Archive for the ‘British R&B’ Category

Early Rolling Stones Recordings

Monday, November 1st, 2010

In March 1963 the Stones recorded five songs – Bo Diddley’s ‘Diddley Daddy’ and ‘Road Runner’, Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ and ‘Honey What’s Wrong?’, and Muddy Waters’ ‘I Want To Be Loved’ – at the instigation of Glyn Johns, a friend of Ian Stewart’s, lead singer of south London R&B group the Presidents, and a sound engineer at IBC Studios in Portland Place, north of Oxford Circus. The band were delighted with the finished tracks, not least Brian Jones, whose unwavering aim was to replicate the authenticity of the original records. The session tape would be spooled and re-spooled for every visitor to the group’s Fulham flat, but attracted no meaningful record company interest.

Two months later, with Andrew Oldham installed as their manager, the Stones tried another studio, Olympic, in south west London, where the novice Oldham doubled as producer to supervise the recording of the A- and B-sides of the band’s debut single, ‘Come On’ and ‘I Want To Be Loved’. The second was one of the tracks they’d recorded at IBC, but, although ‘Come On’ was a Chuck Berry song, it was not in the band’s repertoire. Oldham’s influence was already evident: he had insisted that they should consider covering only the most commercial-sounding records in their collection.

In the same week that the Stones recorded that first single, the Record Mirror’s Norman Jopling, having seen the band at the Station Hotel, reported, “(The Stones) are probably destined to be the biggest group in the R&B scene. Unlike all other R&B groups the Stones have a definite visual appeal. They play and sing in a way one would expect more from a coloured US R&B team… They have achieved the American sound better than any other group over here.” Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames’ fans at the Flamingo All-Nighter would have taken issue with that last assertion, but Jopling had accurately foreseen the Rolling Stones’ destiny.

It was a destiny not mirrored throughout R&B. Even from the dulling distance of the next decade, Alexis Korner’s frustration at the record industry’s reluctance to back Blues Incorporated animated him. “They didn’t want to know,” he fulminated. “We had a single-length version of ‘(I’ve Got My) Mojo Working’ on that first session in 1962. It was the tune of that period. It would’ve caught on, it would’ve sold, but they wouldn’t release it. In January 1963, we put down a version of ‘(Night Time Is) The Right Time’, which Decca completely messed up by dubbing choirs and I don’t know what else on and finally issued about a year later on one of those (various artists) albums. It was the time of the first Ray Charles tour here, and ‘The Right Time’ was his big number. They didn’t want to know. They couldn’t get used to the idea that a wailing band could possibly sell any records.” No doubt there was an element of ageism at play too, because, although Blues Inc’s then frontman Ronnie Jones was young and handsome, the majority of the band’s personnel were unmistakably, as Charlie Watts observed, “eccentric old men”, unmarketable in a teen-oriented music industry.

Released at the end of June and promoted on Thank Your Lucky Stars, ‘Come On’ peaked at No 21 in September. By then the band had cancelled upcoming club dates to join their first nationwide package tour, opening for John Leyton, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and the headlining Everly Brothers. They had also recorded ‘Fortune Teller’ and ‘Poison Ivy’, both familiar to anyone who had seen them live, as a second single, but, following an eleventh hour change of heart, this pairing was shelved. If their first hit’s sole connection with the Stones’ core repertoire had been its originator, Chuck Berry, the replacement follow-up came from an entirely unaccredited source: John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In April the four Beatles had checked out the Stones at the Station Hotel. Then, in August, following a chance encounter in the West End with Andrew Oldham, briefly a Beatles publicist, Lennon and McCartney showed up at a Stones rehearsal and ran through a new song of theirs, which they felt would suit the band. With the Beatles at No 1 for the third time since January, what group with ambition would turn down a Lennon-McCartney composition? Not the Rolling Stones.

In truth, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ was not out of Lennon and McCartney’s top drawer. Had it been, then surely either John or Paul would have sung lead on the Beatles’ own version? As it was, when it appeared on their second album, With The Beatles, the vocal was Ringo’s. But it was an adept pastiche of British R&B and, reinforced by Brian Jones’ trademark slide guitar, made it to No 12. Of the Stones’ next eight singles, only two would fail to top the charts. Even ‘Little Red Rooster’, a valedictory version of what might be termed a post-modern blues by Sam Cooke, reached No 1. The Rolling Stones had turned rhythm and blues into pop hits. For themselves, at least.

The Flamingo Club

Monday, November 1st, 2010

One warm spring Friday night in 1964, cooling off between sets outside the Ricky Tick club in Windsor, I share a match flame with a sharp-suited mod whose jaw works in perfect time with the record wafting from the upstairs room. He chimneys a lungful skywards and asks have I seen Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames? I haven’t. He says they’re the best band around by far and that they’re on at the Flamingo – “up west”, indicated with a head tilt towards London – every Saturday night. I thank him for the tip-off, but figure if a group’s that good, they’ll turn up at the Ricky Tick before long. Although I don’t see him the following week, the Friday after he wants to know what I reckon. When I tell him I haven’t seen them yet, he exhales a smoky sigh and walks away.

Saturday nights soon take on a new pattern. Dex and I still rendezvous in the Antelope, but we leave before closing time and aim my Ford Pop east along the A40, watching house lights go out in the cosy commuter country of Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross, the suburban estates of Greenford and Perivale, built when being handy for Western Avenue’s sclerotic arterial was a selling point, and the Lego-like semis of Acton, as yet unspoiled by stone-cladding and secondary glazing. We stop off at the bowling alley by Gipsy Corner for as long as it takes to rinse down half a dozen doobs with a waxed-paper cup of coke, and by the time the car is parked in W1, in a space vacated by the straights and squares who’ve already headed home after their idea of a night-out, the amphetamine magic is working, and we are doing our mod swagger down Wardour Street, hoping the Marquee-ites, homeward bound themselves, will notice our dark, dilated pupils, the urgent way we chew our gum, and our walk – oh yes, a walk so cool it ought to be a dance.

At most clubs where R&B groups play, back rooms of pubs, like the Ricky Tick, with a bar in one corner and a makeshift stage, the audience is art-studenty, the scruffy side of smart, with Stones-length hair or longer. The Flamingo, a firetrap of a basement south of Shaftesbury Avenue, attracts an altogether different crowd. Because the All-Nighter operates from midnight to six, they come from a netherworld where people don’t keep regular hours: US servicemen from Mildenhall and Lakenheath on 48-hour passes, determined not to waste pay on a hotel room or precious leave asleep, young West Indians from Notting Hill and Brixton, insomniac musicians, drunks, junkies, hookers, and drynamil-fuelled faces. Mods will be misremembered as the pansy prey of rockers, but the mods-versus-rockers match-up is essentially a media invention, and the notion that a dedicated dress sense is a disqualification from violence a dangerous misconception.

