Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

Keith Scott worked with Cyril Davies on the London Blues Scene in various combinations from 1958 - 1963. As piano player at the Roundhouse Blues and Barrelhouse Club, as co-founders of the electric Blues Incorporated and then with the R&B All Stars at the zenith of the Band's popular success, he witnessed Cyril's rise and musical development as performer throughout five years from close proximity on and off-stage from his acoustic and electric keyboard.

Impressions of Cyril From the Piano Stool

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On walking into the Roundhouse as a young student, it was impossible not to be impressed with the contrasting presence and delivery of Cyril and Alexis as a double act. In the very informal setting, without any concessions to presentation, they were both totally committed to their mission of preaching the blues. They both did it from different standpoints as they were coming from very opposite backgrounds - Cyril as the direct, blunt, hard drinking, tough living working man; Alexis as the well-spoken, persuasive, soothsayer, with a vague air of near-aristocracy about him. When they performed separately these extremes were more obvious, but when they played as a duo their different personalities acted as a foil to each other, and their inter-changing of instruments - Cyril on 12 string, 6 string, and harp; Alexis on Martin, National, and mandolin - made a good range of permutations of sounds, along with both their vocals. Cyril's gaberdine raincoat, tank top, and trilby, however, were no match for Alexis' King's Road gear, but that was irrelevant when they started playing. . . . . . as were their performer's smoking techniques - Alexis would very carefully impale his black Gauloise roll-up on the end of his top E string, but Cyril would park his smouldering cigar on a high stool next to his pint. Though Cyril was by no means tall, he always cut an impressive figure when he donned his big 12 string, leather-strapped Grimshaw, as he seemed to grow in stature with it, and with the full set of finger picks, and sometimes his harp neck-brace, each individual in the audience had to sit up and take notice. His voice, which was slightly high in pitch with a nasal edge to it, certainly cut through the full sound he was generating from the belly of his Grimshaw, and didn't require miked amplification even when the room was crowded with people. When they were joined by the full Jug Band - 5-string banjo, jug, washboard, tea-chest bass, with Alexis on mandolin - all the instruments could be heard individually because the frequencies and pitches were all different. . . . . except for the jug, which required an orchestrated pianissimo in Reg's solos.

When I moved my seat from audience to piano stool, initially impromptu guesting, and then being asked to "drop by next week", the combination of instrumental line-ups varied with every number - I'd busk with Cyril on 6 or 12 string or harp, Alexis on guitar or mandolin, with Lisa Turner on banjo, with Rory or Alex McEwan on 12 and 6 string guitars, with Long John Baldry singing from the ceiling, and Geoff Bradford on his Gibson or metal National. There was no rehearsing, it was all impromptu. Key signatures were pitched by whoever was singing, which gave rise to some awkward fingering for some of us, whilst Cyril and Alex got dextrous with their capos. The repertoire was mostly traditional blues, pre-1950, and American folk classics, as contemporary black American blues was unfamiliar as it was still considered 'Race Music' in the States and records virtually unobtainable in the UK. The 'original' blues artists that did tour over here as individual performers backed by British musicians in the late '50s, like Big Bill, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny and Brownie, and Memphis Slim, were obliged to deliver here in a "down-home, Uncle Tom" style by audiences, promoters, and often bandleaders because there were no British musicians playing black-sourced R&B. Back home in the Sates they had been performing loud and amplified with heavy drums, bass, and riffing horns. The Roundhouse "collective" was just as guilty of this 'false authenticity' as other Clubs and promoters, particularly Cyril who seemed to be transformed into an embodiment of Leadbelly in his mind like a 'method' actor when he performed on 12 string hollerin' "Yallo Girl" or "Goodnight Irene". Alexis, who modelled himself on country blues in his playing and vocal phrasing, did however have some conduit for acquiring current American label blues releases - he did give me a Sonny Thompson EP (who was Freddie King's pianist and arranger), who's horn lead sound didn't impress Cyril. I suspect Charles Fox was Alexis' link on that transatlantic chain.

