Black Friday 2020 60’s British Blues
In a post war Britain the most popular style of music was dance bands, “big band” style. Following their gigs, the musicians would often relax by playing jazz. This developed into the “revivalist’ jazz movement, “led” by Humphrey Littleton. They drew inspiration from the 20’s jazz players like Jelly Roll Morten and singers like Bessie Smith. Today we would recognize the style as jazz blues fusion.
Skiffle, a kind of spiritual / blues / jazz / pop fusion, popularized by Lonny Donegan, (who began as a banjo player in a jazz band) made music very accessible to working class kids as the instruments were very basic and even home made. Donegans hit songs were in fact covers, mainly of Leadbelly, a country blues musician.
His success contributed to the large body of fledgling guitarists that would later form the backbone of the British blues bands.
The popular American equivalent “folk” music, drew far more on white roots and nowhere near as black influenced as the British version.
All of this was evolving out of the Jazz scene. Perhaps the first recorded British Blues record was by jazz musician Humphrey Littleton called “Bad Penny Blues”. Many years later the Beatles would use its “boogey” piano treatment for their hit “Lady Madonna”.
On the original recording, Johnny Parker’s piano is recorded distorted by Joe Meek, a technique that was to become synonymous with his later pop recordings.
The essential outlets for this music came once again from the Jazz scene. The Flamingo club; Klooks Kleek, and the Marquee club were all former Jazz venues. The Marquee became frequented by Jamaicans and US servicemen and featured R&B (as the early British “blues” music was being called) bands.
Alexis Corner and Blues Incorporated would play the Friday night jams at the Flamingo and then, with Cyril Davies, started Blues at the Marquee club. Among others, John Mayall would travel from Manchester to sit in and play at the club jam sessions.
In 1963 The American Folk/Blues Caravan toured Britain.
Featuring Sony Terry and Browny McGhee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters it was an inspiration for the fledgling British music scene, and prompted Chris Barber, the famous jazz band leader to bring over many black blues artists to appear on his shows. John Lee Hooker was perhaps the first to tour the UK clubs. He was quickly followed by T Bone Walker. Both were backed by John Mayalls BluesBreakers, by now, the foremost British Blues band.
The visiting Black Blues musicians didn’t play in a structured way. There was no set number of bars or regular chorus. One of the significant aspects of popularizing the music was the blending with the much more formalized European tradition.
“The Beatles” had started their career by adapting the blues format and sanitizing to conform with popular taste, but in 1964 “The Rolling Stones”, a straight ahead Rhythm & Blues band, burst into fame with their cover of Chuck berries “Come On”. They bought with them a rebellious, anti social sentiment of frustrated youth, reflected in their music, attitude and dress. They soon rose to become the flag bearers of the younger generation.
Other bands would soon follow including “The Animals” and “Them”.
By 1965, Eric Clapton, who had found popular success with the Yardbirds, joined John Mayalls Bluesbreakers and bought the music to the attention of a much wider audience. Their first album together (now known as the “Beano” album) reached # 6 in the billboard charts. Clapton felt that he was “on a mission” to bring Blues music to the masses and he reflected the wider appeal that Black American Blues had for post war British kids. In 1966, Clapton left the Blues Breakers and with two former members, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, formed Cream. Still playing blues but in a far more aggressive and modern way.
Cream totally transformed the way in which Rock Music was and is played and started a whole new genre of “progressive” music that spread and came to dominate the world.
Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, to name a few were all able to take advantage of this new genre.
Amazingly, by taking their music to America, Bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream brought greater awareness of their original black “mentors’ to a wider market and greatly contributed to their belated success. White America started paying attention to the blues.
The measure of significance of British Blues is reflected in the fact that Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf are household names now. They all owe their exposure to British Blues.