A Forgotten Reggae Star Finds a New Audience Thanks to a Baltimore Label
There are all sorts of reasons a musician might disappear into the pop-culture ether, seemingly without a trace: substance abuse, a religious epiphany, a loss of inspiration, the kind of shift in musical trends or listener tastes that makes an artist seem out-of-step overnight. If you're Claudius Linton, reggae singer, you might decide to say simply "no more" after too many years spent pushing against a business that blithely rips off artists if it means a few more nickels in the coffers.
In the 1970s, Linton was not an international name on par with, say, Jimmy Cliff, but he was beloved enough by Jamaicans and other reggae fans for Baltimore label Sun King to label him the "soulful musical companion of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh" without much exaggeration. The recordings Linton made in his heyday stood out thanks to his roughly textured yet sweet voice and his prickly, melodic rhythm guitar; little bulletins for social change, his singles spoke directly to the down-and-out, whether in Kingston, London, or Johannesburg.
Sun King owner Ian Jones describes Linton as "an original indie rocker" who owned three of his own labels at various points in his career. But sour interactions with record industry hustlers at home and abroad eventually took their toll on Linton, who never ascended to the list of reggae names even a casual music fan knows by heart. By the early '90s, he was a hazy legend lost to the world of yellowing reggae fanzines and Jamaican newspaper clippings.
For a country with such a small pool of potential consumers compared to a market like the United States, Jamaica pumped out a staggering amount of vinyl records for four decades. Much of Jamaica's popular music is now distributed digitally, on MP3 and CD-R, but there's enough vintage reggae vinyl clogging the market that Linton's legacy could well have remained buried in secondhand stores and collectors' basements. Even with the many labels devoted to rescuing and repackaging forgotten reggae greats and lost geniuses, there was never any guarantee that some retro-minded archeologist would happen upon one of Linton's dusty singles and decide to give him the reissue treatment, complete with liner notes, a sparkling remaster, and maybe some audio/visual extras to gild the digipak lily.
Despite a name that would delight the Jamaican tourism board, Sun King didn't start out as a reggae label--it began as a boutique to release music by Jones' own various bands--but it recently compiled Roots Master: The Vintage Roots Reggae Singles, Vol. 1, an archival disc collecting a variety of Linton's '70s and '80s singles, painstakingly sourced and reassembled by Jones. Linton's classic combination of lilting music and lyrics that look to uplift listeners during trying times make Roots Master a reminder that, even given the current glutted reissue market, some music deserves to remain widely available. Sun King has also just released Sign Time, the first collaboration between Kingman (Linton) and Jonah (Jones), Linton's first new release in more than 20 years and evidence of an enduring international friendship that's developed between Jones and Linton. It's a friendship sustained via phone calls and a shared faith in a new chance to bring their music to the masses after so many years of false starts. Compressing the space between Baltimore and Negril, Kingman and Jonah's cross-cultural partnership began with a random getaway, where a disgruntled tourist happened upon a beachcomber with a finicky guitar.
In the spring of 2006, Ian Jones was looking for a chance to get his head together after a typically disagreeable Mid-Atlantic winter. His visions of rest and relaxation on white sand beaches did not shake out exactly as planned. "I went to Jamaica by myself, which is maybe not the best idea," Jones says. "It's a real hustling town in Negril."
Sitting in a Mount Vernon bar in early July, it's perhaps not hard to see why locals might have sized up Jones for a few extra bucks. Congenial and soft-spoken, stout and bespectacled, he looks like many a thirtysomething rock musician fresh out of work for the evening (Jones is a business writer and illustrator). As he sips coffee, he looks very unlike a habitué of Jamaican soundsystem parties, not to mention a slightly surprising reggae impresario.
Now 37, Jones grew up in the Washington area and moved to Baltimore five years ago, having played in various indie-rock bands throughout the late '80s and '90s. As a postpunk-obsessed teenager, Jones' interest in Jamaican music was sparked when an older brother returned home from college one year with a budding collection of reggae albums. While he says he's still "by no means an expert," his crash course has been helped along thanks to an abiding interest in the American rock and soul that formed reggae's roots..
"One of the things I find exciting about it is that whenever you hear the rock legends of the '60s talk about their youth, they were all sitting with their little transistor radios in England listening to Radio Luxembourg to get the newest rock 'n' roll records," Jones says. "Well, in Jamaica they were doing the same thing, because the music was coming down from Memphis, floating over the Caribbean Sea. And they heard it and reinterpreted it with their island sensibility."
But on that first trip to the island in 2006, he says he found the conditions in Negril "really oppressive," and he was unable to overlook the region's in-your-face poverty: "I couldn't relax because it was obvious that the people were struggling so much."
