Black British Blues: The important bits Lenny Henry left out...

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It’s midnight in London’s Soho and Errol Linton’s band are about to take to the stage at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues. The basement club on Wardour Street harks back to the early 60s when Soho was home to The Flamingo and The Scene, The Roaring Twenties and The Marquee, mod clubs that blasted blues and jazz, ska and soul, from pioneering DJs Guy Stevens and Jeff Dexter alongside hosting performances by visiting black American musicians and aspiring British wannabes. Gaz Mayall – son of John Mayall, thus a true scion of these dark streets and alleyways – gets on the mic to introduce Linton. He enthusiastically addresses the youthful audience, linking Linton to the now-legendary bluesmen who once played these basements, then mentions how he first came across Errol busking on harmonica at Tottenham Court Road tube station. “I said to him, ‘you sound like an entire band on your own’,” notes Mayall, “and he replied back, ‘wait till you hear me with my band!’”

Indeed, wait till you hear Linton with his band. One of the live highlights of 2015 involved Errol Linton’s stunning performance on a wet spring night in a largely empty Clapham pub. While their first set was solid rocking blues, the second set found Linton, enraged by some slight from the pub’s management, pouring his fury into the music, so pushing the band to create a veritable hurricane of blues. The music leapt from the stage, dragged punters out of their seats, pulled in teenagers from outside, got the barmaids up dancing. It was a storm of sound – blues with a feeling! – raw and wild and very exciting.

We mention this electrifying performance to Linton and he laughs. “Yeah, I wish I had a tape of that set!” he says. “We were out there!” Linton plays, on average, five or six performances a week, every week of the year, a true working musician. An old school entertainer, he busks down on the London underground network (“It is a hassle getting a pitch these days,” he says, “but now a copper comes by and waves rather than arrests you”), plays acoustic duo and trio gigs in restaurants and clubs and takes his five-piece band out whenever anyone books them. Linton is always a dynamic performer but on certain nights, when the mood takes him, he catches fire and leads his superb band places very few other musicians can ever reach.

Those in the know have been watching Linton perform for almost 20 years now, and he never disappoints. We’re not alone here: the venerable likes of John Peel, Paul Jones, Charlie Gillett and Andy Kershaw have all championed him on radio, author Tony Russell lists him in the Penguin Guide To Blues Recordings and John Walters made him the subject of a BBC Arena documentary. But somehow, he’s still playing pubs rather than concert halls, and pressing his own CDs when he should have a committed record label behind him and supporting him. Linton shrugs off his lack fame, adds that he manages to scrape a living playing music and is grateful for this. Still, he says, it would be nice if life got a bit easier. Not that ‘easy’ is something this south London son of Jamaican immigrants has ever had much experience of.

“I’m probably my own worst enemy,” says Linton. “I’ve never really felt that confident about pushing myself. And that’s because I’m not someone who feels comfortable with a lot of attention.”

For all Linton’s brilliance as a bandleader, off stage he is shy and softly spoken. Even when using Facebook, he more often draws attention to his paintings – Linton not only plays blues but also paints striking portraits of celebrated blues and jazz musicians (he sells the paintings via Facebook and he’s available for commissions) – than to his gigs. Yet Errol Linton stands at the forefront of British blues, his sound fresh and exciting, quite unlike any other. Linton plays harmonica and sings and, in his music, he creates a uniquely Brixton blues where flavours from the Mississippi and Jamaica blend and take on a London accent.

In Linton’s blues you sense no nostalgia for those halcyon days when Muddy Waters walked the earth and suburban British youths worshipped Robert Johnson. Instead, Linton’s music conveys the stresses and struggles of London today. In Man Shot Down, he sings about the gun crime that blights his Brixton neighbourhood, while Stressed Out is an anthem of sorts for all our urban ills. Linton’s blues should not be seen as necessarily bleak; he sings with great gentleness of his mother on Roll On Tomorrow and Through My Veins is a reflective meditation on life and love. By adding Jamaican spice – Howlin’ Wolf’s Howling For My Baby is played with a reggae groove, an instrumental blends Little Walter and Augustus Pablo into epic dub blues – Linton has created a sound that is uniquely his own.

This merging of blues and reggae is only surprising in that it took so long. They are, after all, both born out of the Atlantic slave trade’s African diaspora. And, as Linton notes, “Jamaica is close enough to the US that Jamaicans were listening to New Orleans radio in the 50s. The local musicians tried to play the R&B hits they heard on the radio but it came out sounding different. There’s all these theories why – independence, a hot summer, people wanting faster music to dance to – but no one really knows how Jamaican music came to sound so distinctive. I just look at it as the music flowed down the Mississippi and took on a different accent when it got to Jamaica, cos life in Jamaica is different to life in the USA.”

