gBlues From The Roundhouseh
Liner Notes by Roger Dopson
The Mighty Alexis Korner is generally referred to as 'The Godfather of British Blues', an epithet that few would query, and one which he wore with considerable dignity and panache. If, however, Alexis was 'The Godfather', then his one-time sidekick / partner, the equally mighty Cyril Davies, was most certainly 'The Architect'. Often overlooked by Rock's historians, possibly due to his sad, early demise (Cyril died in January 1964, at the age of 31, just as the UK Blues Boom he'd so passionately believed in was gaining momentum) he was nonetheless as important an early catalyst as the rather more celebrated Alexis. And, at the stage in their respective careers covered by these recordings, he was probably the more accomplished musician. Nonetheless, Alexis was always both perceived and billed as the senior partner - which may, back in those rather more formally-ordered days, have been simply down to the fact that he was some four years older, and came armed with greater experience and a considerably more exotic pedigree.
Alexis' biographical details are already fairly well known, but in brief, he was born in Paris in April 1928, to a Greco-Turkish mother and an Austrian father, whose own lineage was old Russian aristocracy. Having spent his early years on the move - he lived, at various times, in France, Switzerland and North Africa - his family settled in West London during the mid-30s, which is how he came to assimilate those cultured, middle-class tones which would become his calling card. One of life's born rebels, Alexis endured a 'troubled' childhood, with tuberculosis, school expulsions and psychiatric treatment all combining to shape his destiny. He was eventually placed in a special needs school for disturbed boys with high IQs, where he made his first guitar, from a piece of plywood and a chair leg.
Having had piano lessons since the age of five, Alexis was already blessed with a strong aptitude for music - and once he'd been exposed to Jazz, in his early teens, he was hooked. Mind you, an early passion for boogie-woogie led to a couple of run-ins with his family; as a 12-year old he famously nicked a Jimmy Yancey 78 from a stall in Shepherds Bush Market, and then when his father heard Alexis trying to copy Yancey's chops on the family's grand piano, he slammed the lid, locked it, and forthwith barred him from ever using it again! But by the time of his call-up, in 1947, Alexis had been collecting records avidly and playing with various Jazz combos as a semi-pro, for several years.
He was stationed in West Germany where he soaked up further musical influences from American Forces Network radio, and from the GIs who seemed to be awash with V-Discs and other 78s sent from back home. More importantly, however, in 1949 Alexis was fortunate enough to attend a Leadbelly concert in Paris, which proved to be a life-changing experience. Following his demob he set about becoming a full-time musician, turning his back on the job that had been set aside for him in his unclefs shipping business to join Chris Barber's band as a replacement for the outgoing Tony (later, Lonnie) Donegan - who was, in turn, off to do his National Service. Alexis gradually began to carve out something of a reputation, both as a guitarist and mandolin player, and when Donegan returned to reclaim his stool, he soon found himself in demand elsewhere.
When Ken Colyer split with Barber during 1954 to form his own Jazz band he also assembled a superb Skiffle group, in which Alexis was immediately installed as guitarist/mandolinist, alongside Mickey Ashman (string bass) and Bill Colyer (washboard), whilst Ken himself handled lead vocals. In June 1954 Alexis made his recording debut with this quartet when they three sides for inclusion on Colyer's 10" LP Back To Delta, viz: 'K.C.Moan', 'Casey Jones' and 'Midnight Special'. In July the following year, their line-up augmented by John Bastable on banjo and acoustic guitar, whilst Dick Smith had replaced Ashman on bass, they recorded the Ken Colyer's Skiffle Group EP, viz: 'Take This Hammer', 'Down By The Riverside', 'Go Down Old Hannah' and 'Streamline Train'.
As an adjunct to gigging with Colyer, Alexis regularly played the clubs and coffer bars circuit as a solo performer, and he would also often jam with other like-minded musicians 'after hours'. One man with whom he soon established a powerful musical rapport was Cyril Davies, a panel-beater by day and a virtuoso Blues harp player (and a more-than proficient 12-string guitarist) by night. Very few of their peers were either as passionate or knowledgeable about The Blues as Alexis and Cyril, so it was probably only ever going to be a matter of time before they joined forcesc
Rather less is known of Cyril's early years, apart from the simple fact that he was born in January 1932 at Willowbank in the parish of Denham, in Buckinghamshire, and was from Welsh stock. It's probably fair to assume that Cyril enjoyed a considerably less exotic childhood than Alexis, although with his elder brother Glyn's encouragement, he'd learned to play the guitar and ukulele long before reaching his teens. At some point he must have put in a good few hoursf practice on on the harmonica, as well, as by the time he reached his late teens he was already a powerful harpist.
By the turn of the 50s he was working in the auto body repair and salvage trade by day, Mondays-Fridays (where one of his colleagues was another like-minded young Blues fantastic, Brian Knight), and playing with a Trad Jazz band, Steve Lane's Southern Stompers, at weekends. Keen to expand the band's repertoire to include rather more interesting material, Cyril introduced a short 'Breakdown' interlude into the Stomper's set, performing solo acoustic Blues numbers – consisting predominantly of Leadbelly songs – during the drink intervals. He played with the Stompers until around 1954, the same year that he was captured on a home recording of the traditional eK.C.Moanf. But his musical eapprenticeship' stepped up a couple of notches late the following year, when he teamed up with Woody Guthrie enthusiast Bob Watson to open the London Skiffle Centre (a.k.a.the London Skiffle Club), in London's Soho.