More exhausted than before he'd left and ready to hightail it back to Baltimore, Jones was strolling on the beach in one last-ditch effort at chilling out when an older man with thin, graying dreads and a guitar called out to him: "Excuse me, sire, can you tune this thing?" Jones was thankful for this simple request from a fellow musician, and soon found himself suddenly caught up in an impromptu oceanside jam session with Claudius Linton.
"This man take my guitar out of my hands," Linton says from Jamaica via a conference call with Jones and this reporter a few weeks later. "It was surprising to me, to see this man take my guitar, sit down in the sun, and tune my guitar for me."
Judging by that brief, crackly chat, one interviews Linton by setting up a question and letting him roll out a list of reggae bigwigs he's known, infamous Jamaican locales, and copious praise for Jones, all delivered through a crinkly patois. His responses swerve between sly, low-key anecdotes about the ups and downs of his career and amped-up oratory about the good works of his current label owner. "We realized right away that when a man can play an instrument, and sing along with it, he has something in common," Linton says of Jones.
"He started singing an old Sam Cooke song," Jones says of that first day on the beach. "I started singing harmony with him, and we just clicked." Jones was enamored with Linton's playing and charmed by the man himself. He also wasn't quite ready to believe some of Linton's claims about his former life. On the phone, Linton talks of recording sessions at the near-mythical Channel One studios in the presence of Jackie Mittoo, Robbie Shakespeare, Cedric Brooks, and many other boldface names in the reggae guidebooks. Could one man have really worked with so many famous folks, especially if he was now busking on a beach in Negril?
"When I met him, he said he was Peter Tosh's best friend, that he'd been a reggae star in the '70s, and so of course you say, `Sure, whatever," Jones says. "But when I went back to my hotel, I asked the [concierge], `Do you know this guy that plays guitar on the beach, Moses?' That was Claudius' street name."
"Everybody loves Moses around here," the concierge assured him. And when asked if Linton was the real deal, someone who once walked with reggae's giants, the concierge told Jones that "anything that man tells you is true."
On the beach, Linton had asked Jones to play backup at a local studio the next day, to harmonize with him on a few songs he'd been working out, maybe lay down a little lead guitar. "In Jamaica they have these expressions like `soon come,' which means I could see you in five minutes or I could see you in two weeks," Jones says. "And when something's `down the road' it could be next door or it could be miles down the road. So Claudius said to meet him at 9 o'clock the next morning, and when I walked out at 9 o'clock, there he was. Well, this was unusual. He was really committed."
After spending the morning bouncing between local studios, looking for one with time available, the two ended up at "this little tin-roof hut," Jones says. "Like a shack, basically, a broom closet with a window and a pair of headphones. On the other side was a guy with a computer named Brains, because he's the brains of the operation." By the end of the day, Linton had recorded "In the Street," "Baghdad," and a few other cuts that would eventually find their way onto Sign Time. Tapes in hand, Jones returned to Baltimore, rejuvenated after all, if not quite in the way he'd expected when he'd initially boarded his plane to Jamaica.
On both Roots Master and Sign Time there's a 10-minute bonus video clip that opens with the contestable claim that Linton "invented the roots-reggae style of singing." Linton is undoubtedly a strong, soulful singer with a unique tone, but Toots Hibbert and the late Desmond Dekker, among others, might be more rightful claimants to that particular title. That said, Roots Master cuts like the gorgeous "Crying Time" (the best argument for Linton's inclusion in the reggae canon) and "Put Your Shoulder to Jah Wheel" are steeped in the crackly warmth and lived-in lo-fi feel of reggae's vinyl era. As the hazy songs foreground the genre's rolling bass bounce, Linton's harmonies hover overtop, while his rhythm-heavy, R&B-flavored guitar licks provide little ebullient bursts of energy.
The clip also captures the in-studio infectiousness of the Sign Time sessions, with a serene Linton rocking back and forth, black acoustic guitar on his lap, as his sixtysomething backing band of longtime buddies pick up telepathically on his cues. They're spinning songs the old-fashioned way, even if they were initially worked out via phone between Linton and Jones, who also contributes frequent vocal harmonies. Though crisper and cleaner, Sign Time demonstrates a knack for unadorned, catchy arrangements that seems to have stuck with Linton throughout the decades away from the recording booth. "He understands something very fundamental about how to put a song together that's very exciting, which is basically keep it simple, get a really great hook, and then you can fill in around it," Jones says.
