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Interview: Black Steel

Interview: Black Steel

Interview: Black Steel

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"When I hear music it just rocks me"


Anyone who has attended London reggae concerts regularly in the last 30 years will recognise Black Steel. Plenty of people around the world will know him too.

A prolific multi-instrumentalist and backing vocalist, he has been in constant demand for studio sessions and stage shows since the 80s. A regular member of the Mad Professor’s Ariwa empire, the Twinkle Brothers band, Desmond Dekker’s Aces and frequent freelance engagements, the ever smiling, bespectacled guitarist, bassist and drummer is a fixture of the British reggae scene.

Born to Jamaican parents living in South East London, Errol “Black Steel” Nicholson had a diverse musical education, spanning numerous instruments, genres and settings. He has trod stage and studio floor with the likes of Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Lee Scratch Perry, Ken Boothe, Bob Andy, Max Romeo and Marcia Griffiths. He’s also worked with Bill Drummond’s art pop collective the KLF, and glam rockers Mud and the Sweet.

Black Steel

Angus Taylor spoke to Black Steel backstage after a Twinkle Brothers performance at One Love Festival 2015. There they took a sprawling ebullient journey through the career of one of reggae’s under-sung heroes. Steel’s fellow drummer and Ariwa alumnus Horseman, also playing that day, strolled over to confirm a couple of details. Due to the recording taking place nearly 3 years ago there was no opportunity to discuss the recent passing of Michael Prophet – a man Steel knew well and played with many times.

Where were you born?

I was born in the borough of Lewisham. The heart of Brockley, on August 16th 1963.

Obviously big things were happening in Jamaica musically at the time. What was your earliest memory of music?

As a toddler I was beginning to hear music. Most of the time I was listening to the radio. Since I was a child from the age of two. When I hear music it just rocks me. It just moves me. So, I guess that’s where all started for me. That’s when I started singing [Alton Ellis] “Get ready to do rocksteady.” I was at the age of five when my auntie, she is not with us now, was saying “Errol is singing. He is a singer”. I said “I am going to try to be a singer”.

When I hear music it just rocks me

Where were your parents born?

My parents were born in Jamaica. My mother is from Clarendon and my father is from Saint Catherine.

Clarendon is a very musical parish.

I guess it is! Because that’s where Freddie McGregor and lots of them are from. And then they all ended up living in Trench Town and all living in Maxfield Avenue. Even Alton Ellis was born in Clarendon and then he left when he was a toddler. He is a countryman like anybody else.

You are distantly related to Cedric Myton.

Yes. He didn’t know that until I told him. Because he lives in Old Harbour. I told him “My grandfather’s name is James Green who lives in Old Harbour, he is from Clarendon”, and he said “Yeah man! Him ah mi cousin!” I went “Oh my God!” It’s mostly on my mother’s side because my mother’s side is the biggest family. It’s my grandfather and three of my granduncles and two grandaunts. It’s six of them so the Greens cover the whole of Jamaica. Some in the mother’s name, some in the father’s name.

Plus I’m related to Joseph Hill of Culture. It was my cousin by the name of Sonia. I came round to my dad’s first cousin’s house where I used to live when I was a toddler. They were just playing pure Culture albums and then she said to me “Errol, you know you and Joseph Hill are cousins?” And I said “I don’t believe you! Are you serious?” And then her father came down and said “Yes Errol, me and Joseph, the whole of we are cousins”. His father by the name of Sonny Hill, that’s Kenyatta’s grandfather, was related to the Nicholsons.

So did you ever meet Joseph Hill and talk about this?

Oh yes! Me and him got talking. That was in about 1990 or 91. And when I told Joseph and he said “it’s true” but I don’t think his son ever knew. That’s why, since I’ve been in Jamaica, my grandfather told me everything about my mum’s side of the family and then my second cousin Sonia told me more about it.

Burrow Hill reminds me of Alpha Boys School

Where did you go to school?

