Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer
Geoff Bradfords's recollections of Cyril Davies
Geoff Bradford was one of the original players on the early London Blues scene. Geoff has spent his whole life with his guitar playing a thousand miles ahead of his reputation and it would be nice to see his reputation catch up. - Paul Jones
The following article appears because of the generosity and graciousness of Mr. Bradford. During April and May, 2006, we were able to look back on his early musical life and record his memories. Although Geoff continued to play and record in the subsequent decades, what appears here is limited - for the most part, to the R&B All-Stars period of his career. I have been fortunate enough to find all of Geoff's solo work on record; he is without question a fine guitar player, His playing incorporates influences as far apart as Blind Blake, Django Rheinhart and Motown soul.
I found Geoff, like many of the other musicians featured in this section of the site, to be very humble - the reverence he displays when discussing guitar masters like Tal Farlow, Lenny Breau, and Wes Montgomery, etc., has deep roots in his respect of genius and the infinite possibilities of the instrument. Though, for all the prowess evident in his own playing, Geoff seems to be most proud of his marriage to wife, Jean, and their three daughters. It is with a great respect and deep appreciation that I thank Geoff Bradford for his participation - Todd
Geoff Bradford Speaks!
I was born 1934 January 13th in Islington and went to school in East Barnet - East Barnet Grammar. When I was about 16 or 18 years old, I heard Meade Lux Lewis - boogie woogie piano, exactly the same influences as Alexis Korner. When I was 14, I was taking piano lessons - you could actually buy piano transcriptions of Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Hammond. I didn't get beyond the key of C and I gradually lost interest. The teachers said I should have the music the right way up when I played and all that! I was memorizing it; I got my Mum to write notes over the top of the Meade Lux Lewis stuff. I remember one in particular, 'Bear Cat Crawl' which is on the reverse of 'Honky Tonk Train Blues' - I could then play it…which was amazing! That music was so different to what was around at the time. The appeal of the blues…it's such a neat, resolved music. The repetition is another feature of the music…and although people knock it…that is the secret of it.
I really got into jazz….early Brit Trad Jazz - Mike Mulligan and Chris Barber. By age 16 (1950), I used to go with my mates to see them at Wood Green in Jazz Club. There was a division in those days - the Traddies and the Boppies. The Boppies were into the American Be-Bop music. Ronnie Scott was a Bop player. There was a definite division in those days. The Traditionalists were playing re-hashed Dixieland. You had your purists, like Ken Colyer and Chris Barber. I was definitely into Trad stuff at this stage and would visit clubs like Wood Green / Cooks Ferry (Edmonton).
I eventually lost interest in the piano. Although I was a disinterested - nuisance while at school (I think I blew it in respect of what I was offered), I got matriculation. In those days it was all or nothing, you had to pass the whole lot. I went into an insurance office, and then, out of sheer boredom, I signed on for the Navy when I was 17 years old - 1952 it was. I was there for five years. I was a stoker - engineer they call it. We went all over the world…the only place we didn't go was America, which upset me.
I was doing a considerable amount of drawing at this time; that's what I wanted to do. My parents thought it was an unsteady occupation, and that was the hang up then. The white collar job was the thing to have. While I was in the Navy I did portraits. I was doing mostly figurative stuff - I never got into abstract. While on leave, I met my wife Jean. We were married in 1954. During my service we went to Sicily and I bought a guitar; they make some nice guitars there. I think at this point the Skiffle boom had started in England and I heard Lonnie Donegan's first records. It was similar to the piano stuff I had liked.
I don't remember how I learned the guitar - I just played it! On arriving in Malta, I was dissatisfied with that one and I got a white cut-away electric with sort of a contact mike stuck on the bottom. I don't remember what happened to it. I then bought myself out of the Navy. I went to work in a bakery then I went to Sainsbury's as a butcher. Finally I got into screen printing and that's what I've done ever since…sign writing, point of display, posters, etc.
My next musical move was joining a Skiffle group; we called ourselves the Sunrisers. We played at the Rising Sun in New Southgate. We used to take the bottle 'round. This was the time when Chris Barber was bringing the first people over from the States - blues players like Bill Broonzy; he may have been the first one but I was into it straight away. I think he was on TV once - it was the real thing! All that was available was Josh White, Lonnie Donegan of course, and Leadbelly - but anything else you had to go down to Dobell's and buy it on acetates, the sandwiches you know - and that's how I got into it. When I was into the Skiffle thing I went out and got everything I could - all the Bill Broonzy stuff, etc… Jean got sick of it. I emulated Broonzy religiously and ripped off everything he did.