Like the Marquee up the road, the Flamingo was a jazz club originally, modern jazz though, unlike the Marquee’s trad. An illuminated sign assures punters who are unimpressed by the nondescript entrance between a Chinese restaurant and a shoe shop that, “Here is the internationally famous Flamingo Jazz Club.” An arrow points at the doorway leading to a flight of stairs. A second sign, on which a pink flamingo is depicted cartoonishly, boasts that the place is “Britain’s Finest Modern Jazz Venue”. Only on a third sign, smaller than the other two and unlit, are the words ‘Allnighter’ and ‘Rhythm & Blues’ printed. But it’s the word ‘Jazz’ – in jazzy lettering, naturally – that I have fixed on to legitimise my Saturday nights. That and the fact that Dex happens to have a barrister uncle in Belgravia. Even though my old man is less bothered about me spending an evening in sinful Soho than that I’ll be having my ear bent by the modern jazz he abhors, my mother is relieved that I’m avoiding a late drive home by staying over in SW1. If only.

Outside the Flamingo, the audience from the evening session, over at eleven, has gone. Everyone waiting now is here for the midnight hour. The white-knuckle ride of a rush from the pills has smoothed into a surge of euphoria so intensely exhilarating it nearly takes my breath away. Inevitably I turn to Dex and whisper hoarsely how fantastic I’m feeling.

Inside, the lights are dim, and the heat, under the false ceiling, ferocious. Tony Clarke’s ‘Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud’ comes over the PA, or James Brown’s ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, which I hear for the first time queuing on the stairs to the basement, and inevitably before the night is over, since it is a favourite of John Gunnell’s, Lord Kitchener’s priapic ‘Dr Kitch’. Gunnell, who runs the club with his older brother Rik, introduces the acts and, between the sets, plays records from the band room beside the stage, spicing his MC’s patter with a crude parody of Jamaican patois, which nevertheless amuses, rather than offends the West Indians in the audience. There are always two bands on, each playing two alternate sets, with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band or Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds or Ronnie Jones and the Nightimers opening, and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames closing the session.

The Blue Flames were once Billy Fury’s backing group, and it was Fury’s manager, Larry Parnes, begetter of Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, et al, who changed their pianist’s name from Clive Powell to Georgie Fame. But since the start of their Flamingo residency in 1962, Fame and the Blue Flames have undergone an extraordinary evolutionary process. Other bands have likewise added horns and replaced piano with Hammond organ, but what is unique about the way their music has developed is the input of the Flamingo’s audience.

Much of the band’s material has come from the GIs who frequent the All-Nighter. Keen to replicate the music they would be dancing and drinking to back home – were they not guarding us from the red menace that lurks behind the Iron Curtain – and gratefully aware that Fame and his fellow musicians are not only capable of meaningful interpretation, but enthusiastically open to influence, they lend him their own records. If Fame likes what he hears, the song will be in the band’s set the following weekend, just like James Brown’s ‘Night Train’, Rufus Thomas’s ‘The Dog’, the Phil Upchurch Combo’ ‘You Can’t Sit Down’, even Paul Anka’s ‘Eso Beso’. And, of course, it’s a GI who has introduced him to maverick jazzer Mose Allison, reshaping his singing style overnight. The album that hooked him is I Love The Life I Live, its title track now a staple in the Blue Flames’ set, along with Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’ and ‘Work Song’.

Even when I search out Allison’s originals, I don’t like Fame’s approximation any less. Plus I am now a sucker for Hammond organs and horn sections, and there isn’t one number in the Blue Flames’ repertoire I don’t think is great. The Rolling Stones may have been lost from the Ricky Tick to the wider world of pop, but I don’t care any more, because Georgie and the Blue Flames make the most exciting music in town. The All-nighter is unmissable.

From midnight to six we dance and fidget and talk nonsense, start to feel not so great, swallow more pills and feel great again, and suddenly we’re outside in the cold, cold light. Those six hours can flash by so fast, I once ask on my way out why the bands haven’t done two sets tonight. “What’re you on, son? Here, you sure you’re old enough to be in this joint?” I wasn’t.

We have a wash at Charing Cross station, a coffee in the Strand, occasionally shop for bluebeat records at a stall in Petticoat Lane, anything to put off the return to the real world and the inevitable come-down. Some hardcore Flamingo fans even go back for more. There’s a Sunday afternoon session, where John Gunnell, easing his way through the day with a bottle of Scotch, heckles the bands he’s booked. In theory, and in amphetamine-powered defiance of fatigue, you can attend six sessions between Friday and Sunday.

For out-of-towners, like Dex and me, whose alibi of the bed in Belgravia means there’s no hurry to get back to High Wycombe, the morning-after usually begins with a time-killing detour via the 24-hour Heathrow Bowl on the A4 until it’s late enough to be starting a normal Sunday. Except by now my jaw aches, my eyes sting, my synuses burn, my feet throb, my throat is raw, my stomach convulsed, and my penis shrunk so small I struggle to pull it from my pants for the dribble of dark urine which is as much as I can summon. On my tongue there’s a permanent ball of spit, which taints everything I taste. Not that I have an appetite.

We can’t go to anyone’s house unless they’re in on our secret and their parents, who would think us ill, are out, so we usually wind up in the one coffee bar in the entire town that is open on a Sunday afternoon. It becomes such a regular sanctuary that I start taking one of the waitresses home after her shift. A fumble in my car, parked at the end of her drive, momentarily reverses the day’s downward spiral.

Bottoming out of my come-down at school on Monday, I meet Dex by the tuck shop and swear I’m never going to the All-Nighter again. I’m still adamant on Tuesday, but by Wednesday we’re singing snatches of that new number that went down a storm. What was it called? ‘Yeh Yeh’? Georgie and the band ought to record that. Who knows, it could be a hit. On Thursday we scan the Flamingo’s weekly ad in Melody Maker to see who the other group’s going to be. Friday I hand Dex the money for my doobs. I can’t wait for Saturday night. I love the Flamingo, right until the weekend before I leave for university, when I realise what a dangerous place it is for a middle-class boy masquerading as a mod.

Blues Incorporated

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Alexis Korner’s Parisian birthplace, Austro-Greek parentage, noble features and languid growl endowed him with an aura of exoticism unreflected in his musical partner Cyril ‘Squirrel’ Davies, a balding, ex-banjo-playing panel beater from Denham with a villainous streak, who could nevertheless make a harmonica sing the blues like noone else in England. The pair had already done their bit for the evolution of homegrown R&B with their London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, whose guests at the Thursday evening sessions in an upstairs room of a Soho pub included Muddy Waters.

Long John Baldry, a young, would-be Big Bill Broonzy, who saw Waters there and in concert at St Pancras Town Hall, was impressed. “Up to that time,” the late, lanky singer told me in 1971, “we thought of blues as being strictly acoustic music, and Muddy came over with this electric guitar and a big amplifier, and a lot of people said, ‘Ooh, sacrilegious, dreadful, dreadful, he’s selling out the blues,’ and all that. It was the same reaction as there was when Bob Dylan came over (in 1966) and first did his electric thing – people actually booing, because they were used to people playing acoustic guitar, in various styles, but never amplified. But Cyril, Alex and myself looked at this and thought, ‘Hmm, this is interesting,’ and we started trying ourselves.” Korner concurred, “Many people didn’t like the St. Pancras concert because Muddy was playing electric, and they didn’t think blues should be played electric. Cyril and I were already being kicked out of clubs for taking in amplifiers.”

