Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer
The Cyril Davies R&B All Stars - Part One
The R&B All-Stars sections have been put together largely referencing the works of Dick Heckstall-Smith, Pete Frame , 'Blues-Rock Explosion' published by Old Goat Publishing, and Bob Brunning. Special thanks goes to Giselle Rawlins, Colin Kingwell and John Warburg.
Part I - Chicago Calling!
"It was very sad. I remember a morosely formal gathering at Alexis and Bobby's flat in Moscow Road from which the usual flippant, cheerful, sideswiping humour was absent, leaving only serious feelings and the reasons behind them as subjects of discussion. Alexis and Cyril must have had it out first in camera: they were presenting a united front to the rest of us. Cyril sat in an armchair looking worried while Alexis explained how he saw the dilemma. Cyril, Alexis explained, felt the band was getting too jazzy for him. While he recognized the quality of the music and didn't want to criticize the band on that score, the presence of a jazz-influenced drummer and the ominous saxophone were turning the band in a direction which, musically faultless though it was, he didn't personally wanted to follow.
Then Cyril spoke up. Gruffly, awkwardly, seriously, he said how much he regretted the passing of his long association with Alexis, and told us of his plans to strike out on his own with a more authentically instrumented blues line-up. Alexis wished Cyril every success with his new venture. Cyril said dutifully how good he thought everyone was. But he felt he had no choice but to go. It was a major upheaval." - Dick Heckstall-Smith
"Cyril wanted to go in the direction of Chicago; I wanted to get more jazzy. He saw no place for saxophone in the band, and he wanted Ginger out…they just didn't see eye to eye. So, Cyril and I split up…and split up very thoroughly. After he marched out of the band - it was war!" - Alexis
Cyril Davies was known as a hard man who refused to compromise his musical approach to cater to prevailing tastes. A forceful and passionate advocate of the music he loved, he was a key personality behind the rise of blues in England. Although he can only be heard today on a handful of tracks, he and his band, the R&B All-Stars, inspired legions of others to follow in their footsteps.
Many imitated Davies but none could replicate his sound. He preferred faithful re-creations of Chicago-style blues without embellishments, and once told Melody Maker, "If you like, I'm a purist. I don't like to see the music messed about. I like it straight."
For the initial lineup of "The Cyril Davies Blues Band," Davies recruited former members of Screaming Lord Sutch's backing group, the Savages: Carlo Little on drums, Rick Brown (a.k.a. Fenson) on bass and Nicky Hopkins on piano. Carlo - "When Cyril told us he was leaving Blues Inc. we jumped at the chance to join his band."
Future Yardbird and Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page was the Cyril Davies Blues Band's first fleeting guitarist. Jimmy spoke of the group: "It was a fantastic band, the best blues band of the day…better than Mayall or any of the others. Cyril Davies was the real father of the City Blues in Britain. A lot of groups owe a lot to Cyril, including the Stones. Cyril played electric harp. (He) got some rock musicians who were into the blues and it just went from there. Chicks used to dance on guys shoulders and it was a really good atmosphere - they used to do this really mad dance where everyone would be shaking. (I used to) play in the interval spot with three other guys including Andy Wren, the pianist, who was really good. We didn't know each other outside the Marquee; we used to just meet up there and get up and play!"
Jimmy Page told Dave Schulps, senior editor of Trouser Press, during a 1977 interview, "I left Neil Christian when I was about 17 and went to Art College. During that period, I was jamming at night in a blues club. By that time the blues had started to happen, so I used to go out and jam with Cyril Davies' Interval Band. Then somebody asked me if I'd like to play on a record, and before I knew where I was I was doing all these studio dates at night, while still going to Art College in the daytime. There was a crossroads and you know which one I took."
