Died: 7th January 1964 Aged: 31 years
Contribution to British Blues: Pioneered amplified Chicago-style Blues Harp in the UK and formed Britain's first popular 'purist' Chicago Blues Band.
Which era: 1960's
Album to get: PREACHIN' The BLUES The Cyril Davies Memorial Album
The song that is perhaps the best example of his work: Chicago Calling
Bands led: The Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars
Bands played in: Steve Lane's Southern Stompers , Beryl Bryden's Backroom Skiffle Group, Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group, Alexis Korner Skiffle group, Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, The Roundhouse Jug Four
Working all day with a hammer in his hand and singing the Blues all night, Cyril Davies might sound like some mythic figure from the Mississippi Delta. In fact he was born in Denham, in rural Buckinghamshire, but this working-class hero single-handedly brought the authentic sound of Chicago Blues Harp to Britain, before virtually working himself to death, days before his 32nd birthday.
By the time he was 18, Davies had moved to South Harrow and begun working in auto body repair, but was already developing a passion for American Blues music, identifying strongly with the black songster Huddie Ledbetter, known better as Leadbelly. Aware of the singer's life of hardship and struggle, Davies came to espouse the idea that you had to live and feel the Blues in order to play them. He played his music in the evenings while he was still working a day shift as a panel beater, doing four years on banjo in Steve Lane's Southern Stompers, where he'd perform in the interval, singing Leadbelly numbers and accompanying himself on 12-string guitar.
Through the influence of Jazz bandleaders Chris Barber and Ken Colyer, a new musical trend began to break in Britain in the mid-fifties. Based on American Folk/Blues, and centred around the acoustic guitar, upright bass and washboard, it was known as 'Skiffle,' and its rhythmic energy and immediacy made it easily accessible to Britain's post-war teenagers. Davies took advantage of the craze, and in 1955 he and Woody Guthrie enthusiast Bob Watson opened The London Skiffle Centre, above The Roundhouse Pub, on the corner of Wardour Street in London's Soho.
Alexis Korner, who'd already worked alongside Barber and Colyer in their Skiffle band, soon became a regular performer at the Roundhouse, where he and Davies recognised their mutual love of The Blues, and Korner, in his own words "one of the first and worst harmonica players in the country," grew to appreciate Davies' increasing skill on the instrument. In the earliest days of their association, the pair recorded four tracks for Decca with vocalist Beryl Bryden, as part of Beryl Bryden's Backroom Skiffle Group , although a technical problem with the echo chamber meant only two were released at the time. Despite this flaw, the tracks are extremely well produced, and Kansas City sounds quite sophisticated and authentic even today.
Before long, Davies approached Korner about going into partnership, and they took the momentous decision to close the Skiffle Club down. A month later it was re-opened as the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, and though audiences were meager to begin with, word soon spread, and the club became a haven for nascent Blues fans and visiting American performers. Doug Dobell, owner of a specialist Jazz record shop in Charing Cross road, helped bring attention to the venture by releasing a limited edition LP (a 33 rpm 'Long Player') entitled Blues From The Roundhouse . Issued in 1957 on his tiny "77" label, only 100 copies of the recording were pressed, as that allowed the label to avoid paying purchase tax, but such a limited run was enough to satisfy immediate demand.
Credited to Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group , the 8-track album featured Terry Plant on bass and Mike Collins on washboard, with Davies providing harmonica, guitar and vocals. Led by 12-string and mandolin, the somewhat jangly sound was still predominantly the Folk/Blues style associated with Skiffle, and four out of the eight tracks were Leadbelly compositions, but it paved the way for a further recording session. This time, under the name of Alexis Korner's Skiffle Group , Korner, Davis & Collins were augmented by Chris Capon (bass) Dave Stevens (piano.) While Blues from the Roundhouse awaited release, the line-up cut three demo tracks in Buckinghamshire (released in1984 on the Krazy Kat label) and the following year the same three songs featured on a four track EP (an 'Extended Play' 45 rpm release) recorded for Decca's Jazz subsidiary, Tempo. The fuller sound allows more scope for Davies' enthusiastic harmonica, and he approaches Leadbelly's unusual arrangement of Easy Rider with suitable reverence.
