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Interview: Tan Tan Thornton (Part 1)

Interview: Tan Tan Thornton (Part 1)

Interview: Tan Tan Thornton (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"Everything I did, I got lucky"


If the term ‘living legend’ is sometimes applied too liberally in Jamaican music, only the ignorant would decry it as a description of Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton. What is most remarkable about the 86-year-old, still-active trumpeter is how little of his seven-decade career was spent in Jamaica or even playing reggae music.

An alumnus of the famed Alpha Boys School, and contemporary of trombonists Don Drummond and Rico Rodriquez, Tan Tan was recruited to the post-school launch-pad for the Skatalites, Eric Deans’ Orchestra. By the time contemporaries like Drummond were creating ska with guitarist Ernest Ranglin and producer Coxsone Dodd at the turn of the 60s, Tan Tan was living in England. There he joined jazz and R&B group Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and played with the Beatles, the Stones, the Small Faces and the Animals. When reggae reached London a decade later, his session credentials were well established. He blew for Aswad, Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and his fellow Alpha colleague and settler in England, Rico (on his classic Man From Wareika album).

Today, with Rico and Drummond no longer on earth and Ranglin retired from playing outside Jamaica, Tan Tan is still touring and recording. He’s guested on Lily Allen records and regularly performs with 50s revivalists Kitty Daisy and Lewis. He’s recently recorded Just What It Is, a throwback charity single for Alpha, featuring Ernest, and Alpha pupils Sparrow Martin and Alla Lloyd.

Meeting Tan Tan in a coffee shop near his original London base of Brixton, it’s easy to see why he hasn’t opted for the quiet life. He’s an irrepressible dynamo of energy and charisma. He’s come on public transport, although he still habitually cycles around the city from his home in Ealing. He’s brought his trumpet to play at his regular Thursday night jam at the Effra pub with a loose gang of Jamaican jazz musicians.

Tan Tan apologizes for being a few minutes late, showing off an impressive gold watch, saying “I prefer English time to Jamaican time!” He orders a hot chocolate and due to a till malfunction is given it for free. Like his old friend Paul McCartney he’s fond of the thumbs up sign. He thumps the table or grasps his interviewer’s arm while making an important point.

Unlike some of his Jamaican brethren, who embraced Rastafari after he left, Tan Tan is a devout Catholic who carries a picture of the Virgin Mary in his wallet. During our two-part interview he demonstrates Christian charity when he gives money and time to a homeless man who joins the conversation - meaning we had to cut some questions about his late 70s to early 80s musical adventures. His faith and remarkably friction-free career in his beloved adopted home of England give him a different perspective on Jamaican music than almost any other veteran United Reggae has interviewed. His memories of 60s London offer a valuable Jamaican eye view of a well-trodden but still fertile period of cultural history. Part 1 of this discussion focuses on his early life at Alpha and his arrival on the London music scene.

Tan Tan

Thank you for taking the time. You’ve just come back from touring in Belgium.

God bless you man. I’ve been touring all around Europe because now it’s festival time. I’ve been touring with Aswad, Kitty, Jazz Jamaica, different artists. I’m having a good time and I feel happy. I make people happy and people make me happy. They appreciate what I’m doing. God bless Alpha Boys School.

Is it true that you were born on 19th October 1931 in Spanish Town?

I was born in Spanish Town. It’s a great town. It used to be the capital of Jamaica. I’ll tell you about Spanish Town now. It was the capital of Jamaica when the Pirates used to steal all the ships around the Caribbean. When they got all the goods off of the ship, Spanish town is where they used to hide all the jewellery and everything. They were very smart in that time. It’s 6 miles from the coast so when the English came looking for them they didn’t see anything! But they could see them! They were always spying looking for when the English are coming.

Spanish Town was the first place that I saw Winston Churchill. After the war, I was a kid and he came to Spanish Town. And its name was Villa de la Vega. The English called it Spanish Town.

And they still the area De la Vega there. Spanish Town is quite close to Kingston so the music scene was never far away.

That’s right. It’s 13 miles. All the birth papers and everything were in Spanish Town. But they’ve moved the birth papers now - you have to come to Kingston for it. They moved certain things back to Kingston.

I make people happy and people make me happy

What did your parents do for living?

My father was a butcher. He was a merchant for beef. And my mother, she looked after us. They didn’t work for anybody - they worked for themselves. I’ve got two brothers and two sisters.

So when did your surname Thornton become ‘Tan Tan’?

