Alexis Korner

TrackAlbum / EP
Rotten BreakBlues From The Roundhouse
Kid ManBlues From The Roundhouse Vol.1 (EP)
I Got My Mojo WorkingR&B From The Marquee
Gotta MoveR&B From The Marquee
Rain Is Such A Lonesome SoundR&B From The Marquee
Blue MinkAlexis Korner's Blues Incorporated
Woke Up This MorningRed Hot From Alex
Stormy MondayRed Hot From Alex
Long Black TrainSky High
LouiseSky High

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Alexis Korner photo

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

Alexis Korner was no great shakes as a singer and he wasn’t the world’s greatest guitarist but he was massively influential. Without him the first British Blues boom wouldn’t have got off the ground when it did.

In 1962, along with friend and previous musical collaborator, Cyril Davies, he formed a band which he called Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, sometimes shortened to Blues Incorporated or just Blues Inc. Membership of the band was casual to the extent that it could change by the hour.

Over the next few years that “membership” included, either on a semi-permanent basis or merely “come up and have a go”, Mick, Keith, Brian and Charlie from the Stones, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Graham Bond, Long John Baldry, Danny Thompson (Pentangle etc., etc.), Dick Heckstall-Smith (Colosseum and much more), Paul Jones from the Manfreds, Art Wood, John Mayall, Zoot Money, Duffy Power, Herbie Goins (of the Night-Timers), Rod “The Mod” Stewart, and the Eric’s, Clapton and Burdon.

In June 1962, Blues Incorporated spent a day in the London studios of Decca and, within that time, recorded the LP, R&B From The Marquee. It was released in November that year. To say it was seminal would be an understatement. In a stroke, the album dragged British blues out of the domain of finger-picking folkies and/or let’s-give-it-a-bit-of-wellie while the trad band’s on a pee break types, into the modern era, or something approximating to what was going on in the black ghettoes of Chicago, Memphis and places beyond.

“Blues Incorporated was a nursery for the first generation of British blues and R&B artists. They were also important role models.” (From “How Britain Got the Blues: The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom” by Roberta Freund Schwartz)

But it didn’t all happen overnight.

Alexis Andrew Nicholas Koerner was born in Paris on 19 April 1928 to an Austrian Jewish father and a Greek mother. That lineage was echoed in his appearance which had touches of exoticism accentuated by longish hair which he affected before it became the fashionable thing to do. Add in his habit of chain smoking cigarettes hand rolled from gauloise tobacco plus a healthy disregard for social conventions, and you had the instant bohemian with all the charm that often went along with such figures. In his excellent sleeve notes to the 2006 compilation Kornerstoned – The Anthology 1955-1983, Neil Slaven wrote “If he hadn’t become a musician, you just know he would’ve been an eccentric of another kind.”

His parents fled France in 1940 in one of the last refugee ships before France fell to Germany – a fact that would crop up in many a Korner reminiscence – and settled down in North Ealing, London. Almost every biography I’ve seen of Alexis then goes on to say that our young hero came across (or stole) a 78 of Jimmy Yancey’s Slow And Easy Blues in Shepherds Bush market (and some talk about him listening to it during a German air raid). Alexis had had piano lessons but until discovering Yancey and boogie woogie hadn’t found much use for them. The accounts go on to talk about the day his father discovered him playing boogie on the home piano, resulting in an eruption of rage, a slamming down of the piano lid, and a locking of the piano. “Papa don’t allow no boogie woogie here”. The charm of the illicit, of course, only served to enhance his son’s love for that down ‘n’ dirty boogie stuff. I’d imagine that Alexis would have told that story many times regardless of whether there was any truth in it.

He was called up for his National Service in 1947, a period largely spent in Hamburg where he found a sympathetic role looking after the British Forces Network record library. He also started learning and playing guitar in this timeframe. He saw a Leadbelly concert in Paris which undoubtedly had a considerable affect on the young man who was busy soaking up influences from all over the place.

On his return to civvie life, he was lucky enough (or was good enough) to blag his way in to the role vacated by banjo player Tony Donegan in the Chris Barber Band when Donegan got his call up for National Service in 1949. Alexis was subsequently modest about his experience with Barber, stating that nobody could actually hear him. Chris was open to music beyond that long arm of New Orleans stuff that we call British Traditional Jazz, and, convinced that the lad had some talent, gave him an interval slot wherein he played solo blues from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red.

He moved on to start playing with Ken Colyer’s Skiffle Group and his first appearance on record came in a session held in 1954, the results from which got included in a 10 inch LP entitled Back To The Delta. This is Midnight Special from that session and album. Colyer is on vocal, Korner on mandolin.

