On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Oct. 28, 2020

Colin Linden (April 16, 1960 – ) Roots & Blues singer/songwriter, record producer, acoustic and slide guitarist

Colin Linden

By DAVID EISENSTADT

My cousin Eric Rosenbaum, a long-time folk music mover and shaker with years of event volunteer service in Calgary and Edmonton, reminded me of a somewhat unsung Canadian musician, Colin Linden, who qualifies as a CJR “Canadian Jewish Musician of Note.”

I was aware of Linden’s reputation as a first-call sideman guitarist for artists like Gregg Allman, Emmylou Harris, Diana Krall, Alison Kraus, and Robert Plant, but I didn’t know he was born into a Jewish family in Toronto, a fact confirmed by the Canadian Encyclopedia.

“If you live outside Canada, chances are you’ve probably never heard of Colin Linden. This despite the fact that the Canadian-born artist has established himself as an ace producer in Nashville, twiddling the knobs on more than 100 albums for the likes of the Band, Bruce Cockburn, Colin James, Sue Foley and Stephen Fearing, among others. He’s probably best known in Canada as being a member of perennial folk festival favorites Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, a folk-roots super group that also consists of Fearing and Tim Wilson,” wrote Zachary Houle in popmatters.com.

Born in Toronto, Linden was an infant when he and his parents, Evelyn (Dobrovitch) and Harold David, moved to White Plains, N.Y., from where Linden’s father commuted to work in Manhattan. His parents split, and Colin and his mother returned to Toronto in 1971 to be near family.

“Mom didn’t want me to grow up and be subject to the U.S. draft.” Linden recalled.

It wasn’t long before he began to draw musical inspiration from country, pop and rockabilly stars, including the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison and Johnny Rivers.

“I can’t remember life without them,” Linden told musicologist Rob Bowman in About Colin Linden – The Whole Book. “The emotions, singing and drama in those records seemed so real. The room sounds, believe it or not, were things that made me think that Roy Orbison was in a deep, dark place. These things affected me a lot. There are certain things that have always appealed to me in an instinctual way, which is real pretty melodies and really funky grooves.”

He was enamored with bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Taj Mahal. He connected with and was inspired by Sam Chatman, Peg Leg Sam, Son House, Sylvia Tyson, Sippie Wallace and David Wilcox, who gave the youngster 140 albums to help him learn about blues styles.

Linden quit school at 16 to become a musician. To join Wilcox’s band, the Teddy Bears in 1976, he started to play electric guitar, and over the next few years, toured Western Canada, and recorded with octogenarian blues legend Sam Chatmon. Linden then formed Group Du Jour, a rotating crew of Toronto roots musicians highlighted on his first album, Colin Linden Live!!!!! in 1980.

He’s acknowledged the influence of members of The Band – Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm – who all contributed to Linden’s recordings and songs, leading to recording deals over the years with A&M, Warner Chappell, and Sony Music Entertainment.

For nearly four years, he was Bruce Cockburn’s sideman, and in the 1990s, turned to recording gospel music, having taken lessons from Dave Wall, a Bourbon Tabernacle Choir singer.

That same year, he joined Tom Wilson of Junkhouse and Stephen Fearing to form Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, a tribute band to Canadian singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett. After the album High or Hurtin’ on True North Records, their second album, Kings of Love won a Juno.

In 1999, Linden was honoured with a Toronto Arts Award. As he told me, “I have always aspired to honour the memories of my heroes in blues music, who were almost exclusively African-American and were older, in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Growing up in the 1960s in the Civil Rights era gave me a window into and a great love of African- American culture. As a Jew, I felt like I had a lot in common with them, especially in terms of spirit. Many of my favorite blues interpreters in that era were Jewish as well, and through them too, my connection felt so strong.”

This year, Linden was the only Canadian to win a Grammy for producing Keb Mo’s album Oklahoma. His track record includes three Grammy nominations, 25 Juno Awards as an artist producer, winning top honours nine times.

Looking back, Linden said, “the last 10 years have been the best so far for my life in music: playing with Bob Dylan, working on the great ABC TV hit Show Nashville, producing the 10th album for Bruce Cockburn, many records, film and TV shows with T Bone Burnett, getting signed to Warner Music with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and mostly, making music in the studio that my wife Janice Powers built for us. I feel blessed.”


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communications. He’s a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.