Black British Blues: The important bits Lenny Henry left out...
After he was erased from history in a recent Sky Arts documentary, we set the record straight on British blues hero Errol Linton.
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.