By: Bob Mersereau
No Drake. No Bublé. No Mendes. The only Canadian who took to the Grammy podium as a winner at the January 2020 awards was the humble roots/bluesman Colin Linden. He was there with his longtime friend Keb Mo’ to accept the award for Best Americana Album, Keb Mo’s Oklahoma, which Linden co-produced.
While he may not have the name recognition of those other Canadian stars, Linden had no trouble fitting in with music’s elite at the L.A. ceremony. He’s used to working with the best. He’s played guitar for the likes of Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant and Lucinda Williams, worked on blockbuster films such as O Brother Where Art Thou? and the TV hit show Nashville, and produced over a 100 albums, including those by Bruce Cockburn and Colin James. All that’s in addition to his ongoing solo career, and as a member of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings.
So, mingling with music stars? Heck, he’s been doing it since he was a little kid. He started with a legend, a music great who befriended and mentored him. They made an odd pair, an aging blues giant and a « fat little white kid, » as Linden jokes, but the torch was passed, the fire was lit, and it’s still burning bright in Linden’s soul.
It all started with a very early love of music, and a very understanding mother, raising Linden and his brothers as a single parent first in New York, and then in Toronto. « I had gone to a lot of concerts, the first one being Jimi Hendrix at Flushing Meadows Park on August 23rd, 1968, » remembers Linden. « The opening acts were Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Chambers Brothers and Soft Machine. My mom took me and my brothers to the show, and it was fantastic, so going to concerts became something we did as a family. When we moved to Toronto in November of 1970, we’d go to the Riverboat, and we’d go to the concerts at Massey Hall. November 20, 1970 with Tom Rush and Livingston Taylor was the first. So hearing live music was a gigantic part of my growing up. My mom was a parent who knew I had to be around live music, that was the only way I could be happy. »
At just 11, Linden was a fan of artists such as Hendrix and Cream, rock acts inspired by the blues. He started to read about the older blues stars who were the heroes to those stars, seeing names like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson in the credits. Then a friend of his brother’s played him an album called The Real Folk Blues by Howlin’ Wolf, and he was hooked.
« To me it was like a light went on, and it was as if the real meaning of those songs became evident to me, » says Linden. « This guy sounded so much more serious and committed, there was just something I could tell that seemed so much more real. And the gravitas and intensity that he brought was evident. It really made a huge impact on me. »
Linden soon read that Howlin’ Wolf was coming to play Toronto’s Colonial Tavern for a week in November of 1971. The Yonge Street club had opened in the 1950s showcasing jazz and blues stars of the day, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Big Mama Thornton. The only problem was Linden’s age, since this was a bar.
« He was playing a six-nighter, and they had to do matinees on Saturdays, and I really wanted to go, » says Linden. « I heard that The Colonial had a balcony that was licensed as a restaurant, so I thought, a restaurant, minors can go. I was so eager to go see the Wolf, I called the Colonial several times in advance to make sure as a minor, I could come to the matinee with my mom. And they said, no problem. The matinee started at 3.30, and I was so eager to make sure we had no trouble getting in, we got there at about 12:30. »
« The Wolf had decided to go there and have lunch, and he was just going to stay there for the matinee, he wasn’t going back to the hotel. And I saw him. There was this staircase from the balcony that led down to the stage, and he was sitting right at the bottom of the staircase. I saw him and I made a beeline down the stairs, and I said, ‘Mr. Wolf, you’re my hero, I’m only 11 so they won’t let me downstairs, but would you come upstairs and talk with me?’ And he said, ‘Of course!’ So we spent the afternoon talking, and he was just wonderful to me. »
His mother snapped a photo, which has become Linden’s totem, a most cherished position that’s not left his sight since. « That picture I have travelled with for close to 49 years now, it’s with me everywhere I go, I’m looking at it now because it’s right behind my desk at the console of my studio, I look at it all the time. »
For most of us, a meeting like that would fade over the years, the details of the conversation blurred by time. But Linden can remember it like yesterday, all the wisdom passed on by the great.
« There were several things that he said that I think about all the time. One of them, and maybe the most significant, is that he said you gotta play the same, you gotta give it everything you have, if you’re playing for three people or if you’re playing for 3,000 people, you got to give it every time. And he said, ‘If you’re going to learn how to play the kind of music that I play, listen to the people who I listen to.’ He told me about Charlie Patton, and he said he loved The Mississippi Sheiks, and others. He said, ‘Listen to that stuff and you’ll find your way.’
« The other thing that he said that was life-changing and I took very much to heart was, ‘I’m an old man now, and I’m not going to be around for much longer. So it’s up to you to carry it on.’ And I know that he was talking about my generation. But I took that to be 100 percent personal, that he was saying that I personally had to carry it on, it was up to me. Everything that I do is to bring honour to The Wolf, and to bring honour to the other guys of his generation, the great blues artists that made huge sacrifices and experienced untold tribulations to get to make the music that they’ve made. And I try to bring honour to their memory. »
Linden never missed an opportunity to see Howlin’ Wolf whenever he came to Toronto, once or twice a year, until the blues giant died in 1976. And The Wolf always made time for him, to hear of his progress on the guitar, and pass on a little more wisdom and inspiration. It wasn’t all a one-way friendship; Howlin’ Wolf got something back from the young man too.
« In 1973 he had had a car accident and wasn’t in the greatest of health, and he was in Toronto over his birthday. I wanted to do something special for him. My mom had this old family recipe for chocolate cake, it was a layer cake where the cake part was made of cookie dough and the icing was made of custard, and it was fantastic. I knew that The Wolf couldn’t have salt, so my mom made a salt-free recipe, and we wrote on it, ‘Happy Birthday to the World’s Greatest Blues Singer.’ I brought it to him on stage at the El Mocambo, and he wept.
« Years later, I was in Chicago in 1992, playing with Bruce Cockburn. I had Wolf’s old phone number, and I knew that his wife was still around. I had only met her once. I called her out of the blue, on the off-chance that it was still the right number. She answered the phone, and I introduced myself, I said I was a musician from Toronto, I’m playing in Chicago, I don’t know that you’d remember me at all, I was a little kid and The Wolf was so great to me as a little kid. And before I could get anything else out of my mouth, she said, ‘You’re the boy who brought him the chocolate cake.' »
A year after meeting Howlin’ Wolf, Linden was performing in coffee houses and folk festivals. At 15, he was featured on national CBC Television and radio shows. At 16, he joined David Wilcox’s group. He had his own band by 17, and at 18 was touring the U.S. and Canada, playing guitar for Leon Redbone.
« There’s never been anything else I wanted to do in my life. And I gotta say, when you’re having some rough times, and you have your periods of self-doubt, having the sense that Howlin’ Wolf believed in you, believed in your heart, and believed that you cared, having that support has meant so much in my life. »
And yes, amidst all of today’s stars and glitterati at The Grammy Awards, Linden had Howlin’ Wolf on his mind. « I thought about him when I was up there, I have to tell ya, I think about him all the time. Looking at that picture right now standing on my desk, I was so blessed to have met him and to have known him. »
Colin Linden’s been hard at work during the pandemic. He’s done a ton of writing, is producing some new Canadian artists, and is involved with his good pal, producer T Bone Burnett on a music TV show in development. Plus, he’s just finished up his first-ever all-electric blues album that is coming out in January 2021, called Blow.