Blues Incorporated

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.

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