Cyril Davies... British Blues Harp Pioneer
Keith Scott worked with Cyril Davies on the London Blues Scene in various combinations from 1958 - 1963. As piano player at the Roundhouse Blues and Barrelhouse Club, as co-founders of the electric Blues Incorporated and then with the R&B All Stars at the zenith of the Band's popular success, he witnessed Cyril's rise and musical development as performer throughout five years from close proximity on and off-stage from his acoustic and electric keyboard.
Impressions of Cyril From the Piano Stool
The slipway was Croydon Civic Hall in January 1962. Cyril fronted on stage on amplified harp and shared vocal honours with Alexis and a singer he'd brought in from Harrow, Andy Wren. Alexis sported an uncharacteristic electric solid, and I was privileged with a concert grand, plus Graham Beazley on string bass miked up close, and Colin Bowden, a familiar drummer from our times with Ken Colyer's band. As we were the support act to Acker Bilk, the epitomy of 'bowler-hat trad' who attracted big crowds, this was the litmus test to gauge audience response - and by and large we passed the test, as Cyril went down well, though Andy was a bit too raunchy with his delivery for that public's trad jazz taste, as he normally performed with a rock 'n' roll band. Peter Clayton reviewed the Concert in "Jazz News" and concluded The group is not quite a group yet, but it has in Cyril Davies a very exciting harmonica player. He also had the whole audience with him - with no dissenters - when he sang and played 'Hoochie Coochie Man'. We did a recording session the same month with the same line-up except Andy Wren - with Cyril on harp and Alexis singing on "She Fooled Me"; and a BBC Audition followed, which resulted in a 'Band Beat' programme several weeks later.
We tried the amplified sound at The Roundhouse a few times, but the landlord decided that the increased volume upstairs decreased the serious drinkers downstairs and with that his profits, so closed down the Club.
Cyril and Alexis then opened up the Ealing Club in March, 1962 after a premises tip-off from Art Wood, the new singer Cyril had introduced to the band - and this then became the first R&B Club in the country. It was dark, dingy, and running with condensation, but it soon achieved almost cult status as closet blues hounds from all over the country sniffed out the trail to the door every Saturday night. Cyril was in his element here - it was rough, tough, loud, and licensed . . . . and the crowd was a captive audience that came to listen. Chris Barber and Ottilie Paterson made a public gesture of support and the crowd increased week by week as the word spread.
By the end of April the National Jazz Federation beckoned and offered Blues Inc. the Thursday night slot at the Marquee in Oxford Street. This provided musical 'legitimacy' , an 800 capacity well-equipped club, and an established West End venue . . . . . and even better for me, I got a grand piano that was in tune and regularly maintained! The launch on 3rd May was well-publicised in the music and popular press, and write ups enthusiastic, especially on Cyril. The tortured, angry sound of Cyril Davies' harmonica (surely without equal in this country), he helps to make up a front line of tremendous emotional power. In the manner of all blues harmonica players, Cyril buries the tiny instrument in a pair of hard, muscular hands and squeezes those gaunt cries from it with total conviction. (Peter Clayton in "Jazz News"). And Jack Good in "Disc": Cyril Davies, playing amplified harmonica . . . . standing in white shirtsleeves, looking very unjazzy, played as if in a trance. Behind this delectable assortment of individuals were the rhythm section, piano, bass, and drums. And the total result of these seven private mystical raptures was one solid chunk of bouncing blues. Maureen Cleave dropped in a week or two later and reported in the "Evening News" on The New Sound. . . This is rhythm and blues, old as the hills in America, but we're fast developing a taste for it here. It is made by Blues Incorporated and promises to be the most exciting thing since Bill Haley. . . . . As a group, they are quite out of place in the pops world. They are Bohemian and intelligent and pretty psychopathic. Quiet and well-spoken they talk about Rhythm and Blues the way people on the Third Programme talk about Schoenberg. Put them on the stage together and they behave with desperate abandon. She followed that with a description of Cyril: Cyril Davies on amplified harmonica looks perfectly extraordinary. Davies has a wonderfully mobile and ugly face - a sort of Donald Pleasance in one of his pathological roles. He is valuable property - lots of people want to have rhythm and blues bands but they all lack good amplified mouth organists.
In June Alexis set up a recording session in collaboration with Jack Good with the intention of making a promotional Album for the band associating it with the new venue, to be released as "R&B From The Marquee: Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated". This was to play an important marketing role for the band, so he made several personnel changes, hiring experienced musicians to take over from some of the more regulars - notably Graham Burbidge replaced Charlie Watts on drums, Spike Heatley replaced Andy Hoogenboom on bass; and Long John Baldry, who had been guesting with the band on Marquee gigs, was given lead vocal roles on three numbers. Interestingly, Alexis refrained from singing - his deep speaking voice was naturally ideal for miked recording, and was ideal in his radio DJ work and voice-over ads, but even he was self-effacing about his own singing voice. Cyril, Dick Heckstall-Smith, and myself remained in our accustomed roles. The session was a studio recording but packaged as a 'live' showcase Album. Released in November it was the first British R&B Album ever, and laid down a yardstick for future albums to be measured against.
The Ealing and Marquee residencies continued with some Club gigs developing, but Cyril and I became marginalised by Alexis' policy of hiring established jazz musicians gig by gig, who were available for work due to falling audiences in both the 'trad' and particularly 'modern' jazz clubs, as his aspirations lay in playing jazz/ soul inspired blues. Cynically, this could also be read as a way of masking his limited instrumental prowess on guitar by hiding in the background behind virtuoso sax players and drummers. Cyril had always had a problem with blowing harp in a front line with sax players as the lines generated by the amplified diatonic instrument never meshed with saxes in the same way that the chromatic harmonica did in the hands of a Toots Thielemans or Max Geldray. Blues harp players in American R&B bands could ride on top of sax riffs, or exchange licks with the lead guitar, but rarely, if ever, meshed with a sax section in ensembles. Cyril's aspiration musically was to play high energy, small group Chicago blues with little or no arrangements, allowing the format of each number to develop according to the dialogue occurring between the musicians on stage at the time. Inevitably arguments arose between Cyril and Alexis, whose personalities had clashed many times before in their various partnerships, but this time musical policy became the issue - the missionary zeal for Preaching the Blues that had cemented them together for so many years was showing serious signs of undermining cracks.
Fortunately I never witnessed the final split, as by then phone calls for gigs from Alexis had become more sporadic as he'd hired various other piano players, and I'd started up "Blues by Six" with Geoff Bradford, Brian Knight, Charlie Watts, Andy Hoogenboom, and Art Themen/ Dave Gelly. We got residencies at the 51 Club from the summer 1962 on Sundays, and later from January 1963 on Mondays at the Marquee. Meanwhile, Cyril split with Alexis, formed his R&B All Stars from ex-Savages, and taken over Blues Inc's Thursday slot at the Marquee - the Leopard had seen off the Lion King, and had retained his spots (ironically the lining on Carlo's drum kit)! Having worked with Cyril for some four years, I now found myself (with "Blues by Six") in competition - and the new "R&B All Stars" was by any standards heavyweight.Back to the top of the page
This page and all its contents, ©2012, all rights reserved.
Webmaster: Roger Trobridge