The first school in 1968 was Brockley Primary School in the borough of Lewisham. The teacher I think she didn’t see. She thought there was something wrong with me but the only thing that made me read and write too well was music. Just playing in my head from since I was a child. And the second school I went to was Meadowgate School. I got a little bit of teaching there musically. I started to play the xylophone and that’s where it all started for me from the age of seven. It was the xylophone first and I was brilliant on that. And from there on 12th November 1974 my mum and dad took me to another school. It was called Burrow Hill School in Frimley, Camberley, Surrey. It was a private school. It reminds me of Alpha Boys School. That’s where my career really took off.

Was there more budget for the music department and more structured training?

That’s right. And it’s not just that. You had to fight. You had to fight to get somewhere because the majority were mostly white teachers. So one time a music teacher told me that I’ve got a trumpet lesson and another teacher said “You can’t do it”. There was a bit of confusion because I’d got work experience to do at the time. I thought the music teacher would tell the other teacher.

The recorder is what I started on at private school. The teacher said “Any boys for recorders?” I nearly raised my hand up. But when he came back into the classroom and said “Anybody wants to join…?” My hand went straight up! That’s where it all began for me. So I was playing the xylophone at Meadowgate School then the recorder in the private school and from there the steel pan. That was in 1976.

Then in ‘77 at the age of 14 we started touring around Frimley playing steel pans and doing recordings with Radio One. Also blowing the trumpet for the first time. I did experience it but not too heavily. Then I started picking up playing the acoustic guitar, and then I started to play the bass on my own. No one taught me. I just learned myself. Watching other musicians. I’d just go by looking and focusing on how they played.

Can you pretty much apply yourself to any instrument? After an initial feeling in process?

Oh yes. Give thanks to my music teacher. He’s the one who got me to learn to play guitar, recorder, all these other instruments. I even learnt to play drums myself. You’d see somebody in your vision. That’s how I get my talents. The one I visioned a lot was Cozy Powell. At the time it was really him on his own as a drummer. I learned from him by watching him on Top Of The Pops. I just watched how he played Dance With The Devil. How he moved. And I thought “If he can do it I can do it.”

Black Steel

What kind of music were you listening to on the radio at the time?

The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Swinging Blue Jeans, the Animals, Mary Hopkin, The Kinks, one of my favourite bands. Sometimes on a Sunday they would play reggae music once in a while. Israelites by Desmond Dekker and the Aces before he went solo on his own. And also the Sweet, Mud, Gary Glitter, my favourite glam rock bands.

So outside of radio and music lessons, was sound system something you followed at all?

I left school in ‘79 at the age of 15 - before I even touched 16. My first rave was somewhere in Saint Andrews Church in Brockley. I just caught the last selection the selector was playing. I can’t remember who the sound system was but it sounded very heavy! I went “Wow”! And then they said “This is the last tune”. I was just starting to warm up and feel the groove.

So how did you enter the music business?

I started to put a band together in ’79 called Makka. It was a roots band. It was myself on drums, Frank who is not with us now, passed away, was the bass player, Tony Smith on guitar, Jeffrey Tomlin on rhythm, and we didn’t have a keyboard player at the time. It was just drums, bass and two guitarists.

At the age of 16 I was the drummer playing for an older top band. E&G Embarkers band. They knew me when I was a little toddler. They were playing cover songs. They were more of a pub band. I took it up, only for a while, but I wanted more recognition than in the pubs. In the pubs you could still get recognition until somebody out there looked at you and said “I like this brother, I like how he plays”. That’s how you get connected to other musicians and artists and they know about you.

So were you in Makka and E&G Embarkers at the same time?

It was just the session. It wasn’t permanent. I wasn’t too into the permanent thing. I liked to experience my talents to every band that I played with. There was Makka. Then came E&G Embarkers. Then came the Aces.

And it wasn’t difficult for you to join a band? Your multi instrumentalism meant you could fit in where needed.

That’s right. I looked at myself as a sort of emergency musician.

Do you still do that today?

Oh yes, yes, yes! It’s like recently with Max Romeo, the drummer named Trevor Fagan he missed his flight and Max Romeo was getting a bit shaky. I said “Don’t bother about it. Line check.” Sister Audrey looked at me and I said “Don’t say a word. Pass me a pair of sticks please!” This was in France. We did the line check in when the other musicians heard me play they went in themselves “What the hell? This guy’s got talent”.

Tell me about joining the Aces.

