R&B From The Marquee – Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated
Recorded 8th June 1962
Released November 1962 on Decca’s Ace of Clubs label
If the Blues could choose its Ambassadors, it couldn’t have chosen a more unlikely bunch than the four who brought Electric Blues to the UK- The suave and urbane son of an affluent French family, a surly Welsh panel beater, a bearded, bespectacled jazzman, and a lanky, dandyfied young homosexual. Nonetheless, it was this unlikely quartet, known to the world respectively as Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, Dick Heckstall-Smith and “Long John” Baldry, who formed the core of what became Britain’s – and in fact the world’s – first, all-white electric Blues Band, as recorded on this groundbreaking album.
Although it’s Korner’s name that takes top billing, this is essentially a Cyril Davies album, as he provides the lion’s share of the musical input. He sings on five of the eight vocal tracks, and composes one of the four instrumentals, emphasising what a great loss he would be to Britain’s world of Blues when he died tragically, and soon after, at the age of 32. All the tracks from this LP now appear on CD on the Cyril Davies Memorial album, “Preachin’ The Blues” as well as on digital re-issues of the original album, which often feature bonus tracks, but we’ll concern ourselves only with the release the UK public heard in 1962.
Korner and Davies were already a well-established partnership, dating back to the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, and the limited-edition LP “Blues From The Roundhouse” by Alexis Korner’s Breakdown Group, an acoustic combo which featured Davies prominently on 12-string guitar, vocals and harmonica. In 1961, when bandleader Chris Barber created a ‘Blues Interval’ in his Trad. Jazz nights at the Marquee Club, he approached Alexis Korner to provide guitar, and when Korner was offered control of the Blues portion of Barber’s show, he immediately sought out his old friend’s help.
This led to the forming of Blues Incorporated, incorporating tall, handsome young vocalist “Long John” Baldry, named for his 6’7” height, and the gifted saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith. Baldry, who’d known Korner & Davies since the Barrelhouse days, had been playing as a guitarist with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Rob Cort’s Skiffle Group, while Heckstall-Smith had been freelancing on such diverse projects as Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames & The Johnny Burch Quartet, often working with his flat-mate, Peter Edward Baker, better known as “Ginger.”
The line-up was always intended to remain fluid, and an early incarnation boasted Malcolm Cecil on bass, Danny Craig on drums and Keith Scott on piano. At their first gig at The Ealing Club in March ’62 the band featured Andy Hoogenboom on bass, Art Wood on vocals and a young Charlie Watts on drums. By May that year, they had secured a Thursday residency at the Marquee, and in June recording began for “R&B From The Marquee,” which despite the implication, wasn’t recorded at the Marquee at all, but at Decca’s West Hampstead studios.
For this enterprise, Korner enlisted Graham Burbidge, drummer with Chris Barber’s band, and Spike Heatley, bassist with Johnny Dankworth, the roster completed by Davies, Baldry, Heckstall-Smith and Scott. In addition, session guitarist “Big Jim” Sullivan contributes backing vocals on “I Got My Mojo Working,” and Terry Wadmore of the Ted Taylor Four plays bass guitar on the same cut, though neither of them received credit on the LP sleeve.
Though several sources suggest that Korner was playing acoustic guitar, sleeve photos show him playing an acoustic with an electric pick-up mounted over the sound-hole, presumably his instrument of choice at the time. His single-note work fairly easily dominates the six-piece band, an effect that would have been hard to achieve without amplification, and indeed, Chris Barber remembers Alexis “getting frustrated trying to play electric Blues in Folk clubs where they hated amplifiers.”
The producer in charge of the one-day session was Jack Good, already responsible for hit TV music shows like “Six-Five Special” and “Oh Boy!” which had introduced many stars of Skiffle, Jazz and Rock’n’Roll to the UK, and it’s worth noting that the prime movers in this project had all reached a respectable maturity. Korner was 34 years old, Davies 30, Heckstall-Smith 28 and Good 31, a far cry from the UK’s teenage pop idols. The sleeve notes, in the somewhat stilted jargon of the time, describe the record as follows:
“ One of the most exciting innovations on the British jazz scene has been the formation of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. The group was first formed in the early spring of 1962, and made its first appearance at a rhythm and blues club in Ealing. The sessions proved so popular that within a few weeks the National Jazz Federation offered the group a regular weekly residence at its club, the Marquee in Oxford Street.
Here Blues Inc. was an instantaneous and overwhelming success. Each Thursday evening over seven hundred people pack into the club to twist, jive, or just listen to the rough, virile, driving music that the group plays. The audience is probably the most cosmopolitan and enthusiastic any band could wish for, and the music has great appeal for the hordes of overseas tourists who slip into London during the summer months, but also appeals equally to a very wide age group of resident fans.
