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The First Time I Met The Blues


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The Conversion Kit

§§ I met the blues around the age of sixteen, when my friend Vincent discovered a pile of old 78s left beside the bins at the back of his family’s flat in Battersea. I’d already developed a taste for the more domesticated forms of jolly British trad jazz, as played on the BBC Light Programme, but these crackly grooves – Louis Jordan, Hot Lips Page, Meade Lux Lewis’s Honky Tonk Train Blues – were driven by something harder, stronger, an energy emanating from mysterious zones.

Vincent, already playing piano, quickly learned the twelve bar changes and the walking bass, while I began posing with imaginary saxophones in front of the bathroom mirror. I was going to be the first green man to sing the blues....

It wasn’t easy to meet the blues in 1961. There were few LPs available, mostly exotically priced imports. Another blues brother from the early sixties, school-mate Tom McGuinness, walked three miles just to look at the cover of a John Lee Hooker album. There were 45 rpm singles, of course, and we were beginning to make the connection between the blues heritage and the chart sounds of Ray Charles and Little Richard, although, like New Orleans jazz purists, we sometimes got bogged down in scholastic disputes about “commercialism”, until it dawned on us that Muddy Waters and friends were not simply picturesque figures strumming outside a log cabin but working musicians who needed the bread, man.

(Brother) Paul Green

UK Trad Jazz

Bro Paul Blues

Audience [4:50]
Half-Light [3:58]
Brother 13 [7:30]
BP Blues [5:00]
Dump Cracking [3:29]

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It’s Trad, Dad

We began exploring the jazz clubs, initially the 100 Club in Oxford Street, then very much a traditional jazz enclave, featuring highly competent Dixieland showmen like Kenny Ball, more scholarly revivalists like Mike Daniels (who featured a sousaphone player as well as the obligatory banjo) and raw New Orleans disciples like Ken Colyer. It was a cellar club, smoky yet non-alcoholic. That summer British trad jazz was in the charts, so the club was full of young office workers and their girls in flared skirts or skinny jeans, jiving with terrifying energy and precision. I don’t think they gave a damn about the exact personnel and matrix number of King Oliver’s 1923 recording of Dippermouth Blues, but they seemed to be having a great time. Hard-core trad fans proclaimed their allegiance by wearing bowler hats, in honour of Acker Bilk, and long floppy woolly sweaters. I had ambitions as an artist back then and , encouraged by my wonderful Polish expressionist art teach, I used to take a sketch pad to catch the action. As aspiring blues nerds, we were over-awed by the dancers but were gravitating towards more modern jazz idioms, as well as that underlying pulse of the boogiemen. So, in search of a new bohemia, we started frequenting the Six Bells in King’s Road, Chelsea.

Jumping at the Six Bells

The upper room at the Six Bells is packed for Bruce Turner's Jump Band and there’s so much drinking going on that hopefully no-one will notice that we’re under-age. It’s a typical function room, with dowdy flock wallpaper, a tiny PA that plays albums by bop tenorists like Dexter Gordon and Lucky Thompson in the intermission and a more cosmopolitan crowd – art students, Sloane girls, advertising types, sharp-suited jazz-mods in shades, West Indians from Notting Hill. Bruce is our latest hero. No more clunking banjos, a lean swinging rhythm section, while the man himself plays hard-driving blues inflected alto. Everybody’s dancing. One of the West Indians, a very tall guy in a long suede coat, is very drunk. Between every number he keeps shouting, ”Body and Soul! Play Body and Soul!” Bruce, who is taciturn anyway, ignores him and mumbles one of his unintelligible intros, while another Jamaican bro called Norris tells the body-and-soulman to stay cool.

At the interval, Body-and-Soul approaches us. Norris is clearly worried that his mate is going to hassle us but the man just wants to be friendly, he wants to take us to a “club that plays blues all night long”. We’re a little uncertain about this, so he turns to me and makes a new pitch: “You want to buy a burp-gun? I sell you a burp-gun, man. Fifty rounds a minute. We go to Cuba. We can fight in Cuba...” He staggers off, while I ponder the life-changing opportunities I’ve missed.

Blues Incorporated

For a while I’d been trying to catch up with the blues on the wireless via the few jazz programmes that were scattered in the small print of The Radio Times. Only one DJ seemed to play blues regularly, the urbane grainy-voiced Alexis Korner, who also wrote sleeve-notes for EPs featuring mysterious artists like Big Maceo or Jazz Gillum. Then, early in ’62, adverts started appearing in the Melody Maker. The cosmopolitan Mr. Korner had formed a band that actually played blues, electric blues. They were opening a Thursday night residency at the Marquee Club on Oxford Street. We had to go. And we kept coming back.

