Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer
Long John Baldry - In the Shadow of the Blues
Documentary - 60min - (CTV, Bravo, BBC)- www.soapboxproductions.ca
Nick Orchard, President and CEO of Soapbox Productions Inc., began work on his documentary Long John Baldry: In the Shadow of the Blues in 2000, following Baldry with camera and crew to his old stomping grounds in London where John had gone to do some recording work.
In late 2009, Nick sent us his interview (transcript) with Long John that took place in the room where the Barrelhouse Club was held in the late 1950s. Here's the transcript if you're interested. I was privileged that John allowed me to be his video biographer, and I'm happy to share the material as much as I can; you're welcome to use the whole interview. I look upon it as my debt to John for allowing me all the access to his life - Nick Orchard
Many thanks Nick, this was a great help! (Todd)
Nick Orchard's transcription, edited and images selected by Todd Allen.
Describe this room?
Long John Baldry (LJB) - Well we're sitting in the upstairs room of the Round House Pub on the corner of Wardour Street and Brewer Street in Soho, the depths of Soho, and of course this is the very room that Alex Korner and Cyril Davis had their weekly blues and barrelhouse sessions back in the late 50's. I think it was about 1957 I first came up here and met Alex and Cyril for the first time. Of course they were 'the blues', I mean they were just so totally enamoured of the blues, as I was at that age, and I became very close to them but in very, very short time. I mean we, we became so close. I was coming up here every week and hanging out with them for the rest of the days of the week - but Thursday night here at the Round House was the night - if you wanted to hear blues music.
Of course back then there were no microphones or anything like that in here. It was all acoustic instruments. There was a piano way over there in the corner and I guess just behind me would have been the spot where it would have been played. Out there, where you all are, would have been where the audience was sitting on the floor because I think there was only a couple of chairs here - and a couple of stools for us to sit on and play on. But that area there in front of us is where the majority of the audience would sit.
Everyone would come in through that door over there with the stairs coming up from the street. I think people used to pay like two and six pence to get in, half a crown - what's that in today's money? Oh my gosh twenty, twenty five pence not even twenty five - twenty two and a half pence - in today's money, which is of course is (laugh)…you can't even get an ice cream for that these days or a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, you can't. You can't get anything for that now I don't think. But a back then I mean of course you know their life was cheap, the entertainment certainly was. I mean you go to the cinema and it was one and six pence I mean what is cinema now? It's about eight pounds or so or ten pounds I think to go. But in the 50's, I mean, yes - we had just gone through the Second World War just a few years before and it was a period of austerity. There was a 'greyness' to it - certainly around here. Well actually, here (at the Round House) there was a bit of a sparkle that was, you know, the greyness was kind of pushed back in the background for a little while - at least in the world of entertainment. We used to have an annual fair just around here called the Soho Fair; of course that was banned a long time ago because the powers that be were terrified that people we having too much fun. But here on a Thursday night…you could realize your blues dreams.
Did you perform as a group or individually?
LJB - Usually individually or in two's or in three's but sometimes you'd get a piano player that would come up. A frequent visitor here was a man called Keith Scott who's still the ultimate British Blues piano player. I haven't seen him in many, many years but gosh - was he a great player. And, as I say, Lisa Turner would come in with her five string banjo and there was always Alex and Cyril here. And then of course there were the great American artists who would drop by here; Big Bill Broonzy when he was still alive, Muddy and Otis Spann actually played here in this place when they were here in 1958. Rambling Jack Elliot was a frequent visitor. I got to know Jack very, very well. In fact we still correspond and still see each other - mainly in North America these days. I don't think Jack has been over to Europe in a long time.
What were the songs?
LJB - Oh gosh - well it was pretty standard blues material; Good Morning Blues, CC Rider Blues, How Long Blues, and all those kinds of things…the staple blues diet. But there were the old songs, the odd obscurities that Alex would a show me. For instance, I remember it was in this very room I learned from Alex a song from Leroy Carr that I still do in my repertoire; a song called the 'em>Midnight Owl Blues - and that was from hearing Alex singing it in this very place… this very spot!
Electric instruments were not considered part of the Blues scene at all?
