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Interview: Rusty Zinn

Interview: Rusty Zinn

Interview: Rusty Zinn

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"Music was like a trip to other parts of the world"


Blues and reggae are musically aligned. Both have roots in West Africa. Before Jamaicans listened to ska, rocksteady and reggae on sound systems the selectors played American jump blues. Both forms had a heyday at home and spread widely abroad: to the point where some foreign enthusiasts consider themselves gatekeepers to what is authentically either.

Californian singer guitarist Rusty Zinn understands all this and more. A celebrated blues player in the 90s he underwent a journey of discovery that saw him become a ska, rocksteady and lovers rock singer. He swapped Albert Collins for Alton Ellis and never looked back.

Last month he released his seventh album (and third in reggae) The Reggae Soul Of Rusty Zinn: A Journey To The Heart Of Lovers Rocksteady. Released on Rockbeat Records it features covers of Frankie Valli, Gladys Knight and Jimmy Holiday, production from Sly and Robbie and guitar from the legendary Hux Brown.

Angus Taylor spoke to Rusty about his fascinating story of a life spent at the musical crossroads. They discussed his influences, his new album, and why he’s a London reggae singer in a Californian’s body.

Rusty Zinn

Have you always been in California?

I was born in Long Beach, down by Los Angeles, in 1970. Then in 1976 my folks moved up north to a place called Bonny Doon which is in the mountains outside Santa Cruz.

My parents struggled quite a bit. When me and my older brother were real little, boy, they were really struggling. They definitely didn’t have any spending change. There definitely came a point in our lives where things got a little easier. By the time we moved up north they had saved and saved and they were able to buy a little plot of land in the mountains.

When I tell you we lived in the country, I’m not joking. There was no supermarket, no gas station, no post office, nothing. It was just forests. I was already exposed to music from when I was a baby but when you live in an environment like that there’s only so much you can do, right? Music was like a trip to other parts of the world, other times, other dimensions and stuff.

What was your first sentient experience of music?

The first music I can ever recall hearing was the Stylistics and the Spinners, those Philly Soul groups, playing on the radio in the early 70s. I thought Russell Thompkins from the Stylistics was a girl singing! Then of course my parents would play Motown, a lot of doo-wop and Sam Cooke. My mom had a little 45 collection from when she was a young girl and there was a lot of Fats Domino in there, and Elvis Presley of course. As time went on I got exposed to the Beatles and there were all kinds of pop music. Growing up in Santa Cruz was interesting too because that’s always been a port for culture. You could be exposed to everything in the arts and music in Santa Cruz. Definitely the beginnings were that soul and R&B mixture.

How did you get into the blues and when did you pick up the guitar?

My brother actually turned me onto the blues. One of his best friends was a Mexican fella and back during that time a lot of the lowriders around Santa Cruz would listen to blues and soul. My brother started bring home blues records and I got bit by that bug a little bit. You look back on it and think “Boy, I was listening to the blues all along” because so much of the rhythm and blues is just blues too. I don’t really remember why I gravitated towards the guitar. There was a beat-up guitar laying around the house. My family’s a musical family and my brother could play all different kinds of instruments. I just picked up the guitar and just started playing along with those records, strumming the strings a little bit.

What kind of records were you playing along to?

Early on I gravitated towards the sounds from Chicago but as I got older I started to develop a little more sophisticated taste and started to like Bobby Blue Bland and Johnnie Taylor and all those kind of things. Then when I got a little bit older, like when I was 18, I was able to start sneaking into black clubs in Oakland – places where they’d have a pistol check at the door and stuff like that (laughs), really lowdown places. You’d get to see a lot of really cool singers. D’you ever hear of a singer called Buddy Ace? I saw him perform at a club up in Oakland at a club called Your Place Too - that was a big turning point in my life because I got to see a guy that was really connecting with the audience, especially the females. That drove me crazy. I said “Man, if I want to get some girls then I’d better sing. Guitar playing alone’s not going to get it” (laughs).

Within the blues, what was the achievement that you were most proud of?

Too many to mention. When I look back on it, in the 90s I had quite a lot of pinnacles in my career playing that music. I got to perform with so many people that I admired on record and became friends and toured with these artists. I was nominated for awards and I’ve probably done about 30 tours of Europe. It was a successful run.

People said "No, you can't do this. You're going to be a blues man for the rest of your life"

Who were you proudest to play with?