In 1960, Korner and Davies were co-opted by Chris Barber to play the closing half-hour of his jazz band’s Wednesday residency at the Marquee Club in Oxford Street, a climactic blues set that had even the most leaden-footed audience members dancing. But, despite its popularity, this blues-jazz fusion was doomed, not least because Davies interpreted his supporting role on harmonica as an opportunity to outwail the redoubtable pipes of Barber’s singer Ottilie Patterson.

“Backing his own singing, he wouldn’t play except in the gaps, because he couldn’t,” Barber explained, before highlighting another problem, “and the trouble with Alex was, you’d beat a number in, ‘One, two, three’ – du-duddlu-du – but Alex was likely to go, ‘One, two, three, four,’ and we got sick of starting on the wrong beat, and decided that, if playing electric R&B in England meant working with Alex, we wouldn’t do it. Besides, Alex wanted to do it all night, and we didn’t.”

Offloaded by Barber, but buoyed by the Marquee audience’s response to their music, Korner and Davies resolved to form their own band. As the first electric blues band in Britain, Blues Incorporated was sufficiently unique to be stuck for places to play. Not only was the music was too earthy by half for pop promoters, but, to pop’s teenage audience, the band’s members would have appeared not merely eccentric, but avuncular, if not outright elderly. Korner, pushing thirty-three, was a dozen years older than contemporary pop stars Adam Faith and Cliff Richard, while Davies, who would die three years later, looked far older than twenty-nine. And whereas their looks would not have been out of place on a jazz club stage, Blues Incorporated’s amplified music was too loud, too close to rock’n’roll for trad-dom.

Their solution was to open their own venue in a west London suburb. The Ealing Club opened on 17th March 1962 – St Patrick’s Night, an appropriately date, given that the premises were known to Davies as an after-hours drinking den – in a basement accessed by a flight of steps between a jeweller’s and a teashop across the road from Ealing Broadway underground station. If they were to attract an audience, it would be by word of mouth on the burgeoning London blues grapevine, because, as Korner remembered, “We opened with a few posters around Ealing and practically no advertising.” But, if he and Davies were worried their venture might fail, their concern would have been dispelled before Blues Incorporated took the stage, because the place was packed from that first night.

Blues Incorporated’s original line-up, headed reluctantly by Alexis Korner – “I didn’t want to lead a band, I just got lumbered into doing it” – on guitar, with harmonica-player and singer Cyril Davies his dishevelled lieutenant, had Art Wood, older brother of Ron, as second singer, plus Keith Scott (piano), Andy Hoogenboom (bass) and Charlie Watts (drums). Wood soon left to form his own Art Wood Combo (later the Artwoods), then Jack Bruce and his white double bass replaced Andy Hoogenboom, and Ginger Baker took over from Charlie Watts, whose commitment was curtailed by a day job as a graphic designer. Dick Heckstall-Smith added tenor sax to the line-up, and there was a succession of pianists. Besides Davies, Long John Baldry would take a turn at the microphone, as would a still short-haired Mick Jagger, who Baldry described as being “all lips and ears – he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy up there on stage.” Another regular, Eric Clapton, is remembered not for his guitar-playing, but for singing ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, shyness gluing his gaze to the floor. And Keith Richard – no ‘s’ then – would be in the audience with Dick Taylor, bass guitarist with the proto-Stones.

Saturday night at the Ealing Club was more than a regular date in London blues fans’ diary, it was London blues and, what’s more, the London blues scene was the only blues scene in Britain, which is why, most weekends, Brian Jones hitch-hiked ninety miles along the A40 trunk road from his home town of Cheltenham, picking up Paul Pond in Oxford on the way. Calling himself Elmo Lewis, a name with a bluesier ring than the one his parents had given him, the future Rolling Stone duetted with the future Manfred Mann vocalist, who would soon change his own surname from Pond to Jones. Brian Jones’ speciality, learned from Elmore James records, was bottleneck slide guitar, a technique every bit as mind-boggling on first sighting as the most accomplished conjuror’s sleight of hand.

Although Blues Inc members’ knowledge of the blues and approach to the music differed, what did unite the band – and their audience – was a shared antipathy for the tiresome mummery of traditional jazz. “(Blues Incorporated) was basically a reaction against trad,” Korner confirmed. “Most of the people in the first band had played trad jazz at one time or another. Cyril had worked with local trad bands in West London, and I’d worked with Barber and various other bands. Jack Bruce, when he came to us, came straight from Jim McHarg’s Scotsville Jazzband, Ginger Baker had worked with Acker Bilk, Dick Heckstall-Smith had played Bechet-type soprano at one time in a university band. Most of us had been through trad jazz, and for various reasons we wanted to play something that was the complete antithesis of trad jazz, which by then had got very finicky and very kitsch altogether. Trombones played specific parts and clarinets tweedled over the top, and everyone played every beat exactly the same way, and we got fed up with it. You couldn’t have found anything more fundamentally opposed to the concept of trad jazz than Muddy Waters.”

Despite disenchanting Korner’s crowd, trad – the populist monosyllable symbolic of its musical atrophy – had become a pop phenomenon. Having entered the Top Twenty in December 1961, Acker Bilk’s fourth top ten hit, ‘Stranger On The Shore’, was barely a third of the way through its year-long stay in the charts; the Temperance Seven, boatered and blazered like an am-dram chorus from Salad Days, had vodeo-doed their way to a string of hits, including the chart-topping ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’; and, like Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen had been in the charts since the previous year with ‘Midnight In Moscow’, whose formulaic follow-up, ‘March Of The Siamese Children’, was already in the Top Ten.

Two and three-quarter hours of Saturday evening air-time was given over to the BBC Light Programme’s Trad Tavern, while BBC TV had Trad Fad, whose presenter Brian Matthew also hosted the Light Programme’s weekend pop shows, Saturday Club and Easy Beat, their running-orders peppered with trad singles and live sessions.

Matthew had appointed himself the trad boom’s chronicler. In Trad Mad, his feverish account of the era, he recorded the rules laid down by Trad Fad’s (and future Top Of The Pops’) producer Johnny Stewart: “No beatniks and no weirdies! He wanted no one on the screen wearing jeans, and all the girls admitted had to wear skirts. He knew, of course, that in any jazz club you will always find some members of the great unwashed, with their bizarre clothes and off-beat habits, but he felt that they represented only a very small minority of jazz fans, and were completely unnecessary to the programme. ‘Jazz is still jazz,’ he said, ‘whether it is played on Salibury Plain or the lounge of a luxury liner. But it is not enhanced by dingy surroundings and odd hangers-on. I want to prove to its detractors that it is a most interesting form of music, which does not have to be presented in dirt and discomfort. I have built a clean, bright set, and I want it filled with clean, bright people who enjoy jazz’.”

But the trad bandwagon was dangerously overcrowded. In London alone, an estimated fifty trad bands were vying for work, most more intent on making a living than meaningful music. Ted Heath, a bandleader as old as the 20th century, who had been repeatedly wrong in predicting the demise of rock’n’roll and the return of his beloved big bands, was spot-on for once about trad, when he declared, “There’s no future in trad from the musical point of view. As long as people are given the lowest forms of musicianship, they won’t discern between good and bad. Some of us tried, with some success, to get the public to appreciate taste and musicianship. Now the fancy dress boys are teaching youngsters to associate jazz with funny clothes.”

