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 R&B ALL STARS: 1963

By early 1963 a network of R&B Clubs was opening up throughout many parts of the country and new bands were starting to spring up in the wake of those of us who'd opened up the gates 18 months earlier. . . . . and Cyril was still ahead of the game. The R&B All Stars were very loud and raucous but held in control by Cyril's experience and panel-beater's bossiness (he ran it his way as he'd run his vehicle business) - the manic-ness of the 'Savages' was temporarily tamed. He'd signed up with a West End agent that got them gigs throughout London and the South-East, and was starting to bring in work up into the Midlands. They cut their first single for Pye's R&B Series Label on 27th February and were just about to start promoting "Country Line Special" on its' release when Nicky Hopkins, his young keyboard player, was taken ill. I got a call from Cyril out of the blue asking if I could deputise for Nicky until he recovered, which I said I was pleased to do when I could, as I was already committed to some bookings with "Blues by Six" and final year student course work. This arrangement continued for some weeks, but Nicky's condition worsened and he wasn't able to work again for nearly two years.

By the end of April I was working full-time with the R&B All Stars, often five or six nights per week and, with the success of the single, the club work stepped up and spread further north. However, the success became the breeding-ground for some dissatisfaction in Carlo, Rick, and Bernie who favoured a more show-biz delivery a la Sutch, in the mould of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Cyril's response was to try to explain the nuances of Chicago-style blues, and we had some rehearsals which got somewhat out of hand. Their knowledge of the finer points was limited due to the absence of live performances to observe - some black American blues artists were still performing in the London clubs and occasionally at concerts, but they were touring solo and, when backed by British rhythm sections, they had to use whoever was performing on the same bill, so the ensemble sound was never authentic. Also contemporary Chicago blues recordings were still not widely available in the UK due to limited sales demand.

So, unfortunately, Cyril resorted to explanations and directions to the band which he had no proper vocabulary to communicate with - boombub-booms, arm gestures, and foot stamping, are no better than a staved score to a non-reader. And his diatonic harp was incapable of musically illustrating a fretted run or lick on the guitar, whilst the stamping of his feet and the slapping of cymbals with his bare hands couldn't demonstrate a roll round the drum kit climaxing on Carlo's twin bass drums. I usually managed to pick up most of what he meant as I had listened to the original artists on record for years, and seen some of them live, but the others in the band were coming from entirely different reference points. And it wasn't about copying, but based on feel and empathy with a natural idiom. The effect of this on Cyril was anger turning to rage, to the point that mikes turned into missiles and tirades of expletives ricocheted around the room. The cause of his temper was frustration at himself, I guess, at not having a musical vocabulary to express his vision rather than malice towards the unfortunate recipients, but the other guys didn't see it that way. Although his personality was explosive, he did exhibit a compassionate side to his nature which caught you by surprise when you were least expecting it. At the Marquee Club session on the 16th May 1963 he announced over the stage mike to the full audience of some 800 souls the birth of my first daughter (who had arrived some five days earlier when we'd been doing a late night gig up in Birslem, so I'd missed the actual occasion myself). This was greeted by astonishment from me as he'd not let on, and total indifference from the audience who were more intent on preparations for their own 'sowings' rather than the natural outcome of 'reaping' for the guy on the piano stool. He then announced the next number by Long John Baldry who sang "You Better Leave my Woman Alone".

The effect of tensions developing within the band, despite the emerging popularity and success, were a degree of alienation from the three ex-Savages. Bernie Watson was the first to leave, and he was quickly replaced by Geoff Bradford who knew the idiom inside out and who'd worked with me since 1958.