Before the term ‘ska’ was popularised, Jamaicans referred to their music as blues – thus the legendary London record label, Blue Beat, which issued both Jamaican ska and US R&B records across the 60s. Linton adds that The Skatalites were trained jazz musicians and the likes of Rosco Gordon and Fats Domino were hugely popular in pre-independence Jamaica.

Anyway, he says, when he’s making music he’s not trying to sound American or Jamaican, he’s just expressing himself. “When I start playing I let whatever’s in me come out. I find playing music much easier than talking about my music.”

Errol Linton was born, raised and still lives in Brixton, an area of the capital that is rich in music of all cultures. “I first grew up in Angel Road, before it became Angell Town estate, then we moved to Acre Lane,” he says. “My dad had some good old ska records and Johnny Nash, stuff like that. Longshot Kick De Bucket [The Pioneers] and I Can See Clearly Now [Johnny Nash] and Louis Jordan and other swing artists.

My old man came over in 1959, so he liked all that pre-ska stuff. I listened to Radio 1 and Capital Radio like everyone else. Motown and stuff like that. Living in London you heard everything. Down in Brixton Market there was reggae pumping, dreads playing heavy dub, and I also heard rock and punk. We grew up going to church and singing. That was where I first heard music like the blues. There’s a film called Pressure, a London film, and it has a scene in a church and that’s my church in Oval – my auntie and cousins are in it!”

“Blues never happened to me until I hit my late teens. I was in college and got a tape of blues from a friend. I maybe heard some Hooker and Muddy. A mate sold me a harmonica and then I started hearing it in all kinds of music – in dub, Big Youth and Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley. When I first got that blue note, that bending, I was over the moon. I guess I was a few months into playing it. Over the years I listened to and imitated a lot of artists – licks you hear, you copy – but as you develop you try and go for your own sound. Sonny Boy Williamson II was the first harp player that I heard and he stopped me in my tracks. It was Help Me and I was just staggered.”

While most of Linton’s contemporaries were busying themselves making rap or dancehall records, the young Errol just wanted to play the blues but, knowing no likeminded musicians, he took to busking. “I started busking in the late 80s and in 1990 I was blowing at the bottom of Victoria Station’s escalator. John Walters, the BBC producer, he put his card in my basket. I called him up and he said, ‘Come in to the BBC. You’ve got something there. Something in your voice.’ He was a nice guy, a funny guy. He made a doc on me for Arena and combined it with a doc on Big Bill Broonzy. It was pretty cool, a passing of the generations.

“I didn’t really know the blues scene at the time. I was doing a Bo Diddley beat, a slow blues, a shuffle, a New Orleans thing, that sort of stuff. When I met guitarist Pete Smith playing bottleneck blues in Leicester Square, I said, ‘Do you mind if I sit in?’ We sounded good so we got my mate Tyrone in on washboard. That worked so we added drums and bass. Pete introduced me to the blues scene and my first gig was in Stoke Newington at The Trolley Stop. I asked a mate, ‘Did I look nervous up there?’ and he said, ‘No, you looked great’ – so that gave me encouragement! I’d always been listening to Caribbean music so I bought elements into my music and that helped it develop. Some people on the blues scene don’t like the way I add spice to Howlin’ Wolf and such, but it’s my roots.”

Andy Kershaw gave Linton a Radio 1 session but neither this nor the Arena programme led to any record company interest. Linton thus founded Ruby Records and, in 1997, issued his debut album Vibin’ It. Although recorded on the hoof – “busking money paid for it” says Linton – Vibin’ It is a strong debut. Opening with Packing My Bags, a song about fleeing London for Jamaica, Vibin’ It got a great reception and found Paul Jones, John Peel and Charlie Gillett championing Linton on their respective BBC radio shows. “Vibin’ It started getting me gigs and festival bookings. We were a seven-piece band at one point. It was crazy!”

Linton followed with the appropriately titled Roots Stew album. Filled with dread – “the band were falling apart” – in both songs and sounds, _Roots Stew_ got Linton plenty of work across Europe and even took him to Japan. Several years passed before Linton’s third effort, Mama Said, another lo-fi yet strong album. 2014 saw the release of Dealing With That Feeling, an acoustic album credited to Linton and Adam Blake, his long-serving guitarist. This is, in many ways, Linton’s finest album, the interplay of harmonica and acoustic guitar alongside fine vocal performances from both men being beautifully recorded and extremely expressive. Linton tends to consider Dealing With That Feeling a detour of sorts from his other albums and admits some surprise at how well it has been received.

