“Getting To The Point” – The Savoy Brown Blues Band
Recorded March 1968 at Decca, West Hampstead.
Released July ’68 Decca SKL 4935
Raised on his older brother Harry’s record collection, nineteen-year old Kim Simmonds formed The Savoy Brown Blues Band in 1966 with fellow Blues enthusiast and harmonica player John O’Leary. With Harry as manager, they set up a regular Blues Club, ‘Kilroys,’ in an upstairs room of the Nag’s Head Tavern on York Road in Battersea, and attracted the attention of Mike Vernon, who recorded their first single, ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ c/w ‘I Tried,’ for his limited edition Purdah Label. “Theirs was a style which took no prisoners,” he recalled. Savoy Brown also had the added cachet of being the UK’s first racially integrated Blues Band, fronted by black singer Brice Portius and featuring drummer Leo Manning, later a member of Bob Brunning’s long-winded Brunning/Hall Sunflower Blues Band.
Vernon recommended the band to Decca, being happy to produce them but preferring not to sign them to Blue Horizon, admitting “I didn’t care too much for Brice as a vocalist.” O’Leary quit to join John Dummer’s Blues Band before Savoy Brown cut their 1967 debut album, ‘Shakedown’ (Decca SKL 4883) and was replaced by guitarist Martin Stone of Stone’s Masonry, who had recorded a bluesy instrumental single, ‘Flapjacks’ c/w ‘Hot Rocks’ for Purdah in ’66. ‘Shakedown’ is essentially a selection of Blues covers, though Stone contributed the instrumental ‘The Doormouse (sic) Rides the Rails’ and the band and part-time pianist Bob Hall claimed the arranging credits for the title track, ‘Shake ‘Em On Down.’
Constant line-up changes dogged the band, with those passing through citing the “creative accountancy” (Brunning) and “unreasonable conditions” (O’Leary) imposed by manager Harry Simmonds, who reputedly paid band members a fixed weekly wage, regardless of how many gigs they played, or how much money the band earned at each gig. But a new style and stability came when the group recruited ex-Shakey Vick vocalist Chris Youlden and his occasional bandmate ‘Lonesome’ Dave Peverett.
Youlden brought a strong, distinctive new voice, a sense of showmanship, and an original song-writing talent to Savoy Brown, penning the Soul-flavoured ‘Taste and Try Before You Buy,’ which became the A-side of their next release. Kim provided the flipside, a slow Blues titled ‘Someday People,’ both available as bonus tracks on the CD version of ‘Getting to the Point’ (though not on the prettily-packaged BGO release, twinned with ‘Shakedown,’ where both albums appear in their original form with sleeve notes and bio.) By the time the LP was recorded, the line-up had settled on Simmonds, Peverett, and Youlden, with Rivers Jobe on bass, Roger Earl on drums, and the ubiquitous Bob Hall on piano.
The UK cover design, reproduced above, was no doubt well intentioned, but met with disapproval in the States and was replaced with a photo-montage. A perplexed Kim Simmonds explained to ‘Melody Maker,’ “Our cover tried to show that although we are white, we see things the same ways as a Negro, but for some reason it was changed.” Unchanged, however, are the sleeve notes from the ever-erudite Neil Slaven, who seems to take an awfully long time “Getting To The Point.”
“ Well, here we are again. A lot of water has flowed under the knee-caps since we last met, and we seem to be ‘midst yet another blues revival which promises to keep the corpse twitching for a a few more months. Unfortunately, at the moment we have a lot of untalented groups dispensing the same old stuff cribbed from a John Mayall album and playing it without a tenth of the ability or awareness of the original. Worse still are the unknowledgeable audiences who seem more eager to worship idols than understand and appreciate the hybrid English blues form. Intellectualism isn’t required, just a lot of empathy with the music and musicians.
Well – descending from that sermon, we’ll move on to the next topic: As with any music form, the blues at any one time, is a sum total of what has gone before, and there is a small nucleus of original talents who, directly or indirectly, influence the rest. Imitation in one form or another, is a basic ingredient of any bluesman’s style. And when you’re physically and mentally removed from where its at, it’s not surprising that imitation should initially form the greater part of your style. In other words, what I’ve been trying to say in a rather tongue-tied fashion, is that our British bands have had to imitate the originals before they could begin to build a solid foundation from which to progress to to a more individual and indigenous style.
And this is where the owning up begins. So many groups slavishly copy others without any thought save how heavy their pockets will be at the end of the gig. But when the gaping mouths move on to the next altar, the only groups to survive will be those who are open to influence, but who use it as a point of departure towards a more personal expression. The day is coming, children, when it will no longer be called blues.
