The Early Days
Interview by Lesli Singer
Originally published: November 1986
He’s hard to catch, but once you’ve got him he’s one hell of an interview. Of course I’m referring to Leroy Sibbles, former lead singer of The Heptones, who has established a very successful solo career in recent years.
Leroy Sibbles grew up in Kingston 12, the area called Trench Town that also happened to be the home base of the original Wailers. During the 60s and early 70s, Trench Town enjoyed the reputation of being the musical hotbed of the young reggae scene. “I can remember meeting Toots for the first time,” recalls Sibbles, “I was walking down West Road in Trench Town and there was music playing across the street and this guy came up to me and said, ‘It’s me that’s singing there, you know.’ It was like one of his early songs, way back. I can’t remember exactly which song it was right now, but I said, ‘Yea? Wicked,’ and he say ‘Yeah, mon, me name Toots, mon’.
Sibbles grew up with his mother and one of their favorite pastimes on Sundays was to sing duets after their evening meal. He also sang at his grandmother’s church. According to Leroy, “My background really in music was from my mother’s mother. ‘Cause my grandmother was in this revival thing that I used to go to and listen to singing. That’s where I think I developed my harmony skills. Because I used to be singing and doing their stuff almost all night. I used to be there for the food, though. ‘Cause they would have a table spread and I used to have a great appetite as a kid.”
After Leroy finished school, his mother took him over to Jonestown to apprentice with a mechanic. Unfortunately for Sibbles, he was fired the next day for fooling around during his lunch break. The next attempt to teach him a trade took. His mother brought him to a man called Porter on Maxfield Avenue to learn welding. Sibbles liked Porter, got on and eventually went on to work at welding at other places. While he was working he would sing and other welders would say things like, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be doing welding, man, you supposed to be singing!” But at that time it was not Sibbles’s intention to get involved with music.
His first involvement came later with a trio that was practicing around the corner. Sibbles used to check them after work and eventually became a member of the group’s background singers. The group disbanded, but Sibbles had met Barry Llewellyn and Earl Morgan, who soon became the other two members of the Heptones. One morning they came by to tell Sibbles of an audition that was taking place downtown. That evening they wrote “School Girls” and “Gunman Coming to Town” and rehearsed. “I can remember clearly, we went and the guy liked us and we recorded the songs and for the first time, about a week later, I heard over RJR – there was just one station then – I heard myself for the first time on the radio. I think it was “Gunman Coming to Town” I dashed out of my house and ran down the street yelling, ‘Listen, listen.’ I was about sixteen and I was excited. I ran right through the whole neighborhood, you know, and those songs played for awhile. They didn’t do too good because it wasn’t a big producer, it was a little guy tryin’ his thing, right? But that gave us the buildup and momentum and we worked together and during all that time I was still doing trade.
“So I saved some money and bought my first guitar. My mom was furious ’cause the money was like a saving, right? And it’s in the ghetto and in the ghetto you have so much other needs than a guitar. ‘What the hell can a guitar do for you? I don’t see you as no superstar.’ She’s not thinking of the future. She don’t know what God has in store for us….”
Check in for Part Two soon…