Earl Morgan, member of the Heptones sings during the funeral of Barry Llewellyn.-Photo by Marcia Rowe—-
The story of the Heptones, the Jamaican rocksteady singing trio of the 1960s and 1970s, is riddled with controversy and overflowing with bad blood.
The ugly infighting between the two surviving members, Leroy Sibbles and Earl Morgan, greatly contrasts with the beautiful melodies they created in roughly a decade.
It is difficult to forget classic gems, such as Fattie Fattie, Party Time,Pretty Looks, I Hold The Handle, Book Of Rules and many others, that have decorated the Jamaican landscape, and have been the foundation on which many subsequent rhythms were built.
The tension between the two has been brewing for years, and resurfaced with the publication of two Music Diaries articles on December 1 and December 8, 2013.
The articles, written mainly from an interview conducted with Morgan, the man widely acknowledged as having started the group, named the group, and owns the group’s name, outlined its genesis, development, obstacles and achievements during its lifespan.
It would seem reasonable to assume that with such credentials, Morgan would be the best person to provide information for the articles.
Sibbles, the smooth-voiced lead vocalist of the group, and a competent bass player in his own right, however, took issue with certain comments made by Morgan in the articles.
Morgan has always maintained that the trio, (Barrington Llewellyn, the third member, passed away on November 23, 2011), was inseparable at the outset, wrote their recordings together, and even lived together on more than one occasion.
Sibbles, however, discounted this theory in a recent interview with me, and didn’t mince words when he answered a question thrown at him.
“I understand that you guys grew up together?” I queried. Before I could properly finish, he interrupted.
“No, I only knew them through music. Although we were from the same community, I didn’t know them,” said Sibbles.
On the subject of ‘living together’, Sibbles also distanced himself from that, and added “even when they were getting some lands, they claimed they got a piece for me, but up to now, me not even look at that”.
One of Sibbles’ main contentions has to do with Morgan’s version of how the group was formed.
In a radio interview with me on March 3, 2006, Morgan said: “We started out as Earl Morgan and the Swinging Squirrels. I started the group, went through a name change – ‘The Selassians’, and then the name ‘Heptones’ arose out of my heart. I started the group first, with some other people, then I bring in Barry and then about six other people, and then Leroy came in after. How we get fe join up now – in the early days, we used to have concerts. They had one over his, (Leroy) side, called Newland Town. We (Barry and myself), went over, sang on the concert. Leroy came and said, he would like to join my group, and we started to move from there.”
The Heptones: Leroy Sibbles, Barry Llewellyn, Earl Morgan
Sibbles, however, vehemently denies begging to be a member of Morgan’s group: “I was doing harmony with a group, and they heard we were rehearsing on our side of the settlement, and he and Barry, calling themselves Swinging Squirrels came over and began jamming with us. My group broke up and one night they came over and said they heard of a producer named Ken Lack taking auditions, and right then and there, came the idea, ‘let’s form a group and see if we can get involved’,” said Sibbles.
Asked whose idea it was, Sibbles was noticeably vague in his response: “I don’t remember, it’s over 40 years, but apparently, it must be the three of us. It was a mutual agreement between three people.”
Perhaps the most burning issue, and the one that has brought the confrontation to boiling point, is the matter of credits for the musicalarrangements and authorship of the group’s recordings. Morgan has always maintained that some 90 per cent of the group’s recordings were collectively written by all three members, with each member either contributing a part, making an addition, or modifying the content.
In the 2006 interview, Morgan said: “The music was so sweet, because in the early days we were inseparable. We rehearsed 24-7. The three of us wrote the songs and recorded them. Heptones is a three-man thing, not a one-man.”
Leroy Sibbles had a different version: “These guys used to be on the streets until late at night, Earl selling Star, and Barry doing bodyworks. I stopped doing welding, so I could stay at home and write these songs, setting out their little parts. Every ‘oohs’and ‘aahs’ were pre-arranged, as I used my guitar to figure out the chords. The first song I wrote was Gunmen Coming To Town, without the presence of Earl or Barry,” said Sibbles.
Sibbles went on to state in the interview, that he single-handedly wrote all the group’s early big hits.
“All of them,” he said, and continued, “I introduced these songs to them when they came home at night. We had a thing that ‘any song a man write, him sing it’, and that’s how I ended up leading so many songs.”
Some pundits closer to the action, however, state that this is not entirely true, as either Morgan or Llewellyn have, at times refused lead roles, placing supreme confidence in Sibbles as the lead vocalist.
These pundits have also blamed the recording, The Book Of Rules as a major source of contention after producer, Harry Johnson, showed preference for Llewellyn’s lead voice on the recording.
In the end, it seems to boil down to one man’s word against another. The sad thing is that music and patrons have become the losers in a game of egotism.
The good thing is that two members of the group are still alive and active which keeps our hope alive that someday good sense will prevail and lead to a reunion and resurgence of some great music by the group.