There would be few more trad hits, and by 1964 the music would be dead and buried, but while Brian Matthew had attributed trad’s success to the fact that “rock fans require more from the music than a sheer jungle beat,” what got feet stomping in that damp basement in Ealing and still had heads nodding and toes tapping on the homeward tube was the closest rhythm to a jungle beat since Tarzan’s came up with the chest-thump tom-tom.

Noting the buzz about Blues Incorporated, Chris Barber extended another helping hand to Korner and British R&B. As co-custodian (with Harold Pendleton) of British jazz’s Oxford Street bastion, he booked the band to play the Marquee’s first ‘Rhythm & Blues Night’. Through the summer of 1962, the audience for Blues Inc’s Thursday residency, which had initially been populated almost exclusively by refugees from the Ealing Club, unable to wait for Saturday to come round, swelled weekly, prompting the first press coverage of rhythm and blues in August, when Melody Maker’s Chris Roberts urged readers to “take a trip to the Marquee Club on a Thursday night when Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies are stomping along with Blues Incorporated. That is, if you don’t mind people standing on your head – the club’s popularity has to be seen, heard, and felt to be believed. Their kind of music – using a line-up of guitar, harmonica (amplified), sax, piano, bass and drums – is sure to put in a big take-over bid in rock clubs and dance halls all over Britain.”

Interviewed in the same paper later that month, Korner ventured, “I think the music has a very strong future. In fact, I believe it will be the next ‘big thing’. The audience we get includes trad fans, modern fans, beat fans, real R&B fans, and folk music fans, and it includes most age groups. All of them like to dance, and many twist themselves to a standstill… And basically, whatever else we try to do, we are a dance band. We want to play for dancing. The point is, we are not following a popular trend. There’s never been a band like this in Britain.”

Asked if he thought rhythm and blues could break trad’s stranglehold, he offered this prediction: “I don’t think it can this year, but some time next year it may, if trad stays as it is, of course. I anticipate that there’ll be a hell of a lot more R&B bands by the end of the year.” He wasn’t wrong.

As well as alerting the music press, Blues Incorporated also attracted the attention of BBC Radio’s Jazz Club, whose producer booked the band to perform a live session on 12th July 1962, a red letter day in rock’s calendar – not that Blues Inc’s broadcast was the musical milestone. The date being a Thursday, doing Jazz Club meant finding a band to fill in at the Marquee, but, before attending to that arrangement, Korner had to resolve a dispute with the BBC, who refused to contract the entire line-up to perform a scant handful of songs, arguing that the teenager who took an occasional turn as singer was the most dispensible. Korner baulked, the BBC refused to budge, and a band meeting was held, at which Mick Jagger gamely offered to end the stand-off by fulfilling the Marquee date with a band of his own: the Rollin’ (sic) Stones.

Blues Incorporated and the Rolling Stones

Monday, November 1st, 2010

The first public appearance of what would one day be touted as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” was hardly headline news, claiming no more than a couple of column inches on an inside page of the July 1962 issue of Jazz News. The date of the debut was Thursday 12th July; the venue the Marquee Club (then a basement below the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, whose tent-like décor had been designed by the surrealist photographer Angus McBean); the band the Rollin’ – with an apostrophe – Stones. These details were followed by a quote from singer Mick Jagger, expressing the fragile hope that the audience in that bastion of musical correctness wouldn’t “think we’re a rock’n’roll outfit,” and the expected line-up, which, alongside the snake-hipped “R&B vocalist”, featured guitarists Keith Richard and Elmo Lewis (Brian Jones’ blues alter ego), pianist Ian Stewart, bass guitarist Dick Taylor and drummer Mick Avory.

Whether Avory actually appeared is uncertain, and other drummers would come and go in the six months before Charlie Watts could be persuaded to abandon a day job in graphic design to pursue a full-time career with the Stones, but on Thursday 12th July the band’s future drummer could be found in the Marquee’s audience, from where he noted a phenomenon that set this new group apart from Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, with whom he had previously played. “The thing was,” he told me in 1978, “the bands that were doing that stuff, like Alexis’, were really eccentric old men. Now the Stones, the front line at any rate, were young, so there was obvious appeal for the kids who wanted to dance. Alexis’ band was a joke to look at, but this lot sort of crossed the barrier. They actually were like rock stars, I suppose, but they could play.”

The Stones’ Marquee debut was no springboard to overnight success. Although they reappeared at the club, they were dropped by the club’s manager Harold Pendleton after a meagre five more bookings in as many months because, as Pendleton’s partner Chris Barber argued, “they weren’t authentic enough, even then they’d gone into British” – intoned with unmissably dismissive emphasis – “R&B.” (The slight was not quickly forgotten: filming a TV special at the Marquee eight years later, Keith Richards petulantly swung his guitar at Pendleton, but missed.)

During the months before he left the Stones to pursue an unfulfilled aim to attend the Royal College of Art, bassist Dick Taylor had little reason to suppose they were about to break into the big time. “We played very few gigs,” he conceded. “I remember somewhere way out in the sticks, though it probably wasn’t as far as Watford, and we all went by train, took all our gear on the train, and we played in this completely empty hall. The only audience was outside, looking through the window. No one came in, but we really enjoyed ourselves.”

The Stones were welcomed back regularly at the Ealing Club, and also tried out at the Flamingo Club in Soho. Run by brothers Rik and John Gunnell, the club’s renowned All-Nighters – midnight-to-six sessions on Saturday nights – were popular with black Londoners and US servicemen on 48-hour passes from their bases at Mildenhall, Lakenheath and High Wycombe, reluctant to waste on overnight accommodation the pay they had earned guarding Britain against the Red Menace or to spend an unnecessary moment of their precious leave asleep. The audience also included the first mods, their stamina boosted by drinamyl and dexedrine. For die-hards with nowhere else to go, there was a Sunday afternoon session, which doubled as audition time. The Stones’ turn came in November 1962, as John Gunnell told me nine years later.

“We were all pissed from the night before, pouring out afternoon whiskies, and this band comes down, when long hair wasn’t in, and we were thinking, ‘Fuck, who are these? They’ve got to be kidding.’ But they went on stage and they were great, so we gave them a Monday night. This was when they had Ian Stewart on piano and Carlo Little from Screaming Lord Sutch’s band on drums. And they drew no one, because the Flamingo was a black club, a real R&B club. It was saxophones and screaming, and the Stones died a death, no one was there, like one person would come in, which was five bob (25p). I remember paying Mick Jagger off and telling him, ‘If your R&B ever takes off, you can kiss my arse.’ When it did, he came back down to remind me.” The Stones’ truncated four-week residency in January 1963 was nonetheless notable for the first appearance of the soon-to-be familiar line-up of Jagger, Richard, Jones, Wyman and Watts, plus pianist Ian Stewart, who, because his face didn’t fit, would be relegated to roadie by soon-to-be manager Andrew Oldham.

The musical background of the Rolling Stones’ two most recent recruits could hardly have been more polarised, yet Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman, who joined a matter of weeks before the drummer in December, typified the diversity of musicians drawn to R&B.

