Cyril Davies

TrackSingle / EP /Album
Easy RiderBlues From The Roundhouse Vol.1 EP
Sail OnBlues From The Roundhouse Vol.2 EP
Death LetterBlues From The Roundhouse Vol.2 EP
I Got My Brand On YouR&B From The Marquee
I Wanna Put A Tiger In Your TankR&B From The Marquee
Hoochie CoochieR&B From The Marquee
Country Line SpecialPye International 7N 25194
Chicago CallingPye International 7N 25194
Preachin' The BluesPye International 7N 25221
Sweet MaryPye International 7N 25221

Track 1 is by the Alexis Korner Skiffle Group; Tracks 2-6 by Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated; Tracks 7-10 by Cyril Davies And His Rhythm And Blues All Stars

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Cyril Davies photo

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

CYRIL DAVIES – ARCHITECT OF BRITISH BLUES

A slightly clumsy title perhaps but the more obvious one, Godfather of British Blues (or sometimes Founding Father of), has, by common consent, been bestowed on Alexis Korner (or occasionally John Mayall). And deservingly so. Korner acted like a magnet in bringing together blues-interested, nay, intoxicated, musicians, several of whom would go off and form bands of their own. And he hustled. Putting together the first British electric blues band, Blues Incorporated, and recording the iconic album R&B From The Marquee. One of the rare artefacts which actually justifies usage of the word ‘iconic’.

However Korner was, in my eyes, more important as the man who made things happen, rather than as a musician in his own right. That album, R&B From The Marquee, illustrates the point. It had four tracks credited, composing wise, to a certain “Waters” and all of them were sung by Cyril Davies. These were the tracks that lifted the album above something that could happily sit under the tab “Jazz” in your local record shop, back in the days when such things existed. Elsewhere on the LP there were three songs sung by Long John Baldry which could easily have sat on a jazz album from that era with occasional vocals, from, say a George Melly. And there were several instrumentals which wouldn’t have scared the horses unduly.

No, it was the presence of those Muddy Waters songs – for which we’ve subsequently learned there were other authors like a certain Willie Dixon – that made this album extraordinary. We are great compartmentalisers in the UK; we just love to be able to put things in boxes (and either ignore, or sometimes be downright snobby about boxes favoured by someone else). Blues belonged in the jazz box. And it wasn’t electric. Or that’s what 99.999999% of the British population thought at the start of the sixties, that’s if they thought about such things at all. And yet that same Muddy Waters was using an electric guitar back in the mid forties. He wasn’t the only one; I’m merely using his example for continuity/convenience. British record labels didn’t totally ignore this stuff either. London issued a Waters EP in October 1956 plus one from a guy who’d featured as his harmonica player, Little Walter. Waters also toured the UK in 1958 and his amplified guitar caused ructions which bore some similarity to those caused by Dylan going electric in the following decade. For more personal ruminations regarding electric blues see Footnote #2.

So where did Davies and Korner fit into all this? Well, by the early fifties both Cyril, born in Denham, Bucks, on January 23rd 1932, and Alexis, born in rather more exotic Paris (to an Austrian Jewish father and a Greek mother) on April 19th 1928, had got involved in a mixture of trad jazz, folk, blues (usually preceded by the previous word) and later skiffle, when Lonnie Donegan got round to inventing it. Cyril started out with Steve Lane’s Southern Stompers. At this time he was living in South Harrow, working as a panel beater in an auto body repair shop by day and performing in the evening in the interval between Southern Stompers’ sets. He played and sang material that we’d probably now call folk blues with an emphasis on Leadbelly numbers, accompanying himself on banjo or 12 string guitar. Cyril had been introduced to the delights of blues and jazz by the art teacher at his secondary school who just happened to be Paul Oliver, the man who would later become the authority on blues and blues history. Wiki refers to his “The Story Of The Blues”, published in 1969, as “the first comprehensive history of the genre”. (Source: The extremely comprehensive Cyril Davies website which was put together in tribute to Cyril by Roger Trobridge, plus Wiki, of course)

It is believed that the first recording from Cyril to be made available (at a much later time) to the public was K.C. Moan which was recorded by him, playing and singing at home in 1954. It eventually saw release on the CD Knights Of The Blues Table. It’s not on YouTube nor are a couple of tracks from Steve Lane’s Southern Stompers with Cyril on banjo, cut in 1955. However, I have been able to find Kansas City Blues from Beryl Bryden’s Back-Room Skiffle band, one of four tracks recorded in November 1956 and released on a single the following month. It’s notable for having Cyril in support and, by now, he’s switched to harmonica. It also has Alexis on guitar plus some guy called Dave Stevens on piano, who’s nothing to do with me, honest!