It’s worth noting that the CD sleeve shown in the clip belongs to the double album Easy Rider from Not Now Music which just happens to be the best (and best value) compilation I’ve seen of early Alexis music. It also contains a wealth of Cyril Davies goodies from the same period.

That same album contains one of the earliest Korner vocals to be captured on record. The session date was 13 February 1957. The track was entitled Rotten Break and it consisted of Alexis solo, accompanying himself on guitar. (Indeed it’s one of those folk blues things I was disparaging about a few paragraphs back.) The composer was listed as “Taylor” who turned out to be Montana – real name, Arthur – Taylor, who recorded the song for the US Circle label in 1946. Information courtesy of Cal (of course). The highly obscure – to me anyway – Mr Taylor was a highly regarded boogie pianist and vocalist so could well have been a gent who was in the Korner record collection.

Came home last night, babe, found another man’s hat hanging on my door

The mood is intimate and weary. Korner’s voice is, I would guess, at this juncture, relatively natural. He hadn’t picked up some of those mannerisms that would appear in the Blues Inc. days and, for me, it’s all the better for it. There’s a riff threading its way through the track, a feature that would appear with some frequency in later recordings, particularly instrumentals.

I’ve jumped slightly ahead of myself. The next step of note in the Korner career was the one he took through the doorway of The London Skiffle Centre/Club which was in an upstairs room of the Round House pub in Wardour Street, Soho, run by Cyril Davies. Well that might not be literally how it happened but it was something along those lines. They were kindred souls. Both lovers of Leadbelly and blues in general (though with Alexis that love was already starting to extend well beyond blues as you or I might know it). Though I wouldn’t go so far as call them the Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee of Soho, there was at least a little in that comparison, with Cyril having started on banjo, then moving to guitar but making the switch to harmonica before he met Alexis.

The first commercial single to be released by Alexis (under the guise of the Alexis Korner Skiffle Group), was I Ain’t Gonna Worry No More c/w County Jail. The tracks were recorded in July 1957 but not released until May ’58 (on the Tempo label). Some idea of the amateur status of the support players to Alexis and Cyril, can be gleaned from the fact that Mike Collins, the washboard player was a civil servant and, apparently, an expert linguist, while Chris Capon on bass was only 17 years old. On the flip they were joined by Dave Stevens on piano who was a chartered accountant. These gentlemen were strictly non-professional, playing the music they loved in the evening and on weekends. That was very much the nature of skiffle, and the A-side, with its acoustic strumming, typified the genre. The flip, on which Cyril’s mouth harp featured more strongly, was more in the blues vein, but both illustrated the variety to be found under the skiffle heading.

Kid Man, from the same July session in ’57 was marginally closer to a Blues Inc. sound in that it was a group recording with Cyril Davies making his presence felt on harmonica and Dave Stevens (no relation) providing some fine boogie piano – check out the break. The source was a Big Maceo record from 1945. Alexis and co. were a tad more frantic but the ensemble worked well together and the result was among the best of the early outings.

A brief interrupt on the subject of real life. Sometime in the fifties, Alexis joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager. This music stuff wasn’t keeping the wolf from the door and he had a growing family to support. I’d hazard a guess that it was this that gave him a start into media, working on both the BBC and ITV regularly from the early sixties onwards, in roles as varied as show business interviewing, presenting his own show Jazz Session, and hosting and playing as musical director for ITV’s Five O’Clock Club children’s show. I’m sure many people remember Alexis Korner’s Blues And Soul Show that ran on BBC Radio 1 from January 1977. It was essential listening. The hour long show moved to a Sunday slot in 1978 and ran until 1982. It helped turn on a whole new generation to both R&B and blues music.

In the late fifties and very early sixties, Alexis and Cyril drifted apart. Alexis provided guitar support on sessions for visiting American blues men (who often stayed in the Korner household) and worked with folk artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Davey (or Davy as was) Graham. Alexis appeared on Davey’s first release, a three track EP entitled 3/4 AD which contained the famous Graham solo, Anji. It also contained the title track on which both guitarists played. Although it was credited to the pair, in reality this was a reworking of the number All Blues from Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind Of Blue. (Though Korner and Graham weren’t the only people to be captivated by that track – see Footnotes).

In 1961, sensing a growing interest in blues and particularly blues of an electric variety (with a key trigger being the 1960 Muddy Waters tour), Chris Barber invited Alexis back into the fold. He supported Ottilie Patterson on amplified guitar during interval sets at the Marquee. It was a step perhaps, but a very small one and Alexis wanted more. At a meeting in December with Barber plus his manager Harold Pendleton, who was also a part owner of the Marquee, he persuaded them to give him more rein. It was agreed that Alexis should have full artistic control of the interval ‘blues set’.

This brings us up to 1962, which might have been the peak year for Blues Incorporated (while the following year was a big one for those bands and artists who’d been incubating in the Blues Inc. hot house and had emerged, blinking, into day light).