Not Like Fucking Pop Music

Under the low red and white canopy Blues Incorporated are storming through “Gotta Move”, incorporating Cyril Davies’ wailing harp, Dick Heckstall Smith’s tough sinuous tenor and Korner’s guitar into a boogie that rolls all before it. This is the musical moment - the movement – that we’ve been waiting for. We’re not the only ones. The dancers twist and shimmy, while musos and bluesniks cluster round the bandstand, watching Cyril whip out yet another harp from his bulging briefcase, wondering what reed Dick uses, trying to follow Keith Scott as he slides those blue notes on the piano.

Alexis is our blues guru, always courteous and willing to share his knowledge. I’ve just bought a beat-up alto and can barely squeak but I ask him for advice and he tells me to “listen to lots of Louis Jordan and- very important - King Curtis!” Alexis is equally generous to guest performers. The black GI Ronnie Jones was in there last week, proclaiming “Night Time is the Right Time” , also three brothers from a US airbase who call themselves The Stripes of Glory and sing acapella gospel in full USAF uniform. Now Long John Baldry shouts like Big Joe Turner and sax players queue for a solo. Liberated from the decorum of British mainstream jazz, they’re going to play mean and dirty. Yet the focus, again and again, is on Cyril, hunched over his Hohner or declaiming his blues with total conviction in that keening voice. He’s stocky, sweaty, in unfashionable Aertex shirt and crumpled trousers, a phenomenon who came up with Alexis through fifties skiffle groups to channel – there’s no other word – the hoodoo spirits of Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. We don’t know, of course, that Cyril works as a panel-beater in the motor-trade, or that years later blues historian Paul Oliver will suggest that this might have given him an instinctive affinity with the lifestyle of working-class African-Americans. Nor do we realise that Cyril’s intensity, his total identification with raw fifties Chicago blues, has already put him on a collision course with Alexis who has jazzier inclinations. But we know he’s not interested in chart success.

In the bog I congratulate him on the set. “Glad you like it, son. It’s not like fucking pop music, is it?” Cyril doesn’t know, will never know how the blues is going to mutate.

Mick & Mates

There are foreshadowings. For Alexis encourages intermission acts. A student from LSE called Mick, supported by some moody-looking mates , is doing a spot. They’re playing a couple of numbers in the Jimmy Reed groove, rather tentatively. They’re not quite a band yet and many of the dancers drift away. Mick’s wearing a sort of woolly cardigan and suede shoes. He doesn’t gyrate or strut. If anything, he seems a bit nervous, although his voice is impressively ugly, a distinctive Thames-delta slur-growl; and his shaggy mop of hair is distinctive.

Afterwards, wandering off the stand, he asks me for a light, and I oblige. "What do you think?" he asks. "It's OK, " I say, politely. He nods and moves on, into history and the charts. Cyril will move on, too, to form his own band, only to die of pleurisy, alcohol and overwork by January 64...

Alexis Korner at the Marquee

Cyril Davies All Stars

early Mick Jagger

Bro Paul Blues

Audience [4:50]
Half-Light [3:58]
Brother 13 [7:30]
BP Blues [5:00]
Dump Cracking [3:29]

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Worst Musician to Play with Eric Clapton!

In a few months, I’d convinced myself I could play the blues. Had I not suffered profoundly from the rebuffs of various young women, weren’t we, as a Beat Generation, already deeply immersed in Cold War angst and existential doubt? My friend Martin the Dude had introduced me to the free sounds of Ornette Coleman, and every so often as I scrabbled at the keys I hit a lick that might have sounded fiercely harmelodic, if only I’d had the technique to exploit it, while Vincent tried to steer me through twelve bar changes in easy keys during shambolic youth club jam sessions. So when Tom McGuinness told me he’d started a blues band – The Roosters – it was horribly inevitable that I should offer to audition.

The Roosters have gathered...

The Roosters have gathered to rehearse in the upstairs room at the Prince of Wales in New Malden. The drummer has set up his kit and Ben Palmer the pianist is warming up with thunderous riffs and runs in the Otis Spann idiom. For Ben, the spiritual mentor of the band, who’s hitch-hiked sixty miles from Oxford for this rehearsal, Spann is the man, and even Memphis Slim is an effete tinkler in comparison. Eric, a sharp Mod from Kingston Art School, is plugging his guitar lead into the amp he shares with Tom. Front-man Terry, a Ted with a mighty quiff and a rocking attitude, hasn’t arrived yet, but Paul Jones, who has started singing with the Mann Hugg Blues Brothers has come to hang out. I assemble my twenty-quid La Grande alto sax and adjust its elastic bands and sticky tape.