The last few sentences raise a number of questions, like who was Beryl Bryden and maybe even, what was skiffle? and I’ll try and answer both in the Footnotes. Perhaps more importantly though, the recording placed Messrs. Davies and Korner in a studio together for the first time. Quite how or when their paths first crossed I don’t know precisely but there was an inevitability about it in the relatively small field of folk blues, where practitioners across the UK would get to know each other via performance or word of mouth with remarkable speed. The UK Blues Federation biography of Cyril Davies makes reference to the London Skiffle Centre opened by Cyril and a Woody Guthrie enthusiast, Bob Watson, above the Round House pub in London’s Soho in 1955. It goes on to make reference to Alexis as a regular performer there.

In the second half of the fifties, Davies and Korner frequently worked together as proselytisers for the blues. However, the presence of Skip To My Lou’s, Ella Speed’s etc. in their output from the timeframe indicates that the mix of material they recorded was predictably acoustic and occasionally biased towards folkie chestnuts. Electricity was spurned and that didn’t change until early in the following decade. That same UK Blues Federation Cyril Davies biography provides us with an excellent blow-by-blow version of what happened when, and can be read in association with the discography on the Cyril Davies website. The last part of the jigsaw is Preachin’ The Blues – The Cyril Davies Memorial Album, a 2xCD set released in 2014. It contains almost all recordings released by Cyril in chronological order. The German Amazon site is the only place I’ve found that has samples of the tracks for potential buyers, or even just the curious. Unfortunately, for reasons I wouldn’t claim to understand, the link to that site, which works correctly from an MS Word document, doesn’t do so from an on-line doc., so I’ll leave the reader to experiment.

If I implied that the pre-sixties output was without interest that wasn’t my intent. There were goodies from this phase in the Davies career that definitely warrant replaying. The instrumental Roundhouse Stomp is a rollicking 12 bar vehicle which nicely illustrates the burgeoning mouth harp talent of youngish Cyril. Little Walter he was not, at this time, but he was leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else in the UK. Today’s ears might be inclined to classify this sort of thing as jug band music, influenced of course by a number of US players who occupy this territory, with or without jugs. The band for this one was labelled the Alexis Korner Breakdown Group featuring Cyril Davies and it was recorded at the Soho Round House in February 1957.

Cyril’s debt to Leadbelly is illustrated vividly on the version of Easy Rider from the Alexis Korner Skiffle Group – Mr Korner was only too happy to change a group name and members often changed with or without a group name move. That’s Cyril on vocal and 12 string regardless of the name on the first clip. Following it below is the record from Leadbelly, recorded in 1940. The third clip takes us back to the song’s origins, in a record by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey way back in 1924. On this one there’s a long introductory section, nearly a minute in length, before the familiar refrain of “See See Rider, see what you done done” kicks in. Leadbelly is broadly faithful to that melody line but he ends the verse differently and changes See See Rider to Easy Rider. Cyril (and Alexis) stick closely to the Leadbelly variant,

 

 

For a brief period I managed to convince myself that the Davies/Korner record Sail On was based on a recording of that song by Los Angeles based piano blues man, Charles Brown. I was wrong, and Cal, quite rightly, corrected me. The song was written by Bumble Bee Slim in the thirties but the version that Cyril used to base his take on was, surprise, surprise, the one from Leadbelly. And there’s a clear resemblance between the two versions. The guitar work from Alexis echoes the Leadbelly song structure but adds flourishes which enhance the listening experience. Cyril’s voice isn’t a million miles from Leadbelly, but it struck me on this that it was also not a million miles from Lonnie Donegan. (I haven’t spotted anyone else making that connection in the process of research for this feature). Cyril was always his own man in terms of vocals, not tempted to fall into mid-Atlantic semi-Americanisms of so many Brit singers.

Cyril’s version of Death Letter, a song usually associated with Son House, was unlike any other version I’ve heard. Whilst broadly keeping to a 12 bar approach, melodically it had more in common with Muddy’s Louisiana Blues or Junior Parker’s Mystery Train. Undoubtedly, Cyril would have heard the song via one of his extremely well worn Leadbelly LPs but he takes liberties with the Ledbetter version. He’s relaxed, weary even, uttering lines like “They take my baby to the burying ground” over a pared back and very acoustic arrangement featuring guitar, bass and washboard only. (I should add that Cal provided the information that there were at least three different versions of the song from Leadbelly so maybe my listening didn’t go far enough.)

