Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

Norrie Burnett's Memories

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Veteran blues shouter Norrie "Snakebite" Burnett has been active on the blues circuit for over 50 years. Blues shouters must project their voices over drums and guitars - originally this was done without amplification. Blues shouting is considered to be the opening pathway which led jazz music to ascend into rock and roll. Norrie is generally considered to be one of the finest blues shouters in Britain.

It seems nigh on impossible to believe that Norrie started his singing career way-way back in a skiffle group. This was long before the British rock and roll scene started to take off. © Neil Mach January 2012

We would like to thank Norrie for his kind consideration and participation in this Q & A session. If you want to hear someone with a voice so powerful that it can strip the bark off a tree at 100 paces, be sure to get out and see 'Snakebite' at a festival or venue near you!

Norrie Burnett (NB) - I am originally from The Rhondda Valley in South Wales and got into Blues, R&B, Gospel and Jazz as a 14 year old, searching for Radio Luxembourg. I inadvertently stumbled onto American Forces Network broadcast out of Stuttgart. My interest grew when I went into the forces in 1954 and met likeminded people. I had never been out of the Rhondda Valley and was as green as grass. I met guys from all over the country with much more musical experience than I had. I bought records off some that I still have.

I used to come down to London with a pal and check out the Trad Jazz bands that were popular at the time. That is when I first came across Cyril. He was playing banjo in Steve Lane`s Southern Stompers. I was so impressed by his enthusiasm that I bought a tenor banjo myself. Also, because he seemed to have plenty of money and loved a pint, and loved to buy one for anyone close to him, we had several conversations which led me into Leadbelly who he had recently discovered.

Later, he turned up during the interval at a Chris Barber gig, accompanying Ottilie Patterson, Chris`s wife, and that is when I met Alexis. I had heard of Alexis as he wrote the liner notes on lots of Jazz LPs and EPs at the time. He also had a connection with record company Melotone, just off Cambridge Circus. Although it was not a retail outlet, he would send me there to say, Alex sent me, and we would buy the records, hot off the press. I still have the full set of Leadbelly (Stinson Albums) 10" LP's and a 12" Inch Leadbelly among others.

When I got de-mobbed, I moved in with my pal`s parents as I got out about a year before my pal. We used to go to a coffeehouse in Villiers Street, (down the side of Charing Cross Station) and jam Blues & Americana there. We didn`t know what Blues, American Folk, Skiffle or Jazz Songs were at the time. Anyway, among the regulars were Wizz Jones and a 17 year old Long John Baldry who used to beg my pal Ernie Richards and myself to jam with us.

It was through Long John that we learned that the Skiffle Club held at The Roundhouse in Wardour Street was closing and the shortly afterwards that Cyril and Alexis were opening up there as The Barrelhouse Blues Club. So on the opening night of The BBC! There was Cyril, Alexis, Long John, Ernie and I and maybe one other or perhaps two! I recall that I opened with Leadbelly`s Good Morning Blues followed by The Midnight Special.

Incidentally, that was the first time I ever saw and held a National Steel Guitar. Cyril had acquired one from somewhere and had brought it along for Alex.

My pal Ernie had been given the address of Warner Holiday Camp on The Isle of Wight with a view to doing a summer season. Wizz Jones who leaned more to the Folkie style was going down to the West Country and Long John, who was working in an advertising agency stayed in town; thus our little group broke up. My pal met a girl on The Isle of Wight, who he subsequently married, and had asked me not to come back to his parents` place as she was moving in, so I went back to my home and missed out on Blues Inc. and all that. However, on the bright side, they are all dead and I`m still shouting.

Todd Allen (TA) - Was National Service 3 years? (sorry, I'm from Canada). I'm assuming that you must have seen Cyril playing banjo during your service years?

NB - 18 months, then two years. I did three years as a Regular. National Service was, initially, 18 months and then increased to two years.

