Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

Uncle Bob Scruton's recollections of Cyril Davies

Musician's recollections of Cyril Davies
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Uncle Bob has been around playing guitar and singing Blues for more years than he cares to remember. Many of those years spent playing solo acoustic and operating in the relative obscurity of the folk scene.

Having been introduced, at the age of 15, to the delights of Jazz and Blues by the school art teacher, Paul Oliver, who later went on to become the authority on Blues and Blues history, he started going to Jazz clubs with a friend. So it was that he first heard and met one of his early inspirations, Cyril Davies, who was at the time playing banjo with Steve Lane's Southern Stompers, and singing Leadbelly songs to a guitar as an extra."

I would like to extend a sincere thank you to Uncle Bob Scruton. Bob's very early, yet vivid, memories of Cyril's days with Steve Lane were very pivotal indeed!

My correspondence with Uncle Bob took place May - July, 2006. Cheers, Bob….Todd

Bob Scruton explained - obviously, after more than 50 years, my recollections are somewhat hazy, not to mention a bit sparse. I'm afraid everything I do tends to be in slow motion these days, so please bear with me. Here are my recollections, such as they are about the early days of the British Blues scene.

It must have been in the autumn of 1953 that my friend John and I cycled over to North Harrow on a Thursday night to go to the Harrow Jazz Club, only to find it had been closed down. After a moment or two wondering what to do John said, What about going to The Southern Stompers at The Fox and Goose (Hanger Lane, Ealing) at Alperton?. We'd heard about them. OK, I said, so we got back on our bikes and went there.

The band played sitting down, knee deep in trumpet mutes with little music stands in front of them. The banjo player did the occasional vocal on stuff like Doctor Jazz - that was how we first saw and heard Cyril Davis. [Opinion seems to be divided on the spelling of his name - I've always assumed it to be spelt Davis, which is how it is pronounced. But it has just as often been spelt Davies, and I've not been able to establish for definite which is correct. The 1957 album Blues from The Roundhouse spelt it Davis, but that could still have been a mistake.] (ed. - Davies is the correct spelling)

We started to go there quite frequently for a year or more. My memories, after so long are a little hazy, particularly as I was only just getting into Jazz at that time, but I well remember one night, soon after we'd started going there - the band taking a break and Cyril producing a guitar and singing Frankie and Johnny solo.

These intermissions soon became a regular feature. I can also clearly recall him doing Leadbelly's On a Christmas Day. This was the first I'd ever heard of that kind of music being performed live. Fairly early in this period we could recall him doing an impromptu thing on which trumpeter Steve Lane played guitar and Cyril sang and blew over the lip of a trumpet mute to produce a jug type effect. However some weeks later when we'd actually got round to talking to him, and asked him what it was called and would he do it again, he couldn't remember doing it!

He seemed to enjoy his beer, and could sink a pint or two. My drummer Dave was, it turns out, frequenting The Fox and Goose at about the same time (although I didn't know him then) and was likewise impressed by Cyril. He recalls him doing a very good version of Rock Island Line, which he says was much better than the later hit record by Lonnie Donegan. But he is very hazy about the band and everything else about that scene. He also used to frequent Ken Colyer's Jazz Club in Soho round about that time and insists that the Colyer brothers were also very much responsible for introducing Blues and Skiffle type music into Britain.

Cyril's vocals had an easy languid quality about them which was instantly appealing, but there was a driving quality there at the same time. I suppose it was a couple of years later during the Skiffle craze, we discovered that Cyril was performing regularly at The Roundhouse in Wardour St. Naturally we started to go there whenever we could. Cyril had acquired a twelve-string by then and was mostly doing Leadbelly songs, while his partner in the venture Alexis Korner specialised in Blind Lemon Jefferson material. I can well recall Cyril at The Roundhouse doing Shall Walk Through the Valley, TB Blues, Good Morning Blues and There's A Man Going Round Taking Names.

I was very impressed also with Alexis's guitar playing and husky vocals. They frequently had a spot during the evening by a guest artist - we heard an excellent boogie-woogie piano player one night, though I can't remember his name - could well have been Keith Scott, but I couldn't be sure now. On another occasion they had a guest spot by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whisky.

Pressure of college work and lack of funds prevented from going as often as I would have liked. And then it closed down. I next encountered Cyril in the early 60s by which time he was fronting a band which included Brian Knight and Geoff Bradford among its members, playing amplified harmonica and mostly singing Muddy Waters and Chicago Blues material.

Taking turns to front this band was Long John Baldry, whom I had met back in the Skiffle days (about 1957 or '58). I was playing with The Panthers Skiffle group at that time and we were doing an interval spot at Edgware Jazz Club. Roger (the leader) and I encountered John sitting on the back stairs with his guitar. After chatting a while he picked up his instrument and, using a plectrum did a rendition of John Henry à la Big Bill Broonzy. We were amazed by both his voice and guitar playing, and invited him in as a special guest on our next few gigs. This had been, inevitably, of course a temporary arrangement. I didn't come across John again until the early 60's when he did a guest spot at The Herga Club in Harrow, which is also where I first saw Gerry Lockran.

I am also reminded that I saw Beryl Bryden perform at The Roundhouse, although I can't, for the life of me, remember what she did. That's about it, I'm afraid so far as early recollections go.

Here is - Uncle Bob's own web site

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