Interview with Leroy Sibbles

by Aug 18, 2023Articles, Interview

Interview with Leroy Sibbles by Stephen Cooper

Where: Dub Club, Echoplex, Los Angeles CA
When: July 15, 2023
Reporter: Stephen Cooper
Photos: Courtesy of Stephen Cooper, Pekka Vuorinen, and the respective record companies (labels/sleeves)
Editing Interview Video : Teacher
Copyright:  2023 – Stephen Cooper

Leroy Sibbles: Tosh & Wailers Felt Threatened by Sibbles & Heptones—The Backstory Behind “Country Boy” & Much More (The Interview)

Leroy Sibbles is one of the biggest music legends ever born. He is as creditable for the development and worldwide appeal of rocksteady and reggae as anyone. Amazingly, Sibbles, though now a septuagenarian, still commands the stage like a lion, his swagger still backed up with his silky smooth voice.

Then, too, if you aren’t bowled over by Sibbles’s singing ability, which he’s honed over 6 decades—an impossibility—Leroy can also strap on his bass guitar at will and blow your mind with his bass lines, otherworldly bass lines, bass lines that are so powerful, so irie, that they have been used by other artists, time and time again; you see, Sibbles is the “King of Reggae Bass Lines”; Sibbles makes bass lines other great reggae bass players play—bass lines that deliver positive vibrations deep into the soul, taking your mind and livity to a place that provides additional proof—not that there was any doubt—music is a great, godly gift for all of the idren.

On July 15, following Sibbles’s epic, sold-out performance at the famed Dub Club in Los Angeles, I was overstandably honored and so fortunate—and straight up blessed—that even despite the lateness of the hour, I was able to go backstage and interview the living legend for slightly over 20 minutes. We spoke about a number of subjects of interest to reggae fans, including: Sibbles’s incredible gift for songwriting; the backstory behind The Heptones’s smash-hit song “Country Boy”; Sibbles’s relationships with fellow reggae legends (alive and dead) Tony Chin, Fully Fullwood, Ken Boothe, Jackie Mittoo, Dennis Brown, and Bob Marley.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. Embedded throughout the transcript are links to music, photos, and more. At the end, there’s a link to the complete audio file of the interview—available on YouTube.

So Leroy—

—I already have you recording, and I just want to first of all just say: Congratulations! This was such a brilliant performance here at the Dub Club.
Thank you, sir.

How did you feel about the show, and the crowd, and playing alongside people like Tony Chin and Fully Fullwood?
It’s all like a dream come true, because Tony and the bass man, Fully, we go back a long time, you know?

And we have done this many times before. So doing it one more time? It’s like an enjoy[ment], you know? Yeah man, a pleasure. And the Dub Club? I’ve been here a couple of times, too, you know? The last time was me and Barry Llewellyn, may he rest in peace.

Many in the audience, Leroy, know and love you—they know you specifically as the leader of the legendary Heptones, the [legendary] singing trio. And they know you as the “King of Reggae Bass Lines” as you mentioned, tonight—
Yes, yes.

Leroy Sibbles and Stephen Cooper
—and they know you as the lead musician at Studio One in its heyday, after the departure of the legendary Jackie Mittoo.

And I have some questions—one or two—I know [your] time is short. I want to ask about your bass lines, Leroy—bass lines that you played tonight: “Satta Massagana”—I don’t think you played “Declaration of Rights,” but we know about it—
(Laughing) Yeah, right.

“Door Peep.”

“Full Up,” of course, which you did play.

And so these are bass lines that like you said—
(Laughing) And these are just a few of them. There are so many.

We could stay up all night [listing them]—

—and as you said [onstage] singers of consequence from Jamaica—

—have sang on all of them, or used them—
Yes, and made their careers from these.

—made their careers [off of them].

