Some musicians come to your attention via a prolonged ad campaign with complex promotional strategies. However, I think the best way to find out about music is the way I heard about Steve Ajao, which was by hearing his name mentioned again and again by those in the know.
On the other hand, he has been an active musician since the sixties, so he should have quite a reputation by now. Born and raised in one of the famous back-to-back terraced houses of Birmingham in the fifties, Steve’s earliest exposure to music was from his father whose taste in jazz and blues inspired him to pick up the guitar. By the time the English blues explosion of the sixties happened Steve was regularly gigging with his own band at venues up and down the country. “I slept on the floor of Bolton Town Hall once in the early seventies” he tells me, “without a sleeping bag or anything.” Despite being a contemporary of megastars such as The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, and run ins with blues legends such as Alexis Korner, mainstream success was not to come knocking for Steve, possibly because the music business was so focused on London, as it is now.
However music was to be a great help to Steve in times of need. At the advice of his father he obtained a graphic design degree from Moseley Art School. Graphic design work proved hard to come by, not because of a lack of jobs, but because of old fashioned English racism. Steve’s traditional “received pronunciation” would get him through the initial stages of a telephone interview without any problems, but as soon as he mentioned his African second name the interview would come to a negative end. Luckily for him, he had the music to fall back on.
So what have you been up to music wise recently?
We [Steve Ajao’s Blues Giants] have done a lot of gigs in the past few years, playing to really good crowds everywhere. There’s been a really good crowd response. We did Symphony Hall in Birmingham which was packed. We also did Upton Blues Festival which went well. We’re currently trying to build on all of that, trying to keep the profile of the band as high as we can. We’re also looking for management.
It sounds like a lot of the stuff you’ve done has been self booked.
It’s always been like that. All our bookings have been the result of the phone ringing directly.
I understand that recently you were on a television programme with Lenny Henry. How did that come about and how was it for you?
I was in my house and the phone rang. The lady on the end of the phone said “Hi, you don’t know me but I work for Seventh Wonder Productions and I’ve been asked to contact you on behalf of Lenny Henry”. The premise of the programme was that Lenny was in the recording studio not long ago and he was mystified by the absence of any internationally known black British blues players. You know, we’ve heard of Clapton, we’ve heard of Peter Green, but surely there must have been black people doing it as well? So what’s happened to them, where are they? How come nobody discovers any of them? So the idea of the programme was to shine a spotlight on some of these people. I’d never met Lenny Henry but apparently about twenty different people mentioned my name to him down in London. Anyway, so eventually I get taken down to a little old pub in Islington that they’d put aside for the day and that was where I was interviewed. As soon as I walked Lenny came and gave me a big squeeze and told me he was glad I could make it. We got talking just as we are now, except that there were people walking around shoving cameras in our faces! It was great fun, it was as if I’d known him forever.
I did hear a rumour that you and Lenny Henry might be performing together in Birmingham. Is this true?
It’s a difficult one, I suggested it shortly afterwards via his production company. He’d asked for my contact details so I said if he ever wants to perform up here we could do some small gigs together and we could supply the band. It could happen any time but who knows. He’s a bit nervous apparently. The lady from the production company said that he was still trying to find his own feet in the idiom. He think’s he’s crap and he thinks people will think he’s crap. He’s a real sweet guy in that way.
Do you find there’s much difference between the gigs you play now and the gigs you played in say the seventies, or is it roughly the same thing?
I think it’s still the same people! For example, at the Symphony Hall gig recently there were a lot of blue rinse people, sliver haired people and they’d come up to you and go “Oh I loved that Howling Wolf number that you did” or ” Are we going to get any Buddy Guy in the second half?” But equally you’re just as likely to get a kid of sixteen coming up and saying something similar. It seems like the blues is here to stay.
That must be very encouraging. Though there might be a lot of people out there that can fake the blues or play something a bit like it, there can’t be many people around that can play it as authentically as you can or have been doing it for as long.
I think some people get blinded by the guitar hero aspect of it, they seem fresh from standing in front of their bedroom mirror with their guitar, pulling all the right faces. I never thought of it like that, I’m still trying to play something with the same impact of those early fifties sax solos I used to hear. We played a “blues” festival not long ago that was packed with blues aficionados who were delighted by our performance because we were one of the few bands there actually playing blues, most of the acts were playing Eagles Or Lynyrd Skynyrd numbers. Often the acts would be playing the same numbers as each other. How many times can you hear that? Everyone enjoyed the fact that we were there playing raw, undiluted blues, which is what we aim to do. The funny thing is in blues is that it’s a tradition which you can only expect to add little bits to. You can’t radically change what’s there. People who try and do that end up disappearing off into funk or rock, and I’m not really one to do that, though I would use those musics as influences.
Have you ever got bored of the blues?
Steve Ajao Blues Giants upcoming gigs include –
Thurs Nov 19 – Corks Club, 558 Bearwood Rd, Smethwick
Thurs Dec 3 – Punchbowl, Warwick – 9.00pm
Sun Dec 6 – Prince of Wales, Cambridge Street, Birmingham – 5.00pm
Words: Johnny Kowalski