(Laughs) Oh that’s a good one! It used to rub off of my father. It’s Thornton – T-H-O-R-N-T-O-N - like the chocolate. But through my father being a butcher people don’t say Thornton they say ‘Tan Tan’. So when I used to go with my father to the meat shop people used to say ‘Tan Tan’ so it stuck on me and I liked the name. But the funniest thing is this. I went to China and ‘Tan Tan’ is a Chinese Emperor, like a Chinese God you know? And in Shanghai I saw ‘Tan Tan’ supermarket! So I went to the guy in Shanghai when I went to China and said “Hey, that’s my name you know?” (Laughs)

Was there music on either side of the family?

To be honest I don’t know if it’s from my father’s side. But I know my mother she was very religious so she always sang religious songs. But the good blessing for me was when my father passed away and then my cousin put me in Alpha. That’s the greatest thing for me. That was a blessing in disguise. I remember my father was dying and he wouldn’t die until I came in the house. When he sent me to school I’d abscond and we’d go to the river and swim all the while with my friends. But the thing is this - I’m glad he passed away because otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you.

Were you from a Catholic family before you went to Alpha? Was Alpha the natural choice?

All Catholic. My grandmother and my grandfather. Brought up Catholic. Yeah, Alpha was the choice. But to be honest with you I didn’t know Alpha. My father passed away and then my cousin, she used to go to the private school at Alpha. The girl’s school - Alpha Academy. She knew everything about Alpha, so she put me in Alpha.

My father dying was a blessing in disguise

In Alpha did they try to teach you a trade before you picked up the music?

Ah! That’s a good one again! You see this mark? (shows scar on hand) This caused me to do music. If I never got this I wouldn’t be talking to you either. When I went to Alpha you had different trades. You can be a carpenter, you can make clothes and shoes, be a tailor or you could make newspaper, printing. You had every trade. But I wanted to do music because I loved music. But the band was full up. There was no space. And this (points to scar) was what made me get a space.

What trade were you doing?

Cabinetmaking. (thumps table) I can make all these things. Because that’s what they taught me. I wanted to do music. But they said there was no space in the band. So when I got this [scar] Sister said to me “What do you want to do?” And I said “I want to do music Sister”. She said “But there’s only one space in the band - it’s tuba”. You know the big tuba? So I thought “Nobody wants to do tuba and there is a space in tuba so once I get in the band I’m going to play trumpet”. Because it was like in my mind my father said to me “Take tuba”. That’s how it was and that’s how it happened.

So did you hurt yourself on purpose or by accident?

(Laughs) No, no, no! It was by accident! I just started learning and I was sawing this (thumps table) like this and it cut. I didn’t go to hospital. They did it in school. They just stitched it up.

So who was in the Alpha Boys band when you joined?

Oh Don Drummond. Rico Rodriguez. Reuben Alexander. Lovelock Brown. Beres Brown. Vincent Hutchinson. All these guys were in the band. But most of the guys they were famous when they left Alpha. All those guys were famous in England, Europe all over. Joe Harriott, Harold McNair. Have you heard of Little G? They call him Little Jesus right? The reason why they called him Little Jesus is he is a white guy from a poor family so they put him into Alpha. The guy who was the bandleader before was Mr Tulloch. He liked him and adopted him and taught him saxophone so they said “You must be Jesus!” So they called him Little G.

You’ve said in other interviews that Don Drummond and Rico didn’t start on the horns they are famous for.

Rico started on the trumpet but Mr Delgado changed him and put him on trombone. Don Drummond used to do French horn and then they put him on trombone. Because most of the older boys were leaving and there was a load of trombone. Through Rico knowing music already they took him off trumpet and put him on trombone. All he had to learn was the positions. Don Drummond was the same thing. He just had to learn the positions because they were professional players in the band. But they taught us classical music. No jazz, just classical music and of course they played no reggae - reggae just came in the other day. We used to do just pure classical music – Beethoven, Mozart - just pure classical. And all the arrangements came from the military band in England. They used to send all the stuff to us.

I was Sister Ignatius' best boy in school

So it was quite difficult to get into the band and get the instrument you wanted?

(Laughs) It was very hard! It was like “who you know” right? But Sister Ignatius - have you heard of Sister Ignatius?

Of course.

I was her best boy in school. She made me captain in school. So through I was her best boy she told them “Put ‘Tan Tan’ on it“. I’m lucky. I’m lucky.

Was Sister Ignatius strict?