Sometime in the period 1958 to 1962, Cyril had his Damascene moment when Muddy Waters suddenly crowded out Leadbelly from his brain, almost completely. To be fair, I think the tracks I’ve selected demonstrate that he was already operating at a deeper level in that blues mine than most of his peers who were still enamoured by the relatively benign approach of the likes of Lonnie Johnson. At some stage, Cyril must have purchased, or begged or borrowed, a copy of that classic album, Muddy Waters At Newport 1960, for all four Waters tracks that he covers on 1962’s R&B From The Marquee came from that set. One of those tracks will be less familiar than the others to the casual listener because it only appeared on the album i.e. it didn’t see single release. That track was I Got My Brand On You. It was the opener on the Waters album and it was the first Davies vocal on the Blues Incorporated set:

A pause while I play that one to myself, twice. That had more impact than anything in the whole British blues scene that had preceded it. Producer Jack Good, he of Oh Boy (television) fame and one heck of a lot more, had pushed the Korner guitar further up in the mix, so, even while it wasn’t terribly electric sounding, it was louder. While the backing came from a load of jazzers – which was where Alexis and Cyril had come from – they still swung like the proverbial clappers, particularly that drummer, setting a precedent for later Blues Incorporated thumpers like Ginger Baker. And on top of all this noise was Cyril sounding relaxed to the extent of being playful with the lyrics, but ominous to a near threatening degree at the same time. And the break was something that deserved to be on replay; Cyril wailing like a dervish on mouth harp and Alexis competing manfully for attention. Fabulous stuff. Third play coming up.

Even now, when these ears and probably the ears of the reader, have heard loads and loads more blues including stuff from the source i.e. Chicago and places like that, this track still sounds great. It’s interesting to compare it to the Waters’ original. That track is blessed, not only with superb empathy coming from guys who’d played together day after day, week after week, year after year, it also had Muddy’s own slide guitar straight from the delta plus James Cotton on harmonica all the way through, unlike the Blues Inc. version wherein overdubbing wasn’t deployed, with the result that we didn’t get Cyril’s instrument in support as well as on the solo. The Cyril/Alexis version was nothing like a copy, perhaps it couldn’t have been, but it had legitimacy in its own right, with the strident vocal from our man being arguably more in tune with Willie Dixon’s excellent lyrics than Muddy’s more laidback style. Or is that heresy?

A quick interrupt while I think of it. R&B From The Marquee wasn’t as live as the title might have implied. While Blues Incorporated had been working at the Marquee Club, and the material contained in the album was representative of their performance there, it was actually recorded in one day in the Decca Records London studio on 8th June 1962. Regardless of the conditions, the tracks sounded as if they were live; there were slips, minor clashes and occasional murky sound, but none of this mattered, many of the tracks – and I’d particularly identify the Davies/Waters ones – sounded lived-in. All that slogging away in the Marquee had brought a high degree of cohesion without a concurrent loss of atmosphere.

None of the Davies/Waters tracks are carbon copies of the Waters originals. This is most pronounced on I Wanna Put A Tiger In Your Tank wherein the song has gone up a couple of gears but got tighter in the process. Davies even spits out some of the rather minimalist lyrics in a staccato manner. Unusually Cyril, a renowned hater of reed instruments, has gone along with Dick Heckstall-Smith appearing on sax on this one, and the Korner & Smith unison riffing gives the song a great jump blues feel. In comparison, Waters and band are more relaxed about the whole thing to a degree of looseness at times but heck it’s a bit of fun isn’t it? Two valid interpretations.

If there’s anyone out there saying “surely he can’t include Hoochie Coochie Man as a selection because it’s just too corny”, I say Bah, Humbug! If there’s one track that epitomised the difference between the ‘new electric blues’ in this album and everything that came before on this little island of ours, it was this one. In 1962, a fair number of people bought this album and would have been struck by this monster of a track, though only a tiny handful bought Muddy’s Newport set and/or an imported US Chess single from way back in 1954 – another confirmation that black electric blues had been going for at least that long over there. In some ways, this track was the closest to slow to medium tempo fifties rock and roll, utilising the stop time blues approach – think Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel or Vincent’s original Be Bop A Lula (the slowish one) – but, and it’s a big but, Muddy, and subsequently Cyril and the boys, slowed the tempo down even more and upped the level of intensity to great big black clouds level, and the wonderful Willie Dixon managed to chuck in every reference he could think of to that old Louisiana magic stuff. And the difference between the gradual building of the stop time section and the fabulous free-for-all of the chorus when all that tension was released, was even more marked. To use a word that hadn’t entered the music vocabulary yet, this was ‘heavy’ and if you were looking for one number that could have spawned blues rock, this was it.

No, Blues Incorporated weren’t as good as the master on this one. He owned it. But not unlike Lonnie Donegan (and skiffle), in his turn-on of the British public, Cyril and Blues Incorporated lit the flame of electric blues in many a British youngster’s heart.

The “just too corny” remark is just as applicable to the other Waters number on the album, I Got My Mojo Working. I’d refer the reader to the footnotes for an explanation as to its absence from the top ten.

Cyril contributed two originals to the set: Spooky But Nice, a minor key riff-driven instrumental starring himself on mouth harp and Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax, and Keep Your Hands Off. The last named was jug band-y rather than solidly blues-based, which causes me to wonder if its composition dated back to a slightly earlier period in the Davies career. In August 1961, he and three others recorded a handful of tracks under the name the Roundhouse Jug Four. Notable amongst the “others” was guitar man Geoff Bradford who would later appear in the R&B All Stars. On these tracks Geoff provided both mandolin and kazoo support as well as his guitar work. Ref “composition” of Keep Your Hands Off see Footnotes.

