Blues Incorporated and the Rolling Stones

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.

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