I was a coal miner in South Wales and could not be conscripted. However, following a disappointment at Fernhill Colliery, in Blaenrhondda, (I was studying Mining Science on Day-Release for promotion but promotions were given to Manager`s pals sons), I signed on to the RAF for 3 years. During my time at 16MU Stafford, I met Ernie Richards who also enjoyed the music emerging at the time and used to accompany him when he went home to Beckenham in Kent, at weekends. We would check out what was on and go to see bands. We would by the NME and plan on who we would see at the weekend.

We had seen Chris Barber at Stafford Town Hall. I also recall seeing George Melly with Sid doing 'Come Along and See My Big Black Bottom (Lordy How I love That Dance)'! He had begun to make a name for himself with Humph. For some reason, though, we didn`t follow Humph; we didn`t consider him a purist because of the saxophone!

We often went to Studio 51 first to see Victor Feldman and when he went to the USA, to see Ken Colyer. Ken would have an interval when he would play guitar, John Bastable on banjo, bass and drums and they would play American Folk Songs and Blues and came to be known as Skiffle. I was there one evening when he announced that a 17 year old drummer, who was making waves, was to do a spot with the band…that turned out to be Ginger Baker.

Other bands popular at the time were, Cy Laurie, Sandy Brown, Dick Charlesworth, Terry Lightfoot, Mick Mulligan, Alex Welsh Band, Graham Stewart Seven (The cornet player would later leave and form his own band, that was Alan Elsdon), Ken Colyer`s Clarinettist similarly left to form the Acker Bilk Band.

When I left the forces and took up residence with Ernie`s parents (Ernie was still serving) I was in a string band that played the intervals for almost all of those bands. We were regulars at The Park Lane Ballroom, Croydon, The Star Hotel, Broad Green, Croydon, The Tiger`s Head, Catford and I even supported Ramblin` Jack Elliot at The Skiffle Cellar in Greek Street, Soho, among others. I have corresponded off and on, until recently, with Jack.

TA - Any ideas as to how Cyril would have been 'turned on' to Leadbelly?

NB - I don`t know if he knew Alexis at this time. If he did, Alexis had access to a marvellous record collection and connections to record companies who he wrote sleeve notes for.

Other than that, Leadbelly was one of the first American artists to have record releases in the UK during this period. I believe that the reason Cyril got onto Leadbelly, was because it was so difficult to obtain American product at the time and there was a Musicians Union ban on American musicians coming over unless there was a reciprocal arrangement.

Also British record companies were slow to catch onto the trend. The American "Stinson Albums" were released on Melodisc (I think) and there were about a 100 song fragments on 3x10inch LPs. All of a sudden, there was a deluge of new material to catch onto. Cyril, never short of cash, was able to acquire a 12 string guitar, and being a string player already, soon became the leading exponent. I had never even heard of a 12 String Guitar...and there was one being played!!!!

Leadbelly stuff, as you probably know, was not all Blues based. This introduced some confusion as to where the trend was going but eventually, there was a dichotomy and Folk & Americana split with Blues. In the same way that would-be rock stars always rush to engage the band leader in conversation, Ernie and I would try to find out where Cyril got his records, how he learned 12 string guitar, etc.

I don`t recall Alexis at this period. He was a lofty somebody who`s name appeared on record sleeves. So the name was familiar to us. If Cyril already knew him, it is likely that Alexis was able to turn Cyril onto stuff that was not readily available. He was reputed to have an enviable Blues record collection. Going back to The Stinson Albums, I still have my 3x10inch set, courtesy of Alexis.

TA - Do you have any idea what year this was? I wasn't aware that Cyril played with Ottile until much later (like 1961).

NB - If you are correct, and you probably are, then I have my memories mixed up. Blame Jack Daniels!!! When I was demobbed and moved down London, I continued going out to see bands. It all seems as if it happened day by day but, of course, this was over a period of a number of years.

TA - Can you remember where you met Long John Baldry?

NB - My pal Ernie and I knew Long John from Jamming at The Gyre & Gimble, a coffee house in Villiers Street alongside Charing Cross Station. He was in the know about what was occurring music-wise as he worked in an advertising agency in central London. He encouraged us to attend the re-opening of The London Skiffle Club as The Blues & Barrelhouse Club.

