And anyone with more than a passing interest in Reggae music knows and loves the Heptones for, as the foremost Jamaican vocal harmony trio ever, they unfailingly set the standards for everyone else to aspire to and to measure their own work by. There is no requirement for any retrospective attempts to belatedly bestow credibility on the Heptones for, as well as being uniformly excellent over the years, they also notched up Rocksteady hit after Reggae hit throughout the sixties and the seventies. Their Jamaican popularity was unprecedented and in the mid-seventies it seemed that the group must surely follow Bob Marley & the Wailers and Burning Spear into the realms of international stardom, but it was not to be. Amongst Jamaican music lovers their popularity is matched only by that of the Maytals, yet they still somehow remain relatively unknown and unappreciated by wider audiences and the Heptones' near faultless body of work over the years gives no indication as to why crossover success managed to somehow elude them.
The most influential and imitated Jamaican vocal trio ever began their working lives with Leroy Sibbles welding, Barry Llewellyn as a mechanic and Earl Morgan selling newspapers. The Heptones were originally formed in the Kingston ghetto of Trenchtown 'around 1958' by Earl and Barry and, in the early sixties, they met the third member of what was to become the all conquering threesome. Leroy had been the front man with a rival street corner group in Newland Town alongside two friends, Claire and Winston, and when the two groups clashed in a street corner singing contest, Leroy was so impressed with Earl and Barry that he immediately asked them to join with him. Leroy was already proficient on guitar through the tutoring of Brother Huntley and Brother Carrott, two Trenchtown Rastafarians, in whose yard the group would gather and write songs. Leroy became the group's lead singer, but both Barry and Earl could also sing lead and this varied versatility was vital to their overall sound. The membership of the group was still fairly fluid at this stage and Glen Adams was one of the early hopefuls who passed through their ranks. Glen subsequently left the Heptones to join the Pioneers and would go on to finally find fame as one of Lee Perry's Upsetters.
'We listened to the Drifters, the Platters, the Impressions and the Shirelles… those American groups were a big inspiration in Jamaica. In England my inspiration was the Beatles. If there was anyone I wanted to meet it was the Beatles.'
In 1966, Sydney 'Luddy' Crooks of the Pioneers brought the group to the attention of Ken Lack the road manager for the Skatalites, who also ran the Caltone label. They recorded four songs for Caltone at Duke Reid's Treasure Isle studio and their first release, a bizarre version of Rossini's 'William Tell Overture', entitled 'Gunmen Coming To Town', proved to be a telling indication that this particular trio were not following anyone and certainly did not intend to do so either. 'I Am Lonely' was not a particularly big seller on its original release but would go on to become one of the most prized (and most expensive) records on the U.K. revival circuit in the late nineties.
One Sunday afternoon later that same year, the Heptones trod the familiar path down to Brentford Road to audition at Studio One in front of Bob Andy, Ken Boothe and B.B. Seaton. They passed this terrifying test and would remain with Coxsone for the next five years. They never looked back despite their first hit record, the risqué 'Fatty Fatty', being deemed too lewd for radio play:
'They decided to ban it in Jamaica and, when they did that, everybody wanted to hear it so it made the record one of the best sellers in Jamaica.'
The Heptones left Studio One in 1971 after bitter and acrimonious disputes over financial matters. They had become an integral part of the Studio One set up with Leroy employed as both talent scout and session bass player, Barry as a session musician and Earl working in the pressing plant and also singing harmonies. The Heptones' contribution to the sound of classic Studio One music was immense and can never be overstated:
'Leroy played bass and Barry was in the studio playing organ and percussion. Most of the time I was in the factory… when I wasn't in the factory he had me singing harmonies.'
Leroy, in particular, was vociferous in his condemnation of how he felt the Heptones had been treated during their time at Brentford Road, but Earl's attitude was more measured:
'I think if we had stayed with Coxsone we may have eventually gone on to become internationally famous but… it's one of them things.'
Their next move was to Joe Gibbs and over the next two years, in a frenetic and prolific burst of creativity, they recorded for most of the producers of note in Kingston's teeming musical industry. Apart from the occasional foray into working on the side, the Heptones had previously remained loyal to Coxsone and Studio One:
'We started to harmonise for Duke Reid with John Holt on 'Let's Build Our Dreams'. Coxsone caught us recording and made us come down to his studio to do the same tune. And another time he caught us doing 'Lord Deliver Us' with Alton Ellis for Matador (Lloyd Daley) and made us do it for him.'
They were now free to record for whoever required their services and the lessons that the Heptones had learnt at Coxsone's musical college were handed on to a new generation of producers and artists:
'…Then we went to Joe Gibbs… we worked with him for a while but the vibes changed so we moved on to Gay Feet. At that time we were freelance. After Coxsone we said anybody want us they can take us so we went from one producer to the next. We worked for so many producers…'
In 1973 Leroy relocated to Canada, a move that led to the Heptones' first ever period of inactivity, but on his return to Jamaica in 1976 they began work with Lee Perry. The first fruit of this new partnership was 'Sufferer's Time', an aching lament that demanded equality for everyone in all things and their subsequent work for the Upsetter showcased their soaring harmonies against the perfect counterpoint of his dense, churning rhythms. The Lee Perry produced 'Party Time' album was released worldwide by Island Records alongside Harry Johnson's long player 'Night Food' later that year and these both belatedly helped to introduce the marvels of the Heptones to an wider audience. However, later that year during a tour with Bob Marley & the Wailers and the Maytals organised by Island Records Leroy left the group, weary of the strain of endless financial problems, and he returned to live in Canada and pursue a solo career.
'If Leroy had never left the Heptones we would have been even bigger worldwide…'
Dolphin 'Naggo' Morris later took over as lead singer but, with a few notable exceptions, their records failed to scale the same heights as the Heptones' previous work. Reunited with Leroy in the early nineties the Heptones 'keep playing and recording and spreading the message'. Leroy's solo recordings, such as 1994's Bobby Digital production, 'Original Full Up' with Beenie Man, where he teaches musical history lessons about originating the bass line for the Studio One instrumental are proof, as if further proof was actually needed, that he has lost none of his astonishing talent:
'I never made much money from this one
But I still feel good, good, good…'
Original Full Up
'Full Up' eventually transformed into a worldwide hit for Musical Youth as 'Pass the Dutchie'. His sly misogyny, tongue always firmly in his cheek, was invariably delivered with a genuine underlying sensitivity. As Rocksteady merged into Reggae, his lyrics became more and more preoccupied with black self-determination and his songs of truth and rights equalled his songs of love. One of the most talented musicians of his generation his bass lines were sufficiently melodic and versatile to take any amount of different arrangements and they have gone on to become an integral part of Jamaica's musical vocabulary.
'The Heptones is not a one-man thing. The Heptones is a three man thing.'
Earl's 'Pretty Looks Isn't All' is one of a handful of classic Reggae songs that will last for as long as the music is listened to, for Barry and Earl always bestowed far more than mere filling in the gaps behind Leroy's lead and they too have made notable contributions to the Heptones' canon. The Heptones' cover versions were inevitably invested with all the feeling and subtlety of their own songs and this set gathers together, for the first time, a comprehensive selection of the originals and covers that the Heptones produced away from Studio One. From their first forays into the business with Ken Lack to their later work with Niney the Observer it represents only a fraction of their incredible output for as Earl once memorably commented:
'The Heptones don't have a catalogue. The Heptones have a lionlogue…'