We did a live BBC TV Show, "The 6.25 Show" to publicise "Country Line Special" performing on a very naff set with a cut out scene-painted flat of a Buster Keatonesque railroad engine with cow-catcher. This was followed by a pilot for an ATV live series "Hullabaloo", which showcased mostly Folk Artists like the Clancy Brothers, Rory McEwan, Dave Swarbrick, and Ramblin', Jack Elliot, so our job was to switch the national audience on to electric blues, which we did by fronting the band with Long John Baldry and a full compliment of Velvettes. The ATV executives approved the pilot, and we then did a 4-programme weekly series - a big full studio production that was screened live throughout July. A week after the pilot, Rick Brown left, so it was Cliff Barton who appeared on bass guitar for the series. The other duty that Cliff inherited from Rick was Van Driver - he won a clapped-out wreck of a vehicle that had been recycled from Cyril's scrapyard. I think the "Hullabaloo" Series inspired Cyril to change the Van for a bigger, more reliable 2-tonner which could take the band, the gear, and at a tight pinch could squeeze in the Velvettes, though for long trips he did hire a coach with resident driver. Yet even a luxury coach was not always a safe environment, as I recall one occasion coming back from a Society Ball gig in the Scottish Borders that Rory McEwan had fixed us (Floors Castle was aptly named), when 'Township Wars' spilled over into the Border Reivers' country. In a remote lay-by a pee stop argument developed between the Velvettes which escalated into full-blown 'lady-violence' with stiletto heels and long-claw nails as the principal weapons. Street-wise Cyril in the role of Sheriff, called in the troops, lead by big, ex-army Carlo, and enrolled the Band as Deputies (as we already had our All-Star badges), but the collective might of the band's ensemble was no match for the three chics from the Cape who' d jumped ship from "King Kong"! I've often passed that lay-by on the A68, and it always elicits a wee chuckle at the thought of the Ghosts of the Border Reivers getting their own back on the colonial colonisers by proxy.

On 2nd July we did our Radio debut, having auditioned for the BBC back in April. This was recorded for the very popular "Saturday Club", compered by Brian Mathew, and Cyril left his calling card for the nation's youth with 'Chicago Calling', 'Country Line Special', and 'Roberta', and Long John with 'See See Rider', and 'Roll 'em Pete'. I have an off-air tape of it that captures the atmosphere of the 'Saturday Club' Show very well, despite it being a studio pre-recording.

After the final "Hullabaloo" programme at the end of July, Carlo left, taking his hefty drum kit with him (along with the Leopard's spots). Micky Waller replaced him, so the new All Stars line-up was now complete, and the volume was moderated for a more blues-empathetic sound. We recorded a follow-up single for Pye "Preachin' the Blues" with vocal backings by Madeline Bell, Alex Bradford, and some others from of the cast of "Black Nativity", a punchy American Gospel Show featured in London that summer, and with "Sweet Mary" on the flip side. The session produced another example of Cyril's predeliction for putting you unexpectedly on the spot - he hired a Hammond Organ for the session to be delivered direct to the studio, and announced the day before I'd be playing it for the recording. I think he was expecting Jack McDuff or Jimmy Smith sounds to magically appear out of it. However, I'd never played one before, though I was up to speed on the acoustic piano, and the first UK electric piano, the Hohner Cembalet. Fortunately for me Alex Bradford knew how to switch it on, and flipped a few tabs, and I was away - more or less. The Hammond went back to the hire company, but Madeline Bell stayed on in the UK and made a successful career for herself as a fine singer, and she's still performing with style today.

Big Jazz Festivals in the early 60s were the precursers of the mammoth outdoor Rock Festivals that developed in the late 60s, and were plum bookings for the bands for the publicity generated and as an accolade within the business. The first one the R&B All Stars appeared at was the Bell Vue Festival, Manchester in June. Then followed the 3rd Richmond Jazz & Blues Festival in August - a big outdoor weekend-long event with an eclectic mix of Jazz Bands and Blues Artists, but all selected for their musical competence as much as their popularity. This was run by the National Jazz Federation, a venerated organisation committed to promoting the best of Jazz in the UK, through their Marquee Club, publications, events, and an annual nation-wide amateur jazz band competition. The R&B All Stars, with Long John and the Velvettes, were high on the Mainstage Bill, well ahead of certain up and coming talent in the warm-up spot - a little known band with the sobriquet 'The Rolling Stones'. . . . The Ealing Club 'sitters-in' had migrated to Richmond. Also on the Bill were Cyril's past associates Acker Bilk, and Chris Barber with Ottilie Patterson, so Cyril joined his peers and lead his followers at a single stroke.