Geoff and Keith Scott
I remember hearing a Bo Diddley track on AFM at the same time as the Bill Broonzy stuff; this track was an electric blues 'Take it to Jerome', so I thought - well this is tremendous, I'm going to do this instead of Broonzy - it's got more vitality! I thought, "What's the best thing to do?" I put an ad in Melody Maker and all these weird geezers turned up. I just put …"For Blues Band" and I didn't say what kind, so I got trombone players, saxophone players, and a bloke who thought he was Jimmy Rushing. Finally this piano player turned up whose name was Keith Scott. Keith, as it turned out, had an enormous collection of records - Clarence Lofton, Cow Cow Davenport, etc. So he and I got together and Keith said, "Why don't you come up tomorrow and play?" The place he was talking about was the Roundhouse. We started there - just as the two of us. This was when Cyril and Alexis were running it.
Keith and I were you playing Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell stuff. By this time I was playing a "National" Guitar; we would do a fair imitation between us. I don't know where Keith had been before, but he had it all down pat. We played it as authentically as possible.
Geoff and Cyril
Then Cyril and Alexis fell out, which was a turning point - Alex went off to form Blues Incorporated. Cyril liked playing the banjo - he had played with Steve Lane's Southern Stompers. Then, Cyril really identified with Leadbelly and brought himself a twelve string - "I'll get myself some of that." So that's how he got into it, I should imagine. At the Roundhouse Cyril and Alexis played as a duo; Cyril on harp and 12 string and vocals, Alexis on guitar. They did early Leadbelly stuff…you've never heard anything like it - you would have thought it was Leadbelly…it was incredible!
I don't recall how I got together with Cyril, I just did. The material I played with Cyril was based mostly on his Leadbelly stuff, with some Big Maceo, Speckled Red, Leroy Carr and stuff like that. As for Cyril's character…it was a hell of a long time ago(!) but I know he played for a jazz band called Colin Kingwell's Jazz Bandits, and I think Colin is still around…he may be helpful to you!
We did folk clubs round the south of England and it was the first TV I ever did - for Southern Television on an equivalent of the Tonight programme (BBC Cliff Michelmore). We went straight from there to a Southampton Folk Club which was great (followed by a club gig in the town); this was '58 or '59. The folk clubs were forming up all over England then, The Cellar in Greek Street was going and you had Donovan, Davy Graham, and Bert Jansch and so on. They were getting into something which was particularly English. I continued with Cyril who wanted to do it the American way - same as I did. Cyril had this very upfront sound with the 12 string. It was a bloody great thing, sounded like a piano and I think he tuned it down to C; for me to be heard over that took a bit of doing. Cyril was very aggressive in his playing - in the good sense, a good showman and an up front sort of bloke. Other gigs took place in Sutton, maybe the Red Lion, if it was going then.
The R&B All-Stars Mk I
Cyril decided he wanted to go form a band. Meantime I had got mixed up with some other people. I had gone with Keith with the idea of forming a band and so we did it. Brian Knight was a mate of Cyril's who worked for him. I became friends with Brian and we formed this band with Keith Scott (piano) and Charlie Watts (drums), and Peter Andrews (bass). This was a very, very small scene. Cyril took over Screamin' Lord Sutch's Savages - totally - completely; Nicky Hopkins (piano), Carlo Little (drums), Ricky Brown (bass), and Bernie Watson on guitar. He took them over and turned it into a CHICAGO BAND…to hear a Chicago band was too much to handle after you'd been listening to your local dance band!
I started listening to people like Matt Murphy and T-Bone Walker. T-Bone was my favourite; there weren't that many American lead players in those days. I had an electric guitar by then and was fiddling about trying to get that sort of sound…Hubert Sumlin and Willie Johnson (both players from Howlin' Wolf's bands)! Hubert knocked me right out - it was really wild, some of it, and so crudely recorded - yet it is still good!
Brian Knight and I were basically doing Chicago Blues - not like Muddy Waters though - it didn't come out that way. It was more like the 50's type of thing. It is really difficult to describe. Although we were aiming for a 'Chicago Sound' it didn't come out like that. Everyone was listening to Muddy then, you had to really. We had to play "I've got my Mojo Working," "I'm a Man," and "I'm Ready." Brian was singing and playing harmonica and I was on electric guitar - a Supro; that may have been an offshoot of Gretsch, I'm not sure though - must be collector's piece by now…it could have been part of National. For an amplifier I had a little green thing, like a radio set - Elipco, I think it was called; about 2ft long with one little speaker that must have been at least 10 watts! We played Cheam Town Hall and I stood it right at the front of the stage just so it could be heard. The name of that band was the first 'Blues by Six'. I'm a bit hazy on the names of these bands. We were getting 'interval' spots at the Marquee to Cyril's band on Thursday nights - Blues Night. Cyril's band was tremendous, powerful! Especially Nicky Hopkins, he was phenomenal and they had Carlo Little drumming. Carlo had been so used to whacking it out with Sutch that blues didn't come to difficult for him. It was a really punchy band. There were NO other bands around. Cyril's was the first band that was doing the Chicago thing - Muddy Waters stuff, Howlin' Wolf, etc. Cyril's (band) was R&B / Hard Rock really!During this time Alexis was doing blues…trying to fuse a feel for the horn into blues. He was working with Graham Bond and Jack Bruce on upright acoustic. He had so many different side men through his bands - like Dick Heckstall-Smith.