Those four tracks, which, together with the Beryl Bryden and Ken Colyer recordings can now be found on the expanded Blues From The Roundhouse CD, met with enough success to warrant another session with Decca, culminating in four more tracks, released in December 1958 as Blues from the Roundhouse Volume 2 . This time the band bore the now-familiar byline of Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, though the composing credits resolutely remained fifty per cent Leadbetter/Lomax. But Blues in the USA was moving on, and soon Chicago would come calling for real.
Bandleader Chris Barber had already established a successful relationship with American Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, and in 1957 and '58 organised tours and concerts with Broonzy, Brother John Sellers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Davies had learned to imitate Terry's percussive harmonica style, and indeed it formed the basis for his later recording of Country Line Special . But in October '58 Barber brought Muddy Waters, the father of Chicago Blues, to London, and for the first time, amplified guitar was heard in the Roundhouse. The effect on Davies was, with no pun intended, electric, and the seed was sown for his pursuit of the 'Chicago Sound.' He began to move away from the 12-string guitar and the folksy, rural style of Leadbelly, and concentrate on the mouth-harp, and the tough sound of big city Blues.
In 1961, Chris Barber created a 'Blues Interval' in his Trad. Jazz nights at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, and approached Alexis Korner to accompany Ottilie Patterson on amplified guitar. Coincidentally, in the same year Barber had set up a session with James Cotton, then the harmonica-man for the Muddy Waters band, and Davies had been able to see, first-hand, how amplified Chicago Blues Harp was played. Thus, when Korner was offered control of the Blues portion of Barber's show, he immediately sought out Cyril Davies to help front a fluid line-up of musicians who were to be known as Blues Incorporated.
The new band rehearsed at the Roundhouse, until the landlord's complaints about noise from their amplification forced Davies to close the club, but they found a new home at the Ealing Club, formerly a Trad. Jazz venue, in a basement below the ABC Tea Rooms in Ealing Broadway. The band that opened up the first Saturday night boasted the stellar line-up of Dick Heckstall Smith on sax, Ronnie Wood's brother Art Wood on vocals, and soon-to-be Rolling Stone Charlie Watts on drums. On top of this new venture, the group also landed a Thursday night residency at the Marquee Club which prompted the now-famous R&B from the Marquee album.
Recorded at in June 1962 at Decca studios (and not, as the title suggests, the Marquee Club) the album features Korner and Heckstall Smith, the vocals shared between Davies and the young Long John Baldry. With Keith Scott on piano, Graham Burbridge on drums and Spike Heatley on upright bass, the done-in-a-day recording is a little lighter in feel than its American contemporaries, but still swings mightily. Most of the music is based very firmly in the Chicago Blues mould with Willie Dixon songs such as Hoochie Coochie Man and I Wanna Put A Tiger In Your Tank standing alongside Muddy's already anthemic I Got My Mojo Working. Davies' own Keep Your Hands Off Her sounds surprisingly authentic alongside the American material, and Korner's instrumentals, like Gotta Move and Downtown , give the band's excellent soloists ample room to stretch out.
However, by the time the LP was released, there had been more changes in the always fluid line-up of Blues Incorporated . Jack Bruce had come in on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums. In addition to the presence of Dick Heckstall Smith, whose saxophone was an instrument Davies already detested on principle, this represented another move towards the Jazz influences that he disliked so much, and Davies quit to form his own band. In fact, he took a pragmatic short-cut on that chore, and simply poached most of Screaming Lord Sutch's backing group, The Savages, renaming the band Cyril Davies & the R&B All-Stars. The fact that he could steal the band so easily suggests some idea of the esteem in which he was held. Meanwhile Korner replaced Davies with Graham Bond on alto, confirming all of Davies' fears about his old partner's jazzy leanings. ( Bizzarely, Bond fairly soon stole Bruce and Baker from Blues Incorporated to form the Graham Bond Organisation, a band specializing in Blues and R&B.)