Carl St Clair and Barry Howard, I have been with them since 1980 as a session. But he wanted it to be permanent and I said “Okay” so I’m still permanently with them. I backed Desmond Dekker. I saw Desmond Dekker when I was going to church actually. And he was on his own because of his drinking habits that he couldn’t help. I guess he got bankrupt or got ripped off in the business and if he had stuck together with the group they would go far. But it didn’t happen. He left and went about his business.

So what was the next band you joined?

It was Robotics. That was with Mad Professor. I met Mad Professor in 1983. That’s when it all started. I had a session to do with a friend named Vincent Simon playing guitars. Then after that Professor kind of checked me out, didn’t say a word to me at the time.

Was this at one of his Ariwa studios?

Gautrey Road, Peckham. This guy came up to me I never knew him before and said his name was Sergeant Pepper otherwise known as Garnet Cross. Sergeant Pepper said to me “I like your talents - would you like to come for a jam?” I said “Jam together? Okay”. But I didn’t know it was going to be at the same studio. So we were jamming and then they said “Rolling!” “What you mean rolling? Oh you mean it’s a recording thing? You call that jamming? That’s not jamming!”

Professor really took to me and my talents

What instrument were you playing?

It was from rhythm to bass. And then I stuck with the bass. I had some good lines. Professor really took to me and my talents. I became part of the Ariwa posse.

Tell me about some notable tunes you played on. Ariwa was really coming into its own at that time.

The first hit was for Sandra Cross. Sandra Cross was going to give up music and do clerical work. Then all of a sudden, she voiced Country Living. First it was meant to be Sister Audrey. Then came Sandra Cross, straight to number one. Nine weeks number one and that was a mighty breakthrough for her. I only did the lead on that. The rest was done by other musicians.

The second number one single I did with Sandra was called You’re Lying, written by her bigger brother Dennis Cross. That became a second big hit. I played all instruments! And the last tune I did for Sandra Cross was It’s You. She wrote that one and her brother Victor Cross did an R&B version. The R&B one sounded beautiful. I still listen to it once on my while on my phone. I still like it very much.

Horseman, another drummer who started with Prof, is playing at the festival today. He played on Kunta Kinte – that was before you joined Ariwa.

Yes, he was the one playing the drums. I met him when I never had locks upon my head. His mother and my mother grew up together back home. They went to church together and even in England too. But we never knew that. He was in the Son Of Man In Roots band.

So you become part of Prof’s touring band and went to Europe?

Yes, that’s right, as Robotics, with Macka B. Germany was my biggest experience touring. But my first tour was in 1985 when I had just joined Mad Professor flying to Italy. I had never flown on a plane in my entire life. When we took off I went “My God! What’s going on? Wow!” Victor Cross was holding on the seat so tightly! I wasn’t scared at the time but I just felt a bit funny. And when the plane went voop voop! I went “Oh my God please”.

The plane landed safely and we didn’t realise the ticket was one way! It wasn’t return! (Laughs) Mafia kind of thing you know? We still did the show - it wasn’t much of a pay but we still got a little something back. But they still had to buy our tickets to fly us back. The Ariwa posse, Ras Messengers, we helped them to buy the tickets to fly them back to England. We couldn’t leave them!

So from there in late 1985 was when I started to meet Twinkle Brothers. I saw one brother when I was walking in new Lewisham way, and I went “Yeah man, a me man, a me man.” That was Ralston. Then I went to Shaka’s dance and that’s when I saw the Twinkle Brothers. Oh! That was my first time meeting them. Shook their hands “Nice to meet you guys”.

Jah Shaka - how did you first encounter him?

I knew Jah Shaka and his whole family when I was a little boy. That was way back in 1969. I originally knew him as Neville Powell. I never knew that he was Shaka and then I heard someone saying “Shaka.” “That’s Neville? Ok so Shaka. Don’t call him Neville anymore.” This was in about 1971. He was the one that really broke through with the roots music. But I was still small, I wasn’t allowed to go out then! (Laughs) He will never stop the sound system thing. He is a very strong going sound system. The strongest sound system ever.

And then you started playing with Twinkle Brothers on bass? You were the original bass player before Dub Judah?

