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Interview: Tan Tan Thornton (Part 2)

Interview: Tan Tan Thornton (Part 2)

Interview: Tan Tan Thornton (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I'm going to play until I drop"


Read part 1 of this interview here.

In part 2 of our interview with Tan Tan Thornton, he talks about meeting Jimi Hendrix, playing sessions for Bob Marley, why he loves living in England and how he has no plans to retire any time soon…

Tan Tan

How did you meet Georgie Fame?

There was a saxophone player named Mick Eve. He used to play with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. And he knew me from when I used to go and come all the while from Germany. Whenever he was playing with Georgie I could go sit in. I could sit in and go lift the gear because Georgie had the organ and I would lift the gear up the steps with him. But I used to enjoy that. I wasn’t thinking about money - I just wanted to play. Money was there but in those times I never worried about money. Everybody else worried about money but playing with Georgie I was happy.

You brought back memories when you mentioned the radio before, because later when I used to play with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and we were the first band on the BBC to play live. And this guy, he’s died now, who had a television programme - David Frost. We used to do his programme regularly. And through us being a live band they would always get Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames because we could read music and the music was good.

I wasn't thinking about money - I just wanted to play

But things changed. Georgie is a multimillionaire now! (Laughs) Rod Stewart used to take my trumpet for me. He used to take it when we went into the Flamingo club. Jeff Beck, Clapton the whole of them, I came in with them. Small Faces, the whole of them. That’s why I said I’m very lucky. Because they liked me. People liked me. And I have respect for people. You have to respect yourself first, then you respect people. But if you don’t respect yourself you won’t respect people.

You also knew Jimi Hendrix…

I used to live with him. Jimi was alright, man. He was an easy-going guy. When Jimi came here between ’65 and ’66 nobody knew him or anything. Jimi used to stay with me. Jimi was a nice decent guy. Very decent. He is one of those guys where he was great and everybody knew he was great but Jimi never thought he was great. He just thought he was lucky. Jimmy came with the style. I don’t know if you heard of the Paul Butterfield blues band? If you hear that guitar played like how Jimi played.

Mike Bloomfield.

Ah, you know him! So Chas Chandler was smart now because Chas Chandler used to play with the Animals. And he used to go to America all the while. So he went to America saw this guy and said “Fuck me yeah! I can bring him over”. And that was it through Chas Chandler.

I was just going to ask if you started to play with the Animals through Jimi and Chas Chandler…

Yeah! The Animals used to go to America every year. And tour all over America with Eric Burden and all of them. I used to play with them too - Eric Burden was my brethren. So I say I’m lucky. You know Mitch Mitchell?

You have to respect yourself first, then you respect people

The drummer with Jimi Hendrix Experience?

Yeah. It’s me who got him in with Jimi. Because me and Mitch used to be with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. And then we used to share a room together. So when Jimi came over with Chas Chandler and Georgie was going to mash up the band I told Mitch to go with them. The last time I saw Mitch was right round here (in Brixton) right before he died. He was right down there but I don’t want to say the reason he was down there. Just around the corner. He came for his medicine.

Jimmy Cliff told me he knew Hendrix when he came over here - did you see much of Jimmy Cliff when he was living here in the 60s?

I knew Jimmy Cliff from Jamaica. But Jimi Hendrix is superior to all of them. Jimi Hendrix is superior and when I say he is superior, he is magic. People say Eric Clapton is God. There is a guitarist that no one is talking about now - a guy by the name of John McLachlan. He used to play with us with Georgie. He left and went to America and then he was with Miles Davis and from there I don’t hear anything about him.

So how did you meet the Beatles?

Jimi Hendrix was an easy-going guy

The TV programme that was a predecessor of Top Of The Pops?

Ah! Yes, Ready Steady Go was before Top of the Pops. So we used to meet regularly. We used to be on the same television show regularly. The Beatles, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and on Thank Your Lucky Stars and all the big programmes. So that’s how I got to meet them. I used to see Paul regularly at the Scotch of Saint James, most of all those society places, the clubs, because those guys were single so they wanted to go and meet women and rave! I used to go raving and every club I go to I’d see Tom Jones, Ingrid Bergman, Rod Stewart.

I was in the little circle. If you’re in the same music business you meet people. But people are very sensitive, they’re checking you out to see if you can come in the circle. And through the circle you’d meet certain people but you have to be like “I see no evil, I hear no evil, I speak no evil”. That’s the way you get in because you go in and start chat all this and that and then you’re out. A little scene, a little clique you know? So I kind of fit in that scene because I see no evil, I hear no evil, I speak no evil. Because you say something and the next one tells the next one and the next one tells the next one and then you’re gone. Because most of those guys weren’t used to black people. They don’t know and they don’t mix with black people. So if they like you they suss you out first and then they say you’re alright.