But before the bass lines though, Leroy—

I want to focus just for a second on what I think is your incredible gift for songwriting. The lyrics of The Heptones’s tunes—and we have so many of them—

—[and they’re] just beautiful. And I saw a video you did on YouTube, Leroy, for “I Never Knew TV—”

You said that you had trouble in school. And I was shocked by this, because you said that you learned how to read from finding a comic book—
Oh yeah. That was—

“Steel Claw.”

In a trash can.
Yes. If you look [it] up, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Like—you see, that’s why I love the internet, you know?

Yeah man, because if you look up that on YouTube, you know, or Google it, you can see what I’m talking about.

But it’s such an inspirational story—
(Laughing) Yeah, you know?

Because you were doing bad in school—

—but yet you now have—you can now look back on a catalog—[and] 58 years in the music business, [and] all these songs you’ve written.
Listen, there’s a saying in Jamaica, you know, yeah man—I forgot what I was gonna say (Laughing). Oh yeah: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

And for 60 years now you have [amassed] a catalog of these beautiful songs, and your bass lines, you know, everybody knows your bass lines. But about your songs, one of the most well-known, loved songs that you came out and started tonight’s show with strong—

—is, of course, “Party Time.”
“Party Time,” right.

And the lyrics to “Party Time” are so spellbinding in their simplicity. But they’re so rich in meaning.

You encouraged people like you did tonight at The Dub Club to go and live their life—to live some life—
Yes, yes. Because life is short. You never know what’s gonna happen next. So every day of your life, make it an important day.

But you were so young, Leroy, when you wrote that song—
Inspiration! Inspiration of the All Mighty, you know? (Laughing)

That’s how you came up with it?
Yeah, because I can’t tell you that it’s coming from nowhere else, you know? I didn’t go to school for this—

That’s what I’m saying. It’s just Jah talk to me, you know? I sat down with my guitar and these things—

—yeah, they flow.

Jah was talking to you?

In another song you didn’t sing tonight, but it’s a beautiful song, one of my favorites from growing up—
There are so many I didn’t do tonight! (Laughing)

There are so many. You couldn’t do them all. “Country Boy.”
Yes. Someone shouted it out onstage—(Laughing)

There’s so much—you did so much beautiful stuff tonight, Leroy—

Similar to “Party Time,” “Country Boy” is one of those Heptones’s songs everybody knows and loves.

The Heptones – Country Boy

The Heptones – Country Boy (Part 2)

And the genius—the meaning—you’re mocking—I just want to make sure, because a lot of times we don’t necessarily understand the meaning of all these beautiful songs.

You’re mocking a country boy who’s “shooting up the place…with a ratchet in [his] waist—”

—and basically, this country boy, he doesn’t know all these distinct areas in downtown Kingston.
Yes, he doesn’t know Kingston.

He doesn’t know “Bag-O-Wire—”

“—Racehorse, Pearl Harbor—”

Yeah. That’s a place. (Laughing)

Racecourse. These are all places in Kingston.
Yes, exactly.

Is that—and “Camperdown,” is that a—
Yeah, “Camperdown,” there’s a school [there].

Now how would you describe the inspiration or the reason—how you came up again [with this song]. I know you’ve said Jah talks to you, but—
Yeah. But this was me talking now to Peter Tosh, actually. Because—

Yes, Peter Tosh—when he was—they were—they felt threatened. By us.

The Wailers, you know?

Because people were saying: “Heptones! Heptones! Wailers! Heptones!” So [Peter Tosh] sang a song—and for many years I kept it to myself, you know? (Laughing) But I started to reveal all of my revelations now.

Thank you!
Yeah, bring it all out, you know? He sang a song, you know, about us—me personally. Because he knew that I was the head of The Heptones. I was the inspiration of The Heptones. And he said, he sang (singing): “I’m like a walking razor, don’t watch my size. I’m dangerous!” seen? At the end of that song, if anybody listens to that song, him say (singing): “Leroy.”

Wow! (Laughing) I’m gonna listen to it later!
Yeah, listen it! And you’ll hear that.

Stepping Razor
(Laughing) Yeah, ‘cause dem boys are country boys. Wi born a-Kingston—you see: A-Trenchtown mi born and grow.