No! Sister Marie Therese was the strict one. But I’ll say the reason why she was strict. The reason why she was strict was some boys were naughty. But Sister Ignatius she would turn a blind eye. That’s why everybody loves Sister Ignatius. Sister Marie Therese wouldn’t do that! But the funniest thing I respect Sister Marie Therese because when I go to Jamaica I always go and look for the cemetery to look for her in Jamaica. A cemetery named Calvary. Then I go to a next cemetery where Sister Madeline Sophia was buried. That cemetery is in Spanish Town. Dovecote - they called it. Because my sister and my auntie and my family they are in there too, so when I go I always look for them.

Joshua Chamberlain who volunteers at Alpha posted a picture of Ernest Ranglin when he used to come and sit in with you in the Alpha band.

When we were in school with Don Drummond, Reuben and that, Ernest was working at the Colony club with Eric Deans’ band. So when Eric Deans needed a young guy out of school Ernest would always come with him to the school. Ernest picked me, Ernest picked Don Drummond, Ernest picked Reuben. They always picked the best guys. So I was very lucky again. Everything I did, I got lucky. But I think what saved me was I am very deeply religious. I always think about Jesus Christ all the while. So that kind of carried me through. That’s why I am lucky and when I go for a job I always get it. Or watch this – if I get the job and they sack me, then once they sack me they send back for me. (Laughs) So I’m lucky but the reason why they’d sack me is because I’m very stubborn. If I don’t like something I don’t like it and people get vexed!

So was Eric Deans or Roy Coburn the first band you played in after you came out of Alpha?

The first band I played in was Roy Coburn at the Bournemouth Club in Rockfort. When I left school they went to Alpha and Sister Ignatius told them where I live at my address and everything. So they came over and that’s it - I never looked back.

Sister Marie Therese was the strict one. Sister Ignatius she would turn a blind eye

What kind of music were you playing in Roy Coburn’s band?

Oh they were playing all kinds. We used to play Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Harry James. All the big bands. Ken Miller. We used to read from classical music so they would always look for people who could read music. And that’s the music they were teaching me at Alpha. So when you came out of Alpha and went in the band I knew all the music.

When you were at Alpha and you were playing classical music did you all get together and play jazz secretly?

No, no! Hah! That came after. What happened was you get to an age when you reach 16 and you had to leave Alpha. Sister and Mr Delgado, Reuben Delgado when we reached 15 then they used to get jazz music for the band. So they’d always speak to me, Don Drummond, Reuben and Beres Brown and Alera, the bass player. And we always used to go and play for dances at private parties. And the music was like Ken Miller music, Count Basie and that’s how we learned in school. So luckily everything just came in easy.

So did you play in Roy Coburn and Eric Deans at the same time or did you leave Roy for Eric Deans?

Oh no. I left Coburn went with Deans. Because Deans played Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday - a week and they had wages every week. With Coburn we only used to play on Wednesday night, just once a week in Bournemouth.

Eric Deans used to come to the club where we played. On holiday. And he was eyeing me up but I didn’t know. But I wanted to go in Eric Deans’ band because they played Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Six days a week. And then you’d get a big wage and the wage was good. I got a wage where all those big guys in government, I got more money than them for playing! So I was lucky.

You also made your debut on the newly founded national radio station…

Yes, we were the first band to play on the radio with Eric Deans’ band. We were the first band who played on Radio Jamaica.

Tan TanWhat are your memories of Don Drummond?

I was supposed to send for him when I went to England. Things happened to him that I can’t believe because he was a nice, good guy. He lived with his mother. He loved his mother. In about 1950 me and him used to play in the Colony Club and there was a storm coming. So before the storm came Eric Deans’ band and the club owner saw there was a storm coming in so we finished to go.

We were riding down South Camp Road. He lived just beside Alpha, so me and him would ride together because we had a Raleigh bicycle, so we will drive down to beat the storm to go home. As I reached Alpha - he called me Chuck - he said “Alright Chuck I’ll see you tomorrow”. Luckily as the storm came I went into Alpha and I went underneath the bed! Because the wind was making the roof flap! The roof flew off in the storm but luckily everything was alright.

Is it true that Don Drummond could read music upside down?

Yeah, yeah. He was better than us. He was a genius. But the thing is many people don’t know Don Drummond was kind of blind. His glasses were like magnifying glasses. Many people don’t know. But he was gifted.

And what about Rico - how was he back then?

Rico was bad in school days! Rico was really bad! Rico nearly burned down the school! What happened was me Rico, Blue Blue and Don Drummond we would always sneak off. You see the school had a gully and the gully would go out in the street. So we would always go down the gully and thief down and go out. Of course you have to come back in time before they could check. But they caught Rico because we came out before and Rico came out last and some other guy told sister “See Rico come out”. Some other guy talked on him so they said “Alright, okay detention”.