Paul used to find me all the while, come to sessions with this and that but if I was thinking about money I could be a multimillionaire right now. On that scene because all those guys I was with. George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo, even Mal the roadie, George Martin. You know Kate Bush, Cilla Black, I was in there with everybody. They accepted me. The reason they accepted me was because I knew I didn’t go around and [spread information] - if a guy would come to me and want to find something out I would say “If you want to find out the thing go and ask him. If you’re asking me about me, it’s okay. Don’t ask me about anybody else. Even if I know I don’t know. Because the worst thing you can do is say one thing wrong and it goes around.”

Tan TanYou played on Got To Get You Into My Life. Later Paul McCartney said it was about herb.

Yeah? (Hums melody) I didn’t even know the words. All I did was just going to play the part. If you told me the words I wouldn’t know!

Did you play on any other Beatles songs?

No, just that one.

But you played on a Rolling Stones song though?

Yeah, yeah. She’s A Rainbow. Yeah with Mick I did it in… what’s the name of that studio in Barnes? The studio in Barnes it’s not there anymore. [Olympic Studios]

Who did you like best out of the Beatles?

All of them. To me all of them are the same, you know? I didn’t like this one or that one. But the most friendly one was Paul. Paul was the most friendly in that time. Paul used to go out with Jane Asher. And once they split up it was kind of…

Jane Asher’s brother used to go out with Millie Small.

Millie Small, yeah. In those times, in those days, it was good days. But things change. When a man gets older things change.

Did you see Ernest Ranglin when he came over to arrange for Millie Small and play at Ronnie Scott’s in the mid 60s?

Yes. Every time he came over he would call me. I saw him play at Ronnie Scott’s.

And did you meet Chris Blackwell then?

Yes, I met him in 1965 through My Boy Lollipop with Millie Small. But I got to know him later through Aswad sessions.

You also recorded and went on the road with the Small Faces. They even wrote a song about you – Eddie’s Dreaming…

Yeah, yeah, yeah! They said I was dreaming! (Laughs) Because I used to tour with them, you know? Ronnie Lane was the leader for the band. In those times the lead singer always wanted to take over the band. People they think the lead singer is the leader. So the lead singer would have a complex to take over. The same thing with Lennon McCartney. It’s like being in a football team where you have 11 guys and one guy’s better and better, so what happened to the rest of the guys? Yeah, he’ll get a complex. It’s supposed to be a team together man! Everything supposed to be good vibes, good thing but when you start to have this one and that one it brings different feelings.

There was a documentary going around on YouTube about the group called the Originals with you and Owen Gray, Dennis Alcapone, Winston Francis, Count Prince Miller, Freddie Notes and others…

Oh yeah, yeah. But that was a one off session. I did a load of sessions. I did a Bob Marley one, Kaya. I did a Dennis Brown album. I did a Prince Buster album. I never even knew a lot of the tunes I played on. I didn’t know. It was like you’d phoned me and said “Come do a session” and boom. In those times you didn’t put your name on anything. You’d just do a session, they give you the money and you’re gone. But luckily Mrs Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher the Prime Minister, she brought a thing that was good for me. And good for musicians. If you play on the record you’re supposed to get royalties. So I always pray for her. Because everybody’s got a fault. But she was good in some things. I never liked her before. I didn’t like her before. But then I started to think “My house I have. She made I have the house”.

I never knew Bob was so famous!

With Right To Buy?

Yeah. You know what I mean? So in my heart of hearts I said “She is the one that helped you to get your house” and then my spirit changed. Because where I live in Ealing and Acton house prices are pfft! I see where I live now everybody is going into the attic! Into a little flat. Come round where I live and you’ll see. I couldn’t believe it! I saw Gregory and I said “Whappen” he said “This flat I make up there I can get £1000 a month”. So I said “I’m going to jump on the bandwagon too…” (Laughs) Because where I live will never sell it. Never, never. Because there is a new station coming in with Crossrail. So the price will go up. Where I live is just bare professional people. Everybody has their house.

So when you did the sessions for Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Prince Buster, were Bob, Dennis and Buster there?

Yeah, yeah they were there man. I never knew Bob was so famous! I was like “Who is Bob Marley?” (Laughs) I never knew. I was ignorant. Stupid. He said “You know Tan Tan you’re a good trumpet player man so cool man”. Bob‘s father was a colonel. An English colonel in the army. His mother used to be his cook. Bob Marley‘s family was one of the rich families in Jamaica. And now he is one of the biggest artists from Jamaica. So it’s always best to be humble. Because you never know what you’re going to do. They interviewed the sister in Jamaica and she said “Bob used to live in the ghetto but now he is here and we now are in the ghetto.”

