Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

John O'Leary's Memories

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John O'Leary

John O'Leary is a well-known blues harp player & singer on the British blues scene. John was born in Clonakilty in the Republic of Ireland in October 1944 and moved with his parents to England in 1955.

I took up the harmonica after seeing Cyril Davies play with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. I went everywhere they played and found Cyril's playing absolutely compelling. It seems so sad that the British recording techniques of the day were not able to capture the true sound and energy of his playing. I used to go to the Ealing Jazz Club every week to listen and to learn. Although I never spoke to him (I didn't dare…he wasn't very approachable you see) I was saddened by his early death in 1964. - John O'Leary ©Alan Pearce's Shades of Savoy Brown, Issue No. 2

When I was still at school it was New Orleans jazz, people like King Oliver and Johnny Dodds and Louis Armstrong. I had a friend whose brother went to art college, Chelsea School of Art, and they had some Chris Barber records.

Chris Barber brought over Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and James Cotton and quite a few other people, long before we really understood the term R&B here. At the time R&B was hardly known and it applied to honking tenor players. If you were to read any of the jazz magazines from about 1962 or a bit earlier, you would not see any references to any of the people we regard as common place now. It was Louis Jordan, Joe Turner, Earl Bostic who were all regarded as R&B. But Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were completely unknown here.

I saw an advert in Jazz news; Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated at Ealing Broadway Station. That would have been in the autumn of 1962. It was at the Ealing Club under the ABC teashop opposite Ealing Broadway Station. I struggled over to Ealing Broadway, one Saturday night, and (there was) this strange looking bunch of characters. In fact Alexis wasn't in the band, it was another guitar player, Geoff Bradford, because Alexis had disappeared, which he was prone to doing apparently. But in the band were Dick Heckstall-Smith and Cyril Davies; those are the only three I can remember. I heard Hoochie Coochie Man and Got My Mojo Working and I Got My Brand On You and songs like that for the first time. I'd never heard anything like that and it was absolutely amazing. Within a few days of that I bought myself a harmonica. I'd no idea which one to buy. Echo super vampire They were then known as Echo Super Vampers. They came in little blue boxes and I think they were about six shillings each. I just looked at what Cyril Davies had and I bought the same and I bought one in the key of G. Then I discovered that you couldn't play the thing in any key. There were no books. There were no instruction manuals of any kind.

I saw Brian Jones play there (at the Ealing Club), and I also saw the Rolling Stones play there during the interval. It might have been their first gig. It was Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. Charlie Watts was with the Blues By Six at this time. Keith Scott used to go down there and play piano. Brian Knight used to go down there and sing and play. Eventually Alexis turned up and played. But the thing was really fronted by Cyril Davies. Cyril Davies was the charismatic one and I went to see Cyril Davies about two or three times a week. He was an irascible sort of character, utterly unapproachable. I had seen him actually be extremely rude to several people who were trying to be friendly on one occasion. But I watched him and I noticed there were different ones and gradually I got quite a few harps together. I still hadn't worked out that you had to transpose, so I thought a C harmonica played in the key of C. What I had learned to do was cross harp without realising it. I didn't know what the expression cross harp meant because no one did. Transposing means playing the C harmonica in the key of G. Everybody knows what it is now but then nobody knew. ©Blues in Britain Volume 1 Issue 26 - p.22

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