National exposure on Radio at the end of August rode on the back of an emerging Liverpool group when we got a major guest spot on "Pop Goes the Beatles" with the four lads, performing five tracks, Cyril and Long John sharing vocal honours. The band had reached a point where club gigs were flowing in virtually seven nights a week, and Radio, TV, and Concert work was getting us known country wide. The rise of the All Stars was beginning to become meteoric, leading other newer R&B bands on our tail. We did present quite a formidable stage presence with striking sound and visual impact, especially with the unique five larynx vocal front of the Velvettes and Long John Baldry, then joined by Rod Stewart.

But then at the end of August, the trajectory started to go off course. There was no precedent for a Blues Band to achieve commercial success in the UK. The successful Trad Bands had relied on formulas, and the Rock 'n' Roll Bands on gimmicks. Cyril's mission was rooted in revivalism, as Ken Colyer's had been ten years earlier, but the cultural root was Black and American and Cyril was a "white panel-beater from South Harrow" (as Alexis had put it). So the underlying dilemna was: where could he (and we) go from here and develop a music path forward? In the U.S. very few white players had established themselves in the American blues fraternity - Charlie Musselwhite, Mose Allison, and Dr John . . . . . and they had the advantage of the home cultural nurturing. If Chicago was Calling, it had never called the Brits, and in reality it was a tough, violent, and unforgiving place. I guess Cyril didn't see the position quite in those terms as playing the harp for a living with a band driving behind you beats panel-beating hands down, but as things turned out, the underlying issues became academic.

I'd got into the London Blues Scene five years earlier through getting hooked on the black origins of the music, and the entertainment take on performing had never concerned me. Performing had been for me a means of supplementing a meager student grant as a Fine Art Student, not a personal ego trip. I'd been offered lecturing jobs in three London Art Schools on graduating, and I had a family to support. With a modest weekly wage from Cyril but no guarantees of anything, I was "standing at my crossroads". So I decided to quit whilst I was ahead. Surprisingly, Cyril's reaction was not as violent as I'd feared - gruff and profane but not physical! . . . . . He simply pocketed my "Hullabaloo" fees, according to good panel beater's business practice (which was fair enough), and got Johnny Parker in. What I didn't know at the time, September 1963, was that this un-characteristic placid reaction was a symptom of a deeper malaise, as a few weeks later Cyril was dead, and the All Stars phenomenon was, in fact, a "Shooting Star" that crashed to Earth with him (despite the invocation of Long John's "Hoochie Coochie" spirits in his afterlife).

CODA: 1964

This wasn't quite the end of my own Blues Story, as I did return a year later on my 25th birthday for a "Swan Song" on a recording session by Mae Mercer, a fine black American blues singer who was touring the UK after opening her Blues Bar in Paris. This was produced by Mike Vernon for Decca, who hired some of the best horn players and rhythm section on the London Jazz Scene to accompany her - Pete King and Robert Chamberlain (saxes), Big Jim Sullivan (guitar), Arthur Watts (bass), Ronnie Verrell (drums), with me on piano. I did pause to wonder whether Cyril heard this particular "black swan" singing from his divine vantage point (either 'above' or 'below'), with his own harp in hand . . . . . . I guess he would have approved, despite the horns!

A couple of weeks later I "disappeared" (according to Pete Frame's 'Rock Family Trees') into the Scottish Mists of Time, to start a lecturing job in Edinburgh, with an anonymous status I've enjoyed ever since, leaving past musical associates to rise to the stars or fall off their perches . . . . . . Whilst I've got on with my Life.

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THE ROUNDHOUSE: 1958-61
CHICAGO CALLING: 1961
BLUES INCORPORATED: 1962
THE R&B ALL STARS: 1963
CODA: 1964

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