The broad church approach of Korner as shown in the variety of material and styles on R&B From The Marquee was not to the taste of Davies who saw himself as much more of a blues purist. This feeling was intensified with the recruitment of Ginger Baker as replacement drummer which Cyril saw as evidence of Korner (and Blues Inc.) moving in more of a jazz direction. (I would add that Cyril was absolutely right in his understanding of the route that Blues Inc. would be moving in. 1965’s Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated album is virtually all jazz, but that’s another story.)

October ’62 saw the parting of the musical ways between Cyril Davies and his long time partner Alexis Korner. On the Cyril Davies website, Dick Heckstall-Smith is reported as saying:

“Then Cyril spoke up. Gruffly, awkwardly, seriously, he said how much he regretted the passing of his long association with Alexis, and told us of his plans to strike out on his own with a more authentically instrumented blues line-up. Alexis wished Cyril every success with his new venture. Cyril said dutifully how good he thought everyone was. But he felt he had no choice but to go. It was a major upheaval.”

He didn’t take long to form a band. The majority of Screaming Lord Sutch’s backing band, the Savages, reportedly (Cyril Davies website) jumped at the chance to join. From the Savages came Carlo Little (drums), Rick Brown (sometimes known as Ricky Fenson on bass) and Nicky Hopkins (piano). For a very brief spell, an unknown at the time ‘new’ guitarist, Jimmy Page, performed with the group in the lead role. When Page moved on, another ex-Savage, Bernie Watson, took over that responsibility. It’s Watson and the others who appear on the first single.

Cyril named the band the “Rhythm & Blues All-Stars”, not the most punchy of names perhaps but (a) a statement of their chosen genre – rhythm and blues was the name used for Brit blues at the time (though confusingly, it encompassed a wider variety of US originated black music) and (b) an indication of their confidence (if not tongue-in-cheek arrogance) in being able to deliver. And deliver they did. A slot at Ken Colyer’s club in November led to residencies at various clubs leading up to the Thursday night slot at the prestigious Marquee club. Blues Incorporated, meanwhile, had switched to Soho’s Flamingo, within a short walking distance.

Davies also recruited Long John Baldry as second vocalist; Baldry, who had been working in Germany, was torn at the time between joining the All-Stars and rejoining Blues Incorporated. Cyril also recruited three black ladies of South African origin who had been touring with the musical King Kong. They were christened as the Velvettes. Given Cyril’s heavily reported narrowness of taste, it was perhaps surprising that, so early in his new band’s career, he was open to Long John and the Velvettes giving us their take on Ray Charles and the Raelettes.

There were also changes to the core group within 1963. Brown and Little rejoined the Savages – Little apparently found the Chicago style blues too restrictive for his liking. Bernie Watson also left but he joined the John Mayall Bluesbreakers. The replacements were Cliff Barton, Mickey Waller and Geoff Bradford respectively. It was this grouping, along with Nicky Hopkins, still on keyboards, which backed Cyril on the second of his two Pye singles.

Which brings me, at last, to the extremely brief recording career of Cyril Davies And His Rhythm And Blues All Stars. Record #1, released by Pye International in April 1963, featured two Davies compositions, Country Line Special and Chicago Calling, either of which should poll strongly in any contest for the best original record from the first British blues boom. The instrumental A-side, probably harked back to the sort of things Cyril might have heard from Sonny Terry with or without his usual partner Brownie McGee. Freight Train Rollin’ On is a good example. Cyril didn’t deploy Sonny’s trademark whoops but he stuck to the single chord extemporisation on Country Line Special and he made a feature of those long stretched out notes. He didn’t hog the limelight though; both Nicky Hopkins’ piano and, specially, Bernie Watson’s guitar help to give the whole thing an up to the minute feel.

The flip side Chicago Calling was one of those songs celebrating the delights of that city, not unlike Sweet Home Chicago in approach, but never quite achieving that song’s universality (if that’s the right word). Watson makes liberal use of that high lick that Chuck Berry used in the intro and the outro of You Can’t Catch Me (and Chuck himself was always a great believer in the reuse of licks). Another good ‘un and not too dissimilar to the sort of thing we were getting from the Windy City.

