Now his remarkable life is recounted in a memoir, There and Black Again.
Born in south London in 1956, Letts is, by his own reckoning, “as old as rock ’n’ roll – but all the better for it”.
“I wouldn’t swap my journey for anybody else on the planet,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, the plan was laid out between ’56 and 2000, and that’s not to say nothing interesting has happened in the 21st century, but for the most part it’s been a variation on a theme.
“That said, there’s pros and cons of having that much post-cultural baggage under your belt. I’m hard to impress, I guess.”
His love of pop music stems from The Beatles – he claims in the book to have once had the second largest collection of Fab Four memorabilia in the country. Their impact, he says, left him “a sucker for melody and lyrics”.
“They laid down the blueprint for pop music. I would only have been a little kid and I couldn’t vocalise it back then, and wouldn’t have even attempted to, but looking back, a lot of the things that they were masters at I still love. I love my bass-heavy tunes, but I also like a bit of melody in there as well – look at B.A.D. (Big Audio Dynamite, the band he formed in the 80s with Mick Jones of The Clash). I guess they instigated my pop sensibility.”
Letts’ other key early influence was Trojan Records, which brought the sound of Jamaican ska and reggae to the UK. In the book he describes the label’s output as a “badge of belonging for the lost tribe growing up in England with a confused duality”.
By his early teens, he explains, he was “becoming more globally politically aware” and trying to make sense of the difference between his parents’ experience as part of the Windrush generation and his own. “My parents’ generation tried to hold their heads down and become anglicised with the promise of this whole multicultural thing that didn’t ever materialise for them. I thought they were basically being screwed over,” he says.
“By ’68, I’m 12 years old and in America there was the whole Black Panther thing kicking off, you had James Brown (singing) ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud’, these were the things that I was tapping into, stuff that made me more militant and it gave me some sort of direction...
“I was getting myself educated outside of the school system, because they weren’t teaching me anything... I was starting to read stuff by Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and James Baldwin and finding out what I was about as a Black man beyond the narrative of it all starting from slavery and aren’t-I-lucky-to-be-here kind of thing.”
Witnessing The Who warming up for a show at the Young Vic in 1971 convinced Letts that he wanted to spend the rest of his life around musicians. From Bob Marley, who he befriended after a concert at the Lyceum in 1975, he drew more philosophical inspiration and an interest in Rastafarianism. “The things that he was singing about, whether it be Slave Driver, Concrete Jungle or whatever, those things seemed to translate personally to our situation here in the UK. Bob gave me more empowerment and inspiration as to where I came from and maybe what I had to offer, and also the idea of doing it on your own terms.”
Such lessons would serve him in good stead as punk exploded in 1976. Running clothes store Acme Attractions with Jeanette Lee, Letts was at the heart of the scene, forging ties with John Lydon and The Clash; for a short time he also managed The Slits. DJ-ing both at store and The Roxy, he introduced many punk musicians to reggae. In the DIY spirit of punk, he also turned his hand to filmmaking. Footage he shot on Super 8 camera of bands at The Roxy would become The Punk Rock Movie.
It would lead to a successful career as a filmmaker and videographer in the MTV age. His documentary The Clash: Westway to the World won a Grammy in 2003. Other films include Two Sevens, which he made to prove someone wrong when they told him music does not affect change, it only reflects it. “I’m a testament to the fact that music affects change,” he says. “It ain’t about just selling you stuff. I grew up listening to music that helped you to be all you could be, it wasn’t just about being a fan. That was something I wised up to very quickly, that’s why I got rid of my Beatles collection; I got rid of all the paraphernalia and just kept the music. People have got to remember the music caused social and personal change. I don’t know about anybody else but it worked for me.”
In the 1980s, Letts enjoyed his own moment of pop stardom, playing keyboards and sourcing film dialogue samples for the band Big Audio Dynamite.
“It was only when I was writing the book thinking about this little Black kid, 14 years old, watching The Who and daydreaming about one day being a part of this world. Fast forward (to 1984) standing next to Mick Jones...Come on, I got to write songs with Mick Jones, how cool is that? And although I was always in the shadow of Joe (Strummer), that was always a bit of pressure, it made me realise that I couldn’t take that space for granted and I did my best.”
There and Black Again, by Don Letts with Mal Peachey, is out now on Omnibus Press, priced £20.