This L.P. was recorded shortly after Blues Inc. opened at the Marquee, and for the purpose of this recording session Alexis Korner added to his normal front line drummer Graham Burbridge who for several years has been the mainstay of Chris Barber’s rhythm section, and gained first hand experience of the idiom sitting in at Smitty’s Corner in Chicago with Muddy Waters during a recent American tour. Another addition is Spike Heatley on bass, until recently a veteran of the Johnny Dankworth big band. On piano is Keith Scott, while the hard, booting tenor playing comes from Dick Heckstall-Smith – one of the most exciting and competent saxophonists on the scene today. Alexis Korner leads the group on guitar, and the wild, keening sound of the harmonica is provided by Cyril Davies. The well-known British blues singer Long John Baldry joins the group to sing three of the titles on this record – the remainder of the vocal honours going to Cyril Davies.
The numbers on this record are only a small part of the very large repertoire which the group has assembled. Particularly worthy of attention are Alexis’s own compositions Finkel’s (sic) Cafe and Down Town – the former is a soul-tinged blues with a friendly nod in the direction of Mendelssohn, whilst the latter drives along magnificently from opening theme to final coda. I’ve Got My Mojo Working has become a trademark for Blues Inc. providing a climax to their club appearances with the audience joining in on the vocal. A mojo, en passant, is a sexual amulet which still enjoys great popularity among some urban negroes. It is mentioned again in the lyrics of Hoochie Coochie together with its other variants, the black cat’s bone and John The Conqueror. Gotta Move perhaps illustrates most clearly why this music is enjoying such popularity. The strength and vigour of R & B cannot be denied, and in the field of popular music they are qualities which have been lacking for too long. To an entire generation of young people weaned on diluted rock and roll, the sincerity and force of Rhythm and Blues have an inevitable attraction.”
Pompous as the words may sound now, their assessment of the band is still accurate, and the energy and excitement of these sessions is as evident today as it was then. The original LP runs as follows:
Side One :
Trk.1: “Gotta Move,” Korner’s guitar brings in a lively twelve bar instrumental, featuring solos from all the front-men. It’s an opportunity for the band to define its sound and style, and Korner and Davies both display a commendable sense of economy in their playing. Scott’s trilling piano provides authentic ambiance , and Heckstall-Smith’s sax is strikingly fluid and forceful, a fitting introduction to Blues Incorporated’s capabilities.
Trk.2: Baldry sings Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Rain Is Such A Lonesome Sound,” a contemporary recording in 1962, though Witherspoon’s version is cooler and more sophisticated by comparison, with piano and brushed snare to the fore, and fills taken by Ben Webster on sax. Blues Inc’s interpretation is faster, more a medium-paced swing, with guitar and sax riffing behind Baldry’s enthusiastic vocal, while Davies blows the harp for all he’s worth, bringing a pronounced Chicago feel to the arrangement.
Trk.3: On “I Got My Brand On You,” Davies offers up the first of his four Muddy Waters numbers (all attributed to “Waters” on the cover, although three are by Willie Dixon and one by Preston Foster.) His take on the number is a menacing slow blues, like Muddy’s Newport version, rather than the “Uncle Charlie” shuffle of Waters’ studio recording. Korner’s guitar picks out single note runs over a rolling piano, and a strident walking bass accompanies the brushed and busy drums. Davies sings with power and conviction, and his harp wails majestically on the solo.
Trk.4: “Spooky But Nice” is a Davies composition, a relaxed instrumental that pairs his harp with Heckstall-Smith’s saxophone, unusual enough in itself given Davies’ legendary hatred of the sax. Davies fervently believed that the instrument had no place in Blues, though he can’t have ever listened to Elmore James. Initially, Heckstall-Smith thought that this contempt was personal. However, the two became drinking buddies, and he eventually came to the realisation, “He liked my playing, he just didn’t like what I played it on.” This collaboration is surprisingly appealing, all the more so for its rarity.
Trk.5: “Keep Your Hands Off” another Davies original, kicks off with two verses of sax and harp before settling into the vocal. The sequence is unusual, with a 1-6-2-5 turnaround that makes the song feel more like ragtime than the Chicago Blues that Davies loved so dearly, but these contradictions only serve to indicate the unusual range of his talent. Heckstall-Smith described Davies as “a horrible geezer” but also “a fully-fledged genius,” and once again his vocal and harmonica performances are totally self-assured.
