Story of the Month
November 2013: BluesFest The British Blues scene and the Royal Albert Hall
by Richard Dacre
Discerning young British music aficionados had something of a problem in the late 1950s. The excitement was being drained out of rock ‘n’ roll – epitomised by Elvis Presley’s induction into the army in 1958 – and Tin Pan Alley was regaining its control over the music industry. While there was an alternative scene on offer, principally through the flourishing jazz clubs and the increasingly important folk club circuit, for the most part this did not offer the chance to listen to American artists. For some time, inter-union agreements meant that tours were only allowed on a reciprocal basis and the American union was notoriously intransigent - after all, there were very few British popular artists at that time in demand for American audiences. As a result, a significant part of sharing new musical experiences from the States was done through record collections. Appreciation societies cropped up around the United Kingdom and valued records were pored over and discussed. People would initially get these by post or through the specialist record shops which cropped up throughout the country. Not surprisingly, rural and urban blues found their way into many a collection and admirers started to concentrate on the form.
An audience for live blues music was mustering and a key man in satisfying their needs was trombonist and band leader Chris Barber. In the early 1950s, he introduced a popular ‘Home Town Skiffle’ interlude into his jazz sessions. During this, band member singer/guitarist Lonnie Donegan played a British variant of skiffle - a very basic, stripped down take on American jazz, blues, country and folk. When Donegan left in 1954 to pursue his own career, Barber replaced him with a more faithful blues segment led by another of his band members, Alexis Korner. It was a key stepping stone in the history of British blues.
However, Barber was also determined to enable British audiences to experience the real thing. He exploited a loophole in the union restrictions – it referred solely to musicians not to vocalists – to bring over a series of American artists. Starting in 1957, he imported such luminaries as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, supplying them with British musicians as backing whenever necessary. Alexis Korner, in particular, watched and learned, and it was he who would move things on decisively to the next level – encouraging talented young Brits to play the music themselves.
As for the Albert Hall, it had little to do with these early developments. Lonnie Donegan appeared as part of a jazz programme in 1952 and would return regularly alongside both the emerging British rock ‘n’ roll stars of the time as well as within jazz lineups. Chris Barber was also a frequent visitor, one of the earliest being a 1957 jazz all-nighter.
The first authentic bluesman to play the Hall was Big Bill Broonzy who arrived at the end of 1952. One of the first blues artists to perform in Europe, his range was such that he could play both in the jazz clubs with Chris Barber and the folk clubs with Ewan MacColl. And, as many a blues artist who would follow in his wake realised, he found it politic to conform to the expectations of his white audience, expectations culled from the album covers and sleeve notes contained in those treasured record collections. He dressed down and told stories about the oppressed south – projecting a very different image from the dapper Chicago bluesman he had become in his native country. But it was a price worth paying given the respect and recognition he was receiving and which was generally denied him in America.
Broonzy’s appearance at the Hall on 15 November 1952 was in support of the ‘Queen of Gospel’, Mahalia Jackson. While British audiences at the time probably didn’t make much distinction between Blues and Gospel – both were thought of as expressions of resistance to racial oppression - they have, of course, a hugely different background. Gospel emerged from European hymns via spirituals, while the southern rural blues, which Broonzy played that night, was a more direct secular accommodation to the role of slavery. Indeed Jackson stated that she hoped that Broonzy “wouldn’t do the lowdown blues, but those real country songs of his, they’re fine.” Sadly the concert was only half full – and though Mahalia Jackson would return, Broonzy did not play here again. Indeed, while the Hall hosted many major black jazz artists in the 1950s – Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald - it would have to wait until 1966 before welcoming another American Blues artist – and that was when the annual American Folk Blues festival, a fixture of the European blues scene since 1962, made a stop here with a line-up which included Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell, Otis Rush and Joe Turner. But by that time, British blues had taken over the world.
