Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

David Stevens' Memories

Musicians' recollections of Cyril Davies
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David Stevens, the humble pianist - an Englishman who happens to live in Australia (!), left Blues Incorporated due to a balancing act that was a hectic tour schedule and a commitment to his family and profession. At 81 years of age he remains a dedicated family man and an active musician. In fact he still has business clients as well. Maybe not so much has changed after all these years, David!

David is a real gentleman. We thank him for his kind consideration and his participation in this Q&A that took place June and July, 2006.

D.S. - Todd, of course I'd be more than happy to tell you what I can remember about Cyril Davies, also about Alexis Korner and his band Blues Incorporated, in which we both played in the early sixties. I'll happily answer as many questions as I can, but my memory of those years - happy though they were - is pretty hazy. I've moved many times, and have few photos or documents of the period. I've lived in Australia since 1965 - we came out here for my ex-wife's health, and I've never regretted it. I recently chalked up 81 years, but luckily I'm still fairly fit, still play gigs and do a weekly radio program. My three kids and five grandkids all live out here. Life is GOOD!

T.A. - It is great to hear from you! It is wonderful to know that you are keeping well and still playing. May I ask your date of birth?

D.S. - 26 July 1925. I was born in Leicester, England, though the family moved to Herne Bay, Kent, when I was tiny, and stayed there until 1939.

T.A. - I see you have a gig at the Club Ashfield on June 30, 2006. In what style does the Bridge City Jazz Band play in? Eric Holroyd?

D.S. - Amazing that you're so well informed. I must check with you when I'm uncertain as to my future gigs! It's a trad style band, with banjo. I find it hard to play with banjo players, as my fingers fall on some rather later-period harmonies, which of course leads to clashes with the basic four-bars B flat- two-bars-E flat etc. But it's better to be playing than not playing! The band doesn't have a regular trumpet player or pianist, so although they play every week they hire a whole lot of different guys on those instruments, and I get to play with them maybe once every 6 weeks. Eric is a lovely player and a great guy, from Yorkshire I think.

T.A. - Were you interviewed for the book - Alexis Korner: The Biography, by Harry Shapiro?

D.S. - Yes, I had a Q and A exchange with Harry when he was writing the book. From memory, the book says I was replaced by a "more experienced" player. I think it would be more accurate to say that my style (such as it is) is my own, influenced by Fats and Earl Hines, and was probably not ideal for that kind of band. In fact I resigned because with a full-time job and a family I couldn't handle the pace.

T.A. - Do you live in Sydney?

D.S. - Yes, in a beach-side suburb called Manly, fifteen minutes from the City by ferry. I've been in this house for 16 years, and it's terrific!

T.A. - You sound really thankful and appreciative that your life has been such a success on every level. Friends, family, home, career, longevity, your music - I can see why you say Life is GOOD! Please elaborate on your career; and currently, your weekly radio program.

D.S. - After I left the army in 1948, I took up accountancy just for something to bring the bucks in, but accidentally developed a bit of talent for it. Most of my time in Australia I was working for commercial businesses and have gradually eased out of it over the last ten years. The radio station (2RRR) is what we call community radio (meaning we don't get paid). Two hours every Wednesday at noon. Jazz, of course. I only play stuff I like - varies from King Oliver to Monk. Not Coltrane, though.

T.A. - Do you keep in touch with any other U.K. musicians from the old days? Did you visit the U.K. over the years?

D.S. - Yes to both. Dickie Hawdon is still one of my best mates - I'll be seeing him in September.

T.A. - Are you an Australian citizen now?

D.S. - No, never got around to it. I think of myself as an Englishman who happens to live in Australia!

T.A. - Would you care to comment on the musicality of the Blues Inc. band?

D.S. - Well, it was fun! Certainly Alexis and Cyril were closest to the authentic blues that they wanted to play, and that's been recognised by critics and musicians alike. Dick was a fine player, but he played his way, which wasn't the basic, rough style of saxophone players in the black American bands.