The first of the ‘new’ blues sets took place at the start of 3 January 1962. Jazz News And Review magazine reported in the following manner:

“The Marquee last Wednesday night was the scene of great excitement when guitarist Alexis Korner combined with Barber-band trumpeter Pat Halcox and harmonica player Cyril Davies to play a set of rhythm and blues numbers. Following the success of the session, Korner will make regular appearances at the Marquee.”

Although the band name “Blues Incorporated” wasn’t yet officially in use, the concept was already forming in the Korner head of a band that could play any kind of blues, without any boundaries and with a loose membership comprising whoever happened to be available for the gig and was deemed “right”. Revolutionary perhaps but things were starting to come together. “Press mentions of the band’s line-up(s), especially in those early days were always, understandably, behind the times; bassists, drummers, etc. would drift in and out of the band with regular frequency depending on chemistry and availability.” (Source: Cyril Davies website)

On the 17 January, Alexis and Cyril plus piano, bass and drums, using the name Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated entered the Olympic Studios, London and recorded She Fooled Me with Alexis on vocal. At the time it didn’t see release but has subsequently been added as a bonus track on several CDs featuring Blues Inc.

Due to the no electricity ruling in most of the folk and jazz clubs in London, Alexis and Cyril decided to open a club of their own. In part this was because they were starting to encroach on the Barber band’s time due to their popularity at the Marquee. Via Art Wood, someone who sang with them occasionally (and went on to form his own band, the Artwoods), they found a home in the basement of a small pub in West London which was sometimes used for trad jazz. From the 17 March ’62, it called itself The Ealing Blues Club featuring a band that had started using the name, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. I should add that it now has its own blue plaque to honour its place in British history. (As an aside I would also observe that British Electric Blues could be said to have started on St Patrick’s Day, 1962).

On 11 April, Blues Incorporated (in their own name) were back in the Marquee as the intermission band. Their twenty minute slots started getting longer and longer and, within a month, they were given a full slot on Thursday night each week. The Marquee’s own newsletter, Jazz Today, made the following comment on 10 May:

“We come to a new sound. At least it is on the British Scene, and with the same hard work and occasional lucky breaks as Traditional Jazz, it could build to the same proportions. It is Rhythm and Blues, the type of R and B that you may know from the exciting Muddy Waters records. Since the late summer of last year, Alexis Korner has been sitting in with Chris, Ottilie and the Band on Wednesday or Friday sessions. So for three or four numbers an evening, a real R&B sound has been produced and, with the recent addition of Cyril Davies (harmonica), the sound has created an enormous response.”

Love the phrase, “it could build to the same proportions” (as traditional jazz).

On 8 June, Blues Incorporated recorded R&B From The Marquee. It was produced by Jack Good. The LP didn’t see release until November when it came out on Decca’s Ace Of Clubs subsidiary.

Perhaps I should have said “the then version of Blues Incorporated” given the fluid nature of the band. That version included Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor sax who was to get poached by Graham Bond (another Blues Inc. man) but not until he’d featured on three albums, and the six foot seven inches of Long John Baldry, second vocalist. But the X Factor that made this album differ from any other that had been released with the words ‘British’ and ‘Blues’ on the sleeve was Cyril Davies, a most unlikely star. Cyril was a panel beater from Denham, who Maureen Cleaves in the Evening News described thus: “Davies has a wonderfully mobile and ugly face – a sort of Donald Pleasance in one of his pathological roles. He is valuable property – lots of people want to have rhythm and blues bands but they all lack good amplified mouth organists.”

Davies seemed to have swallowed Muddy Waters At Newport 1960 whole and regurgitated it all over the floor in that West Hampstead studio. He had captured some of the spirit that was on the stage for that historic appearance by Waters and his band at the Newport Jazz Festival and instilled it in his Blues Incorporated colleagues. Of the four numbers performed by Cyril and Blues Inc. from the Muddy Newport album, not one was a mere copy. At the same time, none of these versions lost the integrity of the lyrics – mainly from Willie Dixon – or the energy and honesty of the performances. I included three of the four tracks in the Cyril Davies Toppermost but held back I Got My Mojo Working for this one. Alexis gets the show rolling on this little baby with a stark and impatient sounding riff that doesn’t even appear on the original, and then it’s Cyril’s harmonica and the rhythm section and we’re off on the familiar story of the charm that “just don’t work on you”. Familiar, yes, but this was the first time that those of us old enough to remember actually heard this song. If I pick up a guitar now and “Mojo” comes to mind, it’s that riff from Alexis that I start playing.