Now 65, Linton describes himself as a "runaway boy from my parents," escaping from the Jamaican countryside as a teenager to the rougher urban experience of Kingston's ghettos in the late '50s, as the Jamaican music industry began to blossom on the eve of the ska revolution. "I didn't know I was an artist when I was in the country," he says, just a boy who loved to sing songs by the American musicians he heard growing up--the Drifters, the Platters, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley. (He sings a snatch of a fondly remembered doo-wop tune over the phone.) Once in Trenchtown's bustling music scene, he says he quickly met the era's key players, but it was a man named Carlos Malcolm, leader of a ska band called the Afro-Jamaican Rhythm, who really encouraged the young newcomer's talents. Despite being "from the country, so I'm a lickle shy," he says, Linton would sit next to Malcolm on the piano bench, playing songs and finding his voice. By 17, Linton was recording with a group that included Jamaican guitar god Ernest Ranglin.
Linton played in a ska-era band, the Angelic Brothers (later known as the Hofner Brothers), before going solo as listeners traded jittery ska for reggae's loping groove. From the beginning, however, he found that being a successful musician in an industry predicated on graft required a fair bit of nerve. "I take up the promotion of the music myself," Linton says about his early solo recording sessions in the '70s. "I'd go to the studio and record with all the greatest musicians in Kingston. One session called `Let Me Dream, While the Moon Is Bright,' I recorded it in Federal recording studios. And the owner for the studio came around and said he wants to buy this recording. And this man, he take out a big gun and put it on the 24-track [mixing] board and said, `I'm'a selling this session.' And I said, `Sir, I cannot sell this session.'"
"After he got screwed over the first few times, he started getting smart, and would just hold out until he had the money to put out the records himself," Jones says. But putting out his own records proved no more reliable a path to fame than relying on the cutthroat Jamaican labels. "His single `Crying Time' was huge in the U.K., but a lot of people thought it was actually Burning Spear," Jones says. "So he just fell through the cracks, I guess."
Linton's solo career progressed in fits and starts, bouncing from label to label and session to session, but by the mid-'70s, when "Crying Time" was peaking, Linton found himself a musician's musician, recipient of the kind of estimation from his peers that brought respect if not riches. He counted some of the island's burgeoning superstars, then basking in the glow (and fat checks) of the first wave of international interest in reggae, as fans.
"When Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff saw me and [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell had given them their big money and their big BMW," Linton says, "Bob would come out of his BMW and forget about where we are," stopping to chat with Linton outside reggae producer Jack Ruby's house while everyone waited on Marley. Though Linton doesn't say so, Marley presumably then went inside to record a few of the tunes that made him a dorm-room deity, backed by Blackwell's promotional machine, while Linton remained on the curb.
Apparently Linton's local renown among his more monied contemporaries is still in effect in 2008. "And today, guess who I was talking to, Jonah? Ninjaman!" Linton exclaims over the phone, referring to the dancehall star whose ultraviolent tunes like "Murder Dem" made him one of Jamaica's biggest MCs in the late '80s and early '90s. "Ninjaman stop in the street there, and Ninja don't talk to nobody else. And he's in his big [Range] Rover, and I have on slippers, right now on my feet I have on slippers."
The video clip on Sign Time and Roots Master features some great vintage shots of Linton, illustrating his personal sartorial progression from natty '60s rude boy, holding his guitar Bo Diddley-style, to stern-faced late-'70s rasta prophet, guitar now slung low on its red, gold, and green strap. It almost captures the transformation from secular good times to politicized pop that swept Jamaican music during the '70s in two photos. What we don't see, however, are photos from the mid-'80s onward, the era when roots reggae was displaced by the harder, rap-influenced sound of dancehall artists like Ninjaman, and that might offer a clue as to why Linton's career stalled for over 20 years.
"I don't use the machine," Linton says about dancehall's electronic backing tracks. He talks about an encounter with a studio engineer where he "bent down and look him right in the eyes, and let him know that I put whatever I have to into the computer. I don't take things from the computer and jump and shout that I'm an artist."
"You can hear it on the Roots Master record," Jones says. "The last things, chronologically, on that record were produced by Jack Ruby at his studio in the early '80s, and it's where the electronic drums come in. The style of Jamaican music, of reggae, was changing. So [Claudius] fell out of favor, or the market just kind of evaporated around him. The music business is a trend-oriented business."
Linton's periodic attempts to reboot his career for the reggae retro market also proved ill-fated. "He had done a bunch of recording in the '90s, and he gave [the songs] to these German women who took the master tapes to Germany and basically disappeared," Jones says. "There was a lot of that."
And so why did Linton decide to take another chance on a business that has subjected him to such indignities? "The one thing he always says to me is that I woke him up again," Jones says. "He had tried to put [music] aside, to retire, and I woke him up again."
