For a true picture of where this amazing music comes from, you have to turn back the clock a little, back to when McLin used to play guitar for hours each day in his bedroom. Because he was always surrounded by music, it made sense that Ladell would be musically inclined. He was born to singer Marsha McLin and jazz drummer Lamont Braswell. His cousin, Marshall Thompson, was in the Chi-Lites and his brother is blues drummer Andre Cotton. Ladell grew up in a world of rehearsals and gigs that would take members of his family away until dawn.
In those days, McLin assumed he would wind up playing drums. He loved the rhythm and once even fell asleep with his head nestled into his father's bass drum during a band practice. But, as his brother began spending more time on the road, backing Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells, his drums were around less and less.
Ladell soon found an old guitar in his aunt’s basement. "It was some weird kind of electric," he remembers, "with just three strings. One of the guys in my brother's band had left this amplifier down there, and my auntie kept all these old Chuck Berry records there too. So I found a cord, plugged in, and started playing along. That was it: Just like that, I fell in love with the guitar."
All his friends in those days were into hip-hop, which Ladell also dug. "But the blues stole my heart," he says. "That's what I practiced all day. I was deep in the 'hood, my window was open, my amplifier was blasting, and all these people were hanging out in the alley. I'm playing Chuck Berry, Hendrix, or even Van Halen, and they're going, 'What the hell is going on up there?'"
When Ladell was 16, an opportunity came, on one of his brother Andre’s jobs, as the guitar player in a Chicago Blues club decided to slip away with a girlfriend for a few minutes.
"He asked me if I wanted to come up and play," Ladell recalls. "My brother said it was okay. The bass player got upset; he didn't think I'd know what to play. But I held my own. Then the other guitar player came back and said, 'You sound good. Keep playing.' And that was cool."
Encouraged, Ladell began to stretch out more often around town. He sat in with blues guitar master, playwright, and educator Fernando Jones and his brother Foree Superstar. His performance earned him a place in their band. He began to jam at Buddy Guy's Legends, the city's and arguably the world's top spot for blues.
Initiated into the house band at Legends, McLin learned onstage from the best in the business: Koko Taylor, Johnny "Guitar” Watson, and Buddy Guy himself. He even got to play at the prestigious Chicago Blues Festival while still in his teens, sharing the stage with Fernando Jones, Derek Trucks, and Pine Top Perkins.
When he hit the road with Eddie Burks for an engagement at Tramp's in New York, his life took a permanent turn.
"Chicago is a huge city, but when I got to New York I was amazed, like a deer in front of a car," he laughs. "I said to myself, 'I think I can live here.' And a couple of years later I just woke up one day and said, 'That's it. I'm moving to New York.'"
Good fortune soon came in the form of an audition to tour with James "Blood" Ulmer. McLin got the gig, along with hip-hop drum virtuoso Swiss Chris (currently touring with John Legend), and bass player Jeremiah Landess. The three formed a bond that would endure through their jaunt with Ulmer through Europe and continue after their return to New York.