Now here I am, like Tristram Shandy,* halfway through the epistle without a mention of the band. Well, if you follow the band you’ll know that they’ve had more personnel changes in the last ten months than our illustrious government. Old Harry’s been sitting there, puffing the cat and stroking his slippers, chopping heads left, right and back of the bench, but still Savoy Brown have retained their very individual sound. Nay, better than that, it’s improved.
When “Shake Down” was recorded, they were a lusty band who took an obvious enjoyment in what they were doing. Now they are still enjoying themselves, but there is a lot of creative thinking going on behind the facade. What you will hear on this record, is still blues music, but if you know the band and have their previous album, you will be able to recognise that things have changed. Having served an apprenticeship in blues, the band will soon be getting to the point where they will start to create their own music in their own context…
Phew! A pause for second wind…
that’s cleared the air. Now on to the record. We open the recital with “Flood In Houston ” an affectionate nod of respect to Don Robey and the Erastus Street Gang.** Chris Youlden’s splendid clotted voice will come as a great surprise to those who haven’t heard him before. He sings with an authority which you don’t expect to find among the fishermen of England. Perhaps it’s because he helped write five of the numbers here. The track fades out on KIm’s solo, a teasing tit-bit of better to come. The rhythm of “Stay With Me Baby” has been used before, but Chris’s words are new. This time the fade comes on Bob Hall’s solo. I’m glad to say that this time Bob is used throughout the album. The exception is “Honey Bee” which gets a beautiful extended treatment, giving Kim a chance to show how he has matured as a guitarist. The Grimm title of the next track describes a conversation between Kim and rhythm guitarist, Dave Peverett- only the names have been changed to protect the economy. “Give Me A Penny” ends the side with an intriguing and original treatment of a traditional theme.
Hands up all those who thought “Mr Downchild” would be the Sonny Boy number? Me for one. But no, its another original which is probably the the best example here of the way in which the band has grasped the principle of dynamics. The number opens with a subdued backing to Chris’ almost narrative singing. Gradually the tension increases, culminating in an explosive solo from Kim. For this, his amplifier was stood in one corner of the studio with the mike in the other. Next up is the number that gives the album its title, but for God’s sake don’t try to read too much significance into it, just appreciate it for a good, easy-riding instrumental. Inspired by the spirit of the occasion, Bob Hall flexes his muscles as a composer with “Big City Lights.” Modesty keeps him in the background while Chris and Kim work it out. To finish is a large helping of what we could all do with – well I don’t know about you lot. “You Need Love” has become the rave-up that groups are traditionally expected to end their sets with.
So there you are, lint-pickers – a new LP from Savoy Brown. And just as I said on the previous sleeve, they’ll probably be into something new by the time this record comes out. If they do something different, it’s not because they need to gain the recognition. It’s because they believe in it. That’s the sign of a good band.
Good night.” Neil Slaven
* as a footnote for you “unknowledgeable” Blues Fans: Tristram Shandy was a fictional character created by eighteenth century author Laurence Sterne. He wrote nine volumes purporting to be Shandy’s biography, in a style marked by bawdy humour and a tendency to digress.
** Don Robey was a Fifties record company mogul who ran the Duke and Peacock labels from an office behind the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club at 2809 Erastus Street, Houston, and who recorded Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, and Gatemouth Brown among others.
BTW, the Roy Baker named on the sleeve as recording engineer is the same Roy Thomas Baker who worked with Queen in their early years and is now a big name producer. There- now you don’t have to Google anything!
Trk. 1) “Flood In Houston.” Simmonds’ exquisite guitar provides a tentative opening to this slow Blues, paving the way for co-composer Youlden’s thick, creamy vocals. There’s great restraint and thoughtfulness in the playing, and terrific use of the spaces in between notes, as second guitarist Peverett holds back until Kim’s solo before coming in. And as the solo begins, so the slow fade starts – a great pity, as I could happily listen to a lot more of this. Simply outstanding.
Trk. 2) “Stay With Me Baby” is a band original, which bounces along cheerfully in the popular ‘Fannie Mae’ mold. It also benefits from an ample helping of Bob Hall’s piano, which rolls and trills is a lively manner. Youlden sounds relaxed, Simmonds throws in some tasteful fills, and the whole thing rocks most acceptably.
Trk. 3) is Muddy’s “Honey Bee” delivered with distinction and due reverence by Youlden, accompanied only by Simmonds and Peverett. There’s great feeling and self-control throughout, as ‘Lonesome Dave’ restricts himself to riffing and Kim keeps the damper down, letting the silences have their say too. Simply splendid.
