Barry Llewellyn: Singer and songwriter with the Heptones


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The Independent Online

In the mid-1960s, most Jamaican groups modelled themselves on the doo-wop, rhythm and blues and soul acts they heard on distant US radio stations. The Heptones were no exception, and certainly recorded rocksteady covers of "Sea Of Love", "Only Sixteen", "Suspicious Minds" and "Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da" which showcased the exquisite lead voice of Leroy Sibbles and the sweet, close harmonies of Barry Llewellyn and Earl Morgan. But the trio also transcended their influences and recorded a considerable amount of original material as the island's music evolved into reggae.

Indeed, Llewellyn penned and sang several of the Heptones' best-known tracks, including the bouncy "Nine Pounds Of Steel", the joyous "Pretty Looks" and the haunting "Serious Time", as well as the mystical "Book Of Rules", for which he and his bandmates adapted "A Bag Of Tools", the inspirational poem by RL Sharpe. "Pure hit songs. We had the golden touch," he said. Yet, despite signing to Chris Blackwell's Island label in 1976, collaborating with the visionary producer Lee "Scratch" Perry on the Party Time album, and touring with Toots & the Maytals, they didn't manage to follow in the footsteps of Bob Marley like Burning Spear and Third World.

Born in Kingston in 1947, he was one of nine children and grew up in Trench Town, the slum area immortalised in song by Marley. At school, he befriended Morgan and they spent many an evening listening to the radio and copying the vocal harmonies of the Ink Spots, the Platters, the Drifters and, most of all, The Impressions featuring Curtis Mayfield. By 1965, Llewellyn was working as a car mechanic when he and Morgan joined Sibbles to form the Hep Ones, soon renamed Heptones, after a popular Jamaican health tonic. According to Sibbles, "Hep mean lively and tone is music, so it sounded like lively music."

The organist Glen Adams of The Pioneers introduced them to the producer Ken Lack, and in 1966 they cut "Gunmen Coming To Town", a single whose anti-violence message was spoiled by the incongruous use of the William Tell Overture but got the Heptones noticed all the same. Later that year, they signed with Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and became mainstays of his Studio One operation. Sibbles played bass and served as musical director and talent scout, but all three Heptones provided harmonies for many acts including Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe and Freddie McKay.

However, they made their mark with a series of infectious rocksteady singles starting with the playful "Fattie Fattie", which suffered from a radio ban but became a sound system favourite, and including the pleading "I've Got A Feeling", the irresistible "Get In The Groove", the sarcastic "Tripe Girl" and the yearning "Baby", co-written by Llewellyn. Unfortunately, as Sibbles reflected, Coxsone was "a wicked, wicked man", reluctant to pay his artists much in the way of royalties, and the Heptones quit Studio One in 1971. They exacted revenge with the barbed "Hypocrite", issued by Joe Gibbs, another cavalier producer they left for Harry J in 1973.

The following year, Sibbles moved to Canada, which afforded Llewellyn the opportunity to release "Meaning Of Life" under his own name, between sessions alongside Morgan. The Heptones reunited in 1976 but Sibbles left to go solo after the Island deal and the Better Days album in 1978. Llewellyn and Morgan soldiered on with Naggo Morris in his stead without quite recapturing the magic of their heyday.

In 1995, the original trio made the Pressure! album with Tappa Zukie. Llewellyn moved to New York but toured Europe with the Heptones this summer. He died of pneumonia visiting Jamaica, where he hoped to establish a learning centre for young people.

Barrington Llewellyn, singer and songwriter: born Kingston, Jamaica 24 December 1947; married (several children); died Kingston 23 November 2011.