TA - Do you remember Bob Watson as well? He co-founded the London Skiffle Club with Cyril (at the Round House)?

NB - Yes, I remember "Uncle" Bob but I didn`t know him personally. He was always chatting to regulars but I was (am) pretty shy and never pushed in. I have often wished I had as, at the time, I was considered pretty good. I do recall Uncle Bob; he might have been at the opening night of The Blues & Barrel House Club, but I`m not entirely certain. I can see Alexis sitting tuning a guitar while welcoming the, very few us there, Long John next to me on my left, Ernie on my right, one or at the most two others at the back of the room. I think that one of those at the back might have been Bob as Cyril made his entrance carrying the National (not in a case) and he briefly spoke to one of those at the back. That could have been Bob.

TA - You might be referring to Uncle Bob Scruton, and he's still playing too! Uncle Bob definitely used to go to see Cyril with Steve Lane's band but I'm not sure if he made the Blues & Barrelhouse.
Uncle Bob on MySpace
Uncle Bob's Recollections page

What I find really fascinating was that you were at the Blues & Barrelhouse Club (Round House) on opening night!

NB - After Cyril and Alex made their introductions, they did a couple of numbers to get things started then I was next up with, would you believe it?, A couple of Leadbelly numbers…trying to ingratiate myself with Cyril!

TA - Do you recall the membership cards?

NB - No membership cards on the 1st night as I recall. Indeed, it might well have been the closing night too, as there were only 3 or 4 paying members. It had declined as The Skiffle Club and was not an instant success as The Blues & Barrelhouse Club. Membership cards must have been introduced later, but I never got one.

TA - There was a washboard / drummer, Mike Collins - who we've interviewed, that was a regular; he appeared on the 50's recordings with Alexis & Cyril. We've talked to Mike as well as Geoff Bradford & Keith Scott (piano). Do you have any recollection of these players?

NB- I knew of them by reputation but did not know them personally. I think that Geoff Bradford played guitar with Alexis with Terry Plant on bass and Mike Collins on washboard that was, "GOING TO BE REALEASED". I don`t think that Cyril was involved in the early stuff. Their name s were familiar but they were "out of our league", at the time and I don`t recall meeting them personally.

TA - I've seen period photos of Alexis with a National; There are also a few pics around from the Roundhouse days that show Geoff B. With a National...I wonder if it was the same one Cyril had brought that night?

NB - The few of us that were there, were sat down and Alexis was tuning up. Cyril came bustling in with this shiny guitar uncased which he presented to Alexis. It could be that I assumed Cyril had acquired it. But he could have been returning it. I don`t think that was the case. Cyril seemed to us poor servicemen, that he had endless money and could acquire the impossible!! On the basis that Cyril brought the National in after Alexis had made many of the recordings, it is unlikely to be the same instrument, bu, of course, this is pure conjecture. Perhaps Cyril was more involved with the Bradford, Collins Plant lads than I realised.

TA - Do you think you might have remained a regular performer at the club?

NB - I have often wondered what would have happened if I hadn`t gone for the Summer Season to the Isle Of Wight. Alexis didn`t have much of a voice and neither did Cyril. Long John always considered that I could sing far better than he could. If I had stuck around, I might have been the star of Blues Incorporated??? Still! You pays your money and you takes your choice. I still go out about once a month or so. I was involved in the concert to raise the money for The Ealing Club Plaque and in the memorial concerts at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham. I am also doing short set with the Alan Glen/John O`Leary All Stars at The Cyril Davies/Alexis Korner Memorial Set at Ealing Blues Festival in July.

TA - We've been considering doing something similar to the Ealing Blue Plaque for the Round House. Any other memories (even vague) about your experiences there that you could share would be greatly appreciated (dates (even approx.), other performers you remember, physical layout, etc).

NB - All I recall about lay out is that we came up stairs ito a glass panelled corridor, Turned left into the function room with the boys set up facing you as you entered. I don`t recall any others at all.

Have a peek at Norrie Snakebite Burnett on Facebook, there are some photos of Norrie & Ernie from the period, along with, Ken Colyer, Monty Sunshine and others.

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