When they put you in detention they put you in a little room. They’d lock you in for punishment. Rico used to really make a load of trouble. They put Rico in a crocus bag. Like those bags that you keep sugar in. They cut out this end and that end and cut out the top. And they put him in it so he can’t go! But Rico still got out and they caught him again so they put him in the punishment room. And he just started a fire! (Laughs)

Were any of the musicians you played with interested in Rasta when they came out of school?

No. That never happened. Shit them. They were not even Rasta. Where I come from in Spanish Town there is a place named Sligoville that is up on the hills. And they called them Rasta but they were just ordinary people. They would grow their vegetables and they would come to town and sell. They would make shoes. Slippers out of car tyres. That’s how they would make their money. But in Jamaica we didn’t know anything about Rasta. Rasta just now when Bob Marley came on the scene. So everybody jumped on the fashion thing. Otherwise we never knew.

But what about Count Ossie? Did you know him?

Yeah I used to go there. That’s where I used to go to smoke ganja. Me and Don Drummond and Rico too would go down the gully and we used to go to smoke herb.

Did you go up in the hills with him?

No, no. I used to go down Rockfort. Down by the gully because he used to live down by the gully. But I left and then everything changed.

Everything I did, I got lucky

Did you ever play at the End, the jazz club that became Coxsone Dodd’s studio?

Yeah. But you see what happened was I left in those times there. I came to England. But the luckiest being and the greatest thing for me was I was supposed to go to America. When I left on Alpha school my auntie was supposed to go to America. But the president there was a redneck president. President Truman. He was a redneck saying “We don’t want any immigrants” and all that shit. So when my auntie sent my papers down for me to come to America he brought in a stop. Luckily I came to England. It was a blessing in disguise again! (Laughs) And now since I came to England thank Jesus Christ, I’ve been around the whole world: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, everywhere in the whole world. If I had gone to America that wouldn’t happen. I used to go to America every year and go to every state.

So how did you leave Jamaica and come to England?

That was Jesus Christ again. When I was at Colony Club I met a girl named Dorothy Coleman and we fell in love. So me and she lived together. Then I was with Deans’ band and with Ernest Ranglin we went up to Nassau in the Bahamas. So before I went to Bahamas I took my girlfriend home to my mother and my sister and made her stay. But I don’t know what went wrong with she and my sister and my mother but she left my mother and my sister went back to Kingston! And I was in Nassau, Bahamas, me and Ranglin were sharing a room.

The first love when you love a person it’s like, I don’t know how to explain, but it’s like my world fell apart! So when I came back from Nassau, Bahamas I saw a guy that knew her and he told me where she lived. She was glad to see me and she said “When did you come?” And I said “I just came back”. Her mother was a hairdresser and the mother came to England and then sent for her. And then she sent for me. That’s how history came. Because that’s how I got to know the whole world from coming to England. And I can’t live anywhere else but England.

Where did you settle?

Just around the corner. 27 Vining Street, Brixton. Just off the next street there. But all this wasn’t here. Things have changed in Brixton. I came on the 26th of July 1954. I could show you a place around the corner where it was horsemeat they were selling, it wasn’t steak, because it was after the war.

But luckily the same year I came I went to Germany - all over Germany in 1954. I came in July and in October I went to Germany. And I never looked back. I used to work in a club named Taboo for one month and every month we used to get four days off so I would go back and come back and go back. I was playing with the Caribbean Swing band. I used to do all the clubs in Germany, all over Cologne, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich - I know Germany.

So as soon as you arrived you started to play music?

Yeah, yeah straight away. Because I came in July and then in October I went to Germany.

How did that happen?

Oh that’s a good one, that’s a good one. It was a guy named Ossie Scott. He was in the army in Jamaica as a military police man - MP. The police who ride the bikes in Jamaica. He used to come to Alpha to learn to play tenor. When I learned the music, he learned the music. So when he came here somebody said “Oh Tan Tan is here” and he knew who I was so he came and looked for me and said “Oh, luckily I have a job for you”. I went to Germany and I never looked back.

I used to come and go from Germany. I loved Germany. If I wasn’t living here I would live in Germany. Because I’ve spent a load of time playing in different places. But I prefer this. I prefer England. To anywhere in the world.

Then Rico came over in 1961…

Rico came after me man. When I left Jamaica everybody who played music said “Tan Tan gone to England!” So when I went to England everybody wanted to come to England. But in those times you could come to England and there was no problem. Because it was a British colony. They had a British passport. Windrush people, that everyone is talking about, you could go and come easy. There was no problem. It’s like Belfast to England. You didn’t need any visa or anything.

Read part 2 of this interview here.

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