The R&B All-Stars Mk II
When Bernie left, Cyril rang me up and said he wanted me to join the band as he needed a blues guitar player. Make no mistake, Bernie was a great guitar player - he was a rock'n'roll player, that was the difference. You see there was Hank Marvin and that lot, but nobody really into the blues. Bernie went on to become a classical guitar teacher, I think. I replaced him and Cliff Barton replaced Rick Brown on bass - and that became the Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars, which was pretty successful! We did quite a lot of TV then. We even did a series - Hootnanny…or was that the American version? Anyway, a sort of folk programme and we were resident. There were different people coming through like Caroline Lester and Davy Graham. I can't remember who presented the programme - maybe one of the McEwan brothers had something to do with it. It was done at Teddington, networked for Rediffusion and went all over the world. Also there were a couple of programmes called 'Beat Room', maybe when BBC2 started (?).
We (the All-Stars) had a Residency at the Marquee in Wardour Street; it had moved by then. Harold Pendleton ran it and John Gee managed it. Some other residents were Alex Harvey, Gary Farr and the T-Bones; they all certainly played there. We were the main band playing electric blues music. There was one Marquee concert which was recorded (what year)? The drummer was Ernie O'Malley, Cyril had a turnover of drummers…the last time I saw Ernie he said, "What became of the tape?" Someone, somewhere might say there were others, but I don't remember any others!
Ralph McTell would comment, "I first saw Geoff with the Cyril Davies All Stars at Eel Pie Island in the 60's and later with Long John Baldry at the same venue. I was always struck by his quiet composure whilst playing this Tele or Strat and occasionally his National. Geoff played finger style and here for me was a living link between my early efforts and the great country blues men we both admired."
I was always interested in getting the sound right, but it just wasn't what I was hearing on Wolf records or the American records. Instead of thinking it was me, I would blame the gear. I used to whine and whine and then one day Cyril said as we were walking in Charing Cross Road, "Have that Telecaster," and he bought it there and then. I was really pleased with it. The only problem was you could not a get a decent amp then, but there were some about, although incredibly expensive. I used an AC30 which was alright. People would say, "What are you playing that daft guitar for? You should play a Stratocaster or a Gibson for lead…those guitars are for rhythm."
We made a single with Cyril - 'Preachin' the Blues' and 'Sweet Mary'. It was the first blues single in this country with anything like a blues sound on it. It was on Pye, the old red and yellow label. When you listen to it now, it's not bad; it's something getting towards a blues record. It has black nativity singers on backing on one side. Instead of lead guitar I played a backing role with fill-ins. Cyril would give me solos in his band but on the record it was more…filling in. I was basing my playing and sound on Hubert Sumlin and Willie Johnson…guitar players; I was aiming at emulating them. Cyril did have a reputation for being bossy and aggressive, but I never found him that way personally - but he was tough. If I played something he didn't like he'd tell me in no uncertain terms…he would say, "This is a 'Blues Band', so that's what you play, not jazz!"
Then Cyril got ill and sadly and that was that. It was a mental and a physical blow and I was affected even physically, with red blotches all over me. I liked Cyril but he could be a bloody monster - no two ways about it…but it was a blow. After his death the band didn't have the attack…Cyril had been a good front man with authority, which you needed to front a blues band. All the best blues bands had a guy like that in front -Howlin Wolf , etc. You can't lead a blues band from the back.
John Baldry was a good singer, in fact there hasn't better one to my mind. When John took over, he called the band after the song, much to everyone's dismay. So it was a bit weird being called a 'Hoochie Coochie Man' - you felt a real berk. John also took over the bank and money-wise things got a bit out of order and we never got paid…I had a wife and family to think of! I didn't have a day job - I'd stopped it when I joined Cyril's band. Cyril was always fair; it was a real Governor/Employee relationship and we always got paid. John was originally taken on as second singer with the All-Stars. I'd seen him though a long time before that! He did unaccompanied blues - it was fantastic! Probably the best blues singer we had. I think by bringing John in, Cyril thought he could get a few more punters in as John was fresh out of Art College. So, as I was saying, when John took over - the Agency changed and things got bad money-wise, basically disorganized. John's aspirations were more in the area of show business - cabaret.