T.A. - Dick published his autobiography " in 1989. It was re-published in 2004 as Blowing the Blues - fifty years playing the British Blues. The new addition has additional chapters, covering the last 20 years, written by Pete Grant. Pete was Dick's FIRST personal manager (2001 onward). In the event you haven't read the book, this is a quote from Dick ...Keith Scott had vacated the piano chair, Dave Stevens joining in his stead. But Dave, a gloriously joyful player in the Earl Hines tradition and a chartered accountant by trade, felt that the increasingly number of out-of-town gigs was putting too much of a strain on his resources. DH-S, eloquent, I thought.

D.S - (That gives) me quite a buzz.... gloriously joyful is a nice thing to be remembered for. I was far from being a real blues player - I enjoyed listening to blues records, but I probably listened more to Louis, Ellington, Basie and piano players like Hines, James P and Fats, and this came out in my playing as well as the blues patterns which came easily to me. I never consciously thought hey, this is a blues band, I should be trying to sound like Otis Spann, and Alexis, bless him, never criticised my playing or told me what I should be doing to fit in with the style of the band. But there was a lot of spirit, maybe passion, in the band, and this made up for stylistic differences.

T.A. - A great deal has been written on Alexis and Chris Barber (and rightly so) yet very little has been published about Cyril. By all accounts he was a great, natural musician & showman. The recollections of his fellow group members are the only way left to build an accurate portrait of the man…warts and all. Can you comment specifically regarding Cyril the man; the musician; your relationship on and off stage; any memory regarding his auto body repair business in South Harrow; his family relationships; his greatest gift / achievement; character flaws, if any?

D.S. - No, I'm sorry, I never really saw Cyril outside the band. I remember his dedication to the music, but I never observed the bad temper that Shapiro mentions in his book. I remember Cyril as a happy guy, but we probably all remember each other that way on the stand, because we loved playing, so we were happy.

T.A. - Please comment on the half hour set(s) of race blues with Chris Barber (bass), Alexis (guitar), Brian Laws (drums) & you, on piano; the musicians, material, year, etc.?

D.S. - Sorry, absolutely no recollection.

T.A. - When / how did you meet Alexis?

D.S. - I'll have to ask Bobbie! It might have been when we played together in Chris Barber's first band, the one with two trumpets. Alex and Bobbie were fast friends with Trixie and me for years, and kept in touch after we moved to Australia.

T.A. - When / how did you meet Cyril?

D.S. - Only when I joined Blues Incorporated. How did Cyril die, and how old was he?

T.A. - Cyril (b. January 23, 1932) was still 31 years old when he died on January 7, 1964. Apparently the recorded cause of death was endocarditis. Bacterial infection is the most common source of endocarditis. It can involve the heart muscle, heart valves, or lining of the heart. Most people who develop endocarditis have underlying valvular heart disease. 'Injection drug use, recent dental surgery, permanent central venous access lines, prior valve surgery, and weakened valves are risk factors for developing endocarditis'. Researcher Pete Frame said that he was also inflicted with pleurisy; his drinking became heavier to ease the pain; he went yellow and had to walk with a stick. There are also rumours that he had leukemia.

D.S. - That was the year before I left for Australia, and Alexis would probably have told me at the time but I have no memory of it. A sad loss.

T.A. - What can you tell me regarding Beryl Bryden and / or Beryl Bryden's Back Room Skiffle recordings?

D.S. - You probably know I played with "Beryl's Backroom Boys". The trumpeter was Allan Wickham, and Owen Maddock was on tuba. Beryl was a lovely person and a great entertainer. She sang a lot of blues and Billie Holiday songs and played washboard. But skiffle...I don't even know what it is!

T.A. - Could you elaborate on your relationship with Big Bill Broonzy; his musical influence; his story telling; his appearance at The Round house; the gigs you had with Broonzy and Brother John Sellers in 1957; the 1957 Benefit Concert; your correspondence with the ailing Big Bill?

D.S. - Bill was a wonderful person. I met him through Alexis, and spent quite a bit of time with him, and he stayed at our house a couple of times, though I never did any gigs with him (or Brother John), to my recollection. Mainly Bill worked solo, and he used to talk to the audience a lot between numbers, telling about his life and where the songs came from. Bill deserves a book to himself, in fact I've corresponded with a guy in the States called Robert Reisman whose writing one.