At first Jones thought his role in rehabilitating Linton's rep might be merely evangelical, passing his new material off to a larger, more established label with connections in the reggae world. "Just with the way the music industry is in tumult right now, nobody bit," Jones says. "But in a way I think that's for the best, because the way the industry is going, it may not have served our interests to be involved with a [larger] label. One of the things I am really interest in doing is--Claudius' records are selling on the collectors market for upwards of $200. Claudius never sees a penny of that. From his point of view, I wanted to secure his rights, and to make sure that we get some money going back to him, for his work."
But in addition to offering marketing muscle and signing checks for studio time, a larger label would have also been able to sort through the tangled legal situation that is Linton's back catalog. In a genre like reggae, where shady business deals and fly-by-night labels were depressingly common, determining who owns the rights to music that's been out of print for decades can be tricky, and that legal legwork fell solely to Jones. "I spent over a year searching all over the world, getting his back catalog together," he says. "Every time I'd get ahold of one, I'd call him up on the phone and play him a record he hadn't heard in 30 years."
And while the rough-around-the-edges, analog sound of Roots Master is part of the music's appeal, some surreptitious archiving on Linton's part meant that Jones could also present some of the tunes in sparkling new mixes. The album includes "old reel-to-reel tapes that he's kept with him, that have all of his biggest songs on them, and so we're able to present as good a [sound quality] as you could possibly get," Jones says. "It's actually the multitrack tapes, so I've had them restored. It's really good-sounding music that you could only [previously] hear at great cost off a scratchy 45 that's been played a million times."
The Roots Master material is the obvious draw for fans of reggae's "golden age," and a companion disc to Roots Master is in the planning stages, but Linton and Jones may be more excited by the new Kingman and Jonah material. Whatever your feelings on 21st-century reggae, Sign Time beams with the enthusiasm of two musicians juiced to have finally found that crucial collaborator after so many years in the musical wilderness, be it the hardscrabble Caribbean pop scene or the East Coast indie-rock circuit. The album sounds noticeably slicker than the grainy, gritty rasta-righteousness of classics like Bunny Wailer's Blackheart Man or Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey, but for Jones the album picks up where the '70s roots sound left off, right down to the choice of recording studio.
"We got to go to Tuff Gong, which is great, because it's Bob Marley's studio," he says. "But before it was Tuff Gong, it had been called Federal Recordings, and Claudius had recorded there a bunch of times under the previous owners. So it's all very historically rich. When we got to Tuff Gong, we went to this pear tree and ate some of these pears, which is where, when the guys didn't have any money, including Bob Marley, they would go to eat before a session."
An unashamed throwback, Sign Time is perfect for an audience looking for something beyond the occasionally thrilling but often gaudily amoral "gun talk" and "slack" sex lyrics that often make modern Jamaican dancehall problematic for old-school reggae fans. "It's a very socially conscious, spiritual message, a very powerful `power to the people' message, an anti-corruption message," Jones says. "This is such a dark time in the world, and the world needs positive music. . . . The Jamaicans talk about `vibes,' and if you can put out a positive feeling into the world, people want it, they need something to hang onto right now."
The hard part remains getting Linton's message beyond the small clutch of reggae obsessives already familiar with his name from the credits of a peeling paper label on a brittle vinyl single. The market for reggae music, whether old or new, is crowded, especially at a time when many observers feel the record industry as a whole is near total collapse. With such widespread doomsaying, Jones must be the most upbeat label owner out there.
"I have a contrarian attitude," he says about the possibilities for a young label in 2008. "Things haven't really changed [in the industry]. There's a lot of noise and static about an industry whose monopolistic model no longer really works, but underneath all that it's a really great time to get into the business. Anybody can do it, the means of production are now in the hands of the workers. Getting it noticed is still the most difficult part. Promotion is still crucial to your success. It's only really the delivery method that's changed. We're working with Morphius here in Baltimore. They're our worldwide distributor and our Baltimore connection to this whole thing, which I like."
Once all of the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed with Linton's visa application, he'll hopefully be playing his first-ever U.S. gigs. "There's a lot of opportunities coming up for us in the U.S., Canada, and even some interest overseas," Jones says. "It has to be a live show--that's how we're going to have a successful business, how we're going to let people know [about the records]."
A live tour by Kingman and Jonah would be the next step in the fecund friendship that blossomed from that initial chance meeting amid the beach umbrellas and driftwood of Negril. "There's a real pent-up energy between him and me," Jones says of those long months spent creating a body of work thanks to satellites and frequent-flier miles and all too short recording sessions. "We're dying to put this stuff on a stage."
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