Yeah, that’s right. But it was Norman. From ‘86. Norman remained in England and when the band split up they all went their separate ways and went back to Jamaica or whatever. Then Norman was doing some recordings with a guy named Michael, he’s not with us now, he died. But he was not 100% well. When I played one of Norman’s bass-lines he recognised it and I got the job.

In the 1980s you started working with the biggest names in reggae.

Well, to tell you the truth I have an English sound. It’s all originally from Jamaica and what came from Jamaica came to England from ska, rocksteady to reggae roots rock reggae it all came from the one island. It came over here not just in England alone, but all over the world. So now I’m still touring with all of the best artists who I grew up with. I experienced working with Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor, Ken Boothe, Marcia Griffiths, you name it.

Did you do any work with Lee Scratch Perry?

Oh yes! That was in ‘85. In Gautrey Road, Peckham. He was cool. He was really cool brother but he doesn’t want anybody to say that he is a born man you know? He is the actor. But he is a real genius.

Tell me how you encountered the other veteran artists you mentioned.

It’s my gift. Somebody told me that it’s when I pick up my bass. I was at Ariwa and all of a sudden I saw Bob Andy coming into the studio. “Wow it’s Bob Andy!” He was passing through Ariwa with Janice, his manager. I was just in the studio messing about, playing the bass. This was in 1986. I started to play one of his bass-lines and he just looked at me and I got the job. I went on tour with him to Finland and Belgium. I just love his voice and he loves my talents. He said to me “Bwoy, you really have a gifted talent, Black Steel”. I said “Thank you“. And it’s true I have.

How did you meet Dennis Brown? Was he living in the UK at the time?

It was thanks to Bubblers. Bubblers invited me to Easy Street Studios, East London to do a session with him playing guitar. This was in 1988. The first time I met him we got talking but when he heard me play something accidentally on the piano he rushed back in and said “Hey, I want this brother here to come work with me”. Dennis Brown said that. I was very excited. I got the job. Touring in Finland, Germany, the same places we went when we toured with Macka B. I was still working with Twinkle Brothers.

I thank Dennis Brown for inviting me to Jamaica

So when did you first go to Jamaica?

It was by the man named the Crown Prince of Reggae. It was the man named Dennis Emanuel Brown. That was in late ‘88-‘89 when he said to me “Hey Black Steel, we ago Jamaica” and I went “What?” Oh my God - I nearly fainted! I couldn’t wait - I was so excited! I thank him for inviting me to Jamaica for the first time.

What was Dennis like? Down to earth?

Cool. Yeah he was down-to-earth. Very down-to-earth. Real cool, talented. As I said, I have to thank him for inviting me to Jamaica for the first time. I was very excited to see what Jamaica looked like. We stayed for four days to get acclimatised in Jamaica then we went to Black River - that was our first performance. Then we went down to Dunn’s River, and we started to perform. Then Dennis was beginning to turn to the Crown Prince of Reggae Music. Then we were performing in Kingston, Jamaica and his father was very proud of him. Because I never knew that Dennis’ father was an actor. I really didn’t know that.

Who else did you meet going to Jamaica for the first time?

Oh man. I met Horsemouth Leroy Wallace. Meeting these guys at Halfway Tree I saw a nice pair of shoes. I took some money out of my pouch ready to buy it and then “Hey! Come back here with my money you!” “It’s cool man. Irie man” and the only one it could be is Horsemouth. The most funniest character ever, to snatch money out of my hand like that! (Laughs) Man gone with my money. So I think he does it to everybody. Who is a British! I said “Next time brethren”. (Laughs)

Did you meet Ken Boothe?

Oh man. We toured together with Dennis Brown at the time with Lloyd Parks and We The People. I have to give thanks to Dennis Brown for inviting me to Jamaica. I knew deep down I was going to meet all of the legends who still live over there. Like Derrick Harriott. (Sings) “Keep on dancing, talking to me baby“. 18 With A Bullet. Walk the Streets at Night.

Derrick was having a bit of a comeback in 1988 wasn’t he? Doing a combination with Yellowman about Hurricane Gilbert? I know you backed him at London International Ska Festival 2015…

That I didn’t know. Wow! The first time was on the ferry, man! That was my experience working with this guy. I just kept on singing these old classics to him. I said “Hey what about (sings) “Look at me…” When we did 18 With A Bullet the people went crazy.