What about playing on Rico‘s album Man From Wareika?

Yeah, nice. Man From Wareika was through Chris Blackwell. Chris Blackwell was the man that wanted Rico, and I told Rico and Rico went and delivered the album to Chris Blackwell. And it was good. But me and Rico worked together regularly before he died. Me and him played with Jools Holland. It was nice.

How did you join Aswad?

Oh! They would come over from Germany and say “Come over for four days at a time”. Brinsley was the lead singer for Aswad and Brinsley knew me. So Brinsley always said “Come and sit in with us”. They liked how I played and then they said “Join us”. They weren’t making much money and I was okay financially so I went in with them. They were a good group but they weren’t organised. Too much conflict.

The drummer is the one that sang Don’t Turn Around. Drummie Zeb. And then that went to his brain. We used to go to Japan regularly every year. Now, Brinsley wasn’t a great singer but he’s a good stage man. On stage the Japanese loved him. The drummer said “Ah me sing Don’t Turn Around” but Brinsley would get the show. Brinsley is a showman. So when he would go on stage everybody loved him.

He was a child performer – an actor.

Ah! Thank you! There’s a load of things I can say but I wouldn’t say. A whole heap of things.

You played on the I Sus and Rasta albums with Delroy Washington. You also played on a couple of albums by Dennis Bovell…

I used to see Dennis. The last time I played with Dennis was with Linton Kwesi Johnson. I played on an album with Dennis with him. Delroy, is alright, cool. But Delroy is one of us. He phoned me a couple of months ago. But all those guys I don’t see them anymore. I used to see them regularly. I don’t see them anymore. I don’t know what’s happened.

You also did some work with the famous indie label Rough Trade – you played on a Pere Ubu album and they put out your solo album Musical Nostalgia For Today in 1981…

Everybody likes it. I got good reviews and it was selling well but Rough Trade didn’t want a big hit. I don’t know the reason why. It was selling really well and when it sold a couple of thousand good and then it just stopped. They didn’t promote. All the Rough Trade group did the same thing. They didn’t want a big hit. But some groups they made it big. Like there is a group name the Smiths and they group was going good and it just went.

How did you start working with Jazz Jamaica? Gary Crosby is the nephew of Ernest Ranglin…

Yeah. The bass player. He used to play with Courtney Pine. But he started the group with Rico and me and Bammie but Bammie played with Jools Holland now. And Alan Weekes on guitar and the drummer is Ken. The group come down on a Thursday night. I play down by the Effra. I know Weekes is there but I don’t know if Ken is there. But me is there, Bammie is there and Ken. If you pass through tonight we’re here. But to me it’s the best group. If you hear the group, they are good.

Kitty Daisy and Lewis treat me like I'm one of them

Last time I went to your night I took a video on my phone of you playing Confucius.

I play with Skatalites too. I tour with them every time they come here to England. I tour with them in France. I tour with them in Germany and that.

You also joined Ska Cubano for a while…

Yeah, that’s a good group. But they are Cuban. The promoter of the thing was just after money, money, money. So I left.

Are you happy playing your regular gig with Kitty Daisy and Lewis?

They are the best. To me they are the best. I’ll give them 100 out of 100. They are the best group ever worked with. As people. They treat me good, good, good. They treat me immaculate. They treat me like I’m one of them.

You played on the hit single Smile by Lily Allen…

That was just a session.

So you didn’t meet her?

No, no, no. That was just a session.

Let’s talk more about your night at the Effra on Thursdays.

Basically I do it to practise. I don’t get paid. It’s just to run the tracks down. I could stay home watching television on Thursday! But they want me so I just go down and I see guys and lots of people and keep my chops through playing. So when I’m not touring I do it to free up but I don’t get paid for it. But I feel like I get paid. I feel good and nice and the people like it.

I don’t want any publicity. I like to be the underdog. I’m outside looking in. That’s why I have a complex. And my complex I come from a poor, poor family. My parents never had anything. I never had shoes or anything to wear. Now I’ve got over 100 shoes and before I never had any. So I see things from where I’m coming from. Every time I go to Jamaica I go to the cemetery and I talk to my mother, my father, all of them and I say “Mum look, I never had nothing. When you was alive I never had nothing.” Since my mother died, my father died - money came. Since they died, they both died poor.