“I keep wanting to take the entire band into the studio and get our sound recorded really, really well. But that’s expensive to do. So it made sense to do an acoustic album. Especially seeing Adam and I do a lot of duo gigs. It’s something that’s developed out of busking. We get hired to play in restaurants and bars and cafes, places they don’t want a live band but they like the intimacy of a blues duo. So the album’s a bit of a souvenir of this.”

Someday soon, hopefully, someone will put Errol in the studio and record him properly. He has certainly paid his dues and proved he deserves it. Not only is Linton’s sound unique but his band are magnificent. It’s a reflection of how highly Linton’s regarded that his band is packed with professionals who earn far higher fees when playing with other outfits, yet turn up to gig with him for little more than beer money and the sheer joy of it. Guitarist Adam Blake is a member of Cornershop, drummer Kenrick Rowe holds down the drum seat for Aswad, Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra and PJ Harvey, pianist Petar Zivkovic is in Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges band and works with everyone from Donovan to Robbie Williams, while double bassist Lance Rose plays in several jazz bands. Together Linton and his band create an extraordinarily powerful sound.

“It’s the best band I’ve ever had,” acknowledges Linton. “I’m fortunate that they want to play with me as all of them are outstanding and can find much better paying work elsewhere.” That said, Rowe, an extraordinarily gifted drummer, is about to absent himself for much of 2016 as he tours with PJ Harvey. “Who’s he going to choose between – a pub gig with me or a stadium gig with PJ?” says Linton with a chuckle. Not that he’s drummerless mind you. Linton’s reputation means there are always other players ready to sit in: he mentions drummers Sam Kelly, Phil Myers, Darren Hambling and Gary Crosby, double bassist Jean-Pierre Lampe and guitarists Richard Rhoden, Jon Taylor and Dave Wilson as musical amigos he plays with at select gigs. Beyond working the blues circuit, Errol leads a monthly blues jam at Clapham’s Bread & Roses pub and notes that Brixton’s The Effra Tavern’s jazz jams are another good place to meet like-minded musicians.

“There’s so much talent out there,” says Linton. “I’ve had Little George Sueref sitting in on bass. Now, he’s a great singer, harmonica player and bandleader, yet he’s been willing to pick up a bass to help me out. I’m constantly impressed by the players I encounter. Gordon Smith is very underrated. Johnny Whitehall, I’ve always loved his playing. Earl Green is a fine singer. Jeremiah Marques, Big Joe Louis, Ian Siegal, James Hunter, Dom And The Ikos. The London blues scene is full of good, talented people.”

“Errol is far and away the most honest and unselfish bandleader I have ever met,” says Adam Blake. “Both on and off the stage. As a musician he remains by far the best harmonica player around. Playing with him is always a pleasure.”

Errol Linton mixes blues with soul and reggae...

Errol Linton mixes blues with soul and reggae...

If the London blues scene loves Linton, that same scene reacted with surprise when Errol was excluded from the Sky Arts TV series Lenny Henry’s Got The Blues. The recently gonged Sir Len is now a blues singer. No, not Lowdown Lefthanded Dirty Hound Dog, Henry’s parody of John Lee Hooker he used to deliver in an overstuffed zoot suit. Instead, Lenny is reaching out to the audience who once bought all those Hooker CDs and now go and see Sir Van and Sir Tom at their stately home blues concerts.

To achieve this, Lenny issued an album of his own, New Millennium Blues. (To these ears, the album is devoid of inspiration and even worse than most attempts by famous actors/comedians to carve our a career as a singer, with flaccid interpretations of Hoochie Coochie Man, Back Door Man and The Stealer that stick very much to the formula.)

To get his blues career off to a high-profile start, the comedian and Comic Relief head honcho produced and presented _Lenny Henry’s Got The Blues_. The first episode found Lenny asking a valid question: why did the black American blues make a huge impact on white UK teenagers in the 60s – so helping launch many now-famous British rock and pop artists – while engaging few black British musicians? Performers including Georgie Fame, Geno Washington, Paul Jones, Lulu and Van Morrison are called on to showboat with Sir Lenny, while Ram John Holder (the actor best known for appearing as Porkpie in the late 80s/early 90s sitcom Desmond’s) gets to discuss the rather dodgy “blues” albums he made in 1969 and 1971. The show tracks down Annette Reis, a black British woman who, in the 1960s, sang in Victor Brox’s bands (Blues Train, Mainsqueeze), and they ponder her lack of fame: Henry asks if it was due to race? Were the likes of The Animals holding back black British blues singers? Racism and cultural snobbery – British blues fans worshipping black American artists but vastly more dismissive of those born here or from the colonies – most certainly did play a part in sidelining black British artists. But the show stops short of looking at the subject in depth.