With Page's studio work taking precedence, ex-Savages guitarist Bernie Watson stepped in. A consummate musician, Watson turned many heads: "There's quite a few guys before Jeff (Beck) that used distortion but you wouldn't have heard of any of them. Like Bernie Watson with Lord Sutch…he made a record with Cyril Davies which has an amazing solo, all distortion. It was like Hendrix on a good night." - Ritchie Blackmore
Jazz News and Review reported that the newly named Cyril Davies and the R&B All-Stars' first outing at Colyer's in November 1962 was a "a rave." Propelled by Little's powerful drumming and Davies' emotionally charged harp playing, the All-Stars quickly established themselves as the top R&B act on the burgeoning London circuit, with residencies at the Railway Hotel, The Roaring Twenties and the Piccadilly Club.
The group's set consisted of Chicago blues-type numbers, both originals and such covers as "I've Got My Mojo Working," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Chicago Calling," "Country Line Special," "C.C. Rider" and Chuck Berry's "Blue Feeling." The last number went down particularly well with the audience, although Davies had initially required much persuasion from the group to undertake it.
The band also took over the prestigious Thursday night slot at the Marquee on January 3, 1963, and Korner, with the rest of Blues Incorporated, moved over to the Flamingo. During the first month at the Marquee, the Rolling Stones played during the band's set breaks. The Stones were promptly sacked at the end of the month when they asked for more money. Little and Brown even played a few gigs with the Stones in December 1962 and January 1963. Brian Jones asked Little to stay on, but with the All-Stars on the rise and the Stones struggling to find gigs, he threw in his lot with Davies.
In the meantime, Jazz News and Review was keeping track of Baldry, reporting in the December 12, 1962, issue, "Long John Baldry is alive and shouting over in Germany…still in great demand by R&B groups." Both Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies wanted Baldry in their bands - so much so that Korner even paid for Baldry's fare back from Germany. As Jazz News and Review had predicted, upon his return he was heavily wooed by both Korner and Davies, appearing with both groups before committing to the All-Stars by the end of January 1963.
Baldry commented later on his decision to join Cyril - "Alexis was too hospitable to other musicians and I did not want to share the stage with 20 other singers!" Besides Baldry, Davies also added the Velvettes - three female South African singers who had been touring in he musical King Kong - to the act. The women had formed the group and started appearing at English jazz clubs after King Kong had finished its run and the cast dispersed.
Reviewers found the resulting collaboration mesmerizing. Baldry was tall, lean and youthful, and could sing with the soulful edge of Ray Charles, contributing a charisma that the older stockier Davies lacked. In its January 16, 1963 issue, Jazz News and Review enthusiastically reported, "Velvet Excitement was caused at the Marquee on Thursday and at the Roaring Twenties on Friday when Peggy Phango and her girls from the King Kong cast joined Cyril Davies and his All-Stars in two evenings of Rhythm and Blues entertainment unsurpassed so far in London."
"Cyril was a real blues enthusiast. Whenever we used to suggest playing something more upbeat, like in the style of Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, the kind that really got the crowd going, he would say no. It took me weeks to convince him to let us do What I'd Say by Ray Charles, but when we did it the crowd went wild. John Baldry sung that one great with the Velvettes, but Cyril didn't really go for the commercial sound. Instead, the Stones filled the commercial R&B gap, and look where they are today..." - Carlo
Ever since the All-Stars had replaced Blues Incorporated at the Marquee, comparisons between the two groups had been inevitable. In its January 24, 1963, issue, Jazz News and Review reported, "Marquee versus Flamingo on Thursday evenings…Cyril Davies packed in 800 at the Marquee, holding the audience for Thursdays to a normal extent…Alexis Korner gaining around 200 for the Flamingo with a gradual increase showing…we all hope both locations continue to do well…Cyril Davies has a lead in the friendly 'war' up to now."
With the All-Stars packing in crowds at the clubs, both the Decca and Pye labels expressed interest in signing the band to a record contract. "They auditioned for Decca after A&R man Tony Meehan heard Bernie and Nicky's astonishing interplay on 'Blue Feeling' he was shouting 'sign here! sign here!' - but Cyril went with Pye because they had there own R&B label." - Pete Frame
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