They decide to start with an instrumental, some kind of shuffle boogie. “It’s simple enough, “says Tom, “it’s in E. You just follow us...” I suddenly realise that this will transpose into C sharp on the E flat horn, an alien and incomprehensible key... They count it in, and Eric begins a stinging Freddy King lick. This guy has not only met the blues, he has already been invited in for life. I can only blow with furious atonal desperation, hooting all over everyone in the hope that somehow my sonic scribbles will make sense.

After three choruses everything stops. Eric, Tom and Ben huddle together in a corner and mutter. “Is it your usual instrument?” asks Paul gently, as if trying to find an excuse for me.

Then Eric comes over. “I’m sorry, Paul... I know you’re a friend of Tom’s... you’re very keen... and very loud... but we think you need to practice a bit more...”

I start packing my horn. “There’s not much scope for saxes, anyway, in Chicago blues," says Ben firmly, drawing a line under the whole episode.

He Buys Me A Lager & Lime

I remain loyal to the Roosters, however, and still turn up for rehearsals, just to hear the music and become further initiated in this underground religion. Vincent joins me for one session, but tension develops between him and Ben, who’s suspicious of this classically trained interloper. Then Eric’s jack-plug breaks. To salvage something from the aborted rehearsal, Ben puts “B.B. King Live at the Regal” on the record player, as a continuation of our blues education, but Vincent insists on jamming along with it, a sacrilegious act. It’s all very awkward.

Other sessions are more up-beat. After one of them, Tom and Eric, inspired by the recent publication of the Kama Sutra in paperback, run down Kingston Hill singing “I’ve got my lingam working...” In the coffee bar, Eric enthuses about Freddy King’s “I Love the Woman”, while Tom ponders strategies for getting gigs, any gigs, even small gigs.

Like the Barge at Kingston, hung with fish netting to get that beatnik St Ives look. I’m one of maybe six people in the audience. The Roosters have no bass player and the amp is perched on a chair but the interlocking guitars are tight and the rumbling piano adds depth under Terry’s declamation of Billy Boy Arnold’s “She Fooled Me.” Later I sit outside in the summer night, trying to filter my adolescent emotions through a man’s music.

A few months later the Roosters fold, Terry Brennan forms the Muleskinners, while Eric, after an interlude with Tom in Casey Jones and the Engineers, joins the Yardbirds. Tom switches to bass and joins Manfred Manne – now very much a rocking club R&B band.

So I become a Manfred fan, following them regularly, as they climb the pecking order of the club circuit. One night at the Marquee in 64, Tom invites me for an interval drink in the Blue Posts, just along Wardour Street. Eric’s there. He buys me a lager and lime. “Ah, you’re that fucking terrible sax player...”

Blues Boomers

By 1964-5 R&B was everywhere. We could find it at the sinister Flamingo Club, where Georgie Fame and Zoot Money held court (and where Christine Keeler used to promenade), at the Marquee, of course, and at the former citadel of trad jazz, the 100 Club, often featuring the most explosive version of Brit blues/jazz/rock - The Graham Bond Organisation.

Graham Bond is a big warlock of a man with a Fu Manchu moustache. He plays manic Hammond organ and alto sax at the same time and sings with a voice full of burning anthracite. Heckstall-Smith from Blues Incorporated is now his tenor player, while Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker supply bass and drums. The cross-rhythmic attack of the band is such that a guitarist would be redundant and in the low cellar of the 100 the volume generated by GB’s Leslie speaker & the PA over-rides everything. Bond blasts through his set , barking out exhortations to the band and the dancers. He will become our daemonic influence. Vincent is going to change his name and buy an organ.

The Roosters: Eric Clapton & Tom McGuiness

Vincent Crane

Big Sound at The Wetherby Arms

The Wetherby Arms is an ugly maroon-tiled pub on a windy corner at the wrong end of the King's Road, the World's End. No groovy nymphs in minis here, just lugubrious men in donkey jackets hunched over their pints, who grumble as these young students with mod pretensions push through the engraved glass doors of the saloon bar and pay their 4/6 for the Vincent Crane Big Sound, an heroic attempt to clone the Graham Bond Organisation.