The rest of the album wasn’t filler. Four instrumental blues – three of which had the name Korner against them – were an indication that Alexis had a significant interest in non-vocal music. A couple of the tracks – Finkle’s Café and Downtown – wouldn’t have been terribly out of place on a (mainstream?) jazz album though Cyril’s mouth harp added extra edge. I’ve selected the album opener, Gotta Move, which has a much stronger sense of urgency than the others. It’s little more than one of the most common riffs in blues or R&B played, for much of the time here, by multiple instruments. This one could almost have come from Chicago. Certainly it makes a good starter for the set.

To be representative to R&B From The Marquee, I felt I should include one of the three vocals from Long John Baldry (and I’m not doing it just out of duty). Long John, though still young, was a fixture in the folk blues scene in Soho and elsewhere in the late fifties. He performed regularly at the Blues And Barrelhouse Club run by Alexis and Cyril so there was some inevitability about him appearing with Blues Incorporated. All three of his cuts – one was self penned – hark back to either folk blues or jazz blues of a forties or early fifties vintage. I’ve selected Rain Is Such A Lonesome Sound. The original was a relatively little known slow (and mellow) blues from Jimmy Witherspoon. It was recorded with Jay McShann and his band in December 1957 and came out on the album Goin’ To Kansas City Blues in 1958. This is Jimmy’s version. The Baldry/Blues Incorporated take ups the speed a tad and imparts much more drive to the number. Long John, at this stage in his career, was very prone to vocal mannerisms (which can have a marmite effect on listeners) and that’s the first thing that hits you about the track. Secondly, you spot that riff that Alexis had found and planted fairly and squarely in the arrangement. And thirdly, there was Cyril. He seemed to be everywhere on this album.

Which made it quite a blow when the man left in October ’62. He cited musical differences. Alexis was ambitious to explore blues in a wider domain than Chicago and one of his plans was to extend the jazzier aspects of the band including beefing up the sax section. To Cyril, horns were anathema. While he was a drinking buddy of Heckstall-Smith, he didn’t like the man’s sax appearing on his tracks. He departed and formed the Rhythm & Blues All Stars (see the Cyril Davies Toppermost).

The next three Blues Inc. albums – Alexis was very much an album man before this became the vogue – were issued out of recording order so don’t give a feel for what happened when. I’ve chosen to review them in order of recording not release.

The rather unoriginally titled Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated was recorded in May 1963 but didn’t see release until June 1965. Was this because the content wasn’t what Decca expected, one wonders. Not one, not two, but all the tracks were instrumental and could be classified as jazz albeit with a blues basing. Some were experimental, others more traditional (and I don’t mean that in a New Orleans sense). All the tracks on side 1 and three of the tracks on side 2 were credited to “Korner”, so he’d been rather busy. In terms of the band, only Heckstall-Smith and Alexis himself remained from the R&B From The Marquee outfit. The “beefing up” had happened and that was via the addition of alto and tenor sax player (and surgeon), Art Themen who would later appear in Long John’s Hoochie Coochie Men. On drums was Phil Seamen, a gent who’s been long recognised as Britain’s finest jazz drummer of the post war period, indeed one of our finest jazz musicians ever. Ginger Baker was one of his biggest fans (and something of a look-alike). I don’t believe that Alexis ever took this version of the band on the road so the whole thing was something of a one-off studio exercise (though actually recorded across three separate sessions) but an interesting one nevertheless.

Once again I’ve gone for an opener, Blue Mink, and once again, it’s a good tone setter for the album. It’s one of the more complex arrangements and there’s an abundance of inspired playing from the participants. Charles Fox writes in the sleeve notes: “… yet the piece builds like a pyramid. There are five choruses in all, the first and last being ten bars long. The one right in the middle – Chorus No. 3, in other words – lasts for twelve bars and has the two tenor saxists weaving round one another, using different root lines. On either side – Choruses 2 and 4 – are eleven bar sequences. The final seven bars of the former (yes you really do need pencil and paper) are played by Dick Heckstall-Smith, while Art Themen pops up in the corresponding passage of the latter.” That should be enough to whet anyone’s appetite …

I wonder if the late Frank Zappa ever heard that one. I think he would have enjoyed it.

It’s followed by Rainy Tuesday (think Stormy Monday sequel) which is a straight slow twelve bar blues featuring that rare thing, an electric guitar solo from Alexis and perfectly fine it is too. The track also happens to have a singularly pleasing turnaround played by the saxes in unison. Possibly the most unusual number is Preachin’ The Blues which Korner attributes to Robert Johnson (though the original is actually Preachin’ Blues) arranged by himself. And that arrangement is unconventional to say the least: Seamen on tom toms, Alexis on bouzouki using a door key as a slide, and the two sax blowers playing lines a quarter tone apart. The Master Magicians of Joujouka play de bloos in between the plate cracking at your local Greek restaurant, or one of the first examples spotted of world music fusion – two terms which, as far as I know, hadn’t been invented yet.

