When Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated was formed in London in 1961, there was not much of a British blues scene to speak of. Korner formed Blues Incorporated with his longtime collaborator, Cyril Davies, who like Korner, loved American blues. Blues Incorporated became the first amplified British blues band. In addition to Korner on guitar and Cyril Davies on a mean harmonica, the band included Long John Baldry on vocals, Charlie Watts on drums, Jack Bruce on bass, Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone. Though these were generally the core members of the band, Alexis Korner’s intention was for membership in the band to be somewhat flexible, with various comings and goings. They became a resident band at the important Marquee Club, which lead to them signing a contract with Decca records. The first record they recorded with Decca was R&B from the Marquee – but ironically, it’s a studio album that was actually recorded at Decca Studio.
The album was recorded on June 8, 1962, and featured Alexis Korner on acoustic guitar (no electric here) vocal duties by Baldry and Davies, Keith Scott on piano, Heckstall-Smith on tenor sax, Spike Heatley on string bass, Teddy Wadmore on bass guitar, Graham Burbidge on drums, and Big Jim Sullivan on vocals and guitar, though he was not credited for his guitar playing. I find this album so exciting to listen to because it really is the inception of recorded British blues, one of the records that started it all.
Right from the very first track, the instrumental “Gotta Move” written by Alexis Korner, the band shows a huge spark, electric energy, great musicianship, and just a fantastic all-around listening experience. Especially electrifying is Cyril Davies on harmonica, and Heckstall-Smith’s saxophone adds a nice smooth texture to the overall sound, which is messy yet strong. These men were clearly passionate about blues music at a time when the blues barely existed on their continent. It’s both faithful to the Chicago blues sound, but also fresh and invigorating. They aren’t just copying the Chicago masters but developing their own distinct voices.
One of the most exciting components of the album is the back to back Muddy Waters special, “I Wanna Put a Tiger in Your Tank” and “I Got My Mojo Working”. Both tunes feature Cyril Davies adeptly handling the vocals with his dexterous voice, which probably could have just as easily handled jazz or standards. The tempos are brisk and keep your feet moving, bringing out the energy, machismo, and sexual undercurrents of these songs. Most of Britain may not have gotten Muddy Waters yet, but Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated sure did. The former presence of Charlie Watts aside, you can hear the major influence this music would have on The Rolling Stones, a band which one can see as an eventual continuation of the tradition started by Blues Incorporated.
The distinctive appeal of Baldry’s vocals can be clearly heard on this record too, especially on the Leroy Carr penned “How Long, How Long Blues”. A mellower shuffle punctuated by Carr influenced piano inflections, you can feel yourself on the train station platform waiting along with the singer, train whistles and exhaust. Scott’s piano solo remains upbeat but with hints of pain and weariness. As he mostly does throughout the records, Cyril Davies tends to steal the show here with his harmonica playing, although Baldry steals the spotlight back nicely.
“Spooky but Nice,” penned by Cyril Davies, incorporated great harmonic lines played by the sax and harmonica, sometimes in unison, sometimes clashing in dissonance, creating the spooky but nice effect intended by the title. Another Davies tune, “Keep Your Hands Off”, is a more swingin’ uptempo party tune with Davies warning you to “keep your hands off her, you know she don’t belong to you”.
R&B from the Marquee isn’t just an archaeological relic for those interested in the history of (British) blues, but is truly a thrilling, moving album that hits hard and should appeal to both casual and hardcore blues fans alike. Yes, it’s historical location enhances its mystique, but don’t be fooled. This album is all about great music.