Trk.6: The second Muddy Waters cover is named on the sleeve as “I Wanna Put A Tiger In Your Tank” but it’s more often referred to as just “Tiger In Your Tank.” Although the sexual metaphor is obvious, younger readers (we have younger readers, don’t we?) may find themselves asking why Cyril was wanting to put his tiger anywhere at all. In fact, “Put a tiger in your tank” was an advertising slogan created in 1959 by Emery Smith, a young Chicago copywriter who invented it to boost sales of Esso petrol. The slogan also allegedly inspired “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail,” a 1964 hit by the US country band Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and it evidently appealed to Willie Dixon’s imagination, encouraging him to create this automobile-themed slab of sexual innuendo. The piano rolls and tinkles, sax and guitar punctuate the verse like a brass section, and the whole thing swings mightily behind Cyril’s confident vocals, with his harp surfacing on just the last two bars.
Side Two :
Trk.1: “I’ve Got My Mojo Working. ”Side two opens with another Waters cover from Cyril, and it’s interesting to note that all the songs he’s chosen here are from the 1960 Chess album Muddy Waters Live at Newport. The harp man on Muddy’s concert was James Cotton, whom Davies had seen in the UK on a session organised by Chris Barber, and that first-hand experience of amplified Chicago Blues Harp was plainly inspirational to him. Davies may not have been as charismatic as Muddy, nor his version of the song as iconic, but it is very much his own, and he brings a great energy and sense of commitment to his performance. To stand in the packed Marquee club in 1962 hearing this raw, electric R&B in person, instead of on a tinny record player in your bedroom, must have been a life-changing experience.
Trk.2: “Finkle’s Cafe” is the second of Korner’s instrumentals, a lazy, lolloping twelve-bar whose only nod to Mendelssohn is in the title. It’s introduced by two verses of sax and harp together, then Korner & Scott take solos. Heckstall-Smith tries to do the same but Davies blows his harp all the while, competing with him until he gives up the fight and they join up again for the outro. Simple, rather Jazzy fare, owing more to Korner’s time with Barber than to the Chicago Blues which Davies loved.
Trk.3: “Hoochie Coochie,” (the “Man” is omitted for some reason) comes in like a lion with one long note from Davies’ harp, trilling over the timeless staccato riff, and building into a scorching intro solo. Though Cyril’s higher voice can’t match Muddy’s for gravitas, he delivers the lyric with determination, and Korner provides simple yet tasteful guitar licks. Like Davies’ other Newport covers, this is not simply an attempt to replicate Muddy’s sound or style, Blues Incorporated have stamped their own personality on these performances.
Trk.4: “Down Town.” After a two-bar turnaround from Alexis, Dick’s saxophone brings in this rather jaunty uptempo shuffle, taking the lead for two verses. Then the track adheres to the same pattern as “Gotta Move” and there are solos from all, including bassist Heatley – only drummer Burbidge is excluded, for reasons best known to those involved at the time.
Trk 5: “How Long, How Long Blues.” Baldry takes the lead, and his vocal style is plainly more versatile that Davies’s, if perhaps also a little more mannered by comparison. Scott’s piano intros, and takes a beautiful, fluent solo, while Davies’s harp cries mournfully, and Korner’s guitar provides faultless fills on Leroy Carr’s classic eight-bar Blues.
Trk 6: “I Thought I Heard That Train Whistle Blow.” Baldry delivers the vocal again on this self-penned 12-bar boogie, though he has to work hard to compete with the harp and guitar as they riff against one another. Heckstall- Smith blows a compelling solo and Burbidge kicks into locomotive tempo behind him, driving the song to its destination.
Overall, the album reveals the conflicting influences that drove the band, and also contributed to its inevitable destruction. Korner preferred the group to have a strong jazz component, hence the inclusion of Heckstall-Smith, and his decision to use Heatley and Burbidge, both experienced in big name Jazz bands, for the session. Davies, on the other hand, having freed himself of his earlier Leadbelly fixation, was keen to get deeper into Chicago Blues, and soon quit Blues Inc. to form his own band – or rather, to poach one from Screaming Lord Sutch, whose Savages quickly became Cyril’s R&B All Stars. Baldry accompanied Davies in his exit, and stayed with the band after Davies’ untimely death, renaming them his Hoochie Coochie Men.
As a result of these tensions, the band has a strange, hybrid feel that in some ways adds to its individuality. The inclusion of a Jazz-based rhythm section ensured that the band knew how to swing, and they do that with a vengeance on all the beatier tracks. Korner’s compositions may be little more than jumping-off points for jams, but they’re dripping with excitement and spontaneity, and as a “done-in-a-day” recording, mixed in good old-fashioned mono, the album shows relatively few imperfections, even over fifty years later. If you’re over 18, and ready to twist and jive to some rough, virile, driving music, then this one’s well worth a whirl!
© Stevie King 2015 for the British Blues Archive.