Was the album Korner’s folly, as the bluenatics (which is what Neil Slaven calls them) would have it, or something more? I’m inclined to the latter view. I own the original LP and revisiting it after ignoring it for decades has been a pleasure. If the release of this album had been delayed another two or three years when Blood, Sweat and Tears had demonstrated that there was a following for bands with horn sections, and Kaleidoscope (the US version) had shown that instruments from foreign climes could sound fascinating, the set might have gained a cult following at the very least.

The next album (in recording sequence) was At The Cavern, or if you want the ponderous version, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated At The Cavern, and unlike R&B From The Marquee it was genuinely live from the Cavern Club in Liverpool, home of the Beatles, from a session in February 1964. The band had changed again. Completely. Of the new guys, Herbie Goins, the new American black vocalist was possibly the most interesting. He’d spent his service stint in Germany and then travelled to the UK working with the Eric Delaney Band. He then switched to work for Chris Barber which is how Alexis came across him.

I should add that Herbie wasn’t the first black singer to front Blues Incorporated. Ronnie Jones who came to Europe with the United States Air Force also filled that role but unfortunately never got captured on studio album. There’s a track that Jones appears on though (which didn’t see release at the time but now crops up as a bonus track), Night Time Is The Right Time . The track was recorded at a session for the BBC in 1962 and can now be found in a compilation of such material entitled BBC Radio Sessions.

Herbie’s reading of Everyday I Have The Blues is, for me, the high point of At The Cavern. It’s based more on the Joe Williams/Count Basie version of the song than the B.B. King one with which the reader is likely to be aware. While B.B. also made use of that version, Williams was a more playful singer and Herbie evidently enjoyed the jazz styling. You’ll have to search this one out on Spotify; it’s not on YouTube (though the album containing it is there, and this performance appears eight minutes in). And I would add, that it very nearly made the list.

He only had two other (perfectly reasonable) numbers in the set while Alexis got a massive four in total. Which was a mistake. The Alexis voice suffered in comparison to the smooth delivery of Mr Goins. He sounded forced and shouty whereas Herbie was a natural.

Overall, I’d rate this set as the least interesting of the Blues Inc. albums but it had its moments.

Red Hot From Alex, a pun on the 1958 film Ice Cold In Alex plus the Korner forename, was recorded within a month of At The Cavern but was released before it. Amazingly, there seemed to have been almost a complete clear out of musicians; only Goins remained, but Heckstall-Smith and Themen had reappeared. Stylistically, it managed to pick up on some of the better bits of both Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and At The Cavern – the Goins’ vocal tracks – but didn’t do so in an integrated manner. Only the instrumental Herbie’s Tune, (in its third appearance; it was an alias for the song Royal Dooji) could be said to bridge the gap. Split personality, yes, but I shouldn’t cavil; this was the best Blues Inc. outing outside of that great debut.

Once again there was a brilliant opener, a version of B.B.’s Woke Up This Morning, dating back to the latter’s RPM/Modern days. I have to confess that, while aware of the name, I wasn’t really into the great Mr King at the time. This cut converted me overnight but there’s still a special place in my heart for the supremely drilled horns and rhythm section (which included Danny Thompson on string bass) of the Blues Incorporated version, and Herbie didn’t do a bad job either. There’s no way you’d have thought this was in effect, merely a pick-up band.

If you were to identify Herbie Goins with a preference for an updated styling of Joe Williams/Count Basie blues then B.B. King was a good and more up-to-date fit along those lines, as was one of Herbie’s other two vocal tracks in the set, Stormy Monday, originally from T-Bone Walker but given added lustre by Bobby Bland and his arranger Joe Scott. While Alexis and co. show awareness of the classic versions of the song and its build up to “the eagle flies on Friday and Saturday I go out to play”, they don’t stoop to pure copying (a phrase I’ve used before); the arrangement is wholly theirs and it contains a superb rolling effect in the last verse which I’ve heard in no other version. This was the second time I’d come across the number. I already owned the Little Joe Cook/Chris Farlowe single but the Blues Inc. version managed to make the working week and its climax more dramatic and, yes, entertaining. I did discover the Walker and Bland original and version respectively within a year or so, but they certainly didn’t eclipse Herbie and Blues Inc.

There were no Korner vocals this time around, just instrumentals and not all Korner authored. The covers ran the gamut from one of the better known Jimmy Smith organ/sax groovers, Back At The Chicken Shack, to the relatively complex Haitian Fight Song from Charles Mingus. The latter gentleman was an Alexis favourite. In the sleeve notes to Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Charles Fox quoted Alexis as saying, in regard to Blue Mink, that it was “really a country blues but dedicated to Monk and Mingus”. While the boys’ Haitian Fight Song lacked some of the brio and sheer virtuosity of the Mingus original it was a valiant attempt and very listenable.