Black SteelHow much time did you spend with Dennis Brown over the years?

3 and a half years. And I backed Gregory a few times. I met Gregory through Dennis. I met him the first time around Maxfield Avenue, downtown Kingston. Castro Brown had a studio called New Name studios. That was in early ‘89. And then I met Freddie McGregor. I met Prince Jazzbo. Bongo Herman. He toured with us too. Lloyd Parks invited me down to the Frontline Kingston when I was staying in that Courtleigh Manor hotel. Very nice cosy hotel.

When you were playing with Lloyd Parks he was on the bass – so you were…?

I was on backing vocals. He wouldn’t want me to play guitar. I just stick with what they like mostly.

Gregory Isaacs. What kind of person was he?

He was alright. He was very quiet. But he was very upfront, man. He sings about it and he’s not ashamed of it. I worked with him on stage at Reggae Sunsplash. That was in ’89, in Montego Bay. I’ve been looking for that video ever since and I couldn’t find it!

During this period you were also part of two harmony groups – Klearview Harmonix and Intense.

Klearview Harmonix formed in 1988 – it was Hector Cross, Errol Morris and Black Steel. Sandra Cross was looking for backing singers so we joined to perform with Sandra Cross. We had the best group dancing skills. From there came Intense with Robert Rowe and Derek Nembard. I knew them long before I knew Klearview. I knew them since 1983. Klearview is still going with Hector’s brother. Intense split up but Mad Professor wants them to get back together.

In the 90s you worked with some non-reggae acts like the KLF.

I was on Top of the Pops with them! It was through someone named Tony Thorpe. They were at Ariwa studios. That was in 1991. Mad Professor called me and said to me that they’re looking for a bass player. Eddie the bass player wasn’t interested and the drummer wasn’t interested. So Mad Professor called me and said “Steel are you interested to back this group called KLF?” I started to pick up and play the bass on the song called Justified And Ancient.

Tony Thorpe said to me “Steel can you sing? Are you a singer? Can you sing Justified Ancients Of Mumu?” I did it and he went “Oh my God! Professor he’s got a good voice“. So I sang on that album. Then I did Top of the Pops. I’d never been down to the BBC in my life. We went on stage to do our part with the KLF and we were number one! Three times! I invited my son when he was very small. I think he was about five or six. I said to the people at the BBC “I won’t leave my son. You’ve got to let him in he’s just a child. He wants to see his dad perform”. In the end the security let him through.

Did you perform with any other non-reggae artists?

Stakka Bo. I performed with Stakka Bo playing drums on Top of the Pops that same year. Away from the reggae I also did a session for a glam rock band. It was with Brian Connolly of the Sweet. And then I worked with Mud. I was in Catford and I was walking and I saw a poster and I looked up and I went “Wait a minute, the Sweet! Mud! Oh no, I’m not going to miss that!” I rushed into the Catford theatre and they had just one last ticket and I bought it. This person come on stage and I went “Hey where’s Mick? Steve? Where’s Andy?” I didn’t know it was just Brian. Brian Connolly and the Sweet really. After they finished performing I got up off my seat, went downstairs, to cut through the other side. The security wouldn’t let me in but when I told them “I am from the KLF” they let me through straight away! (Laughs)

Let’s get back to reggae. How did you encounter Alton Ellis?

He is another cousin of mine but by marriage. I backed him enough times. When I was performing if I was too upfront he would put his hand in my face and push me back! I’d say “Don’t do that man!” But that’s part of entertainment. Anyway! This was I would say 1998. I was with Robotics at the time. It was Robotics who backed them all - Skully and Bunny, Errol Dunkley, Alton and them.

What were you doing in the 2000s?

Just laying down tracks with Mad Professor. Me and Horseman were laying drum and bass. And then I’d do all the piano section, rhythm section, organ shuffles and backing vocals so when an artist comes to sing there’s backing vocals there already. And then Professor mixes it and releases it.

And you were also doing more live shows with big artists.