James Cotton. There was also a guy named Jimmy Rogers I used to work with a lot. Just a lot of those kind of artists from Chicago. It’s such a small world. You meet one guy and he digs you, and then he lets the next guy know when they’re coming out to California like “You’ve got to check this kid out, he can play our music” so I’d wind up getting jobs behind these guys.

Sounds like you were always a fan of the soulful end of the blues – which of course is exactly what some of the greats in Jamaica would have been listening to. In the same way that back when you were digging the Stylistics I guess Sly was probably doing the same.

(laughs) Exactly! Delroy Wilson I always heard was a Bobby Bland fanatic, and I love hearing those stories because it definitely makes you feel like “Yeah, I’m coming from the same places as these musical heroes of mine as well” you know?

How did you leave the blues behind for Jamaican music?

I was exposed to the Jamaican thing when I was living in Santa Cruz. Going to high school in the 80s, there was actually reggae in the charts and you’d hear UB40 and Maxi Priest and of course you’d hear Bob everywhere. During that time I had my ears open to everything – I was listening to the pop music on the radio, I was discovering blues, I was no stranger to reggae.

Was there a Damascus moment?

In the mid-90s I was sharing a house with a guitar-playing friend of mine in West Oakland and he had a bit of an early Jamaican music collection. It was small but he started turning me onto like the classic Desmond Dekker and the Aces on Beverley’s, Jimmy Cliff’s output for Lesley Kong – you know, like the Harder They Come and all of that, and he turned me onto the early Wailers. My God, it just hit me upside the head. It was just amazing. I guess at the time I thought it was like “Wow, this is like island soul music”. It just took a hold of me. It kind of became this closet infatuation because when I would mention it to people in our circles they would be like “No, you can’t do this. You’re going to be a blues man for the rest of your life”, you know? I really didn’t want to keep on playing blues because I always thought that maybe my voice was a bit too sweet to play blues. And I didn’t really feel that I could write a blues song that stood up to some of the classics. It just didn’t seem like very relevant music for me at the time. So I was just developing this passion real quick for Jamaican music and building my collection and discovering all these artists.

Then I went to see Jimmy Cliff perform live and that was a huge turning point for me. That day I had quite a dilemma because I could either pay to see Jimmy Cliff live or I could see Solomon Burke for free at Golden Gate Park, and I chose to go and see Jimmy Cliff. I’m glad that I did because it was a huge turning point in my life and I said “Boy, this is what I want to do”. A couple of years after that I saw Alton Ellis live and that was kind of the icing on the cake. Alton Ellis was backed by the Soul Syndicate that time and they opened with a medley with his hits, teasing the audience. I’d never seen anything like that and I’m just going “Wow! This is like Reggae Showtime at the Apollo or something!” So really I was coming into it and understanding from a soul music perspective. After they did that little medley all of a sudden you hear Alton’s voice and he’s singing the intro to Willow Tree and then boom! The band hits and he comes running around from the back of the stage, all dressed in white. My soul was overtaken and I said “This is it! I’ve got to do this. This is what I want to do”. So it was just this whole new world to me and it was nothing that I thought about or planned or pre-meditated, it just took over.

My soul was overtaken and I said "This is what I want to do"

Do you have any regrets?

It was just kind of a plunge that I had to take. I knew it was going to be a sacrifice, that it was going to be basically like starting over again. I knew I was going to lose a major part of my income (laughs). But in a sense it all kind of came at a good time because I could see that the music industry in general was fading. I just thought “Well, man, if this thing is going to eventually just kind of fall off into the ocean, I might as well just reinvent myself”. And I just plunged myself into it. The main thing is that the songwriting for me was just like night and day, when I started channelling the Jamaican music thing into my own sound I could just write songs like that (clicks fingers). It was so easy, because obviously reggae and blues is very similar in the storyline a lot of times, but in reggae oftentimes there’ll be a light at the end of the tunnel. Blues there’s no resolve in the story. I kind of wanted to get away from that too – because you’ve got to be careful what you sing about, it could easily come true, you know?

You grew dreadlocks at one point.

I had dreads for a number of years. It’s kind of hard to explain. I definitely became intrigued with the whole kind of Rasta thing and became friends with Jamaican expatriates that lived around here that were Rasta. It was just kind of part of the journey. I think I eventually just came to a place where I was like “I just want to be Rusty”. I’ve always been a spiritual seeker. To me at this point it’s just kind of believing in the power of the universe. That’s where I’m at.