There was to be one more Blues Incorporated album, Sky High, recorded in sessions between April and June 1965 and released in April ’66. The band changes were almost wholesale again but Thompson stayed while there was a new vocalist in Duffy Power who had started out his musical career in the stable of rock stars and would-be stars run, in the second half of the fifties, by Larry Parnes. Others in Parnes stable included Billy Fury and Georgie Fame. Power was no mean player of the harmonica giving Korner the opportunity to evoke those early Cyril Davies days (and nights, since it was not unusual for Blues Inc. to play the Flamingo all-nighter sessions).

That memory tugger came as early as track #1 which saw Power railing against a Long Black Train which took his baby away – perhaps someone should have told him that’s what long black trains do in the world of the blues – but it gave him the opportunity to give us lots of great train noises on that mouth harp. Meanwhile Alexis was in an echo chamber sounding like distant thunder. Yet again our man had pulled out all the stops and given us a great opener, providing not just hints of Cyril but also echoes of early Yardbirds and Kinks.

The two principals also combined beautifully on the slow acoustic blues Louise which featured the pair and no one else. Folk blues even. The sort of thing that should have been blown away but not if it was performed as well as this.

Alexis had reverted to the two vocalists approach for this set with himself at the mike for five numbers. Not necessarily a good idea but one track that worked very well was his version of Percy Mayfield’s River’s Invitation; the mannerisms when delivered at a level not much above a whisper were a good way to interpret Percy’s lyrics and were reminiscent of Percy’s own unique vocal approach. Couple that with a horn arrangement – lifted from the original but why change something good – which managed to sound a tad like one of Alexis’ own jazzy blues. This was another candidate for selection which just got squeezed out.

There were slightly less instrumentals this time. The highlight was another Mingus cover, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, but there were also three unexpected guitar solos from Alexis presented almost as bonus tracks.

I’m going to stop there.

I’m ignoring the two singles made by Blues Incorporated (see Footnotes for something on them).

More importantly, I’m ignoring the rest of Alexis’ career and life. He died of lung cancer aged 55, on the 1st of January, 1984.

Which means I’m ignoring:

* That track he made, which didn’t see release at the time, with an as yet undiscovered Robert Plant entitled Steal Away.

* The BBC session in ’67 which saw Alexis playing slide guitar behind Hendrix.

* The band that he (along with Peter Thorup) formed in Scandinavia called New Church which was one of the support bands for the Stones in the Park – Hyde Park that is – on 5 July 1969.

* The big band put together by Thorup and Korner in 1970 under the incredibly lengthy name of The Collective Consciousness Society – CCS to you and me – which actually had hit singles with such things as their version of Whole Lotta Love, and Tap Turns On The Water. They may not have been my cup of tea but those records gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.

* Another group he formed with Thorup plus ex members of King Crimson called Snape. The name stood for Something Nasty ˈAppens Practically Every day.

* His success in Germany in the seventies where he recorded albums which didn’t see release in the UK at the time. Such albums included one recorded totally solo and one take only.

* His many, many collaborations with the famous, including Eric Clapton, Jon Surman, Chris Farlowe and loads more, plus the not so famous including friends Colin Hodgkinson and Bob Hall.

* His final group, or actually supergroup, Rocket 88, whose members included Ian Stewart (the sixth Stone), Jack Bruce and Charlie Watts. They made one self-titled album on a tour of Europe in 1981. AllMusic said it was “the best record Korner had made since 1962”. Here’s the title track.

 

I opened the Cyril Davies Toppermost by referring to Alexis as the Godfather or Founding Father of British Blues, and Cyril Davies as the Architect. If I could pursue that analogy of architect a little further: while Cyril provided eager British youths with a structure/model in the shape of an entry point to Chess electric blues, Alexis was the developer cum builder who made it all happen. And he didn’t restrict himself to the Davies model, he built homes that used many different stylistic approaches using components that the rule book (of established opinion) said you shouldn’t put together, on ground that wasn’t always seen as ripe for building. Not everyone followed him into some of these homes. Pianist Johnny Parker from the Marquee days reports something of a drop off in the audience after Davies left and the style of the music changed (Source: Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s , issue 146, Jan-Feb 2004, writer Jim Godbolt). But Parker went on to say: “It was the most original, exciting – simply the best band I ever played with”.

Korner was a godlike figure to a whole generation of British musicians. Would the Stones, Cream, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Manfred Mann have happened without him?

I rest my case.

“That Blues Inc. appears as the mainspring on practically all my London R&B trees testifies to their importance – but principally as a catalyst. It was the kids they encouraged and inspired who went out and won the revolution. We had seen it before and we would see it again: a bunch of brash energetic punks upsetting the status quo and creating a whole new movement.” (Source: Pete Frame’s “The London R&B Explosion Tree”).