I have a sister, she just passed away a couple of years ago. She adored me. She’d give me everything. She had a house in Jamaica and she left all her share for me. But I didn’t want it because I’m not going to live back in Jamaica, so I gave it to my nephew. My share of the place in Negril. But I gave it to my nephew saying it must never sell. It must come down from generation to generation to generation. So when his kids come, nobody can sell it. Come down, come down, like the royal family. You leave it because then you give the poor one coming after you a chance.

I’m very old-fashioned. But good old-fashioned. Because I remember I used to get one meal a day. Not even a meal. I used to get one food a day. I used to eat ripe banana and bread. But the bread we used to get, because it was cheap it was stale bread. In Jamaica they bake the bread today and it costs maybe a pound and the next day - 10p. So I would always wait! (Laughs) I was brought up on stale bread. So now I love stale bread because it becomes like toast. It’s hard and it becomes like toast. Here I buy French bread and after two days it gets hard. And even now that’s how I like it! (Laughs) But many people don’t know and the doctor will tell you that the stale bread settles in your stomach better. The fresh bread is no good - stale bread digests better.

Do you still like to ride your bike around London?

Yeah! (Laughs) I left it at Notting Hill station and chained it up. I’ve got my key. I never leave my bike. I’ve got five cars and I don’t even drive one. I don’t need to drive a car because everywhere I go they pick me up. Like on the Thursday I’ll chain up my bike by North Acton Station and I live just two minutes from the station so I just ride home.

But you know man, that’s my life, my bicycle. I used to ride in Jamaica. I used to ride when I used to work at Colony Club in 1951, ’52, ’53 before I came to England. I used to ride 13 miles every Saturday because I was still at Alpha as an altar boy for the priests. But there weren’t many cars on the road then. I couldn’t do it now because there are too many cars in Jamaica. Everybody has a car and it got big down there. But before 1950-51 after I had finished playing at Colony Club at 4 o’clock in the morning I had to start mass at 7 o’clock. So I had to ride all the way to Spanish Town. I looked forward to it! Because I had to serve mass and Father. All those things bring back memories. I love all those things man.

So tell me about this project for Alpha that you’ve been working on with Ernest Ranglin? You recorded it with Soothsayers…

For Alpha. Well the thing is the school needs help. Because since the nuns died and all the nuns finished, there is nobody there. The government is not giving them enough money or nothing. It’s a shame, so they have to close down the school. And bring in people from outside now. So it’s not a school like when I was there before. All that’s gone. It’s an institute now. So what is an institute? They say the Alpha Boys School is an Alpha Institute. So what is that?

Ranglin recorded it at Alpha. And then he brought the tape up to me and I put it on. But I’m going to see Rangin in the next couple of weeks. Because I’m going down to look for my mother and my father. And my sister‘s grave. And the nuns’ graves. So I will see him.

I like to be the underdog. I'm outside looking in

Ranglin has retired from the live performance, at least outside of Jamaica. But you’re still going.

Yeah because that’s my life. (Laughs) I can’t do anything else. Though I’ve got health and strength. If I wasn’t healthy I’d have to retire. He retired for some reason I don’t know. He’s older than me for a start but I’m going to play until I drop. When I drop - bye bye!

I’ve even bought my spot to bury here. In a private cemetery in Gunnersbury Cemetery. Near Chiswick Roundabout. I’ve got my plot to be buried. A little space for my family. They charged me £8,000. But I bought it seven years ago. So it’s there waiting for me! (Laughs) I went to a funeral years ago and I said “I like this place you know.” The guy that runs the cemetery said “You should get in now because they’re running out of space to bury people. After a while they won’t be able to bury everyone - everyone is going to be burned.” I said “I don’t want to be burned” so I bought from him. I’m very sentimental. I pass it every time I’m going to a gig.

And before I drop? Well, if I have health and strength I’ll carry on. Because I enjoy it. If I wasn’t enjoying it then personally speaking I’m okay financially. My kids go to university. One has a masters, MA, BA, and one is an Inspector of the Prison, Peter. But they’re born here. And their mother is Scottish. And I gave them a good education so financially they’re okay.

Jason, my big son, he is with British Airways. The whole world he flies. Australia, New Zealand, the whole of them. So I don’t need anything from them and they don’t need anything from me. If I want to go to Jamaica I just say “Jason, I want to go to Jamaica” and I’ll just take the passport and he’ll pick me up and we’ll go.

But I never want to leave. I love England. And all my people are here. I don’t know anybody in Jamaica. The nuns and all the people I know are dead and gone. So if I go to Jamaica and spend every day on the beach I get bored. It’s not the same. I go home and my mother’s dead, my sister is dead and the nuns are dead. Many people don’t know. They go here and there, see this and that, but for me when I see people like I see you, I feel good.

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