The 2000s was Max Romeo and Big Youth. That was my biggest experience working with those two guys. Max was cool to work with after the death of my keyboard player when he was in an accident and luckily I survived. That was in September 2000. The drummer fell asleep at the wheel and we crashed in Poitier. That was a long journey to drive and I said to those guys “You shouldn’t leave we should just stay in the hotel” but I hate talking about that because it brings back sad memories.

And even recently Rico who died yesterday. I worked with him in 2006 in Utah. He was good to work with. The way he blew his trombone, he was absolutely fantastic. But recently in his 80s he wasn’t catching up and I think that’s why he said “It’s time to calm down now”. He should have, but you know, that is their instrument, that is their life.

Recently you’ve been a regular player in the band backing the main artists in the London International Ska Festival. You were asked to back Ken Boothe in 2010 but you’ve come back year after year.

I give thanks to Sean. It was Trish that told Sean about me and then I got started working with Marcia Griffiths for the first time. I’d never backed her in my life but singing a duet with her Young Gifted And Black, and Pied Piper - Oh God! Marcia looked at me and said “You are the one. I would prefer you to come and sing these duets with me, any time let me know”.

How did it feel to be part of Professor’s Back To Africa Festival in Gambia in 2012 and 2013?

That was my first experience going to the Promised Land. I’d never been there before and from the first time I went there I enjoyed it. I love it. I love helping the poor. Because we all go through the same tribulations. It’s not just in Africa - it’s all over the world. I was in a restaurant and I saw a lovely beautiful African woman with her cute baby, just reaching her hand out. I said “Come - come and eat with me”. And then I gave her £100. I said “Change it so you’ve got enough to last you”. I love the land, beautiful, it’s so great and I’ve got to go back there again. I am missing it right now.

You recently played at Lewisham People’s Day with Tippa Irie. Tell me about working with him.

Oh Lord! Boy, I thank him so much for inviting me into his band. I told him to call that band Lockdown bad. It suits the band. We played in Germany and I think Italy and also People’s Day. Wow! I thank him so much for playing 007 because I was part of the Aces and I’m still part of the Aces.

Dennis Brown’s daughter Marla is performing at One Love Festival today.

Oh she is a sweet girl, man. She always calls me Uncle Steel. She performs just like her father. At the Jazz Cafe she was fantastic. At the Bunny Lee birthday. That was two years ago. And her mother was there and her brothers. I nearly cried on stage actually. Got so emotional.

I don't like showing off

A lot of guitarists in reggae bands like to play big flashy solos to alert the audience to their presence. But you don’t do that. Everyone knows who you are.

I don’t like showing off. But if I see a legend artist I’ll play that person’s bass-line because I know it just like that. Some musicians don’t like it. They get very jealous of me. I don’t know why. When I was backing Yabby You with Robotics, You didn’t like the bass player named Eddie. This was 1998-99 time. I selected the right songs and Yabby You loved me so much for that. I selected the right proper classics and the crowd was surprised to hear them. Because when they see me on stage or on video or anywhere they say “I still want this brethren, he is so gifted and so talented” to remember their old classics that I grew up with all my life.

Have you been able to maintain full-time work in the music you love?

Oh yes! Just look after mum and play music. My mum came to see her son in concert when Alton was alive and I put her right up front at the Jazz Café. She sat down and sometimes she got up and she started dancing! Oh! I didn’t know my mum could still dance! Mum you’re great!

I just like to support the artists

What about solo Black Steel work? You did a couple of albums for Ariwa and for other producers.

I’ve done one album with Bill Campbell. The last album with him. And I’ve done another album produced by Patrick Donegan. I just want to big up Mad Professor, Twinkle Brothers and all of my tribute friends who I’ve worked with over the years. They will never be forgotten. All my condolences to all of the artists I was very close to and haven’t worked with before.

I just like working with these artists. That’s just what I like doing it for the fun of it. I wouldn’t say I’m looking to branch out. I just like to support the artists and back them with my talents. And long live Aces. And long live all the musicians. Derek Fevrier who is my bass player and a good engineer, Dub Judah, Jerry Lyons, Horseman, Stephen “Marley”, all these guys who I worked with over the years. What you see on my Facebook the whole story of my life it’s all there. Everyone around the world who knows Black Steel they all see it already. So it’s no big fantastic thing.

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