Single #2 from Cyril and the All Stars (version 2) was released in September ’63. The sound of the A-side, Preachin’ The Blues, was considerably different to its predecessor. Sure it opened with some shrill blasts from Cyril’s mouth harp but then moved into a heavy riffing affair with the drums mixed well up and Hopkins switching to organ. Madeline Bell and Alex Bradford joined Cyril on the closing line of each verse – “it’s no use, no use, no use in preachin’ the blues”. This was a role played by the Velvettes on stage. It was quite a catchy performance with hints of Latin and a significant departure from the Chicago sound. The writing credit reads “Cyril Davies, Words Unknown” but the UK Blues Federation, in their otherwise excellent biog of Cyril, attribute this number to Robert Johnson (though I think they could be mistaken). There is a Preachin’ Blues on record from Johnson, and a brilliant record it is too, but there’s little or zero similarity to the Davies number. There’s also a Preachin’ The Blues from Bessie Smith but again no similarity.

(You’ll note that the Davies clip – below – gives both A- and B-sides.)

The flip, however, Sweet Mary, was definitely a cover. The credit on this read “Arr. Ledbetter” and the connection between the Cyril/All Stars version and the Leadbelly original is clear cut though the treatment of the song differs strongly from the source. The Davies take is much more deliberate to the extent of almost being ponderous. Drums are again well to the fore and there’s a two chord dropping riff that dominates the number. Maybe not as standout as the A-side but another good track nevertheless with both leader and group to be commended for being more experimental than hitherto.

There was one more track recorded at the Preachin’ The Blues session which didn’t see release. Someday Baby dates back to Sleepy John Estes in 1935 and possibly before (and also forward to Bob Dylan). Once again there’s organ in the accompaniment, presumably from Nicky Hopkins (for more on this number see Footnotes).

That would have been it for the output from Cyril and the All Stars but for an EP that was released in 2014 entitled Radio Sounds Of Cyril Davies. It came from a BBC session held for the Brian Matthew compèred Saturday Club on July 2nd 1963. Accompaniment came from the second version of the All Stars but with Keith Scott on piano since Nicky Hopkins had been taken ill and was hospitalised. In terms of tracks, versions of both sides of the Country Line Special/Chicago Calling single were included, plus a take of See See Rider (introduced by Matthew and sung by Baldry) and a couple more oldies, Hey Roberta (Cyril) and Big Joe Turner’s Roll ‘Em Pete (Long John). The clip below gives you the entire EP:

A delightful time capsule to come across in 2014 and a performance that probably sat rather oddly in its original setting of an early sixties Saturday Club (though things started livening up in ’63 with Beatles appearances from January onwards).

In the second half of 1963, Cyril was diagnosed with pleurisy and was ordered to rest completely. However, rather than taking medical advice he continued to work, attempting to deaden the pain by an increased intake of alcohol. Nicky Hopkins stated in a later interview: “Near the end, he went yellow and had to walk with a stick. He was built like a tank. He’d be the last person on earth you’d think would die.” (UK Blues Federation biography of Davies)

Cyril Davies died on the 7th of January 1964 after collapsing at a gig at Eel Pie Island, Twickenham. The official cause of death was given as endocarditis. He was 31.

“On January 28th, the first of two benefit concerts in aid of his wife and children took place at the Flamingo featuring Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Alexis Korner and the remaining All Stars under the new banner Long John’s Hoochie Coochie Men. The second took place at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on February 21st and featured Sonny Boy Williamson and (Chris) Barber’s band.” (From the sleeve notes of the Radio Sounds Of Cyril Davies EP).

 

In the words of Ray Davies:

“The record that kick-started The Kinks: Country Line Special, Cyril Davies and His Rhythm And Blues All-Stars (1963). I did buy that one, and it’s one of the greatest records of its type ever made. It’s a seminal English R’n’B track played brilliantly. I saw the band when I was at Hornsey Art School in 1962, and my girlfriend booked all the bands that played.” (The Guardian Soundtrack Of My Life: Ray Davies)

And in the words of Jimmy Page:

“It is interesting to look back to the birth of the British Blues when one man pioneered a sound that was to give incentive to every group of that time. The man was the late Cyril Davies. Robbed by an early death of the fruits of his labours, he and his group the “All Stars” showed the path to many. Cyril was the first man to emulate the sound of the Chicago Blues Band in England, with his harmonica electrified in the style of Little Walter he set a standard which helped many groups such as the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.” (Source: Sleeve notes to the album Blues Anytime Vol.3 written by Mr Page)

 

FOOTNOTES

1. I omitted I Got My Mojo Working from my selections in order to leave one Blues Inc./Davies/Waters track for the Alexis Korner Toppermost which has been produced in parallel to this one. Although there’s a significant degree of overlap in a key section of the careers of both individuals, I attempted to minimise duplication to allow for the two documents to be read as complementary or as separate T’Mosts.

