Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer

Dick Heckstall-Smith's Memories

Musicians' recollections of Cyril Davies
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Dick Heckstall-Smith - born 26 September 1934, died 17 December 2004.

I would like to offer my heartfelt gratitude to the mercurial Pete Grant. I say mercurial because in the time that has passed since I first contacted him a few years back, he has never failed to amaze and surprise me with his new exploits and endeavors, both musical and otherwise. Mr. Grant has recently (2006) been building the new Pete Brown website www.petebrownweb.com .

Pete has donned his writers cap once again, though, to help us present and preserve the genius of Dick Heckstall-Smith. Dick, sax man extraordinaire, was another architect of 'the scene' worthy of our highest accolades…please do yourself a favour and look out his works! Cheers Pete…Todd

You don't know Dick - Introducing DH-S - by Pete Grant

Dick Heckstall-Smith was my friend, and for the last four years of his incredible career, I attempted to be his manager. That I was only partially successful is due to the fact that it is not really possible for mere mortals to manage a force of nature such as Dick. I mean 'manage' in every sense of the word. Stubborn, single minded, bloody minded he might have been, but he was also a musical genius, and one of the most interesting complex, talented people I have ever met.

Dick was born in Ludlow, England on 26th September, 1934. His family moved first to Wales, and then in 1947 to Duffus, Morayshire. Dick went to nearby Gourdonstoun school, and took clarinet lessons.By 1949, the family had again moved to Dartington in Devon. Clarinet lessons continued, but Dick managed to persuade his father to buy a Boosey and Hawkes alto sax for the then princely sum of twenty five pounds. This was followed by a ten pound Maltese soprano sax. Dick had discovered jazz in general, and Sidney Bechet in particular. He soon discovered Wardell Gray's playing, and from these early influences his own playing style began to take shape.

By 1953, he was studying Agriculture unenthusiastically at Cambridge University, and by the following year he became co-leader of the University jazz band. In 1955, he won a prize for a good solo played during an inter-varsity jazz competition. The performance was later released on record, and is the earliest known recording of Dick in action. Sandy Brown was the judge of that competition, and after a spell of National Service (Dick registered as a pacifist, and served his time as a porter in a hospital) Brown recruited DH-S for his jazz band, later described by friend and colleague Pete Brown as the first world music band. Other jazz gigs followed, including a summer season in Ronnie Smith's Quartet at a Butlin's holiday camp, and much jazz freelancing. By this time, Dick had established himself primarily as a tenor sax man, although he did still play soprano and also a little baritone. On many one nighter gigs, he would work with his flat-mate Peter 'Ginger' Baker. Their musical lives would be entwined for some years to come.

Dick was a jazz man at heart, yet he admired other musical forms, and carried on an open mindedness about all kinds of music to the very end. In particular, the style and attack of blues appealed to him. Dick had enjoyed blues as far back as his Dartington days. He had loved the music of Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson and so on. When a chance meeting with a "...Sauve one" by the name of Alexis Korner led to the exchange of information and addresses, and later, a call from Alexis asking Dick to attend a rehearsal in Soho. In "Blues And Beyond", Dick spoke of arriving and meeting drummer Charlie Watts, bass player Andy Hoogenboom, and piano player Keith Scott. This is how Dick described the next arrival, some fifty minutes late.

At ten to eight the clattery pub doors were flung open and a burly balding figure in a dirty raincoat pushed in, holding an old and very bulging briefcase. Ignoring the good natured shouts of 'hello Cyril!' he made his way straight to the decrepit upright piano in the corner of the room, and upended his briefcase over the top of it. An enormous number of harmonicas flowed out, rather like a liquid, and he cursed roundly and obscenely.


So it was that Dick met Cyril Davies for the first time. If Cyril was the first "fully fledged genius" that Dick had ever worked with, for the first few weeks at least, Dick was convinced that the harp man didn't like him. He eventually realized that Cyril's contempt was not aimed at the man (in fact they became drinking buddies early on) but at the instrument he played. Davies hated the Saxophone with a vengeance. As Dick said, "He liked my playing, he just didn't like what I played it on."

More lineup changes occurred, until the lineup that Dick considered the finest to play under the Blues Incorporated banner was in place.

Given that Cyril just could not reconcile the sound of a saxophone with the Chicago blues style he loved, Dick felt it was inevitable that a split would eventually happen. Dick mentions in the book, and told me many times, that he felt this was a great shame as Cyril's leaving broke up what he considered was the finest Blues Incorporated lineup: Alexis Korner - vocals, guitar; Cyril Davies - harp, vocals, 12 string; Dick Heckstall-Smith - tenor sax; Johnny Parker - piano; Jack Bruce - string bass; Ginger Baker - drums. Much has been made of the others who sat in such as John Baldry, and in particular Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. When talking to me of those times a few years ago, Dick was sure that Jagger only sat in for a few numbers at a time, no more than about 12 times, whilst with Jones, it was just a handful of appearances.