But Leroy, in the song, one question I have about the lyrics of the song is—

Wow—you wrote [Country Boy] as a response [to Peter Tosh and the Wailers generally!]

You sing in the song, “…and no one knows your name, Kingstonians get—”
“…get the blame.”

What do you mean by that?
Well when a guy come from country, nobody don’t really know him. You know?

Until him make a name for himself, you know? So why—all these things that he does is to make a name. So when you come, you come without a name. Because he has no, no—

No—no reputation. Nobody knows him. Until then, you know?

I see. Now Leroy—
And that’s why he acts like he’s the baddest guy, too. ‘Cause nobody no know him, and more times [than not] he’s the one that gets pushed up front, you know, by the Kingstonians— (laughing)

(Laughing) Now Leroy, I understand that when The Heptones first began—when you first went over with Barry, and with Earl, your first songs were “School Girl” and “Gunman.”

And I believe you auditioned for Duke Reid—I read this—
Yeah, we did.

—but he turned you down!
No, no, they didn’t turn us down.

Oh? They didn’t?
No. We got a date to go back, and the group broke up before we went back.

Oh, wow. Okay. They have this incorrect on the Reggaeville page—somebody wrote this—that they turned you down.
Yeah? That’s how life is.

That’s true.
You know what I heard? And I’ve never tried it, but I’m sure it’s true. If you make a line of people—a line—and you tell somebody up front [something]—

The telephone game.
—go to the end and hear what you’ll hear—you’ll be frightened—by the time you reach the end.

That’s why you have to talk to the source—that’s why I’m talking to you.
(Laughing) Aha! There you go.

Now let me ask you: When you first auditioned for Studio One, I read somewhere or I heard you say that The Gaylads—

—auditioned you along with Ken Boothe.

And Ken Boothe—during the audition—he walked away? The Gaylads—
Yeah. He said something like, “That sounds like a foreign group.” And he just—

And he walked away?
(Laughing) Yeah, he did.

But did you ever—
And every time I say that to him, I mention that to him, he says “No! It’s not true!” (Laughing)

(Laughing) I was gonna ask you about that!
(Laughing) Yeah.

Because you [later] played for him—[he] used [you] on his songs.
But what he should know is who feels it knows it. Mi is the one who felt it. If it was for Ken Boothe, maybe there wouldn’t be a Heptones?

Oh wow.
And that’s what him don’t want to face right now, you know what I mean? He can’t take that.

And you played bass for him?
Of course!

You played on “Is It Because I’m Black?”
Right! And then I played—I call it the “jook” riddim. What song is it? (Singing) “Just another day—”

Mi play that bass line. Yeah. I’m on some others, too, but that’s one of my favorite.

The Heptones – Fattie Fattie

Jackie Mittoo – Ram Jam

Oh, wow! Now Leroy, you’ve said you received a lot of musical guidance from Jackie Mittoo—

—and [you’ve said that] Jackie was one of the best musicians you ever saw—
In my life!

—you’ve talked about him playing the piano—

—and the organ at the same—
May he rest in peace.

—and even though it was a Rastaman named Huntley, I believe, who first taught you the acoustic guitar—
Yeah, do-re-mi, Yeah. (Laughing) do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.

But it was Jackie who encouraged you to play the bass? Because he—
Jackie didn’t teach me nothing. He introduced me to the bass.

He said, “I think you can play it?”
He said that he [knew] that I could do it. (Laughing) Because I went to Studio One with my guitar. I used my acoustic guitar to write all these songs for The Heptones. All these arrangements—all these songs.

You were the main songwriter [for The Heptones].
When I was writing for The Heptones, [Earl and Barry] weren’t there. I started—

They were at work—

—and you had been doing welding—
They came home every evening to new songs, and new arrangements. I sat home. Wrote the songs. And wrote all the parts.

Figured out all the parts. For each individual. When we came in, I would say: “You sing this. You do this. Here’s the song.” Boom-boom-boom. And that’s how we [rehearsed].