T.A. - On March 2, 2006, Castle Music announced the release of Kornerstoned: The Alexis Korner Anthology - 1954-1983, a 2-CD set laced with copious rarities and material which debuts on CD for the very first time. Kid Man and County Jail from the Alexis Korner Skiffle Group are included on Disc 1 - THE EARLY YEARS (1954-69). Any comment on or memories regarding those late '50's recordings that you made?

D.S. - Afraid I have no special recollections. On the companion track Kid Man Blues I'm featured doing my Cripple Clarence imitation, complete with his Chinese fourths in the bass.

T.A. - Do you recall Geoff Bradford (guitarist) at all or do you have any, even general, comment on The Roundhouse?

D.S. - Sorry, I don't remember Geoff Bradford (who did he play with?) nor anything much about the Roundhouse.

T.A. - Geoff Bradford (b. January 13, 1934 Islington, North London) is a fine finger style guitar player in blues and jazz styles. Alexis used to have Geoff sub for him in Blues Inc. when he was double-booked! Geoff went on to form Blues by Six and played in Cyril's R&B All-Stars, Long John Baldry's Hoochie Coochie Men and Rod Stewart, etc.

You got to play with a 'guesting' Benny Goodman in 1962 with Blues Inc. (Ronnie Jones, Ginger & Jack, Cyril, Alexis, Dick and yourself). Can you remember this?

D.S. - Oh YES! That was a real brush with fame. It happened at a gig in a luxury flat in Park Lane, I think for the birthday of Lord and Lady Londonderry's daughter. Benny had just done a tour of Russia with his band, and stopped off on the way home for the party. Nobody knew he was in London.

T.A. - What was the tension like (if any) between blues purists and those with jazz or rock leanings?

D.S. - Rock had hardly begun then. I don't think there was antagonism between blues enthusiasts and the jazz mob, but there were verbal stoushes between the internal jazz factions - New Orleans, bebop and so on.

T.A. - Did you keep gig books of that era; do you have calendar dates recorded?

D.S. - Sorry, no - I never had that high an opinion of my playing.

T.A. - Is there any period, or current for that matter, recordings of you? I would like to hear you play unaccompanied or otherwise.

D.S. - I do have a few private recordings of my playing, though I think they're all rubbish. I might consider making another one in the next few months and see if it turns out any better.

T.A. - You still play in both 'Trad' and 'Mainstream' jazz bands?

D.S. - Yes, but I prefer "mainstream", whatever that is.

T.A. - Who were your influences; your musical history? Did you do any National Service time?

D.S. - I love Hines and Fats. Never had the technique to get anywhere near Hines, of course. I love Ellington the pianist, and a brilliant local pro once said he could hear Duke in my playing. I like Monk, too, and of course Tatum, Guarnieri, a heap of others. I joined the army in 1943, was shipped out to Africa, demobbed in 1948.

T.A. - Can you comment on your contemporaries at that time - Johnny Parker, Keith Scott, Nicky Hopkins, etc.

D.S. - Johnny P was a nice guy, though I wouldn't rate his playing too highly. (I) haven't heard the other two. The British pianists I liked best were Lenny Felix and Dill Jones.

T.A. - I guess Humph didn't care for Bad Penny Blues but it did cause a stir...

In late April or May 1962 (at the Ealing Club and/or the Marquee Club) Blues Inc. played Don't Stay Out All Night (Arnold), Bad Boy, Ride 'Em On Down (both Taylor), †Got My Mojo Working (Foster, Morganfield) featuring Mick Jagger: vocals; Charlie Watts: drums; Alexis Korner: acoustic guitar with electric pick-up; Cyril Davies: harmonica, †vocals; Jack Bruce: upright bass; Dick Heckstall-Smith: saxophone; Dave Stevens: piano; John Baldry, Paul Jones: †shared vocals…any thoughts on the future Stones members?

D.S. - Not really. I never got to know Charlie and Mick.

T.A. - I would be grateful for any further information you wish to supply.

D.S. - I hope (I've been) helpful, and am sorry that my memory is so bad. You'll find out when you get to 80!

T.A. - Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you, David!

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