The R&B All-Stars comprised Carlo Little on drums, Rick Brown on bass, and on piano, Nicky Hopkins, who was later to become session man supreme, recording frequently with the Stones, The Kinks and The Who. Their first guitarist was much-lauded young session player Jimmy Page, later to join the Yardbirds and form Led Zeppelin, but with Page in constant demand in the studio he was soon replaced by ex-Savages axeman Bernie Watson. Davies then scooped Korner in securing the services of Long John Baldry, and added backing trio The Velvettes, three South African women who'd been singing in the musical version of King Kong. The ensemble was greeted with great enthusiasm from audience and critics alike, although Davies' insistence on purism meant that band members often struggled to persuade him to play more uptempo material. Nonetheless, when Alexis Korner moved Blues Inc. 's Thursday residency to The Flamingo Club, the R&B All-Stars took over Thursdays at the Marquee, prompting some rivalry between the two bands.
Though the All-Stars auditioned successfully for Decca, they went for a contract with Pye because they were introducing a specialist R&B label, which soon became the UK outlet for Chess. In February 1963, two Davies originals were recorded for the first single, Chicago Calling , and received great critical acclaim. Opening with Nicky Hopkins' rolling piano and driven along by Chuck Berry-style guitar licks, Davies delivers a harp-fuelled homage to the home of Electric Blues in his distinctive, high, powerful voice. On the flip side, the train-themed harmonica instrumental Country Line Special keeps up the relentless pace, and over half a century later the energy and exuberance still jumps out of the grooves. However, sales weren't as high as were hoped, and further misfortune befell the band when pianist Hopkins was taken seriously ill and hospitalized, though he was quickly replaced by Davies' workmate Brian Scott.
The band embarked on a big media campaign with TV & radio appearances including Hullabaloo, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Saturday Club, but dissension began to grow in the group over Davies' dictatorial attitude and his refusal to compromise his views on musical purity, and before long Brown, Little and Watson had all left. Davies recruited a new line-up, who went on to play the 1963 National Jazz Festival, and in August of the same year, they recorded the next single, his own Preachin' The Blues and Leadbelly's Sweet Mary . Again the disc met with critical approval, but with Hopkins' distinctive piano replaced by organ, the sound, though still undeniably Blues, was perhaps a little less 'Chicago' than its predecessor.
The group continued to work hard, appearing on pop package tours with Mersybeat chart-toppers Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. But even as mass recognition seemed almost within his grasp, Davies' health was plainly deteriorating rapidly. He had begun to suffer from pleurisy, but rather than follow doctors' orders to rest completely, he insisted on continuing to work, dulling his pain with drink. The constant pressure of work and heavy alcohol consumption took its toll on Davies' already poor health, but he drove himself doggedly on until his body simply couldn't take the punishment he was meting out to it. "Near the end, he went yellow and had to walk with a stick," Nicky Hopkins recalled in a later interview. "He was built like a tank. He'd be the last person on earth you'd think would die."
Cyril Davies passed away in January 1964, at the tender age of 31, the death certificate citing endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner layer of the heart. He died as he had lived, a hard working, hard drinking Bluesman to the bitter end. Despite their earlier split, Alexis Korner said, in final tribute, "I never ceased to consider Cyril by far the finest blues harmonica player in Britain."
Further information on the life of Cyril Davies, and the recollections of those who knew him, can be found at www.cyrildavies.com . A complete collection of his recordings is available on PREACHIN' The BLUES The Cyril Davies Memorial Album, on GVCR Records.
With thanks to Art Themen and Dave Gelly for their kind assistance in my research.
© Stevie King, British Blues Archive 2011