Blues may be a distinctively American genre, but that doesn’t mean the good people of England had nothing to say about it! Like much in the world, the phenomenon of British Blues started off as a small niche, but by the mid to late 1960s became a sensation, with blues-rock bands like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Fleetwood Mac becoming international megastars and bringing the blues to a whole new generation of fans. Now, it’s hard to imagine England before these bands helped shape its culture, but let’s look back to the early years of the 1950’s and 60’s, when such bands were not even ideas formed in the young minds of people like Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page yet. The blues was not yet a major force in England, although it was quite familiar to jazz musicians and the traditional jazz bands that were indeed finding success in the country. This was followed by the skiffle craze, but as skiffle began to decline and rock and roll grew in stature, people began to hunger for the roots from which it sprang.
Blues in England didn’t appear out of thin air. It was the presence of American blues records that began to shape the British blues scene. During World War II, the BBC began to broadcast authentic blues records by people like Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee to help calm nerves during the German air raids. G.I. men from America brought with them blues records that began to make their way around the British scene. Chris Barber, who was big in the Trad Jazz scene in Britain, arranged for people like Big Bill Broonzy to come across the pond and perform for excited British audiences. Even bigger stars like Muddy Waters soon followed. These shows were attended by people like Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, and Eric Burdon. Jimmy Page was listening to the records of Elmore James and B.B. King. Eric Clapton’s first band, The Roosters, was covering songs by Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Slim, and T-Bone Walker. Mick Jagger was trying hard to emulate singers like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Keith Richards said, “Muddy was my man. He’s the guy I listened to. I felt an immediate affinity when I heard Muddy play the opening lick from ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ You can’t be harder than that, man. He said it all right there.” While The Beatles were always a pop-rock band, artists like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds were steeped neck deep in American acoustic and Chicago-style blues. Britain had a serious case of the blues.
Pioneers of British blues were musicians like Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner of Blues Incorporated, as well as John Mayall, who was not only responsible for much of the popularization of the blues in England, but whose band helped skyrocket the careers of guitarists like Eric Clapton and Peter Green.Here are ten ultra-essential but little known facts about these frontiersmen of the great British blues scene:
1. Cyril Davies, one of the earliest British blues musicians, started off his musical career as both a banjo player and a 12-string guitar player. However, after hearing the incredible Little Walter on the harmonica, he switched to Chicago-style blues harmonica.
2. British blues pioneer Alexis Korner was born in Paris, France, to an Austrian Jewish father and Turkish-Greek mother. After living in France, Switzerland, and North Africa, Korner came to London in 1940 at the age of 12 during World War II.
3. Korner was listening to a record by pianist Jimmy Yancey once during a German air raid that occurred during the War. “From then on all I wanted to do was play the blues.” Korner stated.
4. Davies and Korner, who met in a jazz band, opened a blues club in 1957 called “The London Blues and Barrelhouse Club.” The club hosted gigs by blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Memphis Slim, bringing great blues over to England for audiences in that country who were interested in the distinctly American genre.
5. Davies and Korner, who began the band Blues Incorporated together, also opened a club for electric blues, the Ealing Club, in 1962. The second night the club was open, Mick Jagger got up on the stage and performed “Got My Mojo Working.” Other musicians who showed up at the club include Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Rod Stewart, Paul Jones, John Mayall, Zoot Money and Jimmy Page.
6. John Mayall’s father, Murray Mayall, was a guitarist and jazz aficionado, exposing the young John Mayall to a wide array of American music.
7. As John Mayall’s appetite for blues music became whet, much of the hardcore blues that he coveted wasn’t even available in England, and Mayall would literally have to send away to America to purchase the records.
8. At age 15, John Mayall moved into a treehouse in the backyard of his family’s house. One booking-agent once described him as, “a nice fellow, he makes his own musical instruments, he lives up a tree and drinks vegetable juices.”
9. On the album John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, also known as the Beano album, the guitar Clapton uses is a sunburst 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard with two PAF humbucking pickups. It has been referred to as the “Blues Breaker” Les Paul and the “Beano” Les Paul, but unfortunately it was stolen in 1966 and has not been recovered.
10. Jack Bruce quit playing with the Blues Breakers to play with Manfred Mann. In response, Mayall wrote a song called, “Double Crossing Man,” but the title was changed to “Double Crossing Time.” The song is the fifth track on the Beano album.
Which has played more of a role in your music-listening life, American or British Blues? Tell us about it in the comments below, or leave us a message on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TributApparel or on Twitter at@tributapparel!