one Sunday, and we were auditioned by the Gaylads and Ken Boothe.
And how long was that before you started recording?
Right in the week. They heard us, and like us, and say 'come in the week'. And we started in mid-week ... we started recording.
Your relationship with Coxsone must have been pretty good, at least for a while ...
Yeah, as a person Coxsone is OK, you know. But financially, that's where he steps off.
Who taught you to play bass?
.... Well, it was not really teaching as such. I was introduced by Jackie Mittoo ... the bass was introduced to me by Jackie Mittoo, because he had a gig, and he wanted a bass man. He figured that I could fill that space, you know. Because I was playing guitar before, acoustic. He knew that I was familiar with what I'm doing with the music. So what he suggested ... that he knew I could do it, and I would practice a certain set of songs with a trio - a drummer, Jackie and myself. And then we started the next week. We practice this week, or maybe it was like a couple of days we practice, and started the gig on the weekend. And we did that for a month.
How do you think your style is different from somebody like Jackie Jackson?
Yeah, my style is different, because when I started playing, professionally, I created my style. I realized that most musicians start before the beat, or on the beat. Most bass lines start on the beat or before 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 too. Because I have some of the most popular songs in the reggae business.
There is no question about that. What kind of a role did Ernest Ranglin have at Studio One?
Well, I tell you what really happened. Jackie Mittoo was the master, and arranger of Studio One, when I first started music there. He was my inspiration. He was the greatest musician I have ever seen - as an arranger, overall musican, keyboard player.
When he left the studio, the studio was at a stand still, it almost shut down. Because they could not find somebody to take Jackie's place as an arranger. So what they did, they send for Ernie Ranglin to do that. And most of Ernie Ranglin stuff that he did, sounded like jazz oriented ...
... Still does.
Yeah, because that is who he is. And they called for another guy called Richard Ace, another keyboard player ... Oh ... they just didn't have it. And I decided to have a go at this. That is when I started to arrange, and become the studio arranger. Because I started putting out the stuff the people wanted, and that Coxsone wanted too (laughter). We were the Soul Vendors, that was what Coxsone called the group I was in. Started creating some new stuff man, like ... so much songs ...
How about a gentlemen named Eric Frater, he was playing guitar in those days.
Yeah, he was guitar ...
I don't hear anything about him. Is he still around?
I saw him just today too. Yeah. He got crazy. He lost his mind. I saw him walking down the street with his guitar in his hand .... That's very sad ..
Yeah, it's very sad man. Because he was a great musician, and a good friend too. Good friend of mine. He used to play with Bob Marley too, at one time. Yeah man. But I guess he went totally off.
What about the drummers in those days? Bunny Williams and Phil Callender ... Callender, was that his name?
Yeah, Phil Callender.
I never hear anything about those gentlemen ...
No, he's a Christian now. He's gone in the church. I think that is what I heard. Yeah man, because he is one of the greatest drummers I've ever played with. And then there is this one we called Horsemouth - Leroy Wallace, he played on a lot of stuff too.
You've had a long relationship.
Is that when you first met him, at Studio One?
I wanted to ask you about Sylvan Morris. Was he doing most of the engineering when you were there?
Most of the engineering, man. He put in more that just engineering, he put his life in it, you know. That guy put everything he had in it ... and got nothing out of it ... like everyone else too.
Between all the songs with the Heptones, and your arranging and bass playing, you must have been living at Studio One in the sixties.
Every day! And on Sundays, I used to go and take auditions - audition new artists. Can you imagine?
You must have been well busy.
Yeah man, and I loved it. Because the importance of it felt good, you know.
Who are some of the other singers that you backed up - in terms of vocals.
On vocals ... Bob Andy, with that song he has about 'I'm going home', that was one. We did a lot of stuff with Alton Ellis. We did stuff with Carlton & His Shoes ....
Do you have any idea how many songs you played either bass, or worked as an arranger on? There must be too many to count.
(laughter) Oh God. Most of Studio One most popular songs I'm involved in. That much I will say.
I think the two that stand out, and are still in heavy rotation, are 'Satta' and 'Full Up'. Both of those are still ... you hear them everyday.
Yeah man, every day they record them over. They are being re-recorded everyday, like a brand new thing, and it can't die. They seem to be like having a new life every time. Can you imagine these songs being re-recorded from the 70's, 80's, and 90's ...
and still going (laughter)
And tomorrow .... (laughter)
Do you have any favorites, like 'Stars' or 'In Cold Blood, or any of those songs?
Yeah man, most of the songs I play on, I love and enjoy. They are all the favorite to me, because they are top of the line in the reggae business. Like the songs you mentioned, 'Stars', 'Queen Of The Minstrels', 'Things A Come Up To Bump', 'Rob And Cheat You'. You know that John Holt album, I played most tracks on that. Ken Boothe album, I played on Ken Boothe. I played on Dennis Brown's first hit song, very first song he did at Studio One, 'No Man Is An Island'. The Cables 'Baby Why' .....