A major influence on the emergent British blues was Muddy Waters. Waters was another of the Chris Barber imports, touring here in 1958. But the difference was that Waters played electric guitar, shocking some reviewers who declared that this could not be authentic blues. But it had the reverse effect on practitioners such as Alexis Korner. By 1957, the urbane Korner had split with Chris Barber and was jamming with working-class blues harpist Cyril Davies at Davies’ Soho club and they had already started to experiment with amplification. Muddy Waters’ electric sets gave them additional blues credibility. Forced out of their first floor Soho pub residence because the landlord was unhappy about volume levels, they created the Ealing Club in March 1962 where they could defiantly continue their exploration of electric blues. Under the name Blues Incorporated, Davies and Korner attracted young musicians to the club to listen, learn, and even sit in on sessions – not least amongst them Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Jack Bruce, Paul Jones, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry and Graham Bond.
From 1962 through 1964 amplified blues-based rhythm & blues bands sprang up throughout the country including Manfred Mann, the Animals, the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, the Spencer Davis Group, the Groundhogs, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Van Morrison’s Them. The catalyst for all this was a group of home county youths who had worshipped at the feet of Alexis Korner and would go on to change the history of British blues - the Rolling Stones, themselves named after a Muddy Waters song. The Stones would take the music out of the counter-culture and into the mainstream both here and in America. Their first number one was It’s All Over Now written by BluesFest headliner Bobby Womack. Another great blues artist, Jimmy Reed, who is honoured with a tribute night during BluesFest, was amongst the song-writers that the Stones drew on for their first album alongside Willie Dixon, Slim Harpo, Chuck Berry, Ted Jarrett and Rufus Thomas. What’s more, they took the Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf standard Little Red Rooster to the top of the charts in 1964.
None of the groups following in the wake of Alexis Korner and inspired by the success of the Stones wanted to be blues tribute bands. Guided by their love of the form, but distanced from its roots, it was inevitable that this new wave would strive to make the music their own, interpreting it for their predominantly young white followers. They were so successful in achieving this that what had started out as a minority interest in the early 1960s became the dominant force in popular music by the end of the decade. And during that transition, the Hammond organ became an instrument of choice (Alan Price, BluesFest guest Georgie Fame, Graham Bond), and the guitarist became king.
The Rolling Stones played the Hall four times, the last time on September 23, 1966 when they were supported by a Yardbirds line-up that included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. The Yardbirds’ previous appearance – December 7, 1964 - was at a time when Eric Clapton wielded the lead guitar, a virtuoso who, more than anyone, helped turn guitarists into gods. The Hall continued to host surviving authentic blues players - the American Folk Blues festival followed their 1966 visit with one in 1969 (this time featuring Clifton Chenier, Magic Sam, Cary Bell); a blues festival in April 1969 featured the first of B.B. King’s many visits to the Hall, with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee also on the bill. Of the British traditionalists: Duffy Power livened up Hall pop concerts in 1959 and 1960; pioneer Cyril Davies got to play here in 1963; Paul Jones, Alan Price and Chris Farlowe featured in a 1966 charity concert. Alexis Korner played alongside Pentangle at a folk festival in February 1968, appropriately enough given that Pentangle’s ace guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourne had both incorporated elements from the blues into the group’s repertoire. One man blues band Duster Bennett made several appearances, including a supporting turn to Hall regular John Mayall, whose band Bluesbreakers provided a phenomenal showcase for blues practitioners over the years, not least guitarists (Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout). Georgie Fame made the first of his many appearances here in September 1964.