Wyman had been playing what everyone else played in his corner of south-east London: “Shadows stuff, Ventures stuff, all those semi-instrumental groups, because there were never really any good singers about. So most of the bands had an echo chamber and a good lead guitarist who could play ‘FBI’ and all that shit, and experiment and try and play some American music, but it was always the wrong stuff – it was ‘Poetry In Motion’ and ‘Personality’, all those things – whereas the band I was trying to get together, we were trying to play the R&B kind of American music that was coming over, more like Little Richard, the Coasters, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, black artists, not the Pat Boones and the Bobby Vees. I wasn’t involved at all with the jazz thing that was going on in London, or even the R&B thing. I was more into rock’n’roll, rather than the Korner thing, so (joining the Stones) was very strange to me, and it was only Chuck Berry that held me in with the band for the first few weeks, because I knew all those Chuck Berry songs, and I knew Bo Diddley vaguely. I didn’t know any of the blues people, but at least when they said, let’s do ‘Reeling And Rocking’, I knew it backwards, and doing a blues on the bass was fairly simple anyway. It was just popular music that was being played by black artists instead of white, really, that was the difference, and we suddenly realised it was better.”

By contrast, Watts “came out of the school that never listened to rock’n’roll, or refused to until I was about twenty-one. I was never really that good to play what you might term ‘jazz’, particularly at that time, so I just used to play with anyone really, which was mostly jazz people, but not on a very high musical level, not the best, though some of them turned out to be the best as time passed.”

Blues Incorporated had provided Watts’ introduction to R&B. “When I first played with Cyril Davies in Alexis Korner’s band, I thought, ‘What the fuck is happening here?’ because I’d only ever heard the harmonica played by Larry Adler, but Cyril was such a character, I loved him. But the rest of it! I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Although I knew about playing a heavy backbeat, it wasn’t like Chicago, which was what Cyril wanted. On a good night it was amazing, but a total cacophony of sound. It was like a cross between R&B and Charlie Mingus, which was what Alexis wanted. By the time I joined the Stones, I was quite used to rock’n’roll… to Chuck Berry and that, but it was actually sitting up endlessly with Keith (Richards) and Brian (Jones) – I was out of work at the time I joined them and I just used to hang about with them, waiting for jobs to come up, daytime work – just listening to Little Walter and all that, that it got ground in.”

While the Stones were consolidating their style, the turbulent, cacophonous clash of R&B and Mingus observed from his drum stool by Watts, had brought to an untimely end Alexis Korner’s long-standing association with Cyril Davies, who quit Blues Incorporated in November 1962. “Cyril wanted to work with a sort of recreation of the mid-fifties Muddy Waters band,” Korner told me, “but my argument was, it’s already been done, what’s the point of doing it again? So Blues Incorporated was getting to be this riffing-type R&B band, and I’d always liked horns.” With Davies gone, Korner brought in altoist Graham Bond to complement Dick Heckstall-Smith’s tenor – “and we got some tremendous riffing things going with them and Jack (Bruce) and Ginger (Baker).”

Following his abrupt departure, Davies did not waste time hand-picking individual musicians to play with, instead annexing in its entirety Screaming Lord Sutch’s backing group, the Savages – Nicky Hopkins (piano), Bernie Watson (guitar), Rick Brown (bass), and sometime Rolling Stone Carlo Little (drums) – adding Long John Baldry as second vocalist and a trio of black backing singers, The Velvettes, recruited from the cast of the West End show, King Kong. He named his new band Cyril Davies’s R&B All-Stars.

While welcoming his liberation from Davies’s belligerence and dogma, Korner continued to miss his old partner. “We’d worked together on and off for a long time, Cyril and I, and as long as things were going badly for us, as long as there was a fight, even to find somewhere to play, we were okay together. It was a musical partnership, and once we were playing, we forgot about all the rest. Sometimes we played some extraordinary things together, Cyril and I. We got things going together that I’ve never got going with anybody else, never, not those particular things that I used to get going with Cyril, that he used to get going with me.”

The post-Davies “riffing” line-up of Blues Incorporated lasted barely three months. Recruited as an altoist, Graham Bond made no secret of his desire to double on organ, a move vetoed by Korner, who had “got it very clear that Bondy came in as an alto player. He occasionally did a piano feature, but we had a pianist – Johnny Parker. When he started wanting to play organ, I said it didn’t fit into the band, it wasn’t that sort of sound. Besides, I have a thing about organ players, because they do tend to ride over everything else, they’ve got all that power, and they do tend to bloody well use it, so they swamp the more delicate things that are going on elsewhere. After some arguments, not bitter ones, but some fairly positive arguments about this, that and the other, he left (in February 1963), persuading Jack (Bruce) and Ginger (Baker) to form a trio with him.”

Unwanted at the Marquee, but established at the Ealing Club and the Star & Garter Hotel in Windsor, the Stones next set up camp at the Station Hotel in the Thames-side suburb of Richmond, where they played on Sunday nights from February 1963, making it one of those venues, like the Cavern in Liverpool or the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where, in order to assert earlier-than-thou allegiance to the Beatles or the Sex Pistols, you had to claim to have seen them.

The Sunday evening sessions were run by Georgio Gomelsky, a desultory entrepreneur who might have managed the Stones, had he been half as sharp as he thought he was. Helping Gomelsky was Hamish Grimes, a young graphic designer, who witnessed at first hand the mushrooming popularity of their Crawdaddy Club. “There was only a small group to whom mention of the Rolling Stones would have meant anything at all,” Grimes recalled, “but the word spread that this was something totally different, and every week the figures doubled until the place was absolutely full to capacity. People would queue for hours, literally, on a Sunday afternoon. They would start queuing about five o’clock, people sitting outside the door, so they could be first in and get next to the stage. It was difficult to move around, and if you went out to the bar to get a drink, you could never get back to a good vantage point. It was absolutely mad.”

As at the Ealing Club, when Blues Incorporated had first played there, the audience for the Stones’ sessions at the Station Hotel was peppered with would-be bluesmen and apprentice pop stars, among them schoolfriends Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell-Smith, who, having had enough of the same Shadows instrumentals that had bored Bill Wyman, would soon team up with members of a Kingston art school band, the Metropolitan Blues Quartet, to form the Yardbirds. Another regular was future Small Face Ian McLagan, who affirmed, “There were a lot of musicians who used to turn up early, drink a couple of quick pints, and get to the front of the stage to watch mainly Brian for me, funnily enough, and Stu (Ian Stewart). And that’s when I realised maybe white boys from London can play the blues, because they could, so it gave me a bit more confidence: yeah, maybe we can play the blues and get paid for it.”

By the time the Stones unloaded their gear at the Station Hotel, they had already played one gig, an afternoon set at the Ken Colyer Jazz Club at Studio 51 in Great Newport Street, where Soho meets Covent Garden. This new residency in such a stronghold of traditional jazz, on behalf of which Colyer had remained a tireless campaigner, said much about R&B’s take-over from trad. Although Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’ was by far the biggest-selling record of 1962, even before the end of its twelve-month chart run Melody Maker was asking “Has Trad Had It?”: “Let’s face it. The trad boom is on the wane. Only a few big names can pull in the crowds – and not all of them are doing the big business of six months ago. A lot of newly-formed trad bands around today are going to the wall.”

