Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

Cecil's Memories

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If Alexis was going to persevere with the idea of a band of his own, he would need to build up his own personnel. One remarkable feature of the emerging band was that every time it got a press mention the line-up was different and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, wrongly sited. The first announcement of a permanent band came in Jazz News on the same day that the Marquee sessions started; it was 'to include Keith Scott (harmonica/vocal), Malcolm Cecil (bass), Danny Craig (drums) and a pianist to be announced later'. For Keith Scott, of course, read Cyril Davies. Keith himself was acknowledged by his peers as one of the finest pianists in the country. Malcolm Cecil incidentally went on to produce Stevie Wonder, so right from the start Alexis had a vision that his band would be home to the best musicians around, as well as giving opportunities to those on the way up - p. 96, Alexis Korner, The Biography - Harry Shapiro © 1996

Malcolm Cecil (b.1937) is originally from England where he was resident bassist at the world famous Ronnie Scott Jazz Club for many years as well as being principle bassist with the BBC Radio Orchestra before emigrating to the US. He has performed on numerous jazz albums with many world-renowned jazz artists including guitarist Jim Hall, saxophonist Stan Getz, trombone virtuoso J.J. Johnson and the phenomenal Roland Kirk (aka Rahsaan).

However, Malcolm is probably best known as a synthesizer programmer/performer, Grammy winning recording engineer and producer for Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, Richie Havens, Minnie Ripperton, Steven Stills, Joan Baez and many other major recording artists. Malcolm recently moved to the Woodstock, NY area and currently owns and operates a private Project & Mastering facility, TONTO's.

The following Q&A occurred in May 2006 with the extraordinary generosity of Malcolm Cecil.
Malcolm is compiling his memoirs with a view to publishing an autobiography some time in the near future.

T.A.: Malcolm - you were in an early incarnation of Blues Inc.?

M. C.: I was indeed involved with Alexis Korner and Blues Incorporated back in the late 50's. Cyril Davies was playing harmonica, 12 string guitar and singing with the band at that time. A young Mick Jagger would sit in sometimes when we played at the blues club in Ealing. On one memorable occasion Mick asked Cyril if he could bend notes on guitar and Cyril quipped If you gimme some pliers, man.

Drummer Danny Craig played with the band and was the first person to introduce me to Alexis. Danny, Dill Jones and I shared a flat in Upper Berkley St. in the West End of London and worked as the Dill Jones Trio most of the time, but Danny and I also did other gigs on the jazz scene, including Blues Incorporated.

This was more than a year before I was called up for National Service into the RAF in March 1958. After my 6 weeks of "square bashing" (basic training) at RAF Bassingbourne I was posted to RAF Locking for a 9 month course in Radar following which I was posted to RAF Ouston, 30 miles from Newcastle on Tyne . It was there that I met Mike Carr. Mike was a Mars Bar traveling salesman at the time, but he played very nice vibes and piano. In fact the MC3, with Ronnie Stephenson on drums (which became the MC4 when we were joined on the weekends by Gary Cox on tenor sax), was the first group of that name and was so called because it was both Mike's and my initials.

The MC3 and MC4 played 4 nights a week in a small coffee bar called the Marimba owned and run by Mike Jeffries - with whom I later became partners in the Downbeat Club - Mike went on to become first the manager for the Animals and later for Jimi Hendrix. Our paths crossed again in New York when I came to the USA and recorded the four classic Stevie Wonder albums, Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale at Electric Lady Studios with my huge analog synthesizer, TONTO. But that period of my life is a whole book in itself!

T.A.: Do you know what happened to Danny Craig? Was he by chance the same Danny Craig that played drums in Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight Orchestra?

M.C.: Yes he was. Danny passed away over 20 years ago, maybe more. He was in bad shape from his drinking and had his spleen removed. He never really recovered from that.

T.A.: I am sorry to hear that, please continue.

M.C.: Six months prior to my demobilization in 1960 I was posted to RAF West Malling, about a 40 mile commute from London enabling me to return to the London Jazz scene gigging with the likes of Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Vic Ash, Harry Klien, Tommy Whittle, Don Rendall, Joe Harriot, Harold McNair, Ernest Ranglin, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Peter King, Brian Dee, Phil Seaman, Tony Crombie, Tony Kinsey and Alexis Korner's Blues Inc..

I had married my lifelong companion, Paula (now known as Poli), one month before being called up and it is of note that she and Bobbie Korner, Alexis' widow, were at that time best friends and are still in close contact with each other to the present time. She would wheel our son Milton, named after Milt Jackson, in his push chair from our flat in Sutherland Avenue to the Korner's flat in Moscow Road, before they moved to the Queensway location We visited them often sitting in their beautiful basement kitchen drinking endless cups of strong Russian tea which was constantly on tap from the samovar and smoking Gauloises (shag tobacco) cigarettes - who knew!

Alexis always looked a million dollars dressed to sartorial excellence. They shared the flat with music critic Charles Fox and there were always interesting musicians and artistic people there having conversations that ranged from the downright hilarious to the highly intellectual. It was like an understated social salon. Alexis had the uncanny knack of recognizing young talent very early. He was always on the lookout for up and coming players, principally bassists, but also other instrumentalists.