I've always been a spiritual seeker

There is quite a community of original reggae artists in California. Soul Syndicate, well, pretty much everyone except Chinna, went over and settled there, and of course your first reggae CD was done with those members.

With Tony Chin, Fully Fullwood and Santa Davis, yeah. What happened with that was there was a record label down in Southern California that I was signed to. It wasn’t a multiple record deal, we were doing one-off records. I had already done a soul record for this label and I came to them and said “I’ve been wanting to do a reggae thing for a while” and this label happened to be supportive of me doing that. I wrote a batch of songs and they knew somebody that knew Fully Fullwood, so the record label flew me down to Southern Cal to meet Fully and the record executive took me and Fully and his wife to dinner, we wound up talking and then the next thing you know we were in the studio. That record was completely lost - it never got any, not a single ounce of promotion at all. It did garner one of the greatest reviews I’ve ever had – Chuck Foster gave it a glorious review, which felt really nice, definitely encouraging for me when I was starting something new. I became really good friends with Tony Chin and he became a mentor of sorts to me. That was definitely one really good thing that came out of that project for me.

For your second CD you went Jamaica and recorded with Sly, Mikey Chung, Boris Gardiner, Robbie Lyn.

Rusty ZinnThat was like a spiritual pilgrimage that I had to make for myself. It was an incredible experience and so much happened when I was down there. One of the things that I’ll never forget is pulling up to the yard of the Mixing Lab studio. Bunny Lee was there, I see him standing out in the yard there and there was a bunch of dreads circled around him, like he was holding court. That’s kind of how it was when I was down there, everywhere you’d look you’d see somebody that you admired or that you knew about, on every street corner. It’s just incredible.

I was there for about a week before we recorded and I was a bit nervous because when I arrived Mikey hadn’t booked the studio time, and I’m the kind of guy, I like things to be planned and prepared, I’m kind of like “God, the worst case scenario, I go back with nothing”, like no recording. The whole time Mikey’s like “No, man, just cool down” you know? And he asked me “Do you want to go into the studio right away or do you want to wait and get the vibes?” And I told him “I’d rather wait”. He said “That’s the right answer. You’ve got to get the Jamaican vibes before you jump in the studio”. So we kind of chilled out for about a week and he and I went up into the hills. We sat on his veranda, we had a little guitar I’d brought with me, I sang my songs for him and he charted them out – wrote out charts for Boris and for Robbie Lyn. Then he booked the studio… literally he had me over for dinner one night and he booked the studio after dinner the night before we went in the studio (laughs). Mixing Lab, which is Roy Francis. So we went in there and the whole time I was down there, you’re nervous, man! Because you’ve got to bring something, you know? You have to show these guys that you can do something. The first tune we did of the session my knees were literally knocking together I was so nervous. Myself, Boris, Mikey and Robbie Lyn were all in the engineering room. They were all going direct into the board and I was singing more or less a guide vocal, and Sly was in the drumming booth, separate from us, so couldn’t make eye contact with him.

Sly produced your tracks Wear A Crown and You're The One - did you know him before you went out to Jamaica?

Sly knew me as Mikey’s friend and when Sly and Robbie would come through town, sometimes I’d pick them up and take them to the show. So Sly knew who I was but I don’t even know if he even knew I was an artist at all. So this is the first time he’s hearing me sing, so after the first song I was so nervous I went outside to get some air and he’s already out there. He looks at me and he says “Rusty, me never know you sing so wicked!” He was bigging me up and it gave me that encouragement and that strength to go back in there and feel confident. He said “You’re a wicked songwriter. I’m going to send you some riddims and have you voice them”. So going down there opened that whole door for me, for a relationship and a collaboration with Sly. That was an amazing trip, and you know, Scully Simms wound up on that session too which was amazing. He was one of the key guys I wanted to meet when I went down there because I’m a fan even going back to the Bunny and Scully days when Scully used to sing all the old rhythm and blues. It was just an amazing trip. I really can’t wait to get back.

You’ve got Hux Brown playing on your new record. He was a key architect of that Beverley’s sound. He lives near you.

Who actually linked us up was Brian Atkinson, the bass player from Studio One back in the old days. Brian and Hux played in a group at Studio One called Soul Vendors, and I was up in Toronto in 2010 doing a recording session with Brian, Ernest Ranglin, and a cat named Lloyd Delpratt. He is a keyboard player.