The article went on to blame the top bands for following the same big money circuit – “no wonder the fans are beginning to get bored” – but identified as the essential reason for trad’s decline the fact that many of those fans were not genuine jazz enthusiasts. “So many so-called trad fans are really camp followers of the pop disc parade. Thousands of youngsters who buy the trad-pop singles have about as much musical appreciation as those who rush to purchase the latest rock or twist hit. Jazz fans? Not on your Nelly!”

Bandleader Alan Elsdon blamed “certain agents and promoters (who) have flooded the jazz clubs with inferior bands,” while Mike Cotton, whose Jazzmen would emerge from an R&B make-over in 1964 as the Mike Cotton Sound, conceded, “There is no doubt the big boom is on the wane.”

Rhythm and blues was seen as a universal remedy: a cure for dwindling club audiences, an elixir for uninspired musicians, and ultimately a money-earner for the record industry, although not until its London-based, but Liverpool-fixated A&R men had recovered sufficiently from the tunnel vision brought on by Merseybeat to spot what was happening in their own back yard.

Chris Barber: Father of British R&B

Monday, November 1st, 2010

By 1963 everyone I knew had a TV. Two black-and-white channels: the one that was on and “the other side”. So when the Rolling Stones appeared on Thank Your Lucky Stars at teatime on Saturday 7th July, miming to their first single, ‘Come On’, I knew millions of teens would be watching the band I had seen at the Ricky Tick club in Windsor almost every Friday night for the last five months. I’d talked the Stones up weekly to my fellow sixth-formers, without persuading one to make the trip to Windsor with me, but I walked into school the following Monday, knowing my less hip peers would by now have had at least a three-minute monochrome glimpse of the best band around.

Anticipating approval of my excellent taste and congratulations on my foresight, what I got instead was a comprehensive thumbs-down, endorsed by sneers, some laughter, even a feeble impression, plus a new nickname – Mick – since, ignoramuses all, they had failed to identify Brian Jones as the model for my blond mop. Their response had me momentarily wondering, not for the last time in my life, whether an absolute belief that my band was heading for the big time was misplaced. No, I quickly concluded, I’m right, they’re wrong, and, what’s more, even if the Stones didn’t make it, I’d rather hear them wailing the blues in the back room of a pub, than too-eager-to-please Liverpudlians yeah-yeah-yeahing their winsome way to No 1.

In the bigger picture, the Stones’ TV debut was confirmation that R&B had become part of pop. Its emergence had been a long time coming, ten years in all – twice the lifespan of modern pop music – since the beginnings of a blues movement in Britain had huddled in the unlikely Trojan horse of traditional jazz. Through the early fifties, the traditional or Dixieland jazz movement, dedicated to the revival of New Orleans’ vernacular music, had been steadily gathering a momentum which, by the end of the decade, would generate a “trad boom”. In its vanguard was trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber.

It was in 1953, four years after he led his first amateur jazz band, that Barber formed the Ken Colyer Jazzmen with the eponymous trumpeter, lately returned – a reluctant, but revered deportee – from the fabled Crescent City itself. Colyer explained the band’s mission in the jazz-friendly music weekly, Melody Maker: “We are going to try to popularise New Orleans music without distorting it, aborting it, or slapping any gimmicks on it.” Having established a Monday night residency at Mack’s (later famous as the 100 Club, a basement at that address in London’s Oxford Street), in September they recorded New Orleans To London, an album which yielded traditional jazz’s first hint of a pop hit, ‘Isle Of Capri’. Although the band bore his name, Colyer grew increasingly disenchanted with its musical course, which, as he saw it, was being plotted solely by Barber, rather than by mutual agreement, and he quit in May 1954, after a final disagreement, remembered by Barber as “a blazing row”. Without him, the band became Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, its new name leaving no ambiguity as to its leader.

Unlike the more tunnel-visioned Colyer, Barber was eager to share with his band’s – and traditional jazz’s – escalating audience his singular conviction that the syncopated jazz born in New Orleans around the start of the century was not the only form of black American music worthy of their attention. There was another: dark, primitive, driven by raw emotion. The blues. Determined to disseminate what he saw as “the folk music of the American Negro” without jazzing up its unsophisticated instrumentation, Barber initiated within his band a stripped-down, skeletal trio to perform this rudimentary music more accurately than any arrangement for a Dixieland line-up would allow.

The trio, which took to the stage during the main band’s interval break, was recruited from existing personnel, and comprised vocalist Beryl Bryden mutely, but eye-catchingly, thrumming washboard percussion, with Barber himself on double bass, while the jazz band’s banjoist Tony Donegan played guitar and sang, the personable Glaswegian’s wholehearted commitment to the material going a long way to compensate for a pinched vocal tone that impeded a broad interpretation of the blues. As Barber acknowledged in our 1971 interview, “Lonnie loved the blues, but he could only sing it in a certain kind of way – he could get quite near to that particular nasal sound of Leadbelly’s.”

The unexpected popularity of the blues trio’s interval sets led to the inclusion of two of their favourites on the Barber band’s 1954 album, New Orleans Joys. Eventually paired as the A- and B-side of a single released late the following year, ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘John Henry’ showed up in the new year’s first Top Ten, where the record remained until the end of March, a three-month run that turned Donegan – by now calling himself Lonnie in homage to his blues idol, Lonnie Johnson – into a bona fide British pop star who would enjoy a prolific run of hits.

Donegan topped the UK charts three times, an impressive enough feat, yet two other statistics underline his pre-eminence. Between 1956 and 1962, the number of weeks in which Lonnie Donegan had a record in the charts was surpassed only by Elvis Presley, while his thirty hit singles outnumber even the totals attained by those pop colossi, the Beatles and Abba. And if Donegan was seduced by popstardom into recording ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Over Night)’ and ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’, red-nosed novelties that owed more to music hall than any ethnic tradition, he nevertheless continued to use his records and live performances as platforms to popularise blues, folk and country music.

Of course, the music Lonnie Donegan brought to the attention of British record buyers was not known as blues. His version, communicated like a musical Chinese whisper, emerged as skiffle, originally an American term applied to the jug bands and rent party combos of the 1920s and ’30s, especially those employing home-made or improvised instruments, such as cigar-box guitars, washboards, and blown bottles and jugs. Re-adopted in the UK in the 1950s, the name not only suppressed the music’s true identity, but encouraged disapproving adults, marooned on the wrong side of the recently mapped generation gap, to rhyme it with ‘piffle’.

Besides catapaulting Lonnie Donegan into the big time, ‘Rock Island Line’ opened the charts to Top Ten hits by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, the Vipers, and Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys. Nevertheless, this handful of hits and Donegan’s dozens notwithstanding, skiffle’s seismic impact was not on record sales.

What the success of ‘Rock Island Line’ did was to launch Britain’s first nationwide – north to south, coast to coast – pop craze. Skiffle was ideal everyman music, accessible to anyone with the will to have a go, since its essential instrumentation was as inexpensive as its chords and rhythms were uncomplicated. Adequate equipment to enable a group to perform at a local youth club – where many made their first (and, almost as many, their last) appearance – could be purchased for a few pounds, and didn’t even necessitate a visit to a music shop.

