RIP: Farewell to Barry Llewellyn of the Heptones

Words by Martei Korley

Jamaican music suffered another great loss with the passing last week of Barry Llewellyn, a founding member of the long-running rocksteady and reggae vocal group, the Heptones.

Born in the Trenchtown neighbourhood in 1947, Llewellyn (at left in the above photo), or Barry Heptones as he would come to be called, attended Kingston Senior School with future reggae stalwarts such as Marcia Griffiths and Carl Dawkins. Forming the Heptones with Earl Morgan during the ska era, the group went through several personnel changes before settling on Leroy Sibbles as the lead singer of the group. The rest is history: The Heptones went on to establish themselves as the most notable of rocksteady trios, with their immaculate On Top album. Their music from this era influenced countless other acts, their songs and riddims, many of which Sibbles co-wrote with the great Jackie Mittoo, re-recorded many times over.

One recent example is Amy Winehouse’s version of “Our Day Will Come,” the lead single from Lioness, the posthumous album that Island Records is releasing next week. While the song was originally recorded by American R&B group Ruby & the Romantics in 1962, Winehouse’s version more closely follows the arrangement of the Heptones version, recorded in 1971 by Joe Gibbs.

Llewellyn and Morgan arranged their special brand of harmonies with the finesse of Philly soul but delivered them with the feeling of the common man: A true Jamaican sound which will never die. Within a few short two years the rocksteady fever dissipated, however, but the group adapted by venturing into the roots reggae which had become the order of the day on albums such as the 1976 Island release Night Food, which provided an eclectic mix of brilliant roots and rocksteady.While Sibbles was known as the lead and face of the group, Llewellyn played an invaluable role, singing lead on hits such as “Book of Rules”:

Even as The Heptones transitioned into becoming more of a catalog act, their repertoire was so great that a very large number of riddims in reggae and dancehall can be attributed directly to them: Party Time, I Got the Handle, Equal Rights, Love Don’t Come Easy and Sea of Love ,just to name a few. As Sibbles’ bass lines rattle the cabinets you almost can’t help hearing Llewellyn and Morgan’s harmonies, regardless of which artist is riding the riddim.

Walk good on your journey, Barry Llewellyn. And thank you.