“The BBC Sessions”
by Harry Shapiro
Alexis Korner was an inspirational figure in the history of British 'roots' music for nearly thirty years from the earliest days of the blues scene in this country to his untimely death in 1984. He was a pioneer in every sense of the word; with Cyril Davies he opened the first blues club in Britain, formed the first white blues band in the world, gave the first major public platform to the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant and Free and through his broadcasting was the first to present 'world music' to the public at large before anybody had heard the expression.
But he was a musician in his own right; guitarist, vocalist and writer. He caused great music to be played, but by his own admission was technically limited and it was a constant source of frustration for him not to be able to translate from head to hands as well as he would have liked. Even so, I for one think his acoustic guitar playing and vocalisation during his later years remain under-rated.
Yet, whatever was going on in his head and hands, what he never lacked for was heart. His commitment to the playing of music was absolute and total to the point of obsession - an enthusiasm and energy which infected countless musicians from old school mates who he might encourage with his own amateur efforts to major stars in the throes of re-thinking their careers, like Brian Jones who wanted Alexis to join him in his first post-Stones venture, which of course sadly never materialised.
For Alexis, one of the most important aspects of his music was immediacy and improvisation - however constant a song may have been in his repertoire like Rock Me, he never played it the same way twice, thus he was never comfortable in the studio. His milieu was charming an audience and/or doing live recordings which is why this collection catches Alexis in his element. Note, too, the broad church of influences spread across the twenty-year span of these track; country blues, free jazz, rock, big band blues, gospel and soul. Although tagged as a blues musician, Alexis had no time for the purists who tried to restrict a definition of modern blues to the electrified delta sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. For him the blues was "everything from Louis Jordan to Martha and The Vandellas" - freedom from constraint and studied eclecticism were his watchwords.
Born in Paris on April 19th, 1928 of Austrian and Greek parents, Alexis grew up in an environment dominated by business and European High Culture from which he rebelled in his early teens by falling in love with its complete antithesis - blues and jazz - and in particular the music of boogie woogie maestro Jimmy Yancey.
Coming through some troubled school days
and an attempt by his uncle to get him into the family shipping business,
Alexis began playing blues guitar in Chris Barber's band while working his way
through a string of jobs including an A&R man for Tempo Records and a BBC
studio manager. Backing Ottilie Paterson in Chris'
band, Alexis met a feisty panel beater, Cyril Davies, one of the finest blues
harp players this country ever produced. Together they ran a skiffle club in
In 1962, Alexis and Cyril decided to form a
band - Blues Incorporated. Going electric had them
kicked out of their
The first track on this collection of re-discovered
BBC Radio sessions, Everything She Needs,
features both Cyril and Long John Baldry with a 'Got
My Mojo Working' feel that was right up Cyril's alley
- apart from the sax of Dick Heckstall-Smith which
Cyril hated. Alexis' desire to have a jazz band playing the blues rather than
(Night Time Is) The Right Time brings together a classic Blues Inc. line-up of Alexis with Jack Bruce, pianist Keith Scott, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Cyril Davies on harmonica. By the time of Overdrive and Please, Please, Please, the line-up had changed entirely with a new rhythm section of Terry Cox and Danny Thompson and the superb vocals of Herbie Goins tackling James Brown's gospel hit. The next seven tracks spanning 1965-66 saw Alexis in a period of re-evaluation culminating in his decision to disband Blues Inc. as the British Jazz audience dwindled to nothing in the face of rock. The three jazz instrumentals, Back At The Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith, Mingus' Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and Alexis' tribute to Monk and Ellington, Blue Mink, show Alexis at his most ambitious while Trouble In Mind, Bill Broonzy's When Will I Be Called A Man (sung here by Jimmy Witherspoon), Going Down Slow and Rock Me were more to the punters' taste and invariably the more successful.
For two years, Alexis became a solo artist
sharing the stage with many permutations of musicians most notably Robert Plant
in the earliest days of his career and here on Louisiana Blues with Victor Brox and a
compelling range of slide guitar and violin for maximum swap effect. The ghost
of Big Bill Broonzy looms up again on Stump Blues and then Jesus Is Just Alright With
Me sees an abrupt of tempo to the powerful gospel sound of his short-lived
Take a deep breath for my favourite track on this collection, Alexis' fiery version
of Little Brother Montgomery's Vicksburg
Blues - who said he couldn't play? From the same July 1973 session comes
the sensuous and subtle Love Is Gonna Go, written by
We then leap to 1983 and some of Alexis' last live recordings: two good-time ensemble pieces with assorted friends showing Alexis' deep love of soul, Sam Coocke's Bring It On Home (To Me) and The Drifter' Money Honey and the horribly prescient How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live as the closer.
He was taken ill around October 1983 and died on New Year's Day 1984. A rolling Stone article from 1971 was headlined 'Alexis Korner, Father Of Us All', and when he died many inside the music business felt they had lost one of the family. Listen and enjoy and if you missed any tracks reading his deathless prose, go back and start again.