Cyril Davies and the Rolling Stones

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.