 

FOOTNOTES

1. This Toppermost was put together in line with a parallel one on Cyril Davies; in my mind, in terms of the effect they had, the two can’t be separated. However the Toppermosts are not interdependent. But the need (or desire perhaps) to generate individual top tens has resulted in the splitting of tracks from R&B From The Marquee between the two.

2. Jimmy Yancey was a pioneering pianist in the art of boogie woogie. His birth date goes as far back as the nineteenth century – Wiki wasn’t certain of the actual year – and he was a big influence on later names like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.

3. While Korner was principally a guitarist, the people he listened to early on were often pianists – Jimmy Yancey wasn’t a solitary figure in this respect. One of the more significant influences for Alexis was Big Maceo Merriweather who was born in 1905 and first recorded in 1941. I make reference further down to Worried Life Blues which Alexis recorded as I Ain’t Gonna Worry No More. County Jail and Kid Man, referred to in the main text, also came from the same man. Big Maceo himself was influenced by Leroy Carr and Roosevelt Sykes and by the boogie-woogie style of Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, the two figures mentioned above. He suffered a stroke when only 41, in 1946, which largely curtailed his recording career, although he made a few records afterwards up to 1949. He died of a heart attack in 1953, aged just 47.

4. Lonnie Donegan was christened Anthony James Donegan. Tony became Lonnie after seeing Lonnie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall.

5. The para that starts “I’ve jumped slightly ahead of myself” might need a little clarification. The first meeting between Alexis and Cyril actually occurred before the recording of the track Rotten Break though the exact date is difficult to pin down. Cal thinks that it might have been as early as 1952 but it had certainly happened by 1955.

6. Both tracks of the Tempo single, I Ain’t Gonna Worry No More/County Jail were based on 1941 recordings from Big Maceo Merriweather – see above – but the A-side, also known as Worried Life Blues, was itself based on Sleepy John Estes’ Someday Baby Blues (of which there’s mention in the Cyril Davies Toppermost).

7. The above info was provided by Cal as you might have expected, who went on to say that he used to own that single (from the Alexis Korner Skiffle Group) but it’s one of only two records that he has sold after he left school.

8. On the Cyril Davies website there’s an interview with Dave Stevens wherein he refers to his work on Kid Man as “doing my Cripple Clarence impersonation, complete with his Chinese fourths in the bass”.

9. I made reference to the track All Blues from Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue in the main text. Someone else who used this number as a basis for a song was Tim Buckley. His song was Strange Feelin’ and it appeared on the album Happy Sad (see my Tim Buckley Toppermost).

10. The Blues And Barrelhouse Club at the Round House in Wardour Street used to be known as the London Skiffle Centre. It was set up by Cyril Davies and Bob Watson. According to Alexis: ‘One day, Cyril said to me, “I’m fed up with all this skiffle rubbish. I want to open a blues club, will you run it with me?” I said “Yes”. One week we shut down with a full house – the next we opened the Barrelhouse Blues Club and three people turned up.’ (Source: The sleeve notes to the Kornerstoned compilation written by Neil Slaven)

11. The song Night Time Is The Right Time is usually associated with Ray Charles and, indeed, his version is very good, but it was actually written and recorded by jump blues singer Nappy Brown.

12. There was something of a sub plot going on in the Red Hot From Alex album. Three important members of Blues Inc. who never got included in any of the formal group releases due to their brief stays were Graham Bond, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. The trio left to form the Graham Bond Organisation with guitarist John McLaughlin (later replaced by Dick Heckstall-Smith). Bond switched from sax to Hammond organ when he started the new group, and the group name was, in part, a reflection of that. There were three tracks on Alex which were pointers or connectors to Bond: the Jimmy Smith organ one of course, plus Cabbage Greens which was a sort of spoof of, or homage to, Booker T’s Green Onions (and Booker was an organist as we all know), and the instrumental It’s Happening was written by Bond but with his alto sax hat on – he and Heckstall-Smith might well have played it in unison.

Was Alexis missing Bondy?

13 The song Louise sung by Duffy Power on Sky High was originally written and recorded by Johnnie Temple in 1936 as Louise Louise Blues. It was covered by John Lee Hooker in the fifties and he gave himself the writing credit. Such behaviour wasn’t that uncommon in the blues world (and I made a very similar comment in the Cyril Davies Toppermost).

14. I’m aware that some readers might not be entirely happy with my curtailment of selections (and commentary) with the demise of Blues Incorporated. Of course I don’t think that the rest of the Korner career was entirely without good, and perhaps some great, music but I feel that his most ground breaking stuff was contained within the Blues Inc. years. Some might say it was limited to R&B From The Marquee but I wouldn’t go that far. However, I’d be delighted to hear and discuss any different opinions on this topic via the Comments feature.