Held in an upstairs room of The Roundhouse pub, at the corner of Wardour Street and Brewer Street, they met every Thursday and gradually, began to build a following. As yet - late 1955 - Skiffle hadn't quite crossed over to the mainstream (that would come in January 1956, when Lonnie's 'Rock Island Line' crashed into the charts) although even at this stage there was already a massive grass roots passion for the genre, among the younger Jazz crowd. An early Roundhouse regular was Alexis Korner and from the very outset, the musical chemistry between Alexis and Cyril was evident. They began playing as a duo on a regular basis, and the pair would also sit in with other bands and groups, notably those of Ken Colyer and Beryl Bryden. Indeed, the first occasion that Alexis and Cyril recorded together was with Beryl's Skiffle group, a November 1956 session which yielded the 'Kansas City Blues' / 'Casey Jones' single. The full line-up was Beryl (washboard/ vocals), Alexis (acoustic gtr/ backing vocals), Cyril (acoustic gtr/ harmonica/ backing vocals), Frank Clarke (string bass), Dave Stevens (piano). A couple of months later the same personnel reconvened to cut another Decca single, 'This Train' / 'Rock Me', but although a handful of 'demonstration' discs were pressed, it was destined to remain unissued for over fifty years.
Meanwhile, however, both Alexis and Cyril had moved on.
Although trading as a Skiffle club, much of what they had presented at The Roundhouse had been quite Bluesy - and so eventually, towards the end of 1956, both Alexis and Cyril had tired of masquerading as Skifflers and decided to embrace The Blues, full-on. As Alexis later recalled: "Cyril said to me one day, 'Look man, I'm tired of all this Skiffle stuff. If I close this place down, will you come in with me and open it up as a Blues club?' So I said, 'Sure why not? Yeah, let's open a Blues club.' So he closed down the London Skiffle Club, which was packed every Thursday nightc We closed it down for a month, and opened it up again as The London Blues & Barrelhouse Club, and three people came on the opening night! Three people, and there was four of us on the stand!!"
The 'house band' - which was, effectively, the UK's very first Blues group - comprised Alexis on guitar, mandolin & vocals and Cyril on guitar, harmonica & vocals, augmented by more-or-less anyone else who wanted to get up and play. A typical early line-up would include Terry Plant on string bass and Mick Collins on washboard.
Indeed, it was this quartet who assembled on 13th February 1957 to record the long-lost, legendary Blues From The Roundhouse LP, on which they were billed as Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group featuring Cyril Davis (sic - in the most unfortunate of ironies, Cyril's surname was spelled wrongly throughout on the album sleeve, both front and back!!). Issued on Doug Dobell's 77 Records label, and therefore only available from Dobell's record shop, just ninety-nine copies of the album were pressed in order to avoid paying Purchase Tax - which has resulted in it becoming one of the very rarest artefacts of its era. The eight sides which comprised the original LP appear as tracks 1-8 on this compilation, followed by an outtake from the session, 'Streamline Train'.
Although Alexis and Cyril had done their darnedest to distance themselves from Skiffle, it's interesting to note their Breakdown' group billing. But it must have been really galling for the lads when they found themselves billed as the Alexis Korner Skiffle Group (presumably, at the record company's insistence) on their next release, an EP for Decca's Jazz subsidiary, Tempo Records, titled, rem, Blues From The Roundhouse Vol.1. By now Chris Capon had replaced Terry Plant, whilst pianist Dave Stevens had joined to swell their ranks to a quintet. The four sides they cut in July '57 were 'I Ain't Gonna Worry No More', 'Country Jail', 'Kid Man' and 'Easy Rider', and they had about as much to do with Skiffle as Leadbelly himself. However, by the time 1958, the band (with Jim Bray replacing Capon on string bass) had adopted the rather more challenging moniker of Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, a brand name that Alexis would return to some four years hence, with considerable success. Yet again, Leadbelly provided much of the source inspiration, on 'Sail On', 'National Defence Blues', 'Go Down Sunshine' and 'Death Letter' (and, once again, poor old Cyril found himself the subject of a misspelt 'Davis'!).
But in 1958, the UK wasn't quite yet ready - for either Blues Incorporated, or for The Blues itself, for that matter. Muddy Water's brief UK tour, in October, both terrified and appalled the staid, stuffed-shirt British Jazz community in fairly equal doses - although in the longer run, it would serve to galvanise an entire generation of young musicians, starting with Cyril Davies. Once Cyril had experienced authentic electric Chicago Blues, firsthand, he'd at last realised what God (or whomsoever) had put him on this earth for.
And really, that's where this installment of the Alexis Korner / Cyril Davies story draws to a close. Not long after the second EP's release they each went their separate way - Alexis rejoined Chris Barber's band, whilst Cyril began working as a duo with guitarist Geoff Bradford - although they would, of course, reunite a few years hence. "We split up because we got on each other's nerves as people, though we still admire each other as musicians," Alexis later admitted.
Despite their raw, oft-hesitant naivety, the recorded legacy of Alexis & Cyril's first joint venture remains a fascinating documentary of the UK Blues scene's initial, faltering footsteps. And ironically, they evince a charm which would often be found lacking in much of Alexis's subsequent, rather more Jazz-inflected recording career. These are benchmark recordings, and it is an absolute privilege to re-release them.