Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

John Pilgrim's Memories

Musicians' recollections of Cyril Davies
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"…while we three (Hylda Sims, Russell Quay, and John Pilgrim) invent the City Ramblers Skiffle Group - Pilgrim will play washboard and we enlist a tub-bass player, one BoBo Bouquet. …Nineteen Fifty-Six and here I go with the City Ramblers - minus Pilgrim who has joined the Vipers…- Hylda Sims

"One of the most competent (skiffle) outfits came together as the Vipers under the leadership of Wally Whyton. The Vipers began playing together as amateurs; Whyton worked in advertising, Johnny Martin (guitar) was a coffee bar manager, and Jean Van der Bosch (guitar/ banjo) a wire salesman. Tony Tolhurst (bass) repaired brass instruments for his living and John Pilgrim (percussion/ washboard) was a journalist.

This 'classic' Vipers line-up secured a residency at the famed 2I's Coffee Bar in New Compton Street, in July 1956. A couple of months later the group had a record deal with Parlophone / EMI, with George Martin producing, and scored a Top Ten hit with their second single 'Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O'.

John Pilgrim went on to take his degree at Hull University and later taught in Liverpool. A man of many talents, John has been "street bookseller in Charing Cross Road", had a blues programme on BBC Radio Suffolk and has recorded with Jo Anne Kelly and with Steve Rye. He backed Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on three of their English tours - "we played an astonishing mixture of concert halls, sleazy nightclubs, large festivals, small folk clubs, miners' welfare institutes, and rather unexpectedly the London School of Economics…No gig was too large or too small".

Recently John has appeared with the City Ramblers featuring Hylda Sims. We would like to thank John for his offer of assistance and for preparing the following essay in which he presents some wonderful musical memories…this gesture is greatly appreciated!

The Early Roundhouse as a Catalyst and Focal Point - by John Pilgrim of the City Ramblers, and later of the Vipers

The Roundhouse was one of a number of clubs we used to drop into when Cyril and Alexis were part of that amorphous movement that became known as skiffle. My memories are fading now but two visits stand out really strongly, as much for their aftermath as anything. They do demonstrate though the importance of The Round House as a meeting place where everybody met. Where sessions were started that often had to continue elsewhere when the rigid licensing laws of the time kicked.

The Vipers had done a television show with Broonzy, the Humphrey Lyttelton Band and the John Dankworth Band. Yes we were quite aware we were outclassed but we stuck close to Broonzy who spent a lot of the afternoon showing Wally Whyton and Johnny Booker things on the guitar - God knows, we needed all the help we could get. Later in the evening we took Broonzy up to the Round House. He attracted the attention of anthropologist Margaret Mead who engaged him in earnest conversation - its exact nature I don't know but Bill got more and more panicky and asked us to take him somewhere else. We promised to but didn't move until Bill had performed the required guest spot, with Cyril, I seemed to remember, playing harmonica rather than twelve string. With Alexis the three made an interesting approximation to those classic thirties Bluebird sessions. Watching Bill and looking stunned was a teenage guitarist / singer, Wizz Jones, who became and remains an important figure on the folksong circuit.

Leaving Wizz behind in order to rescue Bill from the clutches of Margaret Mead we moved on to the A&A, an all-night cafe frequented by taxi drivers, petty felons, and a number of notorious liggers from the music scene like Diz Disley. On this particular night West Indian trumpeter Dizzy Reece was installed as well. Bill, as always, was hungry and proceed to demolish a huge meal involving double steak, double chips, two eggs and two loaves of bread and a giant pot of tea. The taxi drivers were more than impressed and the whole crowd rose to their feet and applauded furiously as Bill pushed aside his plate.

Then Dizley persuaded Bill to get out his guitar to do some songs. What followed was one of the most extraordinary sessions I ever heard. Nobody could have stopped Disley joining in of course but what made the session quite different was Dizzy Reece a diffident man but a compulsive player. After Bill had played a couple of tunes Dizzy, generally regarded then as an avant-garde player, asked if he could join in. Broonzy was, I think, quite pleased to see another black face in this alien environment and happily acquiesced. Initially our musically conservative souls were appalled. Reece, later picked up by Miles Davis, was on the cutting edge of jazz development and averred, at the time, fragmented flurries of notes that to our ears were only distantly related to the chords being played. In fact there was no problem. Dizzy was aware of the whole jazz tradition and played fairly formal blues phrases initially. By this time Alexis and Cyril, who knew Dizzy Reece anyway, had arrived and were playing too. As the night wore on Dizzy dropped more and more into his post bop experimental mode but Bill, with Disley and Alexis digging in and keeping Bill on line, the sounds got wilder and wilder. I remember the whole session cracking up as they finished with a marathon jump twelve bar, Dizzy playing answers to Bill's R 'n' B vocal line. It was like nothing I've ever heard before or since.

Something else as the modern jazzers of the time were saying, and a session that shocked everyone there out of the purist rigidities that many of us affected…and no I didn't play washboard that night - there were limits even to my effrontery.

For more information on the beginnings of skiffle groups see John's obituary for Johnny Booker

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