It's been advertised in The Evening Standard small ads as "Rhythm and Blues without Guitars!!!" but even this bold PR hasn't brought in the hipster crowd from the Flamingo or the Marquee. The gloomy sepia room is almost empty. Behind the tiny stage members of the Big Sound struggle with Crane's home-made PA and its fragile circuitry.

Still, here's my Oxford room-mate Iain Stewart, with squeaky Franny from St. Martin's Art School, and we're balancing beers and vodkas on a wobbly table, trying to plot an image strategy for Vincent Crane, something that will get the Sound into the colour supplements, along with Georgie Fame or the Who. Crane looks OK in the band pic with his black shirt and shades and bop beret, and Pete the saxist is changing his name from Pinching to Gifford (thank God Vincent dropped the Cheeeeeesman!) and Mike the latest bass guitarist has to be better than that jolly bloke last week with the string bass, and there's yet another drummer, little Lew, who looks very serious.

We throw some phrases around - "Crane's ruined Beardsleyesque good looks..." No, too pretentious, even for the student press. But how about "music that goes beyond the itching groin scene..." Hmmm. As Suzie with the flowing hair enters in her blue plastic mac I realise that we are all deeply implicated in the itching-groin scene.

The speaker cabinets hiss and crackle. A dumpy middle-aged man in a cardigan appears waving a soldering iron. It's Ken Mundy,ex-Bond roadie and TV repairman, who has built the Big Sound from old cinema speakers. "The turnip of the anti-trads?" suggests Iain. Crane and Mundy then peer into the innards of the keyboard, a strange Japanese single-manual affair like a poor man's Farfisa. We agree that Crane needs a proper Hammond - there's a rumour that he's going to buy Graham's, the one Ken sawed in half to spare the roadie's hernias.

Gifford, who's been drinking since lunchtime, blows a perfunctory fart on his tenor and wanders off stage. "Where's Roon?" he enquires, "I want someone to lend me ten bob. I am a jazz musician... use the piano ...let's blow..." Roon - Mary Noonan, Vincent's girl friend, hurries over and shepherds him back on the stand. "It's OK, Pete, you'll be on any moment. I'll get you a half."

There's a sudden blurt of notes from the amp and Crane, muttering, plays a few deafening chords. Punters in the adjoining public bar cheer ironically. Little Lew thrashes around his tom-toms. Gifford stops scowling and plays a graceful lick. As the bass player adjusts his strings, Vincent counts in the Big Sound.

And the air throbs with an organ riff - John Patton's Silver Meter - a spectral train boogie from the depths of the urban night, a riff that drives right through our heads and out the other side.

Who would have thought that four guys with a toy keyboard, a tarnished sax and speakers in old packing cases could create such a wonderful sinister noise? Crane launches into a solo, all dazzling runs and filthy smears. Giff growls and howls at the moon. This could be a soundtrack for beatnik orgies, although all would-be orgiasts look too dazed to dance.

The Big Sound suddenly stops in a squeal of feedback. Silence. A smattering of applause from the illuminati. Crane stares around the room at the rest of his clientele and gropes for the microphone. "Thank you," he murmurs sardonically, as if addressing a class of remedial children. It's obviously time for something more instantly recognisable as pop R&B.

So they try a Little Walter cover - My Babe - a tune which VC invests with a strange aura, lewd and melancholy at the same time. He's got Bond's London accent, no Chicago blues intonations here, but there's a granulation in the voice which comes from excessive Rizla consumption and although the singing thins out in the lower registers, there's a rhythmic attack that carries it. The Big Sound are getting on the case. Roon, Franny, and a girl with red dress are venturing on to the floor. We're in with the In Crowd. Let's do the Hitch-Hike, the Cool Jerk. We, cultists of the Big Sound, are looning it up on Guinness and last night's stale pot.

The band works its way through Water Melon Man, Bright Lights, Big City, Wade in the Water, Kansas City, the whole 1965 R&B song book. In the gaps the rhythm section looks anxiously towards Vincent while Gifford is grumbling about the failure of the audience to buy him drinks. But Vin just shouts the keys and drives them on.

As we close in on the stand, Giff thrusts his dented Selmer in our faces, Crane's ridiculous keyboard sways wildly as he hammers it with that fierce left hand. After the leader's hoarse desperate vocal, Crane and Giff fight each other for solo space, cutting fours, overlapping runs, twisting phrases together like loops of barbed wire as they compete to fill each bar with the urgency of our projected desires, the suburban totemic blues of boys wearing Ray Charles albums on their sleeves to bewitch the art-school girls, because this is the electrification of the soul that's happening here, people, right here at the Worlds End with the blues.

©Paul A Green

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