LJB - Well, here's the ironic thing. When Muddy Waters first came over in 1958 to the Chris Barber band, he was castigated by many of the critics, you know, because they thought, "Oh my goodness - this loud music…oh it's rock and roll…oh no, we don't want to hear that rock and roll - we want to hear the Blues". And of course Muddy you know - that was what he had been doing in the Chicago Southside clubs - with the heavily amplified slide guitar and blah, blah, blah. So he was very, very upset by the flack that he got from the reviewers in 1958. So, next time he came over, which I think was 1961, he brought an acoustic guitar with him which of course didn't really work. Although there were a couple of albums that Muddy did at Chess Studios called the Folk Blues, or the folk Muddy Waters - Folk Singer - that was what it was called; then another album he did as a tribute to Bill Broonzy - he actually did play acoustic guitar and actually, those albums worked. But it was kind of strange seeing him come back then…he won them playing, you know, very well…comparatively polite acoustic blues - but then, that's how the world was then. They tried to put blues music under a folk umbrella or folk banner if you like. And it was it was very, very strange because to me the music that I'd fallen in love with - the music a was in '54, or thereabouts, was that heavily amplified stuff and a eventually of course we caught up with the rest of the world here in England. Well, not caught up with the rest of the world because we were the first bunch of white people that started the blues band here in 1960. Just at the end of '61, going into '62 was when Blues Incorporated was born; which of course was Alex, Alex Korner on guitar, Cyril Davies on harmonica. The founding members of the band were Charlie Watts on drums, whom I've known since we were both kids at school, you know, the ultimate jazz lovers; a man called Andy Hoogenboom who used to come up here and sit in the audience and watch - he was on the stand up bass and either Keith Scott on piano or, what was the name of the other guy that played from time to time…Dave Stevens was it (?)…oh, it's so long ago; and Dick Heckstall-Smith - still one of the great a tenor saxophone players you know.
Where were you hearing the music you were playing first?
LJB - It was very much, you know, getting recordings over from the States, and if you knew our friend Doug Dobell who had the record shop on Charing Cross Road - I mean he did a great job of bringing in all kinds of obscure things that perhaps we hadn't heard of before. I mean he did a wonderful job of bringing in stuff and there was a John Jack, his manager at the shop, who went the extra yard in bringing recordings in. So of course we all spent a fortune on records back in those days because records always had been a pretty expensive thing to buy...more so these days in the CD age but they always were a pretty expensive thing to a to buy and collect. Of course there was the element of the Blues artists coming over - you know, that we'd be hearing back in the 50's. It was mainly piano players; Champion Jack Dupree and Roosevelt Sykes, Speckled Red and Sunnyland Slim - they had a whole slew of a piano players coming over. I think they were all coming over and playing at the Hundred (100 Club) Oxford Street which was another great club on Oxford Street. Previously known as the Humphrey Lyttelton Club and that was managed by a wonderful piano player - a man who've known for many, many years - a man called George Webb. So it was natural that he, as a piano player, would bring in other piano players…so at the Hundred Oxford Street you saw all kinds of them; Memphis Slim too! You saw masses of wonderful Blues piano players coming through there. And, very often either Alex Korner or myself would get the job of doing a little bit of guitar noodling behind these guys.
Most of the musicians you were listening to were black musicians?
LJB - Yes.
You were mostly white?
LJB - That's right. I mean totally in love with the whole thing - the Blues culture, black American culture. I guess in a way it was that we were - yes playing and singing parrot fashion, but after awhile we started finding our own identity. It developed into our own style so in the end they started calling them British Blues and I suppose I was one of the leading a lights of that movement in the early to mid sixties.
How did it evolve?
LJB - Well I think people started to get…wanting to change it into the pop music, if you like, and for a brief moment in time back in the early sixties, there was an enormous amount of Blues music making. And the charts - sometimes you know, making it to number one or certainly top five…I remember, for instance, at the beginning of the sixties Smokestack Lightning, the Howlin' Wolf song, being in the top five here. The Sonny Boy Williamson song, Somebody Help Me, which was based around the Green Onions riff, you know, that did in fact reach number one here. I think Pye records of that time were the distribution label of choice for most of the North American Blues labels - especially Chess; they in fact had a little subsidiary label, Pye World Blues or something like that (ed. - Pye International). They had a lot of success through that period '62 going into '65 and who would have thought it? It was more especially wonderful that all the stuff was being so successful here because to the mainstream market in North America it really meant nothing. It wasn't until much later that the blues started getting an audience outside of the 'grits and chitlens' as it is called. I suppose, like in Chicago and in the southern States, it wasn't until much later in the 60's that the Blues started finding its own audience in the States. And I think that again was through the efforts of people like the Stones because the Stones always insisted on having a good black support act with them on tour when they went on the tours. So the American audiences, for the first time, would be discovering Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy and a host of…or even Ike and Tina Turner - they were discovering them for the first time because Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones went out of there way to promote these artists who they felt had been…yes, probably, they were unfairly ignored because of the social mores of the time in the United States.
Do you want to talk anymore about the music of that time?LJB - We can backtrack a little bit to 1957 and mention the Skiffle thing as you just brought up. Because I think that should be like mentioned, defined and whatnot because Alex had a lot to do with the whole Lonnie Donegan thing. Of course before them all was Ken Colyer - in fact we should have done a little bit of filming at the Studio 51 on Great Newport Street. Maybe we could say that's where the Stones actually started up - in the nightclub - another basement place; Studio 51, sometimes known as the Ken Colyer Club.