Now you’re first big hit at Studio One I believe was “Fattie, Fattie.”

Which you sang tonight. It was a smash-hit. It was so red-hot it got banned, but it got played all over Jamaica.
Yeah. On jukeboxes.

When I heard you say recently—I didn’t realize—it blew my mind—was that Jackie Mittoo, when he later became famous with “Ram Jam”—
Because of us—

—that it’s a version of “Fattie, Fattie.”
Of course! It’s because of The Heptones. That gave Jackie Mittoo a name. Because he used the riddim—the music track of “Fattie, Fattie”—and played [that] song called “Ram Jam.”

(Singing snippet of instrumental from “Ram Jam.”) Number one! Jackie Mittoo. A new star is born.

Now he encouraged you, because he had a group he wanted you to play with at the Tit-for-Tat Club—
No, no. He wanted to form a group.

Oh, he wanted to form a group.

And now, he—
He wanted to form a trio.

And you started—
And I would be the bass man. He couldn’t find a bass man, so this was all the plan of The Almighty—putting things together for me.

And you started performing with the bass pretty quick. And you were—what I’m so amazed by is you were performing and playing your bass so fast—

(A brief pause ensues as Fully Fullwood and some other fans briefly enter the room to pay their respects to Leroy, then depart.)

Ken Boothe - Without Love
Now the first songs you recorded bass on were The Cables songs, right? At Studio One. “Baby Why?” and “What Kind of World,” [true]?
No. Not really. Not the first hit song.

[The] [f]irst hit song—the very first song we did was for Ken Boothe: “Without Love (You Just Can’t Go On).”

That was the first recording.

Because we were promoting a cigarette that was being—we were doing a cigarette promotion.

You were doing a promotion for a cigarette company?
Yeah. Ken Boothe was the lead. And we did a promotional song—and that song went on a record, you know?

I see. Now you mentioned Dennis Brown [tonight onstage]. And I know that you played bass on his “No Man Is an Island”—

Yeah, album. And you had a special relationship with him.
Oh yes.

I believe he called you “Pa.”

Yeah. Can you tell me what one or two of your best memories of Dennis Brown? What do you remember when you think of Dennis?
Okay. A great kid who—we, you know, I was like his tutor back then. I taught him a lot of chords, playing his guitar. I was always showing him whatever he wanted to know. One special moment, I can tell you this, he came to me and said, “Pah, you know seh, mi sing all dem great tunes and all of dem songs dere, but you know what’s my problem?” Mi say, “What?” Him say: “Mi cyan sing falsetto.”

“Mi cyan sing false.” Mi say: “It’s not that you can’t sing false[tto], because you are a great singer, man. You can do it. Give it time, it’ll come yet for that, you know? But if you noticed all his songs were just natural singing.

For real. And one day mi did hear him (skatting in falsetto).

The falsetto?
(Laughing) You see? That’s how it comes, you know? I’ll never forget that about Dennis Brown.

That is a great moment.

Leroy, Sylvan Morris, the legendary Studio One engineer—
Just passed the other day, yes.

Sylvan Morris (Photo Pekka Vuorinen)
—who just passed. How was your relationship with Sylvan and do you have any comment about his passing?
Yeah, well, it’s so sad that these people, you know, have contributed so much and have received so little, you know?

Because he died and I think it was days after someone realized that he was gone.

So many people overlooked.
You know what I mean? So—his life wasn’t the best. And he and I did a lot of major contributions. You know?

For sure. Respect. Studio One.
He, as an engineer was one of the best. You know? I loved working with him. We did something, he and I sat in the studio and we used the piano. It was one of those grand pianos that we have in the studio [where] you can raise the top up, and you could see the strings. And we used to run our hands on the strings on a song like a harp—trying to get a harp sound. You see, back then we didn’t have all of these harps and sounds and all of these things.

You had to create the sound.
Yeah, we had to create our own sound. Because on the song called—(singing instrumental).

