Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

The Rolling Stones' recollections of Cyril Davies

"I've stones in my pathway, my road seems dark as night…" - Robert Johnson

Musician's recollections of Cyril Davies
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Charlie Watts - I learned the blues through a man called Cyril Davies, and Alexis Korner...The blues, to me, before that was Now's The Time by Charlie Parker or West End Blues by Louis Armstrong. That was the blues. If you're talking about sort of rural blues, Chicago blues, no, I didn't know any of them, really. Cyril was the first one to play me Muddy Waters.

Alexis played this music called R&B, which I'd never heard of, and he had Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone, a very modern player, and a harmonica player called Cyril Davies who I'd never heard the likes of.

Cyril Davies, who was fabulous on harmonica and Alexis Korner would take the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee roles with Chris Barber.

Alexis Korner and Cyril Davis were the start of rhythm and blues in this country. If things were as they should be, Alexis would be right at the top. I met Alexis in a club somewhere and he asked me if I'd play drums for him. A friend of mine, Andy Webb, said I should join the band, but I had to go to Denmark to work in design, so I sort of lost touch with things. While I was away, Alexis Korner formed his band, and I came back to England with Andy. I joined the band with Cyril Davies and Andy used to sing with us.

I was 21, I think. I was working in Denmark, came back, and he (Alexis) asked me to join his band. That was the first time I ever played with a harmonica player, and that was Cyril Davies. He was a Chicago-style blues player, and that was what he wanted the band to be like-I'd have to play like Francis Clay or Freddie Below. - as interviewed by Bill Beuttler, Down Beat, February 1987.

When I first played with Cyril Davies I thought, "What the fuck is happening here?" because I'd only ever heard a harmonica played by Larry Adler. Cyril was such a character; I loved him. But the rest of it - I didn't know what the hell was going on. Although I knew about playing a heavy backbeat, it wasn't like Chicago-style, which is what Cyril wanted. It was an amazing band, but a total cacophony of sound. On a good night, it was a cross between R&B and Charlie Mingus, which was what Alexis wanted.


Mick Jagger and Blues Inc

Alexis Korner - I thought 'Whoo!' Cyril heard Mick and he liked him and the sound on the tape.



Mick Jagger - It was like watching a lot of white people trying to play the blues. And we were much different. We used to laugh and call them a bunch of jazzers. It just wasn't our kind of blues... Seeing Alexis didn't really give me confidence. It meant there was somewhere to play. At the time it was nice.

I'm a Little Walter fan, but I can't remember when I first started to play harmonica. In the early days, there was obviously a competitive aspect between me and Brian, in the same way that Keith was competitive with Brian on guitar...first of all I did figure out that you had to have loads of harmonicas in different keys, which was very expensive; you had to have them because otherwise you were stuck. And you also needed reeds because they would often break and frequently be badly made. Then I wanted to know how you played harmonica, but Cyril (Davies) refused to tell me. So I just observed him. I used to chat to him and in the end he got kind of used to me, but the harmonica is not an instrument that is very easy to teach, because you're not sitting there with a keyboard, saying, Oh, Mick this is how you play, you put your finger on there. With the harmonica you can't really show someone what to do in their mouth...I'm sure there are books and tutors that you can buy, but what I did was to sit around with my one harmonica listening to records by Jimmy Reed, who conveniently only plays in a couple of keys, so there were only two or three variations. That's really how I learned to play - playing along to Jimmy Reed records.

Mick Jagger and Cyril Davies

Cyril Davies was the only harmonica player I could see play live. There wasn't anybody else, unfortunately, although Cyril was a really, really good harmonica player, much better than I could ever be. That was his thing. He used to sing, but not particularly well. I learned an enormous amount from Cyril, but he wasn't an expansive person, he was very gruff, almost to the point of rudeness.

Click here to watch a video clip of Mick talking about Cyril




Keith Richards - When the Ealing club opened, Mick actually managed to borrow his dad's car. It was my first trip into the big town just to have some fun. It was a revelation because it was a small joint and the band was cooking--it was Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, with Jack Bruce on bass, Charles Watts on drums, Alexis on guitar, Cyril Davies on harmonica. Long John Baldry was there, also Ian Stewart, and Brian Jones played some Elmore James shit that was sheerly electrifying, absolutely amazing. I was hooked from that minute on.

Cyril Davies was also very anti at that time, although he changed his mind within a few months. Cyril would say, "This is not a rock'n'roll club," and so I'd have to take on this tough panel beater.

A lot of these old cats had been playin' blues in those clubs for ages, or thought they were playin' blues. Just because they had met Big Bill Broonzy at a party or played with him once, they thought they were the king's asshole.

Cyril Davies was a car-panel beater at a junkyard and body shop. He was a good harp player and a good night man; he used to drink bourbon like a fucking fish.


Bill Wyman - Brian Jones sometimes visited Cyril Davies at his home, where they would blow harmonicas together. Brian began to imitate (Jimmy) Reed's lazy style and practice Davies' technique of bending and flattening the notes. This was the first step in Brian's departure from the guitar, searching for stimulation from more exotic sounds.

All the Stones loved the Davies band; the way they interpreted Chuck Berry's 'Deep Feeling' had to beard to be believed.

On 31 January, after a great show, we asked Cyril Davies for more money - and were immediately fired. Harold Pendleton said later, "I came out of the Marquee with Cyril, and the Stones were packing their stuff into a van. I shouted goodnight to them, and they went 'Aaaaaarag!'" I said, "What's the matter with them?" Cyril said, "I've just fired them." "What for?" He said, "They're not very authentic, and they're not very good." The truth was that we had been getting superb receptions at the Marquee and the audience had now swelled to an average of 600. I'd noticed that when we had a tremendous ovation and earned an encore, Cyril hadn't looked too happy at all. But it was a bad blow to us all the same.


Ron Wood - Art started with Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, who were the blues pioneers in England... During the Cyril Davies era, Charlie Watts was the drummer, and my brother Art used to help Charlie's dad set the drums up for him.

Various member of the groups that Art was playing with at the time would take me, while I was still in short pants, to see English R&B and blues pioneers like Alexis Korner , Long John Baldry and Cyril Davies. Art used to sing in the Cyril Davies All-Stars. There were great people playing in the band, like Nick Hopkins on the piano and Bernie Watson - usually known as 'Strawberry' - on guitar, Ricky Brown on bass and Carlo Little, the drummer.

When I went down to see Art sing with Cyril Davies, Mick Jagger would be in the front row. He'd ask Cyril, "How do you bend a note?" and Cyril would say, "Well, you get a pair of pliers…"


Reference:
  • Stone Alone: The Story of a Rock'n'Roll Band (1990) - Bill Wyman with Ray Coleman
  • According to the Rolling Stones (2003) - Jagger, Richards, Watts, Wood
  • Rolling Stones (1972) - Edited by David Dalton, Designed by Jon Goodchild
  • Beuttler, Bill: Charlie Watts interview, Down Beat, February 1987
  • Booth, Stanley: Playbow Interview: Keith Richards. Playboy. Vol. 36, No. 10. October 1989.

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