In the lingering austerity of a predominantly white goods-free post-war era, the washboard that skiffle substituted for a drum kit could be found in the ironmongery that was ever-present in British high streets, the same shop providing the broom-handle neck for the bass, whose sound box was a tea chest, still redolent with the aroma of Darjeeling or Assam, a dusty residue dancing in its corners as the string stretched tight to the top of the neck was slapped and plunked. Even a guitar could be bought cheaply by mail order from a ubiquitous newspaper ad, illustrated with a drawing of a check-shirted musician whose beaky features were a dead ringer for Lonnie Donegan.

The fad spread across the UK like an epidemic. In London, Soho’s streets bristled with skiffle clubs; in Liverpool, a teenage John Lennon, having bought – and, as soon as he’d learned the song, sold – a 78 of ‘Rock Island Line’, had his momentous meeting with Paul McCartney at a performance by the skiffling Quarrymen.

In the village where I lived, our fresh-faced, novice vicar startled visitors to the summer fete by fronting his own skiffle group on the back of a flat bed lorry, the skirt of his cassock swinging above his sandalled feet like a bent church bell. Doubtless he genuinely enjoyed the singing and strumming, but, still short-trousered, I was suspicious of the church’s wiles. Surely the follow-up offer of free guitar lessons came with a catch? Wasn’t the group for which he really wanted recruits his confirmation set? Jesus would have to go on wanting me for a sunbeam, my Sundays weren’t worth sacrificing for a few chords.

Skiffle’s runaway popularity was not what its unwitting instigators had intended, and prompted Chris Barber to adopt a different approach to his proselytising. Redoubling the irony, Barber’s jazz band could be fingered for the fanfare that announced the arrival of the trad boom, when their 1959 recording of Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’ – the bandleader’s trombone blamelessly absent from this showcase for his misanthropic clarinettist Monty Sunshine – became one of the year’s biggest hits. Skiffle’s success might have taken Barber by surprise, but he couldn’t fail to notice the looming trad boom. He watched the music’s popularity build year by year, month by month, gig by gig, and, with characteristic altruism, saw his band’s favoured status in this onrushing golden age as an unmissable opportunity to step up his blues crusade.

“From 1955 we had the trad boom to ourselves,” he told me. “We were filling halls everywhere, we had money to spare, we couldn’t get any more people in or charge any more money for the tickets, but we thought we ought to get people to understand that jazz was really this – and all that. There was more to it than what we were doing.” So, early in 1957, he offered his fans a first-hand taste of the blues by stumping up to take on tour as support for his band Big Bill Broonzy and Brother John Sellars. “It was the first British concert tour with blues artists, I think. Big Bill had been over before (he had, more than once, en route to or from Paris) and done a couple of club dates, but not a concert tour. There was no meeting with the British public, only with a few dedicated fans. We were doing so well that we were able to do what we wanted and have these people guest with us. Brother John was doing a kind of Joe Turner blues act, and they both went down marvellously with the audience. Big Bill did waffle a bit, according to how much whisky he’d drunk before he went on, so his ratio of talk to songs used to vary from concert to concert, but people didn’t object to it, they loved it.”

Later that same year Barber brought over Sister Rosetta Tharpe, then, in May 1958, the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – “unbelievable, marvellous tour, it was fantastic” – and, crucially, before the year’s end, Muddy Waters. Like Tharpe two years before, Waters offended finger-in-the-ear folk-blues doctrinists by plugging his guitar into an amplifier, but the Barber band’s less pedantic fans were open-minded. According to the band’s singer (and Barber’s wife) Ottilie Patterson, “Our fans were ready to take what was given, because it was our scene. The thing that made them accept the electric guitar was that it was played by a black person – ‘It must be all right, because they’re genuine, they’re the real thing’.”

What Waters was playing was rhythm and blues: not the acoustic country blues that had previously found favour with British jazz and folk revivalists, but the urbanised, electric mutation of post-war black America. Barber, unblinkered as ever, was hooked. “We were all pretty aware of Muddy’s records in the band, but we weren’t doing any of his numbers at the time. We were doing some numbers in the style – almost – but, of course, not being electric, you wouldn’t notice it particularly. But after Muddy did the tour in ’58, we were obviously more keen on his thing.”

Waters had come to Britain with only his pianist Otis Spann, but just weeks later Barber and his band undertook their first American tour, which provided the opportunity to experience the real Muddy Waters on his home turf in Chicago, supported by his own band – for Barber “an unbelievable experience. One of the most enjoyable things ever was to see Muddy performing ‘I’m A Man’ to a black audience – those screams you hear on a live recording, they were all laughing. It was a rave for a black audience.” The night was a memorable one too for Ottilie Patterson, once Waters had managed to coax her onstage. “I was shit-scared,” she admitted. “Here I was, white, English, in a black blues club in Chicago singing, ‘I wonder why that southbound train don’t run.’ How were they going to take that? Luckily they recognised it for what it was.” She and Barber fell so deeply under Waters’ spell that not only did Patterson become the first British singer to regularly perform his ‘(I’ve Got My) Mojo Working’, making it the earliest anthem of the British blues boom, but, six years after kick-starting skiffle, Barber assembled a second offshoot of his band with the aim that every Waters number they performed would approximate the sound of the amplified original that had knocked them out at Smitty’s Corner in Chicago.

“We were playing these numbers of Muddy’s for a year or two,” he explained, “and I thought we really ought to do it the proper way. None of the jazz band’s instruments had a resonant tone. The sound goes on as long as you blow, and then it stops. So we thought, ‘Electric guitar – we’ll give it a go.’ I had known Alexis Korner for years – he was in my first band, ten years before – and we heard he was doing electric blues in England, so someone said, ‘Let’s get together,’ because it seemed we’d get more of a sound.” But the association with Korner and his chalk-and-cheese partner Cyril Davies proved to be problematic from the start and, despite his audience’s delirious response to the R&B repertoire, Barber dropped the duo, just as he had earlier abandoned the skiffle group. Although he continued to include blues numbers in his band’s repertoire and to bring American bluesmen to Britain, notably James Cotton in 1961, his immeasurable contribution to the development of British R&B ceased with that split.

Trad was by then a nationwide fad, but while a caravan of costumed charlatans peddled their vacuous novelties like placebos to a gullible public, Barber stayed true to the spirit of New Orleans and Chicago. So it was an unpalatable irony that when, in 1964, he updated his band’s instrumentation – electric for stand-up double bass, electric guitar for banjo – and returned to R&B, he was branded an opportunist.

“When our difficulties began,” Ottilie Patterson reflected a few years later, “when R&B came up and traditional jazz went down, I remember Chris saying that the blues fans we had brought into the concerts were the ones who were now the nucleus of British R&B fans.” Barber affirmed, “If we hadn’t brought those singers in, because we liked that music and thought other people ought to appreciate it as well, blues would not have been brought into their consciousness.”

Candidates for the paternity of British blues are few, and the line-up for a DNA test does not include John Mayall. Not to belittle his achievement in making membership of his Bluesbreakers an apprenticeship programme whose graduates form their own blues Who’s Who, but Mayall didn’t move south from Manchester until 1963, too late for fatherhood or midwifery. Cyril Davies, dead by 1964, inspired harmonica players specifically. Because the lineage from skiffle to R&B is direct – it is a lot quicker to count the musicians who didn’t start in skiffle than those who did – Lonnie Donegan belongs on the short-list. Which leaves Chris Barber and Alexis Korner.

