Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer
Rick Brown's memories of the Cyril Davies All Stars and more ...
Along with Carlo Little and the legendary pianist Nicky Hopkins, Rick Brown was an original member of Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages and the Cyril Davies All Stars (20 Nov 62 - 23 Jun 63). He also pitched in with the Rolling Stones and played with the Brian Auger Trinity and Steampacket. Rick was also a member of the Georgie Fame band. His stage name was sometimes 'Ricky Fenson' (ed. - Fender/Gibson). Mike Wells said - I remember seeing Rick play Chuck Berry's "Talking 'bout you" in 1962 -it blew us all away!
My correspondence with Rick took place between April and September 2006. Unpretentious and more than helpful - I found Rick Brown to be most forthcoming and honest; a fully realised yet humble musician. The following Q&A limits our discussion to the Davies period of his career.
T.A. - Rick, thanks for this. Any general comments about your early recorded works from this period?
R.B. - I was so unmusical then that all those count for nothing as far as I'm concerned.
T.A. - Bill Wyman said After working with Cyril Davies and his All-Stars one night I had a crack at copying the 'walking bass' style of their bass player Rick Brown. I remember Brian looking round at me and saying: 'Hey that's good. Where did you get that from?' At that moment I joined the band on a new level. Can you elaborate on your 'walking style' on bass which Bill admired?
R.B. - Back then I had even less of a clue about what I was doing than I have now. Didn't know how many sharps there are in E major. The walking style can only have been some 4 in a bar line based on tonic, third, fifth, sixth and dominant seventh.
T.A. - Despite your modesty, you must understand that many of the superstars, who grew out of that scene, have cited you as being very influential both as a player and as part of a more intangible band dynamic, excitement and sound. This was 'ground zero' as far as I'm concerned.
R.B. - My contention is that the UK rock/blues scene was a world where some participants - especially bass guitarists - could achieve success with almost no musicianship or musical knowledge…me being a prime example. It's only in recent years that I've begun to grasp how music should be. (I) am working on some classical music on bass guitar which will be recorded when ready - if I stay alive long enough to get it good enough!
T.A. - I am a guitar player (most would disagree!) and I have hung with musicians my entire life. It is my feeling that, whatever the level of musicianship is, there is a certain combination of innocence, ignorance, the coming of age, sex, bravado, aspiration and rebellion that will always be pushing the boundaries of excepted forms and breathing life back into the music. Gerry Robinson (The Purple Gang) said just recently, upon hearing The Legendary Cyril Davies E.P. - it still sends tingles down my spine. Wonderful! How better can contemporary R&B be?
May I ask your date of birth?
R.B. - For the astrologers, born in the afternoon of 22 May 1945. The result of a fly-by-night relationship between a WAAF Pat Holliday and a Polish Airman named Stanislaw Gajszyn. I knew her but never found out anything about him.
T.A. - Who were your early musical influences?
R.B. - Fats Domino in about 1956 or 57. I heard 'I Can't Go On' being blasted out of a fairground. Around the same time I was caught up in the great wave of electrifying excitement that swept the world.... Elvis Presley. It wasn't just his music. He was breaking away from all previous social and musical traditions. So I got a guitar and learned a bit by playing along with Lonnie Donegan records and Jerry Lee Lewis records as well. The main point is we were all self-taught beginners, learning by copying American records. Except Nick Hopkins, who was classically trained and therefore found it ludicrously simple to imitate and elaborate on rock and R&B.
T.A. - Were you playing bass at this point?
R.B. - I took piano lessons from the age of about 7 to 11. Somewhere there's a picture of the Savages taken in June 1960 with me on guitar. However, Bernie Watson was also on guitar, and one day there was a big vote that I should play bass. Funny, the decision seems to have been taken without my consent!
T.A. - What style of music were the Savages playing?
R.B. - Sutch and the Savages were a raucous rock and roll visual stage act. A lot of our style was copied from the Playboys, Vince Taylor's band; our guitarist Bernie did Czardas, a showpiece instrumental, which was copied from Gladdo and the Neriators (or was it Nero and the Gladiators?). Sutch's main talent was his hair. In the days of 'short-back-and-sides', his long hair was what they all came to see; that, and his outlandish capers.
T.A. - How did you hook up with Cyril?
R.B. - By 1963 (ed. 1962) I was out of a band, and went to see Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, who were pioneering a style of R&B. They were mostly 'jazzers', and I think they had Jack Bruce on double bass (in South Harrow Memorial Hall). Anyway, a character in a dirty mac introduced himself to me as Cyril Davies. He said he was leaving Alexis Korner to start his own band, and did I want to join him? He said it would be the first R&B band in the country with electric bass. I said ok, and as it happened I knew a drummer, pianist and guitarist. That was the start of the Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars.
T.A. - And so Cyril's band took-off?
R.B. - The Cyril Davies band quickly became a full-time working band, and we were all put on a fixed wage of £40 per week - a good living wage. We had a weekly residency at the Marquee club (where the atmosphere was in tents - ha ha ha). Cyril used to pay the Stones £10 between them to do the interval spot. They didn't have a bass player or drummer, so Carlo and I would help them out.
T.A. - I would like this website to be the definitive reference on the internet or otherwise. I am really looking for Cyril stories - both on and off the bandstand, to build some kind of character profile. There is little information available for this purpose. Most has been lost due to the passing of time. I am trying to come to terms with Cyril as the human being. Would you care to share anything else that would typify his character?
R.B. - Cyril off-stage was the archetypal man in the street, but on-stage he had such a force of personality, such a serious approach to his music - that people just had to take notice, to appreciate what he was doing. Cyril was considerate and respectful in his dealings with others, but if he wanted something - absolutely determined. Nothing would get in his way. In other words - a nice guy on the surface - and underneath, a real hard man. You wouldn't have said he was dapper. A sketch of him might show a small cigar in one hand, a glass of whisky (his downfall) in the other. Probably the only REAL bluesman the UK has produced. We, as a band, didn't do him justice and didn't know how to give him what he wanted.
T.A - There are several stories regarding his generosity ...
R.B. - One time, London had a rare visit from Ray Charles. Cyril treated the whole lot of us to a night out to go and see the show. I'm sorry to say I was not mature enough to appreciate true greatness.
T.A. - Did you know anything of Cyril's day-job?
R.B. - Yes, he had a car repair shop which he ran with one other partner. I don't know if it was a junkyard as well. None of us ever saw him drive a car even once. He lived in a semi-detached suburban house in South Harrow with his devoted wife Marie; an odd combination: a meek, mild-mannered, polite, humble lady, and a hell-raising, hard-drinking bluesman.
T.A. - Do you recall any All-Stars stories; memorable gigs, travel stories or mishaps / misadventures?
R.B. - We were doing a gig at Loughborough University. Some way through the first set, the electricity went off. The mikes, the amplifiers - everything went dead except the drums. So we had to stop and find out what had gone wrong…some joker had pulled the main plug. When everything was up and running again Cyril didn't just start another number. He gave the whole crowd a withering telling off - and they all stood there listening in stunned silence to his disapproving speech!
Cyril had a violent temper, but never turned it on us in the band. When we started off we had an old van he got from his repair shop, an old Bedford Dormobile. I was the only one with a driving licence and (I) used to go around in that when not working with Cyril. One day going up the motorway, the engine seriously overheated. We pulled over and found out the radiator had boiled dry. Cyril was furious. He was so angry with the van he punched the side of it with an almighty punch that Mike Tyson would have been proud of. Hell! I wouldn't like to have been in the way of that punch!
Being masters of improvisation we found an old milk bottle lying at the side of the road, and refilled the radiator from a puddle of filthy water. At the next service station we decided to check the engine…and I got a face full of filthy boiling water as I unscrewed the radiator cap - which delighted my colleagues!
But Cyril had a sense of humour, too, especially after a bit of embalming fluid. In a seedy hotel in Moss Side Manchester I distinctly remember him staggering into my room wearing part of a wardrobe he'd dismantled!
Cyril decided to open his own club in our area at the Railway Hotel, Harrow, Wealdstone. The tiny stage was three-quarters filled with a grand piano, which delighted Nick Hopkins of course. I had an old de-commissioned taxi-cab. To start the club off Cyril, Carlo and I went out at the dead of one foggy night with a bucket of paste in my taxi, sticking up posters all over Harrow. Carlo and I recruited a couple of groupies to look after the door and coats. The club quickly became quite the place to go, and remained well established for a long time after Cyril had moved on, I think.
T.A. - Do you recall some material; song titles etc. that would represent a typical set while you were playing with the All-Stars?
R.B. - Cyril would do several Muddy Waters numbers; Tiger in Your Tank, Mojo Workin' etc. When we started rehearsing with him, he announced that he'd "studied lead for twelve years." We thought he was talking about his junk yard. As far as I can recall we never did any Leadbelly songs. Recently, however, I watched a fascinating movie by WERNER HERZOG titled STROSZEK. For the play-out sequence the background music is a solo number for HARMONICA with a bit of vocals as well - by SONNY TERRY I think. This tune is too much like COUNTRY LINE SPECIAL to be coincidence. It would be interesting to find out when it was recorded. Plagiarism is the word, but by whom???
T.A. - Forgive me, but who handled the money?
R.B. - Cyril had some good contacts on what had been the jazz scene and the band was handled by one of the biggest agencies, Harold Davidson (?). Can't remember if we were paid direct by them, or by them through Cyril. Anyhow we were on a fixed wage of £40 a week each I think. The money was always Cyril's business and nothing to do with us in the band.
We got a one-night booking 230 miles away up north. Cyril couldn't face being stuck in our small van, so he hired a 50-seat coach complete with driver; almost unheard of in those early days of gigging. The journey was real luxury; Cyril could drink away in style.
T.A. - Does this photo trigger any memories?
R.B. - That's an interesting pic. I've never seen it before. Clearly visible is Carlo's home-made leopard-skin drum covering which he did for the Savages. However, the photo must have been from our Cyril Davies time - because we're wearing white shirts and ties. Draped on Bernie's amp behind him is his yellow scarf, and probably his gloves. On my amp is Carlo's towel, with which he wiped his face after every number.
I'm playing my old semi-acoustic Framus bass, which I regret getting rid of. They were nice instruments, with a narrow neck. I took the frets off mine, long before fretless bass guitars appeared on the market. But I didn't know much about intonation, so it must have sounded approximate to say the least.
T.A. - Are you able to comment on the other All-Stars?
R.B. - Carlo was a major influence on my life from 59 to 63, and he taught me everything about his style of rock and blues; so naturally I had a bias towards Carlo's playing. Nick Hopkins was recognised as being gifted even at 11 years old, when he used to play for the school hymn-singing, and also performed his own compositions. My mum was a teacher at his school. I never had any contact with Nick Hopkins after 1964 or 65.
T.A. - I wonder if you have any contact or other information on the other All-Stars; Bernie Watson, Mickey Waller or Geoff Bradford?
R.B. - I think Bernie Watson's parents were Welsh; he was an only child and they lived in a modest house in Wembley. He was studying classical guitar and never made any secret of his contempt for rock and roll, R&B, or 'the scene'. He was only with us for the money, to avoid going to work. And being a classical musician, he found it simple to imitate any rock guitarist - such as Chuck Berry - note for note…so people thought he was good. But he didn't play with spirit. Around 1965/6 he abandoned rock and the blues, and attended the Guildhall School of Music full-time. He never had any more contact with any of us. Rumour has it that he might be living in Spain, or Brazil. If he had been dedicated to rock and blues, he would have been another Nick Hopkins
Micky Waller was one of the first English rock drummers. (He) probably started with the Flerekkers; earned the nickname "The Fox" due to craftily getting himself into bands. Also had the nickname "Wonk" Waller but that may be a typing error. I worked with him for a year or two in the Brian Auger band, Marty Wilde band, and Georgie Fame band, during which time I "lent" him cigarettes on a daily basis although he never bought a packet himself. Nevertheless we were good friends, had a lot of laughs, and I always enjoyed his playing. I'd say he was a highly intelligent megalomaniac, misogynist and misanthrope; famous, infamous and notorious all at the same time. He's worked with a whole list of big names. I sincerely hope you can get an interview with Mick - he's a real character and must have a lot to say, a lot of memories.
I have bumped into Geoff Bradford a few times, but wouldn't say we know each other well.
T.A. - What can you tell me about the Velvettes?
R.B. - Our black girl singers only ever knew three numbers (songs). One was Peepin' and Hidin' (Any Way You Want Me To); their main attraction was bumping and grinding their bottoms at the audience - Hazel, Patience and Mumsy. The clubs up north, or anywhere else, had never seen anything like it.
T.A. - Do you remember Peggy Phango as a Velvette? She ended up marrying Johnny Parker.
R.B. - I never met Peggy Phango, and can't relate any stories about her.
T.A. - What path did your own musical career take after leaving the Savages in 64?
R.B. - (In ) '65 or '66 (I was with) Brian Auger Trinity, which became the Steam Packet with Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll. '67 (it was) Georgie Fame for a few years. (In) 1970 (I entered the) Guildhall School of Music (and during the years) between '72-'75 (I performed with the) Orchestra of the London Festival Ballet. Then freelance orchestral work, including Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera, Philharmonic, etc. In 1978 I left the music business (and took a) commercial pilots' course in Perth, Scotland.
T.A. - Have you done any recording or live work since, Rick?
R.B. - I was with the Andy Drysch band for a while. About a year ago we were doing a record session and halfway through I thought "I can't play this any more" and left the band.
I was also with Ronnie Harwood a couple of years ago (www.ronnieharwood.com) and I was on a few tracks on his latest album. On the site it's me on 'Your memory'. At the time he recorded 'Fabulous Thing' with Carlo on it as well as me. Shame it's not on the site - it's a great track - and Carlo's last ever record session.
Around 2000 I was with Brian Knight, and on some tracks of his last album. Don't know if it was ever released. Wasn't as good as some of his previous stuff, I thought.
T.A. - I really appreciate your contribution here, Rick.
R.B. - Hope I haven't disappointed you with my frank recollections. Perhaps you've noticed that unlike some web contributors I've tried not to glamorize either myself or the 60's.
T.A - I have enjoyed your frankness. As with the study of any subject, one is bound to uncover the unexpected or discover things that were never on the radar in the first place - that's all good. I just want to present things as they were. Obviously I wasn't there and the beauty of the thing is I don't really have any preconceptions of what "the whole scene" was like or what the people were like.
It has been my pleasure to participate in this exchange. Thank you so much!
Stay tuned for more Rick Brown contributions and information. In the mean time please follow the link to learn more about Rick's early exploits.
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