By Garth Cartwright
It’s midnight in Soho and Errol Linton’s band are about to take the stage at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues.
The basement club on Wardour Street harks back to the early 1960s 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 ‘wait ’til you hear me with my band!’”
Indeed, wait ’til you hear Linton with his band. On average, I go to three gigs a week and as 2015 wound up one of my gig going highlights involved Errol Linton’s performance on a wet night in a largely empty Clapham pub. While their first set was solid, 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.
I mention this performance to Linton and he laughs, says, “yeah, I wish I had a tape of that set! We were out there!” Linton plays, on average, five or six performances a week, a true working musician. He busks down on the London underground network (“it is a hassle getting a pitch these days 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 few musicians reach.
I’ve been watching Linton perform for almost twenty years now and am constantly impressed by his blues. I’m not alone here: the likes of John Peel, Paul Jones, Charlie Gillett and Andy Kershaw have all championed him on radio, Tony Russell lists him in the Penguin Guide To Blues Recordings and John Walters made him the subject of a BBC Arena documentary. But he’s still playing pubs rather than concert halls and pressing his own CDs when he should have a committed record label behind him. Linton shrugs off his lack of 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 requests that I mention he’s available for commissions) – than 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 blues convey the stresses and struggles of London today. In Man Shot Down he sings about the gun crime that blights his Brixton neighbourhood today 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 1950s. 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 1960s. 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 lives in Brixton. “I first grew up in Angel Road, before it became Angeltown Estate, then we moved to Acre Lane. My dad had some good old ska records and Johnny Nash, stuff like that. Longshot Kick The Bucket and I Can See Clearly Now and Fatty Boom Boom 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 and stuff. We grew up going to church with lots of singing. That was where I first heard music like the blues. There’s a film called Pressure, a black London film, and it has a scene in a church and that’s my church in Oval – my aunty 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 making rap or dancehall the young Errol wanted to play blues but, knowing no likeminded musicians, he took to busking.
“I started busking in the late 1980s and in 1990 I was blowing at the bottom of Victoria Station’s escalator and 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?’ and 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 lead 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 7-piece band at one point. 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 work across Europe and 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. 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 are 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. Guitarist Adam Blake is a member of Cornershop, drummer Kenrick Rowe holds down the drum seat for Aswad, Jerry Dammers’s Spatial 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 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 drummer-less, Linton’s reputation means there are always other players ready to sit in: he mentions drummers Sam Kelly, Vince Dunn, Phil Myers, Darren Hambling and Gary Williams, 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 the 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 Suaref 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.”
Being a black British blues musician shouldn’t be unusual: from Snakehips Johnson (the jazz bandleader who was killed when Café Du Paris, beneath Leicester Square, was bombed during WW2) to Courtney Pine through Eddy Grant to Dizzee Rascal, the UK has been home to celebrated Afro-Caribbean musicians. Yet black British blues artists 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 1960s and the likes of Muddy and Big Bill were coming here since the 1950s. I guess for young black British people you looked to Jamaica or the US for inspiration and blues was seen as an 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 US but American musicians respond strongly to his music. Indeed, Abram Wilson, the late New Orleans jazz trumpeter and 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. 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 easy going 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.”
It 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. “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 developing his hugely rich blues brew. And so he does: in Soho Gaz Mayall spoke rhapsodically of how, at the Wilderness Festival, Linton’s performance proved the weekend’s most exciting, drawing thousands of youths away from the main stage to dance to his dynamic sound. I didn’t attend Wilderness but experienced similar at Womad a few years back where the audience reacted to Linton with such fervour the tent damn near levitated. Errol smiles when I mention such 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 more well paid gigs. And 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 is never enough gigs, is 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?”