Trk. 4) “The Incredible Gnome Meets Jaxman” is a shuffle-beat duet between the two guitarists, the Jaxman axe-man presumably being Peverett from his time as a member of the Lonesome Jax Blues Band. That, for better or worse, leaves Simmonds as the Incredible Gnome, though he never struck me as particularly short. The pair first play in unison, then trade licks for a verse or two before Simmonds finally lets rip, while Hall, Jobe and Earl hold down the boogie in the background. It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s eminently listenable.
Trk. 5) Although “Give Me A Penny” is credited ‘Trad. Arr. Youlden/Simmonds,’ it has its roots in ‘Gimme One Penny,’ Big Mama Thornton’s 1966 recording with the Muddy Waters band. Given a little more muscle here, the hard-hitting guitars and ticking clock tempo create an awful tension behind Youlden as he throws himself on our mercy, begging and mumbling. Hall’s piano is cannily economical , delivering accurate runs and fills only when needed, while Simmonds brings things to a head with a barbed and biting solo. Very good indeed.
Trk. 1) “Mr Downchild” is a fine Youlden/Simmonds composition, which begins whisper quiet with Chris’s subdued, smoky vocal to the fore, tom-toms and piano governing the beat. As his tale of misfortune unfolds, and the pitch of his voice elevates, the band behind him continues to build in intensity. Kim takes two solos, the first is cool and controlled but the second – the one recorded with his amp in one corner and the mike in the other – is raw and screaming. This striking piece is unusually emotive, breathtakingly dramatic, and quite conspicuous among the usual twelve-bar fare of UK Blues Bands at the time, so full marks to Mr Brown’s boys. One warning, though – you need good sound equipment to listen to this, or you’ll be forever turning up the quiet bits, and then having to turn the volume down when you get to the loud bits!
Trk. 2) “Getting To The Point” is an unremarkable instrumental shuffle with some fuzz guitar and piano. It sounds like a one-take studio jam, and the bass work is particularly loose, though according to Peverett, bassist Rivers Jobe was “very young, about fifteen or so,” and sadly never lived to see thirty. I still wonder at the wisdom of making this the title track.
Trk. 3) Bob Hall’s “Big City Lights” is a very disciplined affair, beginning with guitar and piano and adding vocals and bass, but remaining sans drums throughout. Hall and Simmonds play call-and-response through the solo, and Youlden’s voice is mellow and expressive. A lovely change of pace.
Trk. 4) Probably your last chance to hear Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” before Led Zep transformed it into the Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Anthem and TOTP theme song, “Whole Lotta Love.” Here, it’s already on its way to becoming Rock, complete with all the end-of-set trimmings like bass solo, drum solo, duelling guitars, kitchen sink, etc., but gigging bands have always needed “rave-up” numbers, and as it goes, this ain’t such a bad one!
Reviews were positive, with Disc Weekly writing that the album “showcases their fine instrumental ability (particularly guitarist Kim Simmonds) and clean, tight sound.” Rolling Stone noted, “Savoy Brown does not come on with complex technical artistry and does not attempt to overplay its music. Its strength lies in its group rapport and dynamics. Vocalist Chris Youlden is one of the better blues singers to emerge from England. His voice has the resonance and inflection so necessary to establish the power and emotion which is the blues.” But the LP didn’t make any great impression on the charts.
In spite of the band’s reputation for a fast turn-over in membership, newcomers Youlden and Peverett stayed with Savoy Brown for a surprising four-album stint. Though Peverett’s plank-spanking might not have been on a par with predecessor Martin Stone, his understated style provided a much more solid support for Simmonds. Meanwhile, Youlden’s unique voice and songwriting ability put the band on a stronger footing against contemporaries like Peter Green & John Mayall, though in the long run Savoy Brown were appreciated more in the USA than here at home. In 1970, Peverett, drummer Roger Earl and bassist Tony Stevens quit the band to form US-based “boogie” band Foghat, and achieved gold and platinum album sales.
Simmonds recently said, seemingly without bitterness, “History hasn’t been kind to Savoy Brown because we never had the iconic success of some other acts. But the fact of the matter was in ’67 we had a very, very authentic sound that hadn’t been heard before.” And tracks like “Flood In Houston” and “Honey Bee” bear out his statement. I have to admit, I bought the LP when it was released, but soon parted with it, unable to connect with the music as easily as I could with the more popular UK Blues stars like Mayall and Clapton. But in my defence, I was just a callow youth, and Savoy Brown were playing some very grown-up Blues.
Overall, the real strength of this album lays in the band’s ability to keep its collective cool, rather than going for the flat-out, full-bore boogie that so often characterises Blues. It’s the calms before the storms that make this LP stand out, and qualify it for a well-deserved place among the Classic Albums of British Blues.
© Stevie King 2015 for the British Blues Archive.