You played bass on that one too.
(laughter) Yeah man, and the flip side too. That's a 45, the both sides I played on. Remember Roy Richards? Roy Richards did that song 'Freedom Blues' ... I played on all those songs man. I've always thought the reason they have lasted, or still last, is because they are a little bit on the rough side. Do you know what I mean by that?
... That they are not so smooth that you forget them ...
Do you have mixed feelings about the fact that they are still being used so often?
No man, I love that man. I wish I was getting royalties for that ...
(laughter) That's what I meant ....
Yeah man. That's the only part of it that bugs me. Because that is the inspiration that God gave me, for me to live off too. You know what I mean? Yeah man, and this guy just control everything. Want it all for himself.
Is there anybody that you convinced Coxsone to record, when you were auditioning people? Is there anybody that stood out? When you first saw them you instantly thought they were great ....
Yes man. The guys, a group that was called the Mad Lads. I auditioned those guys, and recorded them the next day. The song 'Ten To One'. As I heard them I said 'yes, this is a hit'. And Cornell Campbell too, when he came with those songs. People laughed at Burning Spear when he came to Studio One, and I thought that he had something, and I re-recorded him.
He's still around.
Yeah, of course. Strong. (sings 'Door Peep shall not enter')
How about Joseph Hill of Culture? Did you encounter him when you were at Studio One?
No, we met later on.
Because, I think he played there after you left.
Yeah, possibly. His song is one of the tracks that we had left there.
He was part of the Soul Defenders, who did some rhythm tracks at Studio One, but I guess that was after you left.
Who decided which songs you were going to cover? I know the Heptones did 'Suspicious Minds', 'Sea Of Love' .... Who decided .. was that yourself or Coxsone?
Coxsone. Coxsone brought us records, and say 'check this out'.
I know in the past you have referred to Dodd as an .... 'executive producer' is the way you put it.
Yeah, that's what he is.
I take it you mean that he wasn't that involved in the day to day activities ....
No. He don't know a G note from a F note. He can't identify a musical instruments 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 breaks ... gets into his soul to find the right thing, or the thing that works.
Somebody who has a passion about music.
So after all the amount of years you spent there, why did you decide to leave Studio One in the early 70's?
I just couldn't take it no more. And then I was starting to get .... to myself, I figured I was getting stagnant there.
Have you seen Coxsone much in recent years? Do you ever see him?
No, and it hurt me so much, that when I see him, that I try to avoid it.
I will tell you a sad story. I recently saw a CD copy of 'Heptones On Top', and not only does it not credit the musicians, but it doesn't have your name on it anywhere.
OK ... These are the kind of things that this guy try to do. You know what I'm saying? Right now I'm looking for the lawyer, I think I'm close to that, to find the right lawyer to go after him.
It's a shame that he didn't bother to credit anybody properly at that time.
Yeah man, because it's selfish.
In spite of that, nobody can deny the mark Studio One has left on reggae music.
Right, it's true. And he wants to be credited all for it.
Tell me a little about Randy's ... working at Randy's.
Randy's is now VP in the States.
The Chin family ... You did some work for those folks. Was that after you left Studio One?
Yeah man, they started in Jamaica, and they really work themselves up.
Did you record a lot of tracks at Randy's?
Yeah man. For ... we recorded tracks at Randy's for Lee Perry, 'Scratch'. There was a special track that sticks you in my mind, that we did, called 'I Do Love You'. That was a Billy Stewart original ... something like that. I don't know that one.
There is a compilation CD out now, of Randy's stuff, that has a song the Heptones did called 'Daddy's Home'.
Yeah, we did that too. A long time ago.
You did some work for 'Santic' Chin as well, I believe ...
He was another producer, I think, who worked out of Randy's. I think you probably did some rhythm tracks for him.
Possibly. Possibly, I've forgotten.
Is that around the time you first met Augustus Pablo?
Yes, that's where I met Pablo, down there. While we were with Lee Perry.
.... Because you played on some of those Pablo songs that are still around too. A lot of those rhythms that Jacob Miller and Hugh Mundell used ....
Do you ever see Augustus Pablo?
Yeah, every now and again I run into those guys, you know.
How about Joe Gibbs? How was that experience?
I'm the first person who ever helped Joe Gibbs in the music business. Joe Gibbs came to town, to Kingston Jamaica, and opened a little electronic shop. Repairing transistor radios and stuff. That is what he started out doing. He had a little shop down town 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. And then I realized ... we recorded some songs for Joe Gibbs, called 'Heptones Meet The Now Generation'. And Joe Gibbs owe me royalties from that time until now too. He gave the records to Trojan in England.