Graham Bond was a frequent band member, playing a very wild alto sax. He couldn't do any out of town gigs because of his day job as a refrigerator salesman for R.E.A. Bott. He was very straight laced at that time and a purist, refusing point blank to join a soul band I was forming, indignantly saying "That's not jazz, man, that's selling out!" which in retrospect is somewhat ironic.

There was no fixed line up for the band. Alexis liked to surround himself with the best musicians he could find and he would rotate the personnel according to the musician's availability. Almost everyone who went on to become a major music personality played in the band at one time or another. I often gigged with the band during that entire period. On one gig at the Marquee Club on Oxford Street I was playing on a rented bass because mine was in the repair shop. I packed it up after the gig and left it on the bandstand while I went back to the office to get paid. When I returned, the bass was gone! I raced into the street and asked passers by if they had seen any one with a bass. Someone said that they had seen two guys carrying it down the escalator at Oxford Circus tube station, but it never turned up again.

Cyril was the most constant member of the band. He and Alexis were inseparable. It was only after Cyril passed away in January of 1964 that we learned he was suffering from leukemia. He never let on to us that he wasn't well, although he would occasionally indulge in "black humor" that in retrospect was probably as close as he could bring himself to come to sharing his plight. The band never sounded quite the same without him. I know Alexis missed him terribly. Alexis and Cyril were probably the most influential Brits to ever be involved with Blues and are undoubtedly responsible for its survival in England even though it became almost extinct in the USA during that time.

T.A.: Are you able to elaborate on the "black humour" comment?

M.C.: He would make remarks like, and I'm paraphrasing, "You got to be dead before you anyone will give you any recognition" and "The only good blues players are dead ones", etc., etc.

T.A.: Would you care to comment on the musicality of the Blues Inc. band?

M.C.: Purest of the purists! We were into absolute authenticity. Except for Alexis (who obviously saw his raw talent), the rest of us didn't think Mick Jagger could sing the blues!

T.A.: I wondered if you might comment on what many have said about Cyril's dislike of jazz.

M.C.: It wasn't so much a dislike of jazz on Cyril's part, it was more his total commitment to blues. For him jazz was a sidetrack.

T.A.: I get the impression that his attitude didn't carry over to the musician(s), he was just into the blues purist thing.

M.C.: Pretty much on the money, although we were all purists. Danny and I played many genres of music and we prided ourselves on being able to be totally purist within each genre.

T.A.: Am I correct in my understanding that you and your wife, Poli, now live in New York State?

M.C.: Yes.

T.A.: Are you still playing / gigging?

M.C.: Yes. I do the "Jazz Red Onion" most Sundays and mostly gig around the Woodstock/Hudson Valley area with the occasional date in NY City.

I'm also headlining at the Nickle Creek Bluegrass and Blues Festival in Texas the last weekend in September (2006).

I also record a lot and am preparing some virtuoso bass sonatas for a series of classical concerts with Cello virtuoso Garfield Moore next year.

T.A.: Do you go back to the U.K. at all?

M.C. Yes, I am performing live with TONTO on Saturday August 4th (2006) at the BIG CHILL Festival.

T.A.: Are the Expanding Head Band recordings still available…I thought they were reissued on CD?

M.C.: "Zerotime" and "Its About Time" were reissued (with the exception of "Beautiful You" on Viceroy Records) on a CD titled "TONTO Rides Again".

T.A.: Thank you for this, Malcolm.

M.C. You're welcome!

Addendum - The BBC produced a great programme which demonstrated how Malcolm and his sythesizer developments had been responsible for the production of the great Stevie Wonder albums from the middle of his career.

Stevie's Wonder Men - BBC Radio 4 - broadcast Tue, 30 Nov 2010, 13:30

You may not have heard of Malcolm Cecil or Robert Margouleff but you'll certainly be familiar with their work. These two electronic music boffins helped transform Little Stevie Wonder in to one of the greatest song writers in pop music. They produced and engineered four albums that are widely regarded as "Stevie's classic period." Four albums that featured his most enduring songs such as Living For the City, Superstition, Higher Ground and You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Stevie was at the height of his creative powers but Margouleff and Cecil were his sonic architects, steering him away from the bubble gum pop sound of Motown. Central to Margouleff and Cecil's production style was their creation, TONTO. The Original New Timbral Orchestra was a huge, room-sized super-synthesiser developed with the express purpose of making this new, intimidating technology work together as a giant electronic ensemble. Margouleff and Cecil manipulated its futuristic controls, while Stevie played its keyboards. The results turned out to be timeless. Their pioneering electronic developments in sound and production proved hugely influential to black popular music in the 1970s.

As well as Stevie Wonder, Margouleff and Cecil have worked with a whole host of big name artists such as The Isley Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron, George Harrison and Devo. So why have you never heard of them? Broadcaster and fan Stuart Maconie investigates their story and argues we should be celebrating these forgotten men of pop instead of consigning them to Rock 'n' Roll's backroom staff. Contributors include Robert Margouleff, Malcolm Cecil, Pete Townshend, Michael Sembello, Steve Hillage and music historian Mark Sinker.

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