‘Blues Power’- by Alan Balfour, from the British Blues Archive
(The History of Rock Vol. 5 Issue 56 1983)
THE BLUES were born in the Delta, died in Chicago and the ghost is alive and well and living in Britain . Or so Mike Raven, a popular Sixties blues DJ, delighted in telling his audiences. But for a music whose death knell is so often and so positively sounded, it is surprising just how frequently the Chicago corpse revives itself.
Broadly speaking, the Chicago blues has had three angles of impact on rock. The first came in the late Fifties as a result of a conscious effort on the part of Chris Barber and Alexis Korner to broaden the horizons of jazz fans. The second crept up unawares via the beat boom of the mid Sixties when R&B groups began to infiltrate the London club scene with straight ahead, if slightly watered down, Chicago blues. But by 1967, the majority of such groups that were still in existence had turned their attentions to other musical matters. The Rolling Stones were writing material far removed from their original R&B leanings, the Pretty Things and Eric Burdon of the Animals had embraced psychedelia, while Manfred Mann and the Kinks were playing chart pop.
But the blues had not died away from British rock music altogether. John Mayall, in particular, had remained faithful to the sounds of Chicago, producing pure blues-based albums and remaining seemingly unconcerned with hit single ambitions. It was largely the work of Mayall, which provided a forum for a succession of talented blues guitarists – Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor – combined with the formation of Cream (who, initially at least, played a pioneering form of improvised blues) that inspired the British blues boom of the late Sixties. During this third blues ‘revival’, a plethora of album-oriented groups brought the art of blues guitarists like B. B. King and Freddie King to rock music, gaining belated recognition for this new generation of Chicago bluesmen.
Stalwarts of Chicago
For contrary to Raven’s oft-repeated statement, the blues had never died in Chicago. And the British blues boom managed to highlight the fact that the clubs, bars, lounges and street-corner dives of Chicago were still pumping out the blues as they always had since the days of Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy. Although the Chicago clubs during the late Sixties very rarely, if ever, had the likes of blues giants Muddy Waters or B. B.King playing in them, there had grown up anew generation of Chicago bluesmen who toiled from nine-to-five at menial day jobs and played the blues to the clientele of Chicago’s black clubs and bars from nine at night to two in the morning. Throughout the late Sixties, Chicago stalwarts like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins and Luther Allison could be found entertaining wherever the black population met to relax and socialise – just as they had been doing all their professional lives.
Meanwhile in Britain, a new generation of British blues players had been inspired by Mayall and Cream to listen to the work of American blues guitarists, and were bringing the sounds of Chicago into the clubs and pubs of the country’s cities. The majority of these new British blues bands were centred around a virtuoso guitarist – Ten Years After with the flying fingers of Alvin Lee, Chicken Shack with Stan Webb, Bakerloo Blues Line with Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson and Savoy Brown who boasted two excellent players in Kim Simmonds and ‘Lonesome’ Dave Peverett. Several were spin-offs from the many John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers aggregations – Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John Mc Vie of Fleetwood Mac, Keef Hartley and Henry Lowther of the Keef Hartley Band and Aynsley Dunbar of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation were all former Mayall sidemen.
Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack both re-corded for the Blue Horizon label, the brain-child of long-time blues fanatics Mike and Richard Vernon (Mike being John Mayall’s producer). The success of Fleetwood Mac, whose first, eponymous, album remained in the British charts for 13 months, enabled the brothers to record, or reissue, the genuine American article. As the label grew, so the catalogue proudly boasted such names as B. B. King ( Take A Swing With Me, 1969 ), Otis Rush ( This One’s A Good Un, 1970 ), Magic Sam ( Magic Sam 1937/69, 1970 ), Earl Hooker ( Sweet Black Angel, 1970 ) and Eddie Boyd ( 7936 South Rhodes, 1968 ). All these prestigious artists were rubbing shoulders with home-grown products – Mac, Shack, Duster Bennett (the late one-man blues band) and Champion Jack Dupree, (a black blues pianist then living in Yorkshire) – but Blue Horizon’s achievement was rather more than just having ‘genuine’ bluesmen in the catalogue. The label was actually achieving national distribution and exposure for artists who, by and large, had lived too long in the shadows cast by artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Blue Horizon’s success prompted other companies to get in on the act and sign British blues groups; some, like Free, Taste and Jethro Tull sprang to prominence, while many more – Dr K’s Blues Band, Heavy Jelly, Spirit Of John Morgan, Black Cat Bones, John Dummer, Killing Floor and a host of others – eked out a living on the club circuit. Many of these lesser-known names were of dubious artistic merit, but this didn’t seem to matter to some of the new blues ‘under-ground’ audience. Chris Mercer, one-time sax player with John Mayall’s Blues breakers told Melody Maker in November 1968: ‘Blues fans are just thick. You can play them any old rubbish and they’ll cheer. It doesn’t matter how badly you play because blues fans, who are supposed to be so intelligent, will accept anything, however abysmal.’
At the height of the boom, the music press found time to cover Chicago blues to an extent unknown since the early Sixties – especially Melody Maker, which ran a weekly Men Who Make The Blues half-page and promoted concerts by Albert King and Freddie King. Also, a National Blues Federation was formed, which staged two blues conventions in 1968 and 1969 among other activities. Never before had such gatherings of experts, fans and musicians met under one roof with the sole intent of discussing, listening to and playing the blues.
The turning point
The blues became treated with such reverence by fans and the press that it grew into a natural target for lampooning; anti-blues satire was provided by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with Can Blue Men Sing The Whites? and by the anarchic Liverpool Scene with I’ve Got The Fleetwood Mac Chicken Shack John Mayall Can’t Fail Blues . The latter, a dull, plodding twelve-bar, featured the group’s over weight poet/singer Adrian Henri singing the lines: ‘Woke up this morning and my agent and the men from Blue Horizon records, Mike and Richard Vernon, were standing in my room! They said “You’d better learn some blues son, ‘cos there’s gonna be a boom.”
In the United States, meanwhile, the torch of interpretative white blues was carried by the racially-integrated Paul Butterfield Band and by Canned Heat. Heat, whose members included established record collectors and blues researchers, were the first white blues band of the era to penetrate the Top Twenty singles charts when On The Road Again went to Number 8 in the UK and Number 16 in the US in the summer of 1968. This was hardly typical blues-boom music, however, and the two successful follow-up singles, ‘Going Up The Country’ and ‘Let’s Work Together’, were even lighter pop-oriented fare, very different from the blues the band created on album and stage. Fleetwood Mac also found pop success with material far removed from their blues roots when Albatross , an atmospheric guitar instrumental, rose to top the UK charts in December 1968.
By the early Seventies, the British blues boom was over. The majority of groups had either disintegrated or, like Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac, had gone on to explore other forms of ‘progressive’ music. John Mayall himself had tired of the electric guitar-based line-up and in 1969 recruited a largely acoustic group to record two distinctly jazz-flavoured albums, Turning Point and Empty Rooms . But in the clubs of Chicago, at least, the blues lived on. As Jim O’Neal, editor of the Chicago based magazine Living Blues has written: ‘On week-ends, club-goers can find live blues at 20 or 30clubs. Hundreds of singers and instrumentalists appear in blues joints every year. Black Southern musicians no longer migrate to the city in such numbers but a whole new generation of bluesmen has grown up in the urban streets.’
Alan Balfour writing as NEVILLE WIGGINS