Yes. They still have them in circulation ...
Of course, it's out on CD now, and all that stuff.
'The Heptones & Friends', I think it's named.
Yes man, exactly. And I still can't collect for that either. The same story as Coxsone ....When Joe Gibbs is down here in Jamaica rich - rotten rich.
What about Lee Perry? Had you worked with Perry at Studio One? No.
Because he had been at Studio One - I guess that must have been before you. That was before me.
So when you went to work at Black Ark, had you met him before that?
Yeah, I knew him all along.
How did you like working at Black Ark?
It was a different experience ... it was totally different.
I interviewed Dwight Pinkney last year, and he told me that Scratch was very unpredictable. That he would make sounds in the middle of sessions - breaking glass and things like that.
Yeah, all kinds of things, for true.
I guess it kept things interesting anyway.
..... eccentric man (laughter).
That didn't bother you? His behavior didn't bother you?
No, it was amusing (laughter). Very amusing and interesting. Or interestingly amusing.
(laughter) Have you seen Scratch since those days?
No, I haven't seen him in a long time now. I heard that he is more in Europe.
Yes, I think he is living full time in Europe now. The album you made for him, 'Party Time', is ... a lot of people consider it a classic. How do you feel about that record?
Yeah ... but, I am not really satisfied with it.
Really. How come?
I don't know. I was not satisfied with the sound, with the whole works.
It's very different from the sound that those songs had at Studio One ...
Yeah, OK. And I am more used to that Studio One thing.
You like the more minimal kind of sound?
Yeah, the Studio One sound is my kind of sound.
You went to work for a little while for Harry J. Did some wonderful ...
Yeah, I'm going to get my lawyer after him too.
Same story down the line ...
Right down the line.
'Country Boy' and 'Book of Rules' ...
Yeah, all those songs are in all of Island's movies, and we don't collect nothing.
They are beautiful songs ...
It's time to be reimbursed now, man.
Leroy, Barry, Earl
Why did you decide to leave the Heptones in 1977? Why did you decide to become a solo artist?
Suffice it to say that he never plans to work with Morgan again) How about Barry?
Barry could hold his own, you know.
So I guess you are not making too many plans to do some more work with them.
No. I would work with Barry for certain things, but I would never , ever, touch Earl with a ten foot pole.
That's too bad. Because, obviously, at some point you had some sort of chemistry together.
He has no class man ... A non-ambitious person, man.
One other thing, that I have never been able to understand, is, why people such as yourself, Jackie Mittoo, Lynn Taitt, Johnny Osbourne, and all kinds of others, have lived in Canada for a while? What's your connection with Canada?
Oh boy ... I don't know what ... well, I know, my girlfriend, which became my wife in Canada, she migrated to Canada while I went to England. So, while I was there in England, we were corresponding, so I came over to spend a little time, and ... it was a big time. (laughter) Well, Taitt is still here, I speak to him every now and then. Yeah, but I think that it was the worst thing that I ever did.
It was bad for your career?
Yeah, because I just went so far, and couldn't go no further there.
You lose touch with what is happening in the music scene ...
Yeah, that's the thing. That's the main part of it. I lost ... well, I was trying my best to keep up as much as I could, but I lost touch with what was happening here in Jamaica.
Tell me about Pete Weston, and the label Micron, he's another person I don't know anything about. Did you meet him in Canada?
No, I knew him from Jamaica, and that's why I decide to work with him. Because he is a good guy at heart. I don't know how great he is at the business, but he is a good guy at heart. He was a good friend of mine.
What has become of him?
He's pressing ... he's doing album jackets and stuff. He has a press. He has a printing establishment.
Where is that business?
I think it is in Mississauga (beside Toronto).
Oh, so he is still here in Canada.
You did some nice solo work for him.
Yes, man. I tried for that guy.
Did you work for any other artists that he recorded? Did you play bass, or do arrangements, for any other artists on Micron.
Not that I can recall ... Oh yeah, there was a little guy in Toronto, they called Stamma - Stamma Ranks. And we played tracks that Johnny Osbourne worked on there too.
Where were you recording this stuff? Was that in Canada or Jamaica?
Yeah, we did stuff in Canada. There was some people there, I forgot their names right now ... some studios there that we worked in, that were really good too.
I have a really nice 12" single, that you recorded for them, called 'Love And Happiness', which I think is a cover of somebody else's song.
Yeah (sings "Oh yes he thought, love and happiness could be bought"). Is that it?
(laughter) That's the one.
Yeah, it was a cover. It was .. a guy wrote it for me.
Have you ever re-recorded that one?
No, you know, but I'm thinking about it.