Recounting the story of British R&B to a 24-year-old would-be chronicler in November 1971, Korner held my eye to add weight to his words as he said, “I must point out that one of the people most directly responsible for the R&B boom was Chris Barber, who must have known perfectly well what he was doing. He was cutting his own throat, and he did it quite deliberately.” Korner, who made no claim for himself, knew who the real father was.

Cyril Davies and the Rolling Stones

Monday, November 1st, 2010

The first time I hear Cyril Davies blow his harmonica is January 1963 at Leo’s Jazz Club in Windsor. As I approach, shoulders hunched against the cold, I watch billows of cigarette smoke, lit pink and yellow by the lights inside, spill from an open door, before the thin, chill evening air is split by an inhuman scream, a siren wail that rises a tone, then subsides. The sound nails me momentarily to the pavement, then propels me to the entrance of an unprepossessing British Legion Hall, which by day is a hang-out for pensioners who have served time, as most have, in the armed forces. At a folding table by the door I fumble distractedly in my pocket for the four shilling (20p) entry fee, entirely absorbed by the source of this extraordinary sound: a balding, badly-dressed man, who looks middle-aged to my teenage eyes.

I struggle to relate the sound I hear to what I can see. Davies’s hands are cupped in front of his mouth, a cable trailing from his fingers, but his instrument is invisible, apart from a glinting sliver revealed whenever he parts his hands, a movement matched by a modulation in the sound.

Unseen it might be, but what I’m listening to is as powerful and evocative an instrumental voice as Little Richard’s piano, Buddy Holly’s guitar or Ray Charles flat-top Wurlitzer soloing the opening bars of ‘What’d I Say?’. Davies can make this thing he had hidden in his hands cry, shout, and howl so my hair stands on end. And there is no room for doubt, these sounds can only be coming from him, because the other instruments on stage are drums, bass, guitar and piano, and I know the sounds they make. So does my companion – a jazz fan, hence our visit to Leo’s Jazz Club – who is soon hissing from the side of his mouth that what the R&B All-Stars are playing is little different from rock’n’roll, an opinion to which I am able to nod urgent agreement, without letting on that this is not the least of the reasons that I love it. I don’t want to piss him off. He’s the one with the driving licence and his mother’s car.

As the set progresses, a beanpole singer with a blond fringe and a teasing smile takes his turn at the microphone, but his singing is too smooth, too jazzy for my taste. Meanwhile, a black female vocal trio attempt an approximation of the Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backing singers, whose visceral harmonies I know from my live Ray Charles At Newport album. Indeed Davies and the Velvettes recreate Charles’ ‘(Night Time Is) The Right Time’, though without the sex-fuelled fire of Marjorie Hendricks, and, anyway, all I have ears – and open-mouthed wonder – for are Cyril Davies and his harmonica.

The wail of Cyril Davies’s harmonica tears straight to the centre of my heart, and the next day, a Saturday, I catch a bus into town and find a Hohner Marine Band harmonica in the music shop. On the way home I slip it from its snug blue box to study its simple features: twelve holes to be sucked or blown, each of them numbered – pointlessly, it seems to me, since the numbers are lost from sight even before the instrument is pressed to one’s lips. On the face of it, there is even less here to master than on a recorder, and yet the repertoire of sounds conjured from it by Davies is infinitely more expansive. This comparison triggers a suspicion that learning to play like him isn’t going to be easy.

In my bedroom I cup the harmonica the way I saw Davies do last night. I try some experimental sucks and blows, enough to teach me that the blow is only a tuneful means of emptying my lungs before switching to the suck that creates the more evocative notes. Remarkably, the modulated suck that ‘bends’ the notes a semi-tone comes to me quickly, and by lunchtime I am able to ape Davies’ wail at different points on the scale, but I have no records from which I can learn melodic sequences and none that I heard him play have stayed in my head. I know I have to see Davies and his R&B All-Stars again.

Fortunately, in spite of his aversion to amplified ‘beat music’, my Leo’s companion has taken a pointless shine to one of the Velvettes who, he has convinced himself, was giving him the come-on. I don’t openly question why he imagines a statuesque African professional singer should have been eyeing up a grammar school sixth-former, barely out of short-back-and-sides, but gratefully accept his invitation to revisit the club the following Friday.

Although Cyril Davies thrills me as before, Baldry’s unctuous vocalising is even less to my taste, while the Velvettes’ strident harmonies grate on my ears. During the week I have listened to Ray Charles At Newport, cementing my opinion that these three are no match for the Raelettes. As the All-Stars step off stage for the interval break, Davies waiting for no one as he hustles to the bar, my companion, blaming the smoky atmosphere, but perhaps also seizing the chance to play hard-to-get, insists that we should stretch our legs and clear our lungs.

Minutes from the British Legion Hall, in a narrow street that sides the Star & Garter Hotel, I stop, astonished, at the sound of more upbeat blues and another harmonica. I search for the sound with my eyes and see dancers silhouetted in the open windows of an upstairs room attached to the back of what is plainly more pub than hotel. On either side of the doorway that leads upstairs, black posters with white lettering announce The Ricky Tick Club and The Rolling Stones Every Friday 5/-. Judging by those cooling off outside, the Ricky Tick crowd is younger and hipper, and the girls prettier, than at Leo’s. There are studenty types and some snappy dressers. While I move involuntarily, and, I hope, inconspicuously, to a spirited version of Benny Spellman’s ‘Fortune Teller’, the rhythm driven by maracas, my eyes lock with the wide-eyed gaze of a girl wearing black ski pants, whose dark hair is cropped as short as Jean Seberg’s in A Bout De Souffle, but, as if struck by a thought, she looks away, grinds her cigarette under her heel, and disappears inside.

Hands, as always, in my pockets, I weigh the two half crowns my mother has given me as petrol money for my driver, who has halted a few yards further on and is giving me the hurry-up sign with a finger on his watch face. I shout, ‘I’ll see you at the car at ten thirty,’ and duck into the doorway.

Once I’ve seen the Rolling Stones at the Ricky Tick, there is no going back to Leo’s. The Stones are what I’ve been looking for without expecting to find: a young white English group playing black American music. And they really have mastered the idiom. They won’t become famous because they wear their hair like girls or urinate on a garage forecourt or get busted for drugs, but because they are white boys who play black music better than anybody has before.

The group’s residency at the Ricky Tick lasts six months, from January to July 1963, but more than forty years later I can revisit those Friday nights at will: I can see the upstairs room with the bar against one wall, a small, barely raised stage in the opposite corner, and, incongruously, fishing nets hung from the ceiling; I can hear the crowd singing along with the Stones’ closing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, answering Mick’s circling wave of a hand; I can feel the floor move under my feet as I dance with my Jean Seberg lookalike, the bouncing boards and rafters loosing plaster from the ceiling below onto the roof of the Stones’ parked van, inside which Ian Stewart is trying to grab some sleep before driving the band back to their West London flat.