Our crowd was older. They were a mixture of dissatisfied Trad fans and youngsters - that sums it up. You see, we took over from the Trad bands as people were a bit fed up so the audience stayed augmented by youngsters. When groups like the Yardbirds came along, the kids went with them, as they were younger groups. Looking back, that was clearly what was happening. While touring the country we never had write-ups in the press, reviews or anything; we weren't big enough. The emphasis was on the pop side. I think in the book on Memphis Slim there are write-ups or some mention of Cyril or the Hoochie Coochie Men - I just never bothered to collect things.
During the first 'Blues By Six' period Brian Jones asked me to join this band. We met at the Marquee. He came up to me and said he was forming a blues band and…was I interested? I used to play harp and guitar and he played slide guitar. This was when we had another interval spot - just another pick up band. I don't really remember who was in it; there was Andy Wren and we used to do Ray Charles stuff like 'Hit the Road Jack', etc. Brian Knight must have been there anyway, that's the way I remember it - and so we got a rehearsal together in Broadwick Street at the Bricklayers and there was Ian Stewart. I suppose you could say we were an embryonic part of it - founding fathers if you like, but not of the actual Stones.
Geoff & Chris Barber
Chris Barber was the guy though. He started the Skiffle Craze. He was the main spring of the whole thing; he started everything really, so you could say Chris Barber was the 'Original' - he was responsible for a lot really…there's the man to give credit to.
"We had no guitar player again so we thought we'd got to find one; put scouts out to find one; asked Geoff Bradford, who was very good. He was with Long John Baldry, but he was going to go back to college so that was out; he would have been very good. And then there was somebody else I knew but it didn't really work, and then we finally tried John Slaughter out…" - Chris Barber - fROOTS Magazine, Nos. 266/267, August/September 2005.
Geoff explains, "The quote is correct in all details except one, I wasn't going to college. It was a flattering offer because Chris was very big in Europe at the time. I remember being taken to lunch by Chris and Ottilie Patterson. The reason I didn't join them was that I thought I would be under-employed. Chris only had a blues segment as a part of his show, and used a banjo player for the rest."
Jeff Beck & Jimmy PageI met Jeff Beck at Eel Pie Island and I think I was playing with Cyril and he was with the Tridents…he was bloody good! The Tridents were in the interval and I thought he was good! It's a long way back - but I do remember Jimmy Page; he used to do interval spots with other bands at the Marquee; I don't remember the bands. We used to do Sunday afternoon sessions at the Colyer Club and he used to be in the other band. I don't even remember what band I was in then - it must have been 'Blues by Six' - but he would do this Sunday gig too.
It was such a small scene with people shuffling around different bands but I do remember him very well - he had a brown Gretsch like Chet Atkins. I did some sessions with him too, later on when we were on the session scene. He and Jim Sullivan had the session scene sewn up by then. We had a passing friendship really…just, "All right, Jim - that's a nice guitar." I remember once he had an actual Charlie Christian Gibson which he offered for sale and I just didn't have the money, otherwise I would have bought it!
Cliff Barton passed away - he was a great friend. We were the closest in the group and interested in music together. He died of a drug overdose, like so many of them. We knew he was doing it and we tried to stop him…and you can't do anymore than that, can you? It was a long time after we parted that he died and I only knew when I picked up a Melody Maker and it said the 'late Cliff Barton' - and I was stunned.
I played with Art Wood in another splinter band - on and off really. This interval band I've mentioned, which had Andy Wren on keyboards - we used to do funny places, country clubs and that, and that group got involved with Art Wood somehow, and we used to go to these places, but the line-ups are really hazy.
I remember Rod Stewart of course. John took him on as second singer all the way through the Hoochie Coochie Men. He was a good lad and I liked his singing.
The Rolling Stones
I think I might have seen their first gig at Mack's in Windmill Street…it was called Mack's Rehearsal Rooms. I thought they were great, yeah! I wasn't into all that stuff; it was nearly all Chuck Berry - but you could see the effect they had on the crowd and they were gonna do it!
I enjoyed myself…I wouldn't have done it otherwise. We certainly didn't get much out of it. There was no money involved…not on our side of it anyway. Why we were into it, I don't know - and there you are; but I'll tell you something more significant - it comes from the South of England, not the North. It was Surry - Richmond, the West of London.
Read more about Geoff at his official website http://www.geoff-bradford.co.uk
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