You should. Did you do any work for Wackie's in New York?
Yeah, we did some stuff there, but I don't know what he did with it, you know.
Were you singing or playing bass, or both.
Both. I sang and played for Wackie.
Did you do a lot of tracks?
I think ... quite a few.
I know your solo works have come out, at least in Canada, on a lot of fairly large labels - ones that don't necessarily specialize in reggae. Labels like A&M and Attic. How do they compare to working for Jamaican labels? Better or worse?
Worse, because they don't know what the hell to do with the reggae music when they've got it.
They didn't help expand you into another audience?
Not at all. I guess they tried, but it wouldn't work too. Because they don't know - how exactly they were going about it.
I really like the album you did called 'Mean While'. It came out here on Attic. Do you know if it is still in print?
I doubt it. Or, maybe, I don't know about it if it is.
It's a nice blend of ....
Yeah, some nice tracks are there.
... a nice blend of love songs, and ... your song about 'Mr Palmer' and 'South Africa' ...
Yeah, some reality songs there too.
How about the album you did for RAS a couple of years ago called 'Pressure', with the other two Heptones ...
Yeah, no promotion.
I'm guessing from what you said earlier, that you don't plan on doing any more like that.
No, nothing with the Heptones, pure solo work. Right now I'm on my own.
I want to ask you about some music that you recently did for Mutabaruka. You did some songs with Horsemouth for Mutabaruka?
Yes, yes, we did two tracks.
What was that project all about?
Well, I don't know what Mutabaruka is doing, but we recorded two tracks. One for Pablo Moses, and the other one was for Culture. One Culture, one Pablo Moses.
That CD hasn't come out yet, but I've heard some good things about it already.
I think so. I think it is coming out soon.
I need a copy when that's done. Because, I haven't heard those tracks again, since ...
Are you going to do some more work with Horsemouth?
Well, I would do it now, if I had it, you know. I'm ready.
I recently heard a CD, that collects some dub plates from the Saxon sound system out of the U.K.. You did a song on there called 'To The Top'. How do you feel about the whole dub plate situation? How do you see that scene? Has it been good, or bad for
It's good for the music too, you know. It helps promote new stuff. That's why dubs are great. Because, if you have some new songs, songs that you haven't released on record yet, you could get it popularized by the radio playing it on dub, or some sound
system getting it popularized. Get some promotion before you really start pressing. It can help.
Do you work a lot in London?
Not a lot. Not half as much as I would want to.
Do you see there being a lot of opportunities there?
Yes, there is. It's just to get your thing organized, and get out there with it. Get the right people to work with - that's the thing about the business. I was recently speaking with Phyllis Dillon ...
Yeah man, I know her quite well. A nice lady.
Very nice lady. She was up here, in Canada, doing some recording with Lynn Taitt, and she was finding it difficult to adapt to the new technology , and the new style of recording.
How do you feel about the way technology has effected recording? Not just the rhythms, but the way music is put together. Is it less spontaneous? Does that bother, or effect you?
No, because I've been around with it while it's been changing. So I'm aware. And if you are a vocalist, all you have to do is sing, so I don't know why it should bother you. You know what I'm saying? I think it bothers you if you are used to playing with live musicians.
O.K., yes, I understand that.
Do you have a favorite studio to work in, either in Jamaica or the States? Somewhere you really like the sound ...
Not really, you know. There are studio's here in Jamaica, that I really like, you know. But I haven't got a favorite one. My favorite will be mine, when I set it up.
You are working on that?
Do you have any upcoming projects that we should be looking for?
Yeah man. I'm starting to write songs again, so I know I'm going to be having new songs out there. Sometimes I get depressed, and turned off, when I do good new songs , and they don't really go as I would like them to. Because writing is not just a thing that you just, take up a pen and paper, and write. So when you get inspired, you need to have stuff go places. You know what I mean? You need to get some satisfaction from it man.
I think the business has worn a lot of people down.
Are there any younger artists out there, that you think are going to have a long careers? Like you have had.
I can not point to anyone, exactly, you know. Because, I cannot predict the future. But I hope so. I hope some will make it. Like this guy, Cocoa Tea, is not doing bad. Because he has been there for a while, you know. Yeah, lots of nice songs.
How do you feel about Luciano?
I hope so, but I'm not sure about it. Because there is something about him that is not original, you know. His melodies is always being taken away from something. His words are different, but he uses a lot of other peoples melodies.
Out of all your solo songs, and your songs with the Heptones, do you have favorites? Any songs that you never get tired of?
Yeah, a song called 'Love Me Girl', I like that. And another called 'Guiding Star'. The other song that I like too, from the 'On Top' album, is called 'Pure Sorrow'. I like the progression in that song.
'On Top' is a solid release from beg