Leroy Sibbles: “You need conscious lyrics”

Leroy Sibbles of the Heptones on growing up in Trench Town, the golden days of Jamaica’s Studio One, and what’s missing from today’s music — as told to Garry Steckles

Leroy Sibbles. Photo by David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

I was born in Trench Town, Kingston. Actually I was born on 13th Street or 12th Street . . . It’s a long time now, y’know.

I always remember that I never went hungry. Even though I grew up in Trench Town I always had three options for food: I could get dinner from my mother, then go to my grandmother, and then go to my great-grandmother, and there was always food for me.

There was an older man called Huntley in Trench Town who gave me the introduction to my guitar playing. He was a dreadlocks who was living close to where I lived, so it’s a person I saw every day. He was a real good man, a Rastaman, and he used to play the guitar, so when I was about sixteen and bought my first guitar, I went to him for instruction and he showed me what he could.

As for singing, my grandparents were revivalists, they had an African kind of thing going, y’know, and I grew up around a lot of that. And then my mom, now, we used to sing together on Sundays a lot.

My first recording was “Gunmen Coming to Town”. I don’t remember my first live performance, but the one that sticks out in my mind is the 1986 concert at Madison Square Garden [in New York City] with Bunny Wailer.

I formed the Heptones, with Earl Morgan and Barry Llewellyn, in 1965. We went right to [Clement] “Coxsone” Dodd, and we were accepted — we never had a problem being accepted.

I worked for Coxsone at Studio One in the mid 60s and early 70s. Studio One is important to me. I was just a kid in the ghetto at the time — Coxsone was the one with control, and he put it out there. Put it on the market. We had no saying, and when we worked he wasn’t there. He would come in at night and review what we had done.

I dunno how Coxsone get so much credit. Most of Coxsone’s credit is because he is the Studio One owner, y’know, executive producer, that is what Coxsone was. Coxsone was never at no session. Coxsone could not play a note and no instrument. He knew nothing about music. Physically, he may have had a good ear, yeah, a good hearing. He loved music and he had the chance to build a studio and give the people with the talent time to go perform for Coxsone.

All these recordings were controlled by the king man — Jackie Mittoo. He play organ, arranged it and all that. After Jackie Mittoo left, no one could run the studio but me.

Studio One turned out the most hits of any Jamaican studio, and I contributed with my bass lines, arrangements, and A&R duties, picking great talent.

Recording at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio was my weirdest experience. Strange place, strange people, strange sound. Pure craziness. It was when Lee Perry was heading totally out there, y’know. Yeah man, it was when he put on this astronaut suit, man.

 

My album Leroy Sibbles Reggae Hit Bass Lines is dedicated to all the hardworking musicians who dedicated their talent, time, and passion to create the original classic reggae tracks that still provide the foundation for reggae music today. Despite the original and continued success of this “foundation” music, most of these musicians still remain relatively unknown and uncompensated for their efforts. I had the pleasure to personally work with many of these musicians during the 60s and early 70s, and I feel blessed for the opportunity to have created many of the classic reggae hit riddims with them.

What is happening today? Well, I guess it’s just trendy, y’know, it’s kids and youth killing dem time, y’know. Yeah man, it’s a lot of wasted time, because there is no consciousness, really, and that is necessary for the continuation of the true living. To maintain your natural and true guideline, you need conscious lyrics.

The people nowadays right now, they have their eyes on the buck, y’know. Yeah man, they are really too keen on the buck, the fast buck. And they wanna find out the lyrics, the gal lyrics a sell, if you see what I’m saying.

But reggae is still going, just not the same as when it started. New artists I like include Junior Gong, Chronixx, Morgan Heritage, and Tarrus Riley, to name some. I love all good music — any genre.