2. When I put together the “RocknRoll” book, which was intended to cover music that usually gets classified as fifties rock and roll, I had something of a quandary as to what to do about blues music which was merrily rolling along in what, with hindsight, looks like a parallel universe to the stuff that was in the pop charts in the mid to late fifties and early sixties (with only the very rare overlap such as Little Walter’s My Babe). My eventual decision was to include a section on the subject but at a less detailed level, due to the influence of such music on rock history in general. In my introduction to the section I recorded the following:

“In my schooldays, blues was something to do with jazz and, as such, existed in a different world entirely. Blues records were bought by intelligent looking types with spectacles and polo neck sweaters. The fact that Chuck Berry was playing a form of jump blues but with electric guitar lead was lost on me. And of course, we didn’t immediately get to hear those very early Presley records with their debt to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup for a year or two. However by the time the “Elvis Is Back” LP was released with that marvellous rendition of Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” plus other visible blues influences, the penny had definitely dropped.

“On a local front, blues or closely related American roots music was present in the repertoire of Lonnie Donegan and some of the other skifflers even if the results differed somewhat from the originals. Trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber had a lady vocalist called Ottilie Patterson who would perform blues numbers. Barber also deserves credit for organising UK tours for US blues performers including Muddy Waters in the ’50’s and ’60’s. For several years from 1962 onwards we were also graced on these shores by the annual visit of the American Folk Blues Festival which gave a platform for sometimes struggling US blues musicians. Prior to the Folk Blues Festival about the only blues artists I was really aware of at the tail end of the fifties were the excellent Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee duo (from very rare TV appearances) plus the slightly more raw, Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

I should add that there were a couple of those polo neck type guys in my class at school, both guitarists, whose repertoire was largely folk blues, and they owned LPs from people like Jesse Fuller and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

3. Steve Lane was a cornet player, guitarist, composer and arranger. He led his traditional jazz band, the Southern Stompers, from the early fifties right through to the noughties. He also led and recorded with his Red Hot Peppers and the VJM Washboard Band. He established the Ealing Jazz Club in the Fox and Goose, Hanger Lane in 1952. He also shared director duties for VJM Records. He died in 2015, aged 93 (Source: London Jazz News obituary on Steve written by Roger Trobridge)

4. Beryl Bryden was an English jazz and blues singer who played with the Humphrey Lyttleton Band, the Chris Barber Band and the Monty Sunshine Band. She appeared on Donegan’s Rock Island Line single on washboard.

5. (British) Skiffle as a genre would seem to warrant a few words. Those below I’ve plundered from the Lonnie Donegan sub-section in “RocknRoll” on the principle of “why look elsewhere if you’ve already looked elsewhere”:

“Donegan worked up an act accompanied by a washboard and tea-chest bass which he performed in the breaks between sessions of Chris Barber‘s band. They were christened a skiffle group at the suggestion of (Ken) Colyer’s brother, Bill. He remembered the Dan Burley skiffle group of the ’30’s. This was a band that played in Chicago “house rent parties”, cafes and clubs. The term “skiffle” was a slang phrase for a rent party where a social event was set up with a band playing for rent money. The band often used improvised instruments like washboards, jugs, tea-chest basses, kazoos and so on. In the US where such bands have been reinvented over the last few decades they have almost invariably been called jug bands. The relationship between Donegan’s music and the music played at these amateur events may be tenuous but the term stuck, and “skiffle” is now synonymous with the playing of American roots music by Lonnie Donegan and subsequently loads of well intentioned Brit converts in the mid to late ’50’s.”

Those so called “well intentioned Brit converts” included not only Cyril and Alexis using the label for the music they were already playing anyway, but also, and most famously, the Beatles, plus the Shadows, Adam Faith and virtually every early British rock star you can think of, including those who’d emerge in the early sixties.

6. Open any book or read any essay on the subject of British Traditional Jazz, and sooner rather than later you’ll come across the name of Ken Colyer. He might not have met with success in a pop sense, like Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber and one or two others, but he was highly respected by his peers. He was a trumpeter and band leader who was open to skiffle experiments in the early fifties.

7. Prior to the relatively recent (2014) release of Preachin’ The Blues – The Cyril Davies Memorial Album it was difficult to find early output from Cyril. But it was there. The bulk of his early material was recorded alongside Alexis Korner and if you key that name into Spotify or Amazon a lot of previously invisible stuff comes into view.

In 2011, Not Now Music released Easy Rider, a 2xCD compilation from Alexis Korner. In fact, in addition to doing a sterling job in covering the Korner work pre-Blues Incorporated, it also contains a significant number of tracks featuring Davies in various roles (and also happens to be good value).

8. Continuing the last point, material from both Cyril and Alexis was released on really tiny labels way back then. A good example is Blues From The Roundhouse which was a 10″ LP and only 100 copies were produced. The 2016 copy of “Rare Record Guide” values this album at £1,000. (Though there appeared to be some sloppy labelling on the album. A sleeve image clearly shows “Alex Korner’s Breakdown Group featuring Cyril Davis” (note no “e” and a shortened Alexis))

9. The most famous R&B version of See See Rider/Easy Rider came, with the shortened name of C.C. Rider, from Chuck Willis in 1957. This is the one that launched one of the early dance crazes, the Stroll. Subsequently, almost everyone you can think of recorded the song (and I shouldn’t forget Sonny Til and the Orioles who got there well before the late, lamented Chuck). I doubt whether Cyril heard any of these though; his take has Leadbelly in red letters right down the middle.