But the traditionalists were becoming a minority breed. Guitar based bands ruled the roost, and their blues roots became increasingly indistinct. While the first rock supergroup, Cream, still played many classic blues numbers, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker’s virtuoso improvisations were a long way from the original’s simplicity and pointed the way towards a blend of hard rock and psychedelia, that would become a classic British form. While the influence of psychedelia was felt across the entire music scene in the ’60s and ’70s, its main practitioners in the blues vein were the Pretty Things (whose name was inspired by a Bo Diddley song) and the Spencer Davis Group. The rock trend was pursued notably by two key bands – Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. Early Fleetwood Mac with ace guitarist Peter Green, a Bluesbreaker graduate, led the way with a heavily blues influenced set, though they soon found fame and fortune with a more rock oriented sound. Similarly, Led Zeppelin would lay the groundwork for heavy metal. Blues authenticity was no longer a significant part of the equation. Guitar giants who maintained a sniff of the blues include Alvin Lee with Ten Years After and Paul Kossoff with Free – but the biggest, best and most important was Jimi Hendrix, enticed to Britain by ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler, he redrew the map on quality rock guitar after finding his natural audience on British soil.
This generation of bands could easily fill the Hall. Hendrix appeared in 1967 and 1969 (see my separate articles on rock music at the Hall). The Cream played their celebrated farewell and reunion concerts at the Hall (1968 and 2005); Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green were here twice in 1969 with Green returning in 2000 and 2004, the first of which was with John Mayall. Ten Years After shared a 1969 bill with Jethro Tull (whose lead Ian Anderson successfully marked himself out from the pack by showcasing a flute rather than a guitar) and they returned the same year on a bill with Blodwyn Pig fronted by ex-Tull frontman, guitar wizard Mick Abrahams. Another Tull guitarist alumnus, Tony Iommi, played at the Hall with heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath in 1971 and 1972. Led Zeppelin came here in 1969 and January 1970, with the 1970 concert preserved for posterity on film. Free were here during the Februaries of both 1969 and 1972. The Pretty Things strutted their stuff in a 1964 Top Beat programme, but we had to wait until 2002 to welcome the Spencer Davis Group, though original vocalist Steve Winwood was, and is, a regular visitor in various set-ups.
It has been interesting to see how many of these players, having made their rock fortunes, return to their blues roots in later years. Hall favourite Eric Clapton often incorporates a formal blues section into his gigs, Zeppelin’s vocalist Robert Plant will be playing in the BluesFest. Bill Wyman has appeared here in various blues-based line-ups over the years – even joining Lonnie Donegan at a skiffle reunion concert in 1998. Ronnie Wood has made many appearances at the Hall, including a Faces reunion (with Bill Wyman and BluesFest guest Mick Hucknall) and he joined Guns N’ Roses’ Slash to support B.B. King in 2011. For the BluesFest, he will be amongst those paying tribute to the great Jimmy Reed. BluesFest performer Chris Rea has played the Hall on many occasions, headlining in 1986, 2004 and 2008.
Live pared-down rhythm ‘n’ blues enjoyed a tremendous revival on the London pub circuit in the early 1970s, a back-to-basics reaction against the grandiose predilections of much of the rock world. A whole new generation of exciting live bands appeared of which the most celebrated was Dr Feelgood, whose current line-up will be playing the BluesFest. Another acclaimed band founded in the dying embers of pub rock’s glory years was Nine Below Zero who supported Eric Clapton here in 1994.
In the early years, as the blues reached out to an international audience, it absorbed influences from many other forms – jazz, soul, gospel and country – and it is appropriate that the BluesFest reflects this, incorporating the talents of Gregory Porter, Natalie Cole, the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Mavis Staples. One of the central concerts of the BluesFest will be an all-star tribute to Memphis blues and soul man Bobby Bland – ‘the Sinatra of the Blues’ - who died in 2013. Bland’s songbook has been raided by a wide spectrum of British rock luminaries – David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Paul Weller and Van Morrison to mention just a few. Mick Hucknall produced a tribute album in 2008 and is returning to pay his respects once more. The man himself played the Hall with Chris Farlowe and BluesFest headliner Van Morrison on 21st and 22nd March, 2000. It looks certain that another chapter is about to be written in the history of the Blues at the Hall!
References: Hoochie Coochie Men - A History of UK Blues and R&B by Paul Trynka; and the BBC4 documentary BLUES BRITANNIA (Chris Rodley, 2009)