15. Blues Inc. released two singles, the first of which came out on Parlophone in 1964. It coupled I Need Your Loving (originally from Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford) and Please Please Please (James Brown). Herbie Goins was on vocal.

While both sides were perfectly well performed it’s a little difficult to understand what Alexis and Blues Inc. were trying to achieve:

– proof that they could do more soul oriented material perhaps? – it wasn’t their normal stamping ground

– a demonstration of the capabilities of Mr Goins?

– a real cover aiming at the charts? But the original of the A-side was released in the UK in ’62. While it was a hit in the US (in the pop chart) it didn’t achieve that in the UK, but did get some airtime. Maybe Alexis thought that now the time was right. Certainly, the lads and specifically Herbie had done a good job in attempting to match the fire and brimstone of the original.

The second single again came from the Herbie Goins manifestation of the band. The B-side, Roberta, was from Red Hot From Alex and I’d guess that the A-side, Little Baby, was an out take from the Alex sessions. Whatever, it stomps along very nicely.

16. I am well aware that there is at least one potential reader who will be less than pleased by my inclusion of Stormy Monday. (And there could be some who agree with him judging by the fact that the Blues Inc. version isn’t on YouTube so maybe I’m the only person who likes it.) I attempted to put my defence in the main text. In short, it’s personal.

17. In his desire to find connections in the music world – which desire I very much share – Cal has come up with an unusual one which I guess you might call possible but not necessarily probable. Here are his words:

“Alexis recorded Blue Mink in 1963. In the same year Madeline Bell did the vocal backing on Cyril’s Preachin’ The Blues. The group Blue Mink was formed in 1969 with Madeline Bell as vocalist. Are these coincidences or did Blue Mink get their name from the Alexis and Cyril connections in 1963?”

18. The presence of Cal Taylor throughout this Toppermost and its partner, the one on Cyril Davies, should be apparent, and even where I don’t specifically credit him with a piece of info doesn’t mean that he wasn’t the source. There’s a good chance he was, particularly (but not only) if it was something from before 1945 to pick a semi-random date. However, even I wouldn’t have expected the anecdote below from him.

“After seeing the American Folk Blues Festival at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 28 September 1966, I and a couple of friends went to Les Cousins Folk And Blues Club in Soho where Alexis Korner was the resident act that night. It became quite a “night to remember” because not only did I see the unknown Jimi Hendrix perform only four days after he arrived in this country but I managed to have a fairly lengthy “one to one” chat with Alexis during one of his breaks in the club’s relaxed atmosphere. Over fifty years later, the standout memory of our conversation was when I asked what the unusual drink was that he was supping from a pint glass. The gravelly-voiced Alexis told me it was liquid honey! He explained that it was to soothe his throat and that it especially helped him on all night sessions. That night included seeing Chas Chandler (of The Animals) who had brought Hendrix over from the US and it’s possible that information garnered then at Les Cousins assisted in the finalising of the Jimi Hendrix Experience group. For fuller story check this link.”

19. I am indebted to the Alexis Korner Discography for much of the source material I have used. Not only does the site do what it says on the tin i.e. provide a discography, it also provides sleeve notes, pictures and numerous articles. Of the sleeve notes I found that the one written by Neil Slaven for Kornerstoned – The Anthology 1955-1983 to be well nigh indispensable,

 

Alexis Korner (1928–1984)

 

Alexis Korner Fan Site

Alexis Korner Discography

Alexis Korner BBC Radio 2 Documentary from Tom Robinson (1999)

“Alexis Korner: The Biography” by Harry Shapiro (Bloomsbury 1997)

Alexis Korner biography (iTunes)

Cyril Davies (1932–1964)

Long John Baldry (1941-2005)

Dick Heckstall-Smith (1934-2004)

Art Themen saxophonist

Phil Seamen jazz drummer (1926-1972)

Herbie Goins (1939-2015)

Danny Thompson official website

Duffy Power (1941-2014)

Peter Thorup (1948-2007)

Dave Stephens has written over forty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Willie John, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bobby Bland, Cyril Davies, Miles Davis, Lonnie Donegan, Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford, Davey Graham, B.B. King, Percy Mayfield, Charles Mingus, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters

TopperPost #658

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 21, 2017

    Dave and Cal, thanks for this fine piece on a crucial figure in the history of British Blues music. Some fascinating details in here and it also introduced me to Big Maceo for the first time. On another point, it also struck me that “Preachin’ The Blues’ may owe something to Dav(e)y Graham’s influence – in particular to Eastern flavoured tracks like “The Fakir”. Of course, the influence may have worked both ways.

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