"Easy Rider"

Liner Notes by Michael Heatley

 

For three decades, Alexis Korner recorded and performed with scores of blues and rock musicians who went on to exceed him in fame and fortune. The son of Austrian-Greek-Turkish parents born in Paris in 1928 proved not only a serviceable guitarist and distinctive, gravel-voiced vocalist but also, from the early Sixties on, a bandleader of some renown.

 

The blues club he ran in Ealing, West London, the only one of its kind in the country in 1962, attracted musicians who would form the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, Cream, the Graham Bond Organisation and many other influential British bands. This mentoring work rightly earned Korner the title of Father of British Blues.

 

The historic recordings showcased here go back even further to the late Fifties. The Roundhouse in question was not today's venue in Chalk Farm but a pub in Soho, central London that lent its name to a disc recorded in 1957 by Korner and cohort Cyril Davies.

 

Korner's family had fled from France to the relative safety of London on the outbreak of the Second World War. His life was changed in the course of the three minutes it took to listen to 'Slow And Easy Blues' by Jimmy Yancey. He fell in love with the record and played it over and over, especially during air-raids. 'From then on,' he said, 'all I wanted to do was play the blues.'

 

As the fifties progressed, he took up the guitar and started picking up gigs. 'I was working the skiffle clubs and there was a pub on the corner of Wardour Street and Brewer Street called the Roundhouse. In an upstairs room was the London Skiffle Club which was run largely by Cyril Davies.'

 

Davies, a hard-drinking, blues shouter who accompanied himself on guitar and occasional harmonica, had formed a loose association with Chas McDevitt - one of the pioneers of the British folk scene - and together they inaugurated the London Skiffle Club. They had an open-mike policy so anybody could get up and play.

 

The club was a huge success, packed to the rafters every Thursday night, and soon became a magnet for London's skiffle luminaries. Alexis Korner turned up one night and became a regular, often performing with Cyril Davies. But Davies told McDevitt he was fed up with skiffle, suggesting he close the skiffle club and re-opened it as a blues club.

 

This was a risky move because, at the time, blues was a minority interest with little commercial appeal, whereas skiffle, thanks almost entirely to Lonnie Donegan, was all the rage. He was asking McDevitt to take a serious financial risk. 'Sure, why not?' said McDevitt. 'Let's open a blues club.'

 

They decided to call it the London Blues & Barrelhouse Club, although most people still called it the Roundhouse. The last skiffle night was the usual sell-out, but the first blues night, a month later, was a disaster with more people on stage than in the audience. But soon they were one again playing to full houses, Alexis and Cyril now the main attraction. They started recording together when Doug Dobell, who ran a jazz record shop at 77, Charling Cross Road, suggested they record an album for his '77' label.

 

Dobell had a tried and tested method, developed over the years with selected jazz musicians, whereby he would only release a hundred copies of each record, because to have released on hundred and one copies would have meant it would become subject to purchase tax. The records sold rapidly, creating instant collector's items, but of course have been reissued in the years that followed.

 

The music may sound somewhat polite now, but the likes of Leadbelly's 'Easy Rider' and the outstanding (and, at the time, unreleased) 'Streamline Train', with Cyril Davies' harmonica in full effect, were undoubtedly cutting-edge in those pre-rock days. 'Kid Man' and 'Country Jail' were originally recorded in 1944 by Big Maceo Merriweather, and featured Dave Stevens' piano-playing backing Korner, Davies, Mike Collins (washboard) and Chris Capon (string bass).

 

Also included are tracks from earlier years with Davies and Korner backing Beryl Bryden and Korner playing with trumpeter-turned skiffler Ken Colyer. As a bonus we also skip forward to 1958 and include Korner on guitar, alongside American instrumentalist Guy Carawan, accompanying academic and archivist Alan Lomax on an album if 'Great American Ballads'.

 

Korner and Davies were eventually evicted from the Roundhouse for daring to use electric amplification. After a spell with Chris Barber's band they broke away and in February 1962, rented a basement underneath the ABC Tearooms and called it the Ealing Blues Club. They then set about putting a house band together, Blues Incorporated. The club, as already mentioned, exceeded even the Roundhouse in attracting young musical talent, and the seeds of the forthcoming British blues explosion were well and truly nurtured.

 

As the relatively youthful Stones, Yardbirds and others hogged the limelight, Alexis Korner spent time off the road with his family, diversifying into radio and TV work and doing advertising voice-overs. He returned to touring age 40 in1968, a new generation of British rock stars like Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) and Andy Fraser (Free) passing though his hands.

 

The founding father of British rhythm and blues passed away in 1984 at the age of 55, yet so many of those he fostered played on. He also left behind a series of recordings for us to enjoy, of which these are the first.

 

Let's end with a quote from the original sleeve note of 'Blues At The Roundhouse Vol 2' from writer Charles Fox. 'To some people it may still seem strange that British performers like these can sound as authentic as some Negro blues artists. The only way of proving it is to shut your eyes and listen.'

 

Michael Heatly

 

"Easy Rider"

 

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