Sat | Jun 10, 2023

The Heptones starts the ball rolling

Published:Sunday | December 8, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Studio One group, The Heptones.
Leroy Sibbles, lead singer of the Heptones.-File
Leroy Sibblesof the Heptones.
Boris Gardiner (left) and Earl Morgan.-Photo by Mel Cooke

Iconic group impacts the direction of reggae

The Jamaican recording group of the 1960s, The Heptones - Earl Morgan, born in November 1945, Barrington Llewellyn in December 1947, and Leroy Sibbles in January 1949 - hailed from Trench Town, an expansive community that is a migrant area for rural folks looking for a better life.

Sandwiched between two inner-city recording studios - Studio One and Treasure Isle, the equivalent of Motown and Stax in the United States - the community was strategically positioned to provide an outlet for expression for the musically inclined.

The Heptones took full advantage of the opportunity, recording at both studios.

They made their debut at Treasure Isle in 1967, with producer Ken Lack on his Caltone record label, first recording Gunmen Coming To Town, followed by Schoolgirls and I'm Lonely. The group then hopped over to Studio One for the bulk of their early work.

It may perhaps be impossible to find a group in the history of Jamaican music that was more tightly knit than the Heptones in their early career. According to Morgan, the conceptualiser of the group, all three members either lived together or were next-door neighbours for years, maintaining that togetherness while relocating from Greenwich Park Road in Trench Town to Keesing Avenue in Hagley Park, Boswell Avenue in Duhaney Park, and New haven.

In an interview with me for radio, Morgan explained the genesis of the group.

"The Heptones started as Earl Morgan and the swinging squirrels with some other people, then I brought in Barry, other members passed through, then Leroy came in: Leroy had a concert over by Newland Town and I had one at Ghost Town. Barry and I attended the Newland Town concert and mash it up, singing some Sam and Dave tunes. Leroy came to me and asked to join the group. We settled for us three, and that's how it all began."

making hits

Moving to Studio One in late 1967, their first rehearsals included A Change Is Gonna Come, Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out and the very controversial Fatti Fatti, which became their first big hit.

The recording was a landmark one, mainly because of its sexually suggestive lyrics. That apart, the beat in the rocksteady mould was rhythmically alluring.

Quite unlike anything previously attempted, it inspired Jackie Mittoo's Ram Jam and Cedric Brooks' Money Maker instrumentals. Morgan, who rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe and Slim Smith at Studio One, has always maintained that all the group's early recordings were collectively written by them, but Sibbles credits himself as the conceptualiser of Fatti Fatti, when he was quoted in the Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen book, Reggae Routes, as saying: "I was in the yard playing the guitar. The other Heptones were at work. When they come home in the evening, we just put what I wrote together. Me a fool round and this fat lady, Miss B, walk in. She was short and fat, short and round, she walk like a little duck. Like a joke, I sing 'I need a fat girl'. From I sing that, the whole tune come together. Everybody was asking me to sing it. It was a hit before we even recorded it."

Upon its release, it was banned, but that seemed a blessing in disguise, as it began to be played and sung everywhere - in jukeboxes, at parties, in homes, and on the lips of almost every Jamaican.

The recording suddenly propelled The Heptones into the limelight. Strangely enough, but true to Jamaican runnings, the recording that was once banned is now freely accepted as a 'classic'.

Fatti Fatti was included in the Heptones' first album for Studio One, titled The Heptones.

Other memorable tracks were Baby Be True, Why Must I, Only Sixteen, and Tripe Girl.

classic album

But it was the group's second album with Studio One in 1968, Heptones On Top, that had such a significant impact on music lovers and music practitioners that even to this day many use the rhythms to decorate their work.

With top-flight musicians, Boris Gardiner on bass, Hux Brown and Eric Frater on guitar, Joe Isaacs and Phil Calendar on drums, Vin Gordon on trombone, Jackie Mittoo on piano, and Headley Bennett on trumpet, the music was a breathtaking fusion of rocksteady, seasoned with a touch of reggae.

Earl Morgan, who started the group in late 1966-67, and who has never been given the recognition he deserves, proved his worth as the lead singer on perhaps the most popular track, Pretty Looks Isn't All.

I lost my baby, but she has come back, yeah,

she wrote a letter saying, she needs me badly

and if she comes home, I'll have a previous time.

The Leroy Sibbles-led Party Time was just as popular, as he sang:

We're having a party tonight

and everything will be alright

Come on everyone, it's time that we should have some fun.

Other popular hits from the On Top album were Sea Of Love, I Hold The Handle, and Equal Rights.

The third member of the group, the late Barrington Llewellyn, also proved his lead-singing capabilities with his co-written 1973 hit Book Of Rules, which went international.

Reggae gems like Be A Man, Sweet Talking, I Shall Be Released, and Suffering So consolidated the group's position during the early reggae years.

After recording some half-dozen albums for Studio One, the group left and recorded successfully for several producers during the 1970s and 1980s, including Rupie Edwards, Joe Gibbs, Lee Perry and Harry Johnson.

During this period, they toured extensively, while receiving rave reviews. Morgan claims that the group was without the services of Sibbles for some 15 years, after the lead vocalist suddenly left during the midst of one such tour.

Temporarily regrouping, they stayed together until money differences finally led to a break-up.

The group currently operates with new members Naggo Morris, Robert Dacres, and original member, leader and mainstay, Earl Morgan.