Mel Cooke, Freelance Writer
Leroy Sibbles (left) expresses delight at receiving a Living Legend Award for the group from Keith Brown (right) at the 100th Heineken Startime soncert, held at The Mas Camp Village in New Kingston, in December 2004. - WINSTON SILL/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER
LONG BEFORE Leroy Sibbles auditioned at Studio One with Earl Morgan and Barry Llewelyn in the mid 1960s, he was half of an informal duet.
"My mother and I used to do duet songs when I was about 12," Sibbles said, naming songs by Keith and Enid, among those they would sing together.
They may have passed the informal test of family and friends' opinion, but when Sibbles, Morgan and Llewelyn went to number 13 at the then Brentford Road, now Studio One Boulevard, Kingston, they faced the harsher eyes of Ken Boothe and the Gaylads.
And the trio had a name, which was to become etched into the history of Jamaican music. They were The Heptones.
'HITS AFTER HITS'
They passed the test and soon recorded their first song, the original A Change Has Got To Come (different from the Sam Cooke song). It took a while to get their first major hit, Fatty Fatty, in the late 1960s. After that, it was 'hits after hits', as Sibbles puts it. Those included Baby Be True, Book of Rules, Sea of Love, Fight It To The Top and Party Time, songs that are still guaranteed crowd pleasers, the last being the title of his celebratory birthday party at Jamaica House tomorrow night.
There will be an adjustment to The Heptones line-up, as there will be a stand-in for Morgan. Among those on the concert are Freddie McGregor, Glen Washington, Bunny Wailer, Barrington Levy, Sugar Minott, Pam Hall, Ken Boothe and Gregory Isaacs.
The Heptones' trip to Studio One was actually not their first studio date, as they had previously recorded Schoolgirls and Gunmen Coming To Town at Randy's, with producer Ken Lack.
STUDIO ONE'S CONTRIBUTION
It was at Studio One that Sibbles developed the talent with his fingers on the four string, to go along with his vocal chords. And still his prowess on the bass also went back to his childhood.
"The first acoustic guitar I saw was my father's," he said. "I learnt to play the acoustic guitar before the bass. I learnt to do arrangement. When I went to Studio One I had my arrangements worked out before I went in front of the musicians to record.
"I developed the bass playing because of Jackie Mittoo," he said, referring to the renowned keyboard player. "He wanted a trio, with a drummer called Wade Williams. He said 'you can do it. I need a bass man and you can do it'."
The Jackie Mittoo Trio was formed, playing at the Tit for Tat on Red Hills Road, and lasted a few months before Mittoo migrated to Canada. The gap in the trio, though, was an opening in another area, as Mittoo was the arranger at Studio One.
"When he left I was the one who took over the studio," Sibbles said. "We played Monday to Friday, at least five songs a day." And some outstanding basslines rolled out of Sibbles' fingers, including the original Kutchie, Drifter, Sattamassagana and What Kind of World, reused for Morgan Heritage's Down By The River. In addition there were albums for Alton Ellis and John Holt, as well as Dennis Brown's first album, which included No Man Is An Island.
For Sibbles, there is no choosing between playing bass and singing. "I get vibes from both of them. I love when I sing a tune and it hit and the world love it. I love when I play a bassline and the world rock to it," he said.
MOVED TO CANADA
The Heptones' dream run came to an end in 1973 when, after going to England and then Canada (their first overseas show was at Madison Square Garden in New York), Sibbles stayed in Toronto when the other two members returned to Jamaica. He got married and stayed in Canada for 20 years, continuing to sing. "I became the major reggae artiste in Canada at the time. At one time I actually became a household name. We did a lot of shows and I got really popular," he said.
He also did four albums, Leroy Sibbles on Top, Strictly Roots, Evidence and Now, winning a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy, in the process.
He came back home in 1993 and "me just come and join de ting, find myself accepted same way."
And the acceptance has come from abroad as well, Sibbles doing a five-week tour of Europe, covering France, Italy and Switzerland, early last year, and returning for another week and a half stint later in the year. There are plans to go back to Europe this year.
And he has high hopes for tomorrow's birthday celebration. "I hope the people come out and have a party time," Sibbles said.