Of course in 1957 that was the tail end of the whole Skiffle movement in England, which was like a continuation of, in British terms, country blues, acoustic stuff or…what were those bands they called back then (?) - jug bands like Gus Cannon and his Jug Band and The Memphis Jug Band - things like that. The man who really spearheaded that movement, the man who is never given quite enough credit, was not Lonnie Donegan - but was Ken Colyer. His whole thing was the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group came about long before Lonnie Donegan. In fact Lonnie Donegan played in that group as did Alex, Alexis Korner. Alex played mandolin, Ken Colyer played guitar, Lonnie Donegan played a guitar or banjo, Chris Barber played the bass and Bill Colyer played the washboard - or sometimes Beryl Bryden. In fact its Beryl Bryden playing washboard on the 'Rock Island Line' - that record that Lonnie Donegan had so much success with. But Ken Colyer really was the man who started it all. I think even Cyril and Alex would agree that Ken was the man - he was the catalyst for it all - all things blues in this country. Sadly, he passed on a few years ago but I always found him a charming man, lovely man, great coronet player and trumpet player playing in the sort of New Orleans style. But he sort of moonlighted as a folksy, bluesy singer with a voice so much like Jack Teagarden that was the oddest thing you know. He had a lot of warmth, had a lot of charm about him. A lot of people found him an irascible old bugger you know and all that and very stubborn but I, I just found him a lovely man and I was very proud to have known Ken Colyer.
How did they galvanize a movement?
LJB - Well I think it was because they were so sincere about what they were doing. They had a deep love of the Blues.
The people who really drove it in this country at that time?
LJB - I think the thing that impressed people the most about Alex Korner, about Cyril Davies and about Ken Colyer and Chris Barber was their obvious and deeply felt love of the Blues and jazz music in general; when you find that kind of emotion in people you can't ignore it, you feel like you want to join in on what they're doing and what they're thinking, what they're feeling and wherever they're going on their journey. I think that's how Alexis touched me, certainly touched a lot of the people like Mick and Brian and Keith from the Stones and many, many other people. It was that that pioneering spirit. I think maybe it set the world ablaze - our little corner of the world back in, in the early 60's.
Is there anything more you think we should touch on?
LJB - Well this (The Round House) was our little sanctuary I suppose from the world at large (Laugh) but it was, it was like a tiny little microcosm of everything, wasn't it (?) - in here. But how many people could this hold - in this…fifty (?) and it would be a crowd wouldn't it?
Your place in the hierarchy here?
LJB - Oh yes. Back then I was really just starting out although I rapidly became a favourite if you like of the kids going to the jazz clubs and whatnot - and folk clubs and wherever else I played at that time. Not necessarily because I was so wonderful back then - I think it was because it was a rarity in the world. I mean Alex and Cyril, yes they were there - but I was the only other one. There were very few people around. There were actually one or two people who were not known outside of London but were later to become known. I think particularly of Rory McEwen and Alex McEwen, the two brothers from the McEwen brewing…beer company; a Scottish family and they were great a players in the folk blues tradition - Rory especially with his a twelve string mastery. I guess if I ever became or have become proficient on the twelve string guitar over the years it was really the initial influence of Rory McEwen - I would say.
Anything more we should add?
LJB - No, I can't. Did we sort of get the flavour of the room in the footage that we've taken so far? Of course back then it (the room) had sort of like, awful…oh I can describe that for you, yeah. Of course the Round House Pub (laugh) - The Blues & Barrel House, the room above, for Thursday night sessions, looked a lot different in 1957 and a few years afterwards. I mean there was a flock wallpaper on the walls as far as I can remember; the similar kind of thing you see sometimes in Indian restaurants these days. But it was very popular back in the 50's and 60's in England. Especially with a room that might have a higher ceiling than normal.
I don't think they had that chandelier up there. And I think there were particularly heavy drapes that I can remember here that were very, very non specific a fabric. There was linoleum on the floor which must have been very cold for the people sitting (laugh) on the floor, because linoleum is almost cold to the touch isn't it? And of course now they've got this very posh new floor that has been laid in here. That bar was not there then and they had a little table just by the entrance door there for the two and sixpences to go in to.
I think when I came to work here over that, you know, 1957, '58, '59 and possibly a little bit of '61, I think Alex and Cyril used to give me ten shillings to perform here Thursday night. But that was you know…hey that was a big deal. I mean ten shillings is a basically about a dollar; but back then…I mean hey, it was a lot of money. You could go out for the evening, get wine, and dine maybe even pick up a whore for ten (laugh) shillings.
End of Interview Tape 2
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