Ian Jones’ Jamaican trip two years ago wasn’t the kind of vacation that sells Sandals travel packages. The beach was full of hustlers, the boat drinks were in short supply, and the strongest personal connection he made was with a 65-year-old Rastafarian man. Though the trip wasn’t romantic enough to float a decent Jimmy Buffett B-side, it did make for a pretty good reggae record.
Jones, 37, has been a business journalist his entire adult life, but throughout the ’90s he was also a musician and engineer in D.C.’s indie-rock scene. He worked on several recordings—1994’s The Pink Album by local twee-pop band Tuscadero was among the best-known ones—and toured with Eggs as a conga player. Later he was the frontman of Bombardier Jones and put out records on his own label, Sun King Records. But his 2003 relocation to Charm City put a strain on his hobby. “When I moved to Baltimore I didn’t have anybody to play with,” says Jones. “I was just kind of figuring out the next thing to do.”
Enter Claudius “Kingman” Linton, 65, a Jamaican reggae singer. Linton has been a musician ever since he was a teenager, when he ran away from the sugar plantation where he was raised and wound up on the streets of Kingston’s impoverished Trenchtown district. During the ’70s he hung out with Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, and he released some popular singles with a vocal group called the Hoffner Brothers. In 1976, after parting ways with his old group, he scored a No. 1 hit on the Jamaican charts with a solo single, “Crying Time.” During the ’80s, though, roots reggae stopped getting much airplay in Jamaica, and the bottom dropped out of Linton’s music career. He moved to Negril and raised his family, playing in pickup groups on the beaches and around town.
One day in March 2006, Linton was on the beach in Negril just as Jones’ change in latitude was failing to produce the promised change in attitude. On the second-to-last day of his trip, Jones was alone and bummed out. “I went to the beach by myself,” he says. “When you’re walking along the beach there’s a lot of hustling going on, and I didn’t find it to be very relaxing. I decided to go home. I was about 10 steps from leaving the beach when these two old Rastas approached me with a guitar.”
Linton admits that he was messing with Jones at first. “I see this gentleman coming down,” says Linton, speaking by phone from Negril. “I stretch out my guitar and say, ‘Hey man, can you tune this guitar for me?’ It’s a joke, but he took it.”
“I sat down with him and tuned the guitar,” says Jones. “Then he started singing an old Sam Cooke tune. Then I started to play some lead, and he got really excited. We sat on the beach for a few hours and played, and he told me that he was from Trenchtown and that he knew Peter Tosh and Bob Marley.”
Of course, if you’re on a beach full of Jamaican hustlers and some guy tells you that he was tight with the original soul rebel—well, you’d be a little suspicious. But Jones’ curiosity was piqued. When he returned to the hotel he mentioned Linton to a security guard, who backed up the story. Later that evening Jones met with Linton again, and the singer proposed that they cut a record. “He told me, ‘Tomorrow I want to go into the recording studio,’” says Jones. “He told me that he had been working on some tracks, and he wanted me to sing harmony on them.” Jones was initially cautious—he didn’t want to get hustled and wind up face-down at the bottom of Dunns River Falls—but playing music with Linton had been the sole enjoyable aspect of his weeklong vacation. He agreed to go along.
They wound up at a shack in nearby Lucea called the House of Black, where they recorded two songs in a converted broom closet with an engineer named Brains. Once Jones returned to Baltimore, he overdubbed some other instruments, mixed the songs, and mailed the finished tracks to Linton, who was delighted with the music. “The Jamaicans were very surprised,” says Jones. “When I put on the bass line, they were amazed that an American knew how to put down a reggae bass line.”
They were right to be surprised, not just because Jones was an American, but because Jones didn’t really follow reggae. In fact, much of his prior musical output owes a sizable debt to They Might Be Giants. “I don’t have a huge background in [reggae],” he says. “I’m a fan but not a fanatic.” But Jones was probably the world’s No. 1 Claudius Linton fan, and Linton reciprocated that admiration. “He had presence, that spiritual connection,” says Linton. “This man has released energy, which I for a long time was locked up and put down. He released energy in me so I can stand up strong.”
Jones soon began taking steps to promote Linton’s career. He tracked down Linton’s old 45s, put up a MySpace page for him, and began working with him on new songs, written and arranged during long phone calls over a period of eight months. In January 2007, Jones returned to Jamaica to record, and Linton called up some of his old session musician friends—veteran roots percussionists like Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace and Bongo Herman among them—and Jones paid for a recording session at Kingston’s Tuff Gong studios. Jones sniffed around for labels that might be interested in both Linton’s music and their collaboration, but nobody bit. So he dusted off his old label: Sun King released a compilation of Linton’s remastered solo singles, Roots Master: Claudius Linton, last November, and the album of new material, Sign Time, came out this week, credited to Kingman & Jonah. (“Jonah” is Linton’s nickname for Jones.)
Jones declines to state how much money he’s spent on his Linton-related projects but confirms it’s run into the thousands. Given that Linton is an obscure artist even among serious reggae collectors, did Jones hesitate to cut checks for flights and recording sessions? “There was no question,” says Jones. “He and I had a chance encounter, and we just clicked immediately. And when you feel that click with another musician.…” Jones pauses for a moment, then adds, “When I left Jamaica I didn’t want to leave.”
Jones’ experience is unique, but singers like Linton aren’t especially hard to come by. Odds are that if you go to Jamaica, line up 20 old Rasta guys, and throw a Nerf football in the air, the guy who catches it cut a single in the ’70s. “Given the fact that so many artists put out records in that period, and so many more fell through the cracks, it’s not surprising to find a story like that of Claudius Linton,” says reggae historian and XM Radio host Dermott Hussey, who hadn’t heard of Linton.
Regardless, Jones is convinced of Linton’s greatness. “He’s like Otis Redding,” he says. “He has a great knowledge of the intricacies of roots reggae. It’s just that people haven’t had the opportunity to hear him.” In the press release for Roots Master, he goes as far as to hail the singer as “one of the greatest reggae singers of all time.” Calling him one of the greatest reggae singers of all time is an overstatement that would make NME blush. Still, Linton is unquestionably talented, and Otis Redding isn’t a bad point of comparison. Like Redding, Linton makes good use of a limited range; his voice can’t stretch into the stratosphere, but it’s rich and soulful.
Roots Master has received some positive notices from reggae bloggers and fans, and Jones says concert promoters have been in touch. “The interest in us playing live has started to pick up really quickly in the past month,” says Jones, though he declines to disclose specifics. The disc has also enjoyed some airtime on Los Angeles’ KCRW-FM and Jamaica’s Irie-FM, and “Put Your Shoulder to Jah Wheel (dub)” spent a few weeks on the Australian indie-radio reggae chart. The attention has inspired Jones to think of expanding his reggae stable. “Other veteran reggae musicians have expressed an interest in working with me on their back catalog and also the younger people that they’ve been producing,” he says.
Linton, for his part, is more chilled-out about the future. “We connected, so we did it,” he says. “It don’t matter where Ian is or if we’re in the same place. I understand this man so much. It’s ancient spirit to ancient spirit, moving together from the past to the present.”