This record I've kind of come full circle

Yes – he worked with Derrick Harriott.

That session sadly is still in the vaults. I don’t know if that’s ever going to come out, but during that whole week I was telling Brian “Man, you’ve got to link me with Hux Brown, that’s my hero. The guy lives right in my backyard” because Hux has been living in Oakland since the mid-70s, even though he was touring with Toots at that time he met his wife-to-be and moved here. Brian hooked us up and Hux and I met for lunch one day, and the rest is history. When he was playing in my band we threw out our wah-wah pedals and phase shifters, you know what I mean? He really stripped the band down. At that time the majority of our material we were performing was more or less rocksteady and it was a great learning experience. Man, we learned so much from him. He’d say “This is how we would do this at Studio One” or “This is how we would do this at Beverley’s”. It gave us inspiration because reggae music, like any genre, becomes so formulaic. Almost like the younger people, even if they’re from Jamaica, seem to play the skeleton of the music and they miss the detail and the nuance, and that’s where a guy like Hux Brown comes in because they’re all nuance and little subtleties, and all of that really rubbed off on our sound.

What would you say this new album brings to the table in terms of your development?


I made it sound like a job interview then, didn’t I? Are you a good team player?

(laughs) I am a good team player actually! Being a good team player makes your music stronger in a sense. The record I did in Jamaica had a lot more spiritual themes, which maybe I was touched by more at the time. This record I’ve kind of come full circle back to the beginning of my foray into Jamaican music, and that is that I fell in love with it through soul music. When I started working with my manager Bob Bell I think he felt that if I recorded something that had more secular themes it would give it a broader appeal. I didn’t have a problem with that, it wasn’t like a manager coming in and twisting your arm and saying “You have to do this”. It felt good. I’ve always said this too – to me love songs are very spiritual, you know? To me a love song is as conscious as anything else.

I think it’s a combination of the fact that I’m older and maybe developed a little more wisdom, we hope, and sometimes it takes you forever to meet that kind of person that makes you want to write these kind of songs. The other thing is, you know I’m a UK lovers rock fanatic, so that’s rubbed off quite a bit in my music as well.

To me a love song is as conscious as anything else

Alton Ellis is a big part of your sound but one thing I’m hearing in a couple of the songs on the album is Studio 1 Bob Andy. That vintage-sounding reverb and that slightly wailing sound?

Wow. Yeah, that’s interesting that you say that because I love Bob Andy of course. I guess I’ve never sat down and tried to sound like a particular singer, even Alton. Sometimes I’ll hear a playback of a vocal of mine and I’ll say “Oh my God, that lick right there was definitely coming from Alton subconsciously” but man, Bob Andy. I do have to say that Bob Andy’s song-writing has probably been a big inspiration to me, just how he writes maybe a little more intelligently than a lot of writers. How him and Joe Higgs both had… it’s almost like I wonder if those guys listened to Bob Dylan or something.

When I interviewed Bob Andy back in 2010 and asked him who his favourite songwriters were, he put Bob Dylan at the top of his list.

You can hear that. Those guys approach a lyric differently. It’s not always “Oh baby, baby, I love you”. They’re always coming from a more philosophical approach to songwriting. But when you mention the reverb and echo too, I guess you’re getting that… you’re hearing exactly what we’re into. The engineer that I’m working with nowadays, one day I brought him Cornel Campbell’s Studio One version of Stars. And I said “Chris, I want this reverb and echo sound. This is the sound I want” and he’s really keen on the vintage sound anyway and he knew exactly what it was. I get inspiration from the sound because that’s the sound of most of the records that I love.

Dennis Bovell. I really admire his work so much

You’ve worked with Sly and Robbie, you’ve worked with Soul Syndicate, you’ve worked with Hux Brown. Who’s on your list that you haven’t worked with yet?

As you know I’m really keen on the UK sound. There’s quite a few musicians from the UK that I’d love to work with. I’d dearly love to one day collaborate either in the studio or on stage – hopefully both – with Dennis Bovell. I really admire his work so much. You know, I love Mafia and Fluxy, I could see myself doing something with them. I’m actually in the middle of doing some collaboration works with a producer from Birmingham named Phillip Gadd. That’s going to be an on-going thing, we have quite a few things in the works. I’m really excited about that. I think I’d like to align myself more with the UK because I just feel that, for me, the UK kind of seems to carry on the tradition of the sound I like a bit more. It’s very hard to find guys in the United States that would play with that sensibility, with that kind of old school approach. You guys have got so many great bands – the Ruff Cut Band, I love that band, all these kind of groups over there.