Which is a shame as black musicians have played a vital part in building British blues – and not just the ever-lionised Muddys and Big Bills. The music industry rarely plays fair and black British musicians have often been unfairly marginalised. There were far more prominent black, British-based blues singers than Reis and Holder working here across the 60s, such as Errol Dixon or Johnny Silvo, both of whom created a sizeable body of work from the 50s onwards. And the idea that there are no black British-born blues singers is, simply, a misnomer. Errol Linton, not just a major black British bluesman among those in the know, but arguably the most gifted British bluesman of the past 20 years, does not get a look in. And Henry can’t put his hands up and claim ignorance of Errol – he has attended Linton’s concerts and had him interviewed for the series. But Linton’s footage somehow ended up on the cutting-room floor.

To compound things, Henry appeared on BBC’s The One Show and stated that he found himself driven to sing the blues because “I searched high and low for a British Afro-Caribbean blues singer but couldn’t find one – so I had to do it.”

Linton’s omission from the series paired with Henry’s One Show claims created a minor storm on social media. Only then did Henry begin mentioning Errol when giving interviews to promote Lenny Henry’s Got The Blues. Linton sighs when we broach the subject. “I was interviewed for the series,” he says. “Then when it got close to the screening date, we tried to find out what was happening and the production company were very reluctant to tell us. Then when it screened and I didn’t feature… well, that’s the blues, innit? I didn’t have high expectations but, obviously, I would have liked the exposure. I’ve never been on Jools Holland or anything, so being on Lenny’s programme could have…” He shrugs and says no more.

Being a black British blues musician shouldn’t be deemed anything unusual, of course: from Snakehips Johnson (the jazz bandleader who was sadly killed when Café Du Paris, set beneath London’s Leicester Square, was bombed during WWII) to Courtney Pine through Eddy Grant to Dizzee Rascal, the UK has been home to celebrated Afro-Caribbean musicians working in many different genres. Yet black British blues artists, specifically, have never been plentiful.

“I don’t know why there’s not a tradition of black British blues musicians,” says Linton. “It’s strange when you consider how massive the British blues scene was in the 60s and the likes of Muddy and Big Bill were coming here since the 50s. I guess for young black British people, you looked to Jamaica or the US for inspiration and blues was seen as old man’s music. When I was growing up my friends who played music did soul, reggae, gospel. Blues wasn’t in our dads’ collections. Didn’t hear it on radio. You have to discover it yourself. We liked black British artists like Aswad, Light Of The World, Steel Pulse, Junior, Cymande. I can’t remember anyone listening to or talking about UK blues artists.”

Linton’s never visited the United States, but American musicians have responded strongly to his music over the years. Indeed, Abram Wilson, the late New Orleans jazz trumpeter and highly acclaimed bandleader, heard Linton busking in the underground and immediately invited Errol to join his London-based big band.

“I met Abram at Euston when I was busking,” says Errol. “He came up and said, ‘Man, you from the States?’ I said, ‘Way down south – Brixton’. He had a project in mind and needed harmonica and I’m always up for a challenge, so I joined him and then he just drifted into playing in my band. He was from the jazz tradition, had studied music, so found my way of playing different to the guys he normally worked with. It was a great experience – he was easygoing while very hard-working. Abram had studied all the instruments, except a harmonica, and was a fabulous pianist and trumpet player. You wouldn’t think it would work, trumpet and harmonica, but it did.”

The partnership worked so well that Wilson began joining Linton’s band on stage, so making his dynamic sound even fiercer. This continued until Wilson died very suddenly of cancer in 2012, something that pulled the rug out from under Errol. “That was a shock,” says Linton. “He came to rehearsal one day and all his dreads were gone. I guess now he was having treatment but he only said he wanted a change. Then he cancelled all his dates with us, said he wouldn’t be playing for a bit. And the next thing I hear…”

Losing Wilson hurt, but Linton felt the trumpeter’s spirit challenging him to keep on developing his hugely rich blues stew. And so he does: in Soho, Gaz Mayall spoke rhapsodically of how, at the Wilderness Festival, Linton’s performance proved to be the weekend’s most exciting, drawing thousands of youths away from the main stage to dance to his dynamic blues sound. Audiences experienced a similar rush at Womad a few years back, where the audience reacted to Linton with such fervour that the tent damn near levitated. Errol smiles when reminded of such triumphs, and modestly admits, “We do tend to get received well at festivals. I wish we got to play more of them – we’ve still not been invited to play Glastonbury!”