10. Digging into the sources of some of Cyril’s early songs only confirmed the fixation he had in those days with Leadbelly. Cal put together a paragraph on this, which zeroes in on a previously not noted connection between Cyril’s two big musical heroes, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters:

“There is no doubt that Cyril had two main musical heroes; Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in his early years to around 1958 and then Muddy Waters when he turned from folk blues to Chicago electric blues. Virtually all of Cyril’s vocal recordings up to 1958 were songs that had been done by Leadbelly. What I have found is that these quite different blues artists have a common debt of gratitude to one, Amos Easton, who recorded prolifically between 1931 and 1937 (and again post-war) as Bumble Bee Slim. Amos was born in 1905 and died in 1968. Leadbelly recorded quite a few of Bumble Bee Slim’s songs including Sail On, Little Girl, Sail On which Slim originally recorded in March 1934. Leadbelly recorded it a few times, firstly in 1940. Cyril recorded it in 1958. In 1951, however, Muddy recorded a song called Honey Bee but this was, indeed, his version of Sail On. The links do not end there, though, as in October 1934 Bumble Bee Slim recorded a song called Muddy Water Blues which unfortunately is not on YouTube but three years later he re-did the song as Bumble Bee’s New Muddy Water. It is clear that Muddy was aware of Slim’s recordings as his Honey Bee was a copy of Sail On and it may not be beyond the realms of possibility that Muddy took his name from Bumble Bee Slim’s recording, a la the Rolling Stones taking their name from a Muddy Waters record. Amos Easton now seems to be largely forgotten but he was a much copied, underrated singer/songwriter.”

11. Cal also informed me that Keep Your Hands Off (from R&B From The Marquee) was originally a Big Bill Broonzy song but there was also a version from Leadbelly. So maybe Cyril’s song writing talent hadn’t come on in leaps and bounds (or maybe the person responsible for adding the attributions to the LP sleeve had got this one wrong as well as the Waters ones).

12. On July 12th 1962, Blues Incorporated appeared on BBC Jazz Club. Present in the band for the session were Charlie Watts on drums and Jack Bruce on bass. Oh, and that bloke called Dave Stevens was back on piano. The session has been captured in this clip.

13. I made mention of Someday Baby as a track that was recorded by the Cyril Davies All Stars but didn’t see release in his lifetime. It wasn’t the only one. The group also recorded Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away but this one didn’t see release until it got included as a bonus track on the 1986 compilation set White Boy Blues, Volume 2 (but it’s not on YouTube). I did find a sample of the track after a lot of searching and intriguingly the vocal doesn’t sound like Davies or Baldry (but I could be wrong). The treatment is also disappointing in that the snippet I heard sticks closely to the Holly arrangement. However, if this track was recorded while Cyril was still alive it’s significant in that this would have been before the Stones had waxed their more Diddley inspired version. Could this be where their idea came from? Several of the Stones were friendly with, and had individually worked alongside, the Blues Inc. and All Stars guys.

14. Cal provided some more interesting snippets on Someday Baby. Sleepy John Estes called himself “Poor John” and on his grave there is an inscription adapted from Someday Baby Blues that reads, “Ain’t gonna worry Poor John’s mind anymore”. However, a more famous version of the number was recorded by Big Maceo (Merriweather) in 1941 and rechristened as Worried Life Blues which is how many of us know it. Muddy Waters subsequently picked up the song, renamed it as Trouble No More and took credit for writing it.

15. Footnote #16 in the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Toppermost provides a couple of nuggets on Screaming Lord Sutch. But the footnote doesn’t tell you about the move of several of Sutch’s band, the Savages, to Cyril Davies’ All Stars, and back, in some cases. Nor does it tell you that other gents who had a spell in the Savages have included Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, Noel Redding, Jon Lord, Matthew Fisher and actor/singer Paul Nicholas.

16. Keyboards man Nicky Hopkins was plagued by ill health throughout his life and it eventually led to an early death at the age of 50. It was for health reasons that he opted for a session musician role after Cyril Davies died. He made a great success of the role, working on Rolling Stones albums from 1967’s Between The Buttons up to 1981, on Kinks albums from 1965’s The Kink Kontroversy up to The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, plus records for The Jeff Beck Group, The Who, Harry Nilsson, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane and many more. He briefly joined Quicksilver Messenger Service and appeared with the Jerry Garcia Band.

17. Within the main text I stated that Long John Baldry – who’s deserving of a Toppermost of his own though there are some who’ll never forgive him for his desertion of the blues – took over the ‘ownership’ of the All Stars, added Rod Stewart, changed the drummer and renamed the band the Hoochie Coochie Men. With more additions – Julie Driscoll on vocal and Brian Auger on organ – that band became Steampacket.