Dick's dream team was not the lineup that recorded the 'live' album from the Marquee. Dick swore this lineup never played the Marquee. He did say in both in the book, and in many conversations with me that they had recorded an albums worth of material at Decca's basement studio. Dick was sure that he still had a two track master of one song from the session, "Dooji Wooji." Much searching of his cluttered West Hampstead apartment failed to turn it up, but he did play me a third generation cassette tape of that session. Even with the appalling sound quality, the music leaps out at you. There is a vibrancy and energy there that really grabbed my attention. When Dick died, his son Arthur donated a lot of the many fascinating recordings Dick had amassed to the National Sound Archive of the British Library. I do not know for certain, but I hope that recording is amongst those that found their way there. As for the rest of the unreleased album, Dick felt it remained unmixed, and was unsure why it was never put out. If it was of the same quality as 'Dooji Wooji', it would very much be worth hearing.

After awhile, the band was summoned to a meeting where Alexis and Cyril explained that Cyril was leaving to form his own band. Although he couldn't fault the musical excellence of the band, Gingers jazz influenced drumming and the appearance of the dreaded sax, and overall jazzy feel were more than Cyril's purist sensibilities could stand. Dick told me many years later that he was saddened that Cyril felt he had to leave, but he understood it. It was his feeling that Alexis always had in mind a band that could do service to Muddy Waters tunes yet still have something of a Charles Mingus influenced feel about them. Dick was adamant that this was not what Cyril wanted, and so he left.

Graham Bond came into Blues Incorporated following Cyril's departure, and soon afterwards Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker joined Bond in what would become The Graham Bond Organization. At first, that band was completed by guitarist John McLaughlin, but soon Dick too left Alexis Korner to join up with Bond. If Blues Incorporated was a blues band with jazz leanings, then perhaps GBO was a jazz band with R&B leanings. Despite a full date sheet, two fine albums and a loyal grass roots following, GBO never broke through to mass popularity. Life within the band was always explosive. Graham Bond's behavior could be erratic to say the least, and the antagonistic relationship that existed between Jack and Ginger could turn at any moment. Dick told me of the time when the band was playing a gig in Golders Green, and Jack and Ginger actually came to blows on the stage. When a break did come, Jack and Ginger actually left together, to join up with Eric Clapton to form Cream. Jon Hiseman took over on drums, and immediately formed a friendship with Dick. Life in the band was more stressful than ever, and both Dick and Jon left in 1967, both joining John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.

Mick Taylor had just replaced Peter Green in the Bluesbreakers, and again Dick joined a blues band just as it took a turn towards jazz, to an extent at least. Dick's brief stint with Mayall gave him the chance to tour the USA for the first time. However, when Hiseman left to form the dream band that he and Dick had often discussed, Dick was not far behind. Colosseum was born. For the next three years, Colosseum would tour and record. Pigeonholed at the time as a prog rock band, with hindsight they could be described as one of the very first jazz rock fusion bands, if not the first. In 1971 when guitarist Clem Clempson left to join Humble Pie, the rest of the band decided not to carry on.

Dick chose that moment to record his first solo album, A Story Ended, which featured Colosseum members plus Graham Bond and many others. He formed a band to tour the album, and visited North America on the same bill as Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac. Dick disliked his new position of band leader, and became disillusioned to the point of leaving music for a time in order to do a sociology degree. A major back injury at this time also kept him off the stand. He did return to part time gigging in the 70's with Big Chief, returning to full time gigging with Mainsqueeze in the early 80's. Much gigging and recording followed, including a stint where Mainsqueeze backed Bo Diddley on tour. By the late 80's, dick had formed DHSS, his dream jazz band. Dick believed in this band, but sadly they never recorded, although his second album, Woza Nasu did feature many of the numbers featured by the band live, and several members of DHSS did appear on it.

In the early 90's, Dick again suffered from serious illness, but came back to record his third solo album, Celtic Steppes, a suite for a large 20 piece band. A Colosseum reunion followed, plus much work with the Hamburg Blues Band. In 2001, a fourth solo album was recorded, 'Blues And Beyond' a set which encapsulated much of Dick's career to date, and which featured many guests such as John Mayall, Jon Hiseman, Jack Bruce, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Paul Jones, and many others. The set included a reworking of Cyril's 'Spooky But Nice'. By 2002, Dick was again ill, but continued to work. An appearance at the London Jazz Festival that year meant a reunion for DHSS, an event I know meant an awful lot to Dick. In 2003, Colosseum proved to be be Dick's last album. Some gigging, including a memorable appearance in Denmark with The British Blues Allstars followed (that included a reunion with Long John Baldry). Dick's increasingly poor health prevented him from touring Germany with Colosseum, and appearing with John Mayall for Mayall's 70th birthday concert. Dick passed away on December 17th, 2004. I miss him on a personal level, he was my friend, but he will be missed by many as a free thinking, brilliant musician.

For more information read Pete's book. Blowing The Blues - Fifty years of playing the British Blues..

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