Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

Chris Barber's Memories of Cyril Davies

Musician's recollections of Cyril Davies
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Chris Barber has just issued a double CD of unreleased tracks from his career starting back in the 1950s.

"Alexis Korner is often hailed as the grandfather of the British blues scene, but if that's the case then Chris Barber must be hailed as the great-grandfather. For Chris put together the band with Cyril Davies and Alexis and told them what to do. Chris is monstrously underrated for his contribution to the music scene in Britain" - Harold Pendleton to Melody Maker magazine.

"We'd done the tour with Muddy and then went to America in '59. The whole band played Smitty's Corner with wonderful acceptance, we played our usual stuff. After we went to America and played with Muddy in '59 and '60, it was obvious, we felt we had to get an electric guitar player. So we got Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies in at the end of 1960 and the beginning of '61, which was very nice, went very well. We did the last half an hour of each gig, except for the last number at the end of it. They played a few months until Alexis said 'Well, frankly, I want to get a band and play this stuff all night'. Well, speaking as a horn player I read that as 'There's nothing in it for us, really'. They didn't like that music enough to really think it was worth it, so I said 'Why don't you have a night in the Marquee?'. I put my other hat on, the Marquee owner's hat, and they took Thursday nights." - Chris Barber - fROOTS magazine article, 2005

Arguably if it weren't for Chris Barber the British Blues movement may not have happened at all. Barber, who has fronted his own band for more than half a century and still tours today, was immensely popular at the height of the jazz era in 1950's Britain. It was then that Barber, out of his love for the music, first brought black American blues musicians to England. Among the great performers that Chris introduced to UK audiences were Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Louis Jordan, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters and James Cotton, etc.

Paul Jones said in his Foreword for the Bob Brunning book, Blues: The British Connection, "Another thing that pleases me greatly is to see true recognition given to Chris Barber, whose great enthusiasm for the music has affected the lives and careers, not only of many British blues musicians, but also of some important American ones."

It is difficult to conceive of how the British Blues Explosion would have happened without Barber's selfless effort to expose these fine artists to England. His openness established a trend of collaboration; Barber helped create a scene that was open, collaborative and encouraged the development of young players. Just as Barber opened up his stage to Davies and Korner, Korner and Davies opened up their stage to the likes of Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Eric Burdon, etc.

Martin Clemins wrote, in 2001, the Introduction essay for the reference work Blues-Rock Explosion, "Chris Barber, Alexis Korner, Lonnie Donegan, and an astonishing Leadbelly clone and harmonica player called Cyril Davies… these were the real founding fathers of what became the British sixties blues-rock explosion."

We contacted Chris about those early years and were pleased to receive the following response:

Chris Barber (CB) (2006) - In principle I would of course be happy to assist with stuff about Cyril. Actually I had much more to do with Alexis even when they were both appearing with us! I believe Pat Halcox might remember more as he came from Ealing and knew Cyril personally, I think…

Roger Trobridge (RT) - I would like to thank you for introducing me to those US blues players in the 50s, even if it took me years before I appreciated what you had done. I saw Muddy in 1958 at the Leeds Centenary Music Festival where he stood alone on the stage with just a guitar and his amp ... quite a contrast to the other orchestras and suits that were around. The other performers that night were the National Jazz Federation "Jazz Today" - a great lineup, but what a contrast; Humph and Johnny Dankworth with Jimmy Rushing played on the previous evening.

I have the recordings you made in 53-56 with Ken Colyer and your own band which have been released on Lake. They included your harmonica blues solo with Lonnie Donegan. It was recorded at the same times as the Backstairs Session EP which came out on Nixa on 1955. What introduced you to the harmonica as something you wanted to play…was it from a visit to Chicago?

CB - What interested me in the harmonica was the records I had of Sonny Terry, Sleepy John Estes, Jazz Gillum and Sonny Boy Williamson I, etc. We did not have anybody among the band who played harp so I had a go at it. Of course, I didn't know about the sucking to produce bent notes so it doesn't sound really bluesy - so I gave up the attempt.

I certainly hadn't been to Chicago or anywhere else further west than Galway at that time, but I did have the records!

RT - Some of the later skiffle groups had a harmonica and Lonnie used John Cole a few years later.

CB - The problem with skiffle was that although Lonnie's and my intentions were virtually solely to do with country blues, the majority of the other interested parties were simply taken with the sound of the skiffle group and the simplicity (and therefore easy-to-copy) of the songs. In most cases the message of the songs was something which escaped 90 % of those who seemed to be dedicated to blues/black folk song music.

I can sadly add that most of the Jazz musicians in UK (and not ONLY in UK) played "The Blues" as simply a 12-bar sequence of chords allowing them to exercise their beginners' technique without any reference to the meaning of the music…sad.

RT - Cyril was probably still on 12 string at the time so it is around the time that the harmonica was starting to attract a bit more interest among performers. Did you go down to the Roundhouse Club when Cyril and Alexis were running it?

CB - I never went to the Roundhouse (as) we were playing our own gigs every day.

RT - I would love to know more about the time in 1961(?) when Cyril and Alexis flexed their wings when they played during the interval for you.

CB - Cyril and Alexis never played "in the interval" nor did Lonnie, Dickie (Bishop) or Johnny Duncan. I would not have setup a "put-down" of one of my favourite kinds of music like that.

With Lonnie when we started we played almost entirely in clubs where there was no concept like a theatre "interval" because the audience was already IN the bar!!!

Even then if there was an interval we all enjoyed our spot in the "Blue Posts" or some such hostelry if the club itself was not licensed and where they were licensed we might even go in a different bar. So I simply programmed the evening with the "skiffle set" at a certain time. Naturally Monty, Pat and Jim Bray would go and have a drink - but in my experience more of the audience than not, did not follow them and stayed to listen to Lonnie.

With Cyril and Alexis we were mostly doing concerts and we had arrived at a point where Ottilie, rather than sit in the band and get up to do the occasional song like big bands did, sang a number of songs in a "spot" twice in the evening. Alexis and Cyril joined in at those points especially the one at the end of the show where Ottilie had already since 1958 been singing 'Mojo' in fact by the time the public began to recognize 'Mojo' and even ask for it we were getting a little tired of it! But anyway - the result was a blues (or R 'n' B) set close to the end of the concert. It's a shame Alexis and Cyril did not live long enough to be able to reminisce ...

Of course Alexis, as you know, played in my first Amateur Band which had piano, bass, drums, banjo and guitar. The blues sets lasted some 20 or more minutes with myself on bass and singing (a trick I never did manage well!) and pianist Roy Sturgess doing his best to be Maceo Merriweather. Our repertoire was much the same as Eric Clapton did on the Albert Hall sessions in the 90's when he had Chris Stainton on piano etc., and sung mainly 40's Chicago blues repertoire.

The funny thing is that Alexis and I were at school together in the early1940s. He being older than me and it being a public school, St. Paul's, the word, more accurately, is "at the same time" rather than "together". We did not actually meet until we competed to buy rare blues 78's from Doug Dobell's record shop ...


Chris' impressive and prolific career has been extremely well documented on the Chris Barber website - www.chrisbarber.net. You should definitely check it out!

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