18. In addition to the above, another version of the All Stars, comprising Hopkins, Little and Barton and Jimmy Page plus his mate Jeff Beck, recorded five tracks under the All-Stars name in 1965. In June that same year, Page also got together with Eric Clapton, and recorded several tracks, which subsequently saw the light of day on album, with overdubs from members of the Stones, as Immediate All Stars (with the “Immediate” coming from the record label). Clapton was far from pleased and the release soured his relationship with Page for years (info from Wiki).

19. Getting hold of a 12 string guitar in the fifties in the UK wasn’t easy, but because he wanted to sound as much like his hero Leadbelly as possible, Cyril managed to get one made by the British company, Grimshaw Guitars. It was the first one that they produced. Grimshaw are recognised as one of few British companies to compete with American guitar producers in the fifties and sixties, and their products saw significant usage from homegrown talent. The jazz and blues critic Charles Fox wrote in the sleeve notes to the Blues From The Roundhouse LP, “Cyril Davies must be the only Briton to have had a 12 string guitar built to his own specification”.

20. Cal has been a wonderful source of information as usual and one of the more fascinating tales he regaled me with would otherwise have totally escaped my attention. It concerns Brian Knight – a name that’s not known to too many people – and back in those body shop days Brian worked alongside Cyril as a panel beater and shared his interest in blues music. When the Ealing Rhythm and Blues Club opened in 1962 – see the Alexis Korner Toppermost – Brian was one of the earliest attendees and he came across a name that you will know, Brian Jones. Briefly, the two got together in a band which could have been the earliest incarnation of the Stones. They split due to musical differences; Mr Jones went on to you know what, and Mr Knight formed a group called Blues By Six – he took the frontman role, singing and playing harmonica. The drummer for that band was Charlie Watts, who, while still holding down a day job, then went on the be the drummer for a period with Blues Incorporated. On lead guitar for BB6 was Geoff Bradford who also had links to Cyril of course.

There was a link between Brian Knight and Cyril on a personal front as well. After Cyril’s death in ’64, Brian married his widow Marie in 1967 and they had two children.

Brian’s music career was resurrected in the 1970s when, with Geoff Bradford, he formed The Bradford-Knight Blues Band. Brian died in 2001, aged 61. He was a highly respected musician and I’d point readers looking for further information to the Guardian obituary written by John Pilgrim.

21. While I never got to see Blues Incorporated live, I did see Long John and the Hoochie Coochie Men a couple of times. I particularly recall John in the Flamingo sharing a mike with Rod Stewart – which was not easy due to the height difference – for Night Time Is The Right Time, with Rod playing all of the Raelettes (and doing a splendid job) to John’s Ray Charles. Of more relevance to this piece is the fact that I was lucky enough to see Cyril and the All Stars in a club called the Roaring Twenties in central London. I recall an intense Cyril crouched over the mike in that peculiar harmonica stance (which we’d get more used to when mouth harp players started to appear as front men). Apart from a tiny handful of numbers, the band’s stage repertoire was totally unfamiliar to me –but with hindsight I’d guess that some of the classics like Smokestack were in that mix. And it was only a month or two later that I started buying lots of the original stuff (including imported Modern/Crown LPs of the Wolf and Hooker).

22. Back when Cal Taylor and I started operating together in the creation of Toppermosts, he suggested some subject names. Cyril Davies was on that list, a name that hadn’t occurred to me but when I saw it, it made sense. More recently, or on March 31st to be precise, Ilkka Jauramo, in a Comment on the Yardbirds Toppermost, stated “British blues is underrated” and I got the impression that he would like to see more of this sub-genre in the Toppermost arena. My mind turned again to Cyril. More recently still, in August this year, Peter Viney made reference to a track on the Blues Incorporated album in a Comment on my Roy Head Toppermost. That track was I Got My Mojo Working sung by Cyril with Blues Inc. All of which gave me the impression that there was some form of inevitability about the generation of this document – some of that delta voodoo stuff was telling me I’d better got on with it!

23. Not to be outdone by Ray Davies and Jimmy Page, here’s Mick Jagger on the “taciturn and difficult” Mr. D.

 

Cyril Davies (1932–1964)

 

Cyril Davies: British Blues Harp Pioneer

Cyril Davies R&B All Stars facebook

Cyril Davies discography

Cyril Davies biography (iTunes)

Alexis Korner (1928-1984)

Long John Baldry (1941-2005)

Dick Heckstall-Smith (1934-2004)

Carlo Little (1938-2005)

Nicky Hopkins (1944-1994)

Cliff Barton (1944-1968)

Geoff Bradford (1934-2014)

Mickey Waller (1941-2008)

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 Cyril Davies’ hero Muddy Waters and the sultan of skiffle Lonnie Donegan

TopperPost #657

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