Your manager is Bob Bell, who ran Trojan for a while. How did you link with him? You must hear about a lot of UK reggae history from him.

Absolutely, Bob’s got great stories. Hux Brown lives literally a block and a half from Bell so there’s been times where the three of us are together and they’re bouncing stories off of each other. It’s always dynamite. Bell I met when I was probably 22, 23 years old. He was managing Roomful of Blues at the time and I was touring heavily with an artist at that time named Kim Wilson who was the frontman for a group called the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Bell took a shine to my singing and playing. We became friends and we kept bumping into each other on the road, and then he wound up moving out here. I didn’t see much of him for the first several years he was out here but I was walking down the street one day and I heard somebody yell my name. I couldn’t believe he recognised me. I had just come back from Jamaica and I had a big beard and dreadlocks, I mean how does this guy even recognise me? (laughs) We started talking and I said “You should be my manager” and he says “You know, I really don’t want anything to do with the music industry whatsoever. I’m retired from it”. He started coming to our shows and Hux was in the band and it was all quite exciting for Bob, I think, getting to hear this music again. I kept pestering him to manage me and he wasn’t up for it, and I don’t know, one Sunday morning he called me after a show the night before and he said “Well, young man I have no choice but to manage you”. And that was that! (laughs) He always says that he’s not really a manager, he’s an evangelist. We’re definitely a team. He really believes in what I do and it feels good after all that he’s seen and heard over the years, that he’s taken a shine to what I’m trying to do.

I'm definitely like a freak of nature on the reggae scene

You are kind of an anomaly on the Californian reggae scene. People associate California with roots and herb.

Yeah, I’m definitely like a freak of nature on the reggae scene here. And even though the record that I did in Jamaica it’s definitely got more of a roots sound, I think even when that came out maybe it was too old school roots for the California Bay area reggae scene. I have to keep it real, I have to be myself. It feels natural for me to put on a suit and go out on stage and try to sing pretty and try to convey the message with soul. That to me is as authentic to reggae music as you can get. Whether or not the public sees it that way, this is something I feel really strongly about and I just have to keep pushing forward with what I believe in. I’ll never forget one time Mikey Chung saying to me, he sucks on his teeth and says “Roots. We the musicians, we’re the roots. The roots is nothing but us who created reggae music. We’re the roots”. That makes a lot of sense.

You’ve been on the blues scene and you’ve been on the reggae scene. When the blues was adopted in England in the 60s there were a lot of self-appointed judges and gatekeepers going around saying “This isn’t real blues, this is not rough enough, it’s not sad enough, it’s not about how poor you are, it’s got horns in.” Are there any parallels to be drawn there between this and the reggae scene?

There are definite parallels. You always have these know-it-alls, these people who think they know what reggae is, or whatever genre you’re talking about. But I mean you and I know there’s nothing new under the sun, right? And I’m not trying to be vintage or retro, I’m just trying to convey the music in the way that feels natural to me. For instance you think about how the UK lovers rock sound is now, it’s almost like just the modern adaption to rocksteady. I would just love to live in a world where the Peter Hunningales and the Bob Andys and the Ken Boothes, these are the artists that I think should be the highest echelon of these reggae artists. People that really sing, man. I mean I want to hear somebody sing! And that seems to be a real lost concept in this music, you know? You and I know that the dancehall is really ruling everything and that definitely doesn’t help the music to move forward.

I don’t mind deejays, I’m a fan of all the classic toasters but I think what it is, in the dancehall it’s not really played by real instruments. I always think of that as being more of a computer-based sound and I don’t ever really think often that the messages are what I’m looking for either. So here in the Bay area I’m not only up against these kind of roots purists. I’m up against that and I’m up against the dancehall phenomenon too. That’s huge here as well. So it’s kind of hard to find your niche, you know what I mean? It’s very hard but we are, building an audience that just loves good music. The people that I really respect their opinion about reggae music, they love us, so that feels good. When you’ve got Sly Dunbar and Hux Brown feeling that what you doing is relevant and soulful it kind of doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks (laughs).

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