Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner – the Nexus of British Blues

Most people who follow rock and blues know that blues started in America, made its way to England and then was brought back to the US during the so-called British Invasion. What many people, I think, don’t know is that there is a “missing link” in that equation. Here is a brief look at that story. 

You literally cannot read a bio of British blues without running into the names of certain clubs (Klook’s Kleek, Crawdaddy, Marquee) and names (Long John Baldry, Cyril Davies, Alexis Korner, John Mayall). So who are these guys? (You may already be quite familiar with John Mayall, who I’ll write up in a later post. For the record, it was Korner who influenced him, not the other way around.)

Paris-born Alexis Korner was important not only for helping to establish the British blues scene but also for being one of those central figures around whom everyone else coalesces. In fact, Wikipedia says he was also known as “Father of the British Blues.” (A nickname I guess he wasn’t particularly fond of. Keith Richards called him the grandfather). A guitarist and keyboard player, he met and played with harmonica player/vocalist Cyril Davies in the late ’40’s, early 50’s when most of the British guitar heroes were still in short pants.

In an interview, Korner described how he and his mates used to “nick (steal) 78’s from the stores.” One of these records – a piano blues – was life-changing for him. From then on, it was blues and nothing but the blues. It did not make his father happy to hear boogie-woogie played on the household piano.

As to Korner/Davies influence, I will quote here from Wikipedia because A) it’s just so awesome to think about and B) I can’t improve upon it:

“In 1961, Korner and Davies formed Blues Incorporated, initially a loose-knit group of musicians with a shared love of electric blues and R&B music. The group included, at various times, Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry…. It also attracted a wider crowd of mostly younger fans, some of whom occasionally performed with the group, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Rod Stewart, … John Mayall and Jimmy Page.” (Time out here for a “we are not worthy.”) The caption on that picture above, BTW, identifies the drummer as Charlie Watts. 

These guys were emulating American blues that they’d heard, for the most part, on records imported into London and Liverpool. (Often sailors would bring them back from their journeys). Davies and Korner started out playing at a club called the Roundhouse and eventually had a residency at the Marquee (the absolute cauldron of this sound) in 1962. And that’s where all the above musicians used to sit in.

And when the American blues masters (Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim) came to town they’d jam with them too.

Here’s Blues Incorporated doing the Willie Dixon-written Muddy Waters hit, “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Davies on vocal and harp.

It’s interesting to realize that not only were these guys introducing Chicago-style blues to England, they were also pushing boundaries. Prior to this, they were all playing in skiffle bands with acoustic instruments. Clubs did not want amplifiers and they had to keep pushing and pushing to get it to happen.

Skiffle had elements of blues and folk but along with the traditional acoustic guitar used instruments such as washboards, musical saws and banjos. So this leap to electric blues was, in a sense revolutionary. Blues was the message and Korner/Davies its messengers. Or perhaps its missionaries.

Davies was an absolute blues purist. And so when he saw Blues Incorporated going in a jazzier direction (not at all a sax fan), he left and formed Cyril Davies and his Rhythm and Blues All Stars.  (The Yardbirds were a backup band for him on at least one gig). They recorded the song, “Country Line Special,” which was a minor, but influential hit. (“The record that kick-started The Kinks” per Ray Davies).

Piano on this one by Nicky Hopkins who contributed so much to the Stones’ and Jeff Beck canons.

Keith Richards, clearly moved by talking about Korner, said that he was “untiring in promoting the music and bringing together the right musicians. For a Russian he was a damn good blues player.” There’s no evidence whatsoever that Korner was Russian. But hey it’s Keef, so if he says the guy’s Russian, then dammit he is.

On August 1, 1963, The Beatles – who weren’t oblivious to this scene but weren’t really part of it – recorded editions nos. 11 and 12 in their radio series ‘Pop Go the Beatles’. Their guests were Cyril Davies’ R&B All-Stars featuring Long John Baldry.

Every time I research one of these things I get a total surprise. Well, the following video is of the late Steve Marriott (Small Faces, Humble Pie) jamming with Korner in 1975 on a West German TV show. Who knew? You might recognize this song from John Lee Hooker and George Thorogood versions. (Side note: I love Marriott’s voice. Nobody sounds like him. He actually sang on the cast album of the musical “Oliver” as a young boy.)

Cyril Davies’ blues passion (and life) flamed out and he died at 31 of endocarditis. Long John Baldry rechristened the band the Hoochie Coochie Men. And after hearing Rod Stewart sing at a train station, recruited him as their next lead singer.

When that group disbanded, Baldry – an interesting character worthy of further consideration – formed Steam Packet with organist Brian Auger. He later hired, as his backing group, Bluesology, whose pianist Reg Dwight combined the first name of Baldry with that of the group’s saxophonist, Elton Dean,  to choose the stage name of Elton John. Elton went on to have some modest success of his own.

And if you’ve never heard Reg play the blues, here’s your chance.He’s on the right in that pic, of course. (from 1965):

Musically, Korner never really went much beyond being the initial catalyst. He went on to a career in broadcasting including doing a kids show and died of lung cancer in 1984. His (and Davies’) legacy lives on in all the artists they inspired.

Korner StonesKorner plaque

 

11 thoughts on “Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner – the Nexus of British Blues

  1. I was surprised how much I really liked the music from your post from these early British Blues pioneers, Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner. Although you can hear the American Blues influence in all the songs, the one song, “Everyday I Have the Blues” with lead singer(?) Long John Baldry (great voice) and back up group, “Bluesology”, you can really hear both the American Blues influence and the beginning sound of the British rockers who came to America and changed how we listened to our music. I am still fascinated on how American Blues was reinvented back in the UK. Great post! Thanks!

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    1. Yea, Baldry was the singer. He had an interesting hit a few years later called, “Don’t try to lay no boogie-woogie on the king of rock and roll.” Catchy tune.

      Korner and Davies are virtually unknown outside of Britain – and I bet even inside – so I wanted them to get their due, even if it was only on my blog. Knowing their role makes it feel like a puzzle piece clicks into place. And it was fun to discover Elton John ripping it up on the blues. Yay for YouTube.

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  2. Thanks. So many fascinating eddies and connections in music history! Great to see Cyril remembered so fondly. Good clips set me off on a nostalgic trip through my CDs!

    Very much enjoying my visits here. Regards Thom.

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    1. Thanks and official welcome to my corner of the blogosphere. I wager that you may be one of the few reading these pages who had even heard of Cyril much less owned any of his music. I first heard of Korner/Davies years ago when I got into British blues/rock but it was just sort of a couple of background names. Finally, as I mentioned in my post, I had to find out more as their names kept cropping up and they are virtually unknown in the States. If you ever care to share more about you got into him(them), I will not stop you. 😀

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