Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

Remembering Brian Knight and Cyril Davies

Musicians' recollections of Cyril Davies
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Cyril Davies: Preaching the Blues - Interview with Brian and Marie Knight - by Graham Vickery - Dec 1988.

Graham Vickery, aka Shakey Vick (harmonica and vocals), is a true original of the UK R&B scene. Over the years band members have included ex-Yardbirds, Strawbs, Nighthawks, and other top bands like Savoy Brown and Foghat. A veteran of many albums, he played harmonica on Elton John's "Empty Sky" in 1969.

Graham was the editor of British Blues Review and he interviewed Brian Knight and Marie Knight for a piece in the magazine.

Cyril Davies was one of the first generation of British Blues players and led the way into playing amplified Chicago styled blues. He started out in the jazz and folk fields, playing banjo and guitar before switching seriously to harmonica. With Alexis Korner, he had probably the first electric blues band in Blues Incorporated and later split with Alex to form the Cyril Davies All Stars. He died when he was beginning to get recognition for his earlier efforts, with a number of younger bands ready to benefit from his pioneering. His widow, Marie, later married Brian Knight (see issue no 3 of BBR). This interview took place at their home, after the interview with Brian on his own beginnings.

I especially remember the steaming Thursday nights at the Marquee in London with Blues Incorporated and also the first appearance of the new band, The All Stars, at Studio 51 in London's Great Newport Street, when my stomach felt battered by the heavily amplified bass. The drive and intensity of the band at this time was never really transposed to record, Country Line Special and Chicago Calling, the first single, still sound good today.

Graham: Marie, was Cyril playing when you met him?

Marie: Yes, he was playing in more or less a folk thing playing guitar then he got into Steve Lane's band playing banjo and singing then he met Alex. I can't remember what that first band was now. He was playing with a washboard in the band.

Graham: Was he playing banjo still or had he taken up harmonica?

Marie: No, he was playing guitar.

Brian: That's the thing with Cyril Davies. He made his name as a harmonica player, but his forte was the twelve string guitar. It's a shame because we've got just about the only recording of him playing twelve string and if I put them on for you - Marie won't have them on - but if I put them on for you, you wouldn't tell the difference between him and Leadbelly. It's quite phenomenal. That was what he was best at.

Graham: I remember once he came, I think it was the Marquee and he was late…and he came storming in and said, "Why the fuck haven't you got started?" It was so funny. He got straight into it even though he had a go at them for waiting for him.

Brian: He was quite a character actually - hard, mind - but a heart of gold.

Graham: Yeah, I talked to him a few times and he was always very helpful; showed how to make these contact mikes that he used, and so on, but obviously he could be heavy as well.

Brian: Yes he was a very nice person, but a lot of people didn't understand him and thought he was a hard bastard - which he was, he wouldn't be fucked about - but he'd give you his last halfpenny. He used to be with Colin Kingwell as well, didn't he?

Marie: Yes, he used to do a lot with Traditional jazzbands.

Graham: Did he use to do interval spots as well?

Marie: Yes, he used to go down to Chris Barber's, with Lonnie Donnegan, because he was sort of a beginner at that time. They used to do a little spot there.

Brian: He started off with skiffle technique.

Marie: That's how it started wasn't it?

Brian: Yeah he didn't actually get a twelve string until then.

Marie: No, he got one when he joined with Alexis. They started the blues from skiffle really. They used to go to the Roundhouse and it became packed, got so popular.

Brian: Alex wasn't there half the time. Cyril used to do it on his own. Alex was terrible for that, come to think of it. He even used to do it when he had bands. He'd get Geoff (Bradford) to dep for him. How can you do that with your own band? But he used to do it with Cyril. Months he didn't turn up sometimes. Yeah it used to be Alex on six string guitar and Cyril on twelve string and he'd play a bit of harmonica as well, and that's…Keith Scott used to play down there, on piano.

Graham: He used to play harmonica a bit, didn't he? I remember seeing him playing it once, though most of the set he'd stick to piano.

Brian: That's right. He used to do 'My Babe', actually. He had a very English voice. That's when Geoff got involved with Cyril, around about fifty-six. There were other guitarists before Geoff. There was Davy Graham. There were lots of known guitarists who used to sit in. Who was that? Cyril threw him out - Alex Campbell - Cyril actually threw him down the stairs - I don't know how the row started, something about blues or something, Alex threatened Cyril and Cyril just picked him up and threw him down the stairs.

Marie: That's how he started the band, though. It began to get popular.

Brian: Yeah that was instigated by Chris Barber again, wasn't it? Chris was playing the Marquee quite a lot and that's how Cyril got introduced to the Marquee, really. I never realized until some years later, that Chris was the instigator of quite a lot, with the help of Harold Pendleton. He paid for some people to come over and try and boost blues. So that's how Alex and Cyril actually formed Blues Incorporated and they had a residency at the Marquee on Thursday nights. They had quite an array of musicians. Alex used to use different musicians every night, I reckon. I'm trying to think of some of them. Graham Bond on Alto, Dick Heckstall-Smith on Tenor - that's really one of the reasons that Cyril left, because of the great big horn section and him trying to play harmonica all the way through it. There was Spike Heatley on bass. But Cyril basically didn't like the horn section - and there were differences between Alex and Cyril - so Cyril went rehearsing for a new band and he picked up Screaming Lord Sutch's band, which was Bernie Wason on guitar, Carlo Little on drums, Rick Brown, what was his stage name? - Ricky Fenson - on bass, no it wasn't Bernie Watson on guitar at that time, it was Jimmy Page, then Bernie Watson . Then he had a few changes in the band and cut a disc for Pye, 'Country Line Special', with Nicky Hopkins on piano, I think, who became ill and was replaced by Keith Scott. They became a very popular band working up and down the country and I think that was when Cyril became ill. He got pleurisy. When you're in that position, you've been struggling for years and suddenly you get a break, you don't want to miss the chance. Anyway, he went back to work too soon and as a result, weakened his heart.

Marie: Yes it was basically his heart that went, it wasn't leukaemia or cancer like people said.

Brian: So what happened - pleurisy weakens the heart anyway - and Cyril insisted on going back to gigging before he'd properly recovered, in the end his heart packed up. There was lots of stories going round that he was on this and taking that, but he wasn't. Mind, he liked a drink. Basically he drank a lot because he was ill and you can't get more ill than that.

Marie: On the death certificate they put Endocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart lining. People said that you don't actually die of that if you relax. But he wouldn't give up.

Graham: Just when he was breaking too…

This article was first published - 'British Blues Revue' - December 1988, pp. 10-11

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