Oh, I know that song!
Yeah man. That song is called “My Guiding Star.”

“My Guiding Star,” yeah! Leroy, you’re in your 70s, even though I don’t believe it—
(Laughing) Believe it.

(Laughing) I don’t believe it. You look younger than me. You’ve won an Order of Distinction from the Jamaican government—

You’re still producing music on your Bright Beam Music label—
Yeah we have a new artist, right now—

Young Garvey.
Young Garvey. And he’s great.

And he just put out a tune in November that I really like, “Love The Best”—it’s a ganja tune—
(Laughing) Yes.

—and it’s on the “Full Up” riddim!
(Laughing) On the “Full Up” riddim! Now that’s bad!

Wow! It’s so wicked!
That song is really good.

Now what you made you choose Young Garvey as the artist to work with? Because you’re only working with him.
Yeah it wasn’t a choice, you know? It happened. It just happened. I heard him, I heard what he’s doing, and I just liked what he’s doing, and decided to try my best to [see] what I could do for him.

I have to ask quickly about Chronixx. Because I understand Chronixx was a backup singer for you.
Oh yeah, for that time.

And do you stay in touch with him?
We have crossed musical spirits, yes— (Laughing)

—as a young kid, yeah.

image host
Leroy, I just have one last question for you before I want to give you a chance to give a final message to the whole world—

—and all your fans. But before I do that, I read in an article in Dancehall Magazine—a very disturbing article—

And the article was titled, “Leroy Sibbles Says Royalties Dried Up Since Sirius XM Moved ‘The Joint’ In Favor of Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Radio.” And this was a very hard thing for me to—

—to watch—and to see this. And this was about them. And you kinda implored them, the Marley Family and the Tuff Gong administrators to—

—reverse this decision [and] let more Jamaican musicians have their music played [on the radio in the United States]. So they can collect the small stream of royalties. And still be able to make money even when they can’t tour.
Yeah. Yeah. That’s a very big part.

And you implored, you said I really want the Marley children and family to respond to this.

And I wanted to ask you whether since you’ve made these statements, and [did] this interview, have you heard from anyone in the Marley family—has anyone responded to you about this?
Just like how you heard what’s happening, if they did, you would’ve heard that too.

Wow. Is there anything more that you—
Everything is on the internet.

—want to say about that subject publicly?
It’s already said, you know?

Because we’re talking about Bob Marley—

—I don’t think that you ever collaborated with Bob?
No, we have never. But he was a good friend of mine.

Leroy Sibbles Live on stage at Dub Club
I have to ask: What is a memory—a fond memory—that you have of Bob Marley?
Well, we were living—not we, just me, myself personally, Coxsone had a house on a road called Beechwood Avenue. I was staying there for a while. Jackie Mittoo, too—
Did Coxsone provide that house?
No, he didn’t. He had it, and he gave us—

He let musicians stay there?
He let musicians stay there, yes. Jackie Mittoo stayed there. Lord Tanamo stayed there one of those times. People stayed there and [would] come and go, you know? And Bob came and visited me once there. We sat there, and you know, and we chatted.

Did you play music with him?
No, we didn’t.

Just kinda hung out?
Yeah, yeah. We hung out and chat a lot.

Leroy, it’s been such an honor to see you perform tonight.

You bring joy everywhere you go—to all these people.
Give thanks.

We hope that you never stop singing.
I hope so, too.

I want you to have the final word. Can you please—there are so many people who want—

—you to go on forever. What message do you have for all your fans all around the world? What do you want to say to them?
First, I want to wish them long life, good health, you know? Because these are the most important things in life, you know? I hope that they are able to provide for themselves. Because when they can’t, life really gets tough. You know? Yeah man. And respect is very important—for each other. Not just family, but we’re all one family in this one world, in this one life that we live. So if we respect each other, man, we’ll have a better life, everybody.

So much respect, Leroy. Thank you for the music.
Thank you, too, man. Blessed.