Rhythm & Blues: The Birth of British Rock

 

The deep roots of British pop music first became established in the soil of cultural pop history when Cyril Davies met Alexis Korner; two Englishmen that shared a passion for The Blues. 

In 1956 trad. jazz and skiffle was the commercial choice of music for teenagers in the UK. This was soon to change though, with the rise in popularity of the champion of British jazz and skiffle Chris Barber.

 

It was during this time that Alexis Korner was doing the rounds with Ken Colyer's Skiffle band (a branch of the Chris Barber band), and Cyril Davies was running the London Skiffle Club at the Roundhouse pub in Wardour Street. Finding these styles restrictive and unambiguous, they joined forces and started the Thursday-nighter London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, a truly radical move for the time. They had become convinced that blues was the furture of music, from listening to imported records and inviting heroes from America such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Big Bill Broonzy to play there.

>> Alexis Korner on guitar, Cyril Davies vocals

Inventing British blues in 1962

 

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

 

Big Bill Broonzy

Korner and Davies were also lending their talents other groups as the blues club scene grew. But in late 1961 the time had come to switch from acoustic to electric guitar and include harmonica to form a new sound with which to inspire the underground scene. Korner and Davies formed Blues Incorporation, the first white R&B band, at least in the UK. Its legacy was that they allowed anyone with talent and the right instrument to join in, which was a gateway to legendism for many of Britain's most inspiring musicians, such as Charlie Watts and Art Wood two of the earliest players. The idea that a real R&B hit could be made with this new sound inspired by black poor people of America still seemed very far away though.

Hoochie Coochie Man

 

Gotta Move

Blues Incorporated

The Marquee Club, 1962

 

By mid 1962 Blues Incorporated's interval spot at the Marquee had become more popular than the Barber band itself. It was decided that they had to find their own club - and the Ealing Jazz Club was born, the first of its kind in Europe. Finally the glorious secret that was known as rhythm and blues was to be shared amongst the lucky few. Young people all over London joined together in this new music mecca, having seen advertisements in New Musical Express. The underground awareness of this event led to the growth of a crowd of enthusiasts, alienated youngsters finally drawn together via a love of blues, people who had previously thought were the only ones having an affair with the Devil's Music. The music enjoyed by these trendy few was in stark contrast to the 'popular' beat sweeping the country at the time: the smooth sounds of Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Elvis Presley; teenybopper pop. The Ealing Club instead was the place to be seen and to hear some incredible new sounds: 

Mick Jagger:

"The Ealing Club was so wet that Cyril had to put a horrible sheet over the bandstand so that the condensation didn't drip directly on you, but it just dripped through the sheet. It was very dangerous because of all the electricity and microphones"

Bill Wyman:

"It was a narrow and long room with a small stage at one end and a bar at the other, the audience dividing themselves equally between the two"

Charlie Watts:

"It was an amazing band, but a total cacophony of sound...a cross between R&B and Charlie Mingus, which was what Alexis wanted"

Throughout their time at the Ealing club Korner and Davies continued to influence and play host to many young wannabes. Bill Wyman: "Sometimes Brian (Jones) visited Cyril at home, where they would blow harmonics together. Brian began to practise Davies' technique of bending and flattening the notes..."

 

Blues Incorporated became much more than just a little band of enthusiasts for a particular brand of music. It developed into an attitude. By May 1962 they were invited back, but to a regular Thursday night residency, at the Marquee, the venue that was fast becoming the most prestigious centre for up-and-coming bands, with even bigger, more excited crowds. This inspired the first R&B LP ever made in England, R&B From The Marquee. It was also around this time they were causing enough of a stir among the cognoscenti to be offered a coveted spot on the BBC's radio show Jazz Club. 

The loose policy of letting young wannabes perform with the band continued, with the jockeying for a position in the band intensifying. A 19 year old Mick Jagger was participating three nights a week in the interval, plucked from obscurity after sending Korner a home-made tape, but by July he had quit to join fellow wannabes Keith Richard and Brian Jones to form the infamous Rolling Stones (they became frequent interval pleasers at Ealing, and at the Marquee supporting Cyril Davies and The R&B All Stars, before making a name for themselves.)

 

In 1963 the Korner/Davies collaboration came to its end; the end of an era. The split was due to Korner's desire to add horns to the group's line-up, which Davies hated. Cyril had always preferred the Chicago-style blues, as opposed to Korner's more tepid rhythm. Korner continued with Blues Incorporated, while Davies assembled the better and amazing Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars, complete with a heavy, strong sound. Unfortunately this was short lived. Cyril died aged just 31 in early 1964. Alexis continued to work steadily with various combinations of musicians until his death in 1984, but failed to compete with the new sound of R&B-based pop against many of the young guys who had once begged him for a chance to show what they were made of.

The Marquee Club, 1962

L-R: Dave Stevens, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Alexis Korner, Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, Cyril Davies

Long John Baldry kept the remaining All-Stars as his backing band (renamed the Hoochie Coochie Men; also a starting point for Rod Stewart and Elton John) but the moment had passed. Davies' vocals had a character that made the group competitive during the blues boom of 1962-63, and his harp playing was second to none in England; a powerful, alternately mournful or exultant sound. Meanwhile, the original Blues Incorporated had served as a catalyst for the formation of numerous bands and rock legends The Artwoods, The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, The Yardbirds, Cream, The Faces, Manfred Mann, The Pretty Things, etc. The rest is music history.

The Hoochie Coochie Men

 

The Artwoods

The Pretty Things

 

Although they never achieved commercial success on a large scale, unlike many of their protégés, the influence and nurturing Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies gave to popular music as we know it was immense. Let we, or the superstars, not ever forget them.

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