Linton wants to get to the stage where he’s getting booked for more well-paid gigs, a modest ambition, but one he’s truly deserving of. And he’d like a recording deal that would allow him and his magnificent band the required studio time to make the album he knows they’re capable of. But until such dreams come true he will continue to gig, paint and busk.

“I kept at it as there are never enough gigs, are there? Needs must. Busking’s different than gigs. Even harder. You’re singing, playing harp, dancing away. No band to lay back on. But as it’s just me, I can do what I want, improvise. And busking keeps me working on my chops.” He pauses then says, “It’s the blues, innit?”

Dealing With That Feeling is out now via Ruby Records.

Take An Irishman, A Welshman And A Trinidadian…

Three very different artists who all served British blues.

JOHNNY SILVO

If anyone had a reason to sing the blues, it was Johnny Silvo. He was born to an Irish mother and absent African-American father in 1936, and Silvo’s mother fled Ireland for London only to die during the Blitz. He was subsequently raised in Barnardo’s homes. His abilities as an athlete and musician helped him overcome the privations a mixed-race orphan faced.

Initially, Silvo established himself as a prominent singer with trad jazz bands in the 50s, then reinvented himself as a folk blues singer – Sandy Denny sang with him pre-Fairport Convention – and released a number of albums, both solo and in duos (his 1977 effort with Diz Disley, Blues In The Backyard, is on Spotify and displays Silvo’s smooth, Josh White style). Silvo may be remembered by readers of a certain age due to his regular appearances on children’s television show Playschool. Silvo settled in Norway in the mid-80s, still occasionally performing in the UK until his death in 2011.

LAVERNE BROWN

Dynamic Cardiff R&B band Red Beans & Rice, featuring Laverne Brown on vocals, built up quite a following on the pub-rock circuit and recorded for Chiswick Records in 1980. Brown today leads Madassa Soul Band and is often called upon by the likes of Jools Holland and Van Morrison when they want a big R&B voice.

BRYCE PORTIUS

Vocalist in the original Savoy Brown Blues Band, Portius was born and raised in Trinidad. He sang on the band’s 1967 Mike Vernon-produced debut album Shake Down - he looks like the epitome of 60s cool on the cover - yet left the band not long after and subsequently vanished from music history.

21st Century British Blues

Five British artists to watch out for…

KYLA BROX

The daughter of Annette Reiss and Victor Brox has developed into a gifted soul/blues singer. Her 2014 album Live… At Last demonstrates her intensity and range.

EARL GREEN

Born in Jamaica, Green settled in the UK aged 13 and first made his name as vocalist of Otis Grand & the Dance Kings in 1985. Green is now one of the finest blues vocalists working today.

JEREMIAH MARQUES

With his dreadlocks, Marques resembles a Rastafarian preacher. Backed by The Blue Aces, Marques is a formidable live performer; his 2007 album This Is Hip! serves up a mix of covers and originals.

AIDAN CONNELL

The youthful Connell leads a power trio playing blues rock. His debut album Grio is impressive, and Connell’s nuances make him an impressive practitioner of the genre.

LEWIS FLOYD HENRY

In 2013, a YouTube video of Lewisham’s dapper blues rocker busking a Wu Tang Clan number, Protect Ya Neck, went viral. The one-man band notably uses a vintage pram as a means of transporting his child’s drum kit, amplifier and guitar.

And five African-American bluesmen who currently work out of the UK…

JIMMY THOMAS

Began singing in Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm in 1958, staying on when Tina took over; then settling here to work the northern soul scene. Is still to be found performing blues standards in London pubs.

JOHNNY MARS

South Carolina-born harmonica master Mars played with many legendary figures in the US then settled in Somerset in 1978 from where he has led his own band and performed with many British artists, including, of all people, Bananarama.

LEBURN MADDOX

Maddox started his career playing with pioneering funk musician Jimmy Castor. His Hendrix-y guitar fireworks have won him loyal audiences across Europe.

EUGENE “HIDEAWAY” BRIDGES

The smooth-voiced Louisiana bluesman first settled here as part of Big Joe Turner II’s band and has since won a wide following across Europe and Australia.

MICHAEL ROACH

The gifted country blues guitarist and educator has been based out of the UK for a number of years now.