”kornerstoned – the alexis korner anthlogy 1954 - 1983”
Liner Notes by Neil Slaven
It’s now more than twenty years since Alexis Korner left us, but his influence and legacy remain. He was the fulcrum of early 1960s British Blues, around whom a host of younger satellites revolved. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Art Wood, Ronnie Wood, Paul Jones, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Chris Farlowe, Graham Bond, Duffy Power, Long John Baldry. All helped to promote The Blues and to take it into the popular sphere; all paid tribute to Alexis for being their guide and companion.
He didn’t achieve the success of some of those he encouraged, but his life was just as rich and as colourful, and he lived it with character, modesty and tolerance. He gave everyone who fancied themselves as a Blues musician a chance to prove their worth. Some succeeded, but many fell by the wayside. Not that they were reduced in Aleixs’s eyes, for his love of The Blues included the less – or untalented – if he thought they were sincere. “I call him a pioneer,” says Alexis’s younger son Damian Korner, now custodian of the Korner archives. “Dad believed in people doing what they wanted to do. He always had people onstage and let them blow themselves out. He was a great bandleader, he recognaised talent and he encouraged everybody. He didn’t want to be out front, but he was a fulcrum for everyone around him.”
The 44 selections gathered here, a mixture of album tracks and singles – some well-known, many collectors’ rarities (not to mention the odd hit) – cover thirty years of prolific recording. They are merely a taste of what is to come in a series of compilations drawn from the same sources, with a wealth previously unissued material. This, then, is a career overview of the man who earned the title, The Godfather Of British Blues.
There was always something exotic about Alexis. If he hadn’t become a musician, you just know he would’ve been an eccentric of another kind. As he said of himself and his chosen profession, “I’m part-Turk, part-Greek and part-Austrian, and as I don’t know any part-Turk, part-Greek, part-Austrian music, I feel I’m perfectly entitled to play Blues.” More than that, he was an instinctive bohemian of the textbook variety, happy to ignore or embrace the social conventions. For all the ‘Godfather’ tag, this same attitude operated in his musical life, since his love of Jazz and other music set him apart from the Bluenatics who could worship nothing else.
Born in Paris, in April 1928, Alexis would romanticise his boyhood years, leaving the impression he’d led a gypsy-like existence, roaming the Continent like a young Indiana Jones, lodging with relatives in between periods in boarding schools and nursing homes, before escaping by the skin of his teeth from the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II. Some boyhood fantasies survived into his adult years – although the truth of a difficult childhood, including about of tuberculosis, expulsions and visits to a psychiatrist, wasn’t too far different.
His life took a decisive turn the day he store his first 78rpm record from a stall in Shepherds Bush market: it was, by all accounts, a copy of Jimmy Yancey’s ‘Slow And Easy Blues’. He’d had piano lessons, but disparaged their usefulness until he discovered Yancey. As he said, years later, “I found a music that I was so involved with straight away that I thought of nothing but that. Then, one day my father came back to find me playing boogie woogie and he blew his top, totally and absolutely. He slammed down the lid of the piano and locked it with a key which he carried in his pocket and said, ‘You don’t play stuff like that on my piano!’.”
Such an interdiction guaranteed that
Alexis would pursue his new enthusiasm with redoubled energy. By fair means and
foul, he set about collecting every boogie record he could find, while
canvassing friends whose families owned pianos. In the Summer
of 1947 he was called up for National Service and soon found himself shipped
Working in his uncle Themi’s shipping office by day, Alexis hired himself out as a guitarist, “…a bad played (but) I had apparently got a slightly peculiar sound, which attracted some people.” Before the end of 1949, he’d replaced Tony Donegan (off to do his own National Service) in trombonist Chris Baber’s band: “Nobody could ever hear me, but they all convinced themselves they could feel me. We used to do a half-hour set of R&B – ‘Race Blues’ it was called then … like the Tampa Red and Big Broonzy Chicago sessions … I was given the mike and I used to do single string (solos) and people would say, ‘What’s that funny stuff you played in the middle?’”
Harold Pendleton, later head of the National Jazz Federation (with Barber as co-director), provided a thumbnail sketch of Alexis that was as colourful as its subject: “… strange, wild, smoking black cigarettes, grew his hair shaggy for those days. Demonstrably a foreigner, and weird. He looked like a Balkan terrorist.” Who wouldn’t want an image like that? Pendleton’s comment was made after Alexis had met his future wife, Bobbie, and she became instrumental in furthering his musical ambitions, even physically assisting him to learn guitar techniques. By this time Alexis had discovered a fascination with Bebop, to the indignation of his Jazz and Blues friends: “It was ‘impossible’ for me to like traditional Jazz, and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie,” he said later. “It just wasn’t allowed.”
Meanwhile, he’d taken up with trumpeter/guitarist Ken Colyer and his washboard playing brother, Bill. They’d nip round to Aleixs’s house and play a precursor of what became ‘Skiffle’. By 1953, Chris Barber had turned professional; for a while Ken Colyer was in the band, and Alexis was on hand with guitar and mandolin to take part in the Skiffle interlude in the middle of their set. When Colyer ‘left’ to form his own group, Alexis went with him. In June 1954, Alexis played his first recording session when The Ken Colyer Skiffle Group recorded ‘Midnight Special’ (with Alexis on mandolin), for Decca Records as part of a 10” LP, Back To Delta. The version which opens this compilation is a previously unissued