That "retro-blues" issue did start to be re-dressed through Alexis' and Cyril's collaboration with Chris Barber after he brought Muddy Waters over to tour in October 1958. I saw him with Otis Spann, his pianist, backed only by Chris' rhythm section at St Pancras Town Hall, and the delivery and effect was 'electric' in every sense - Muddy's long drawn out blues-preacher vocal endings, his loud-amplified bottle neck, open-tuned solid guitar, and Otis' cascade runs and rock-solid left hand was a total revelation.

Not just to me either, for Alexis and Cyril got the two of them down to the Roundhouse and started a relationship that continued through two subsequent tours. I'd heard Muddy's very first field recordings made by Alan Lomax for Library of Congress on a 12" acetate borrowed from the American Embassy Library in about 1955, and for me the whole of blues history came right up to date on that night.

Cyril had to wait until 1961 before he heard live Chicago-style amplified harp, though he was familiar with Sonny Terry who had toured the UK with Brownie McGhee earlier in 1958, and appeared at the Roundhouse, and the two of them were appointed 'honorary presidents'.

Sonny played the harp shielded in his hands which he opened and closed like baffles to shape and mould the quality and timbre of sound generated by the reeds in the acoustic tradition - so the mike was just used to create volume as for the voice, and Sonny integrated voice and harp to the point where the one was often indistinguishable from the other.

Sonny became the source inspiration for Cyril's playing later of "Country Line Special".

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The Chicago-style harp sound arrived live in London in the Summer of 1961, when Chris Barber brought over Jimmy Cotton following the Barber Band's visit to Muddy's home venue "Smitty's Corner" in Chicago. Graham Burbidge narrated a tale from this visit to Cyril and I when some members of the Barber band had to be rescued off the streets by Muddy's entourage as they'd been physically threatened in the white no-go neighbourhood the club was in on the South Side, where shootings were a common occurrence. Jimmy Cotton had taken over from Little Walter in Muddy's band and they both used the harp more like a horn with the harp played close right on to the mike with single notes, dual-note trills, and two-note separated chords blocking out intermediate notes with the tongue. 'Bending' notes was more pronounced too in a way similar to the slide trombone's glissandi. 'Crossing' the harp achieved a minor key on the diatonic instrument by using an F harp in the upper register rather than a C harp to play in the key of G. The chromatic harmonica was used in a similar way without operating the semi-tone push button slider. The close mike and the single note attack made these features of playing technique much more apparent. So Jimmy Cotton's arrival became significant to Cyril, but he obviously was unprepared to play in front of the 'maestro' as the harp was not yet even his featured instrument.

Chris Barber set up a recording session in August for Jimmy Cotton with Alexis on amplified guitar, with Chris himself doing single note bass lines on guitar, trombone, and string bass, and me on piano. This was released as two EPs as "Chris Barber Presents Jimmy Cotton" after he'd gone back to Chicago, where Jimmy became, on his return home, the victim of a South Side shooting which put him out of action for several months. Thus Graham's 'no-go' story had a perverse sting in its' tail! . . . Blacks were as vulnerable as whites even on their own territory. Cyril identified strongly with this story as he did have a penchant for suggestive remarks about contacts with the London underworld, with veiled asides about dodgy cars and the Kray twins - whether this was half-truth or total fantasy, I thought was not diplomatic to ask. However, the upside was that Cyril had seen how the Chicago harp sound was achieved first hand.

In the Autumn of 1961, amplification started to be infiltrated into the Roundhouse. First a cheap PA system with a couple of voice mikes appeared with Cyril and Brian Knight as 'fixer', then a valve guitar amp with Alexis. Then the old grand piano, which had a stiff action and was used just inside the door to put coats on, had 'coat-mufflers' removed and the lid opened up, with the occasional bonus of a PA mike, if someone else wasn't using it first. 'Traps' ousted the washboard, prior to the arrival of full drum kit. Long John stopped doing his excellent 'covers' of un-accompanied work songs and field hollers, and started doing up-tempo Jimmy Witherspoon songs. Then, after a preliminary trial at an Acker Bilk concert in Ipswich (without Cyril), we had a couple of rehearsals for the first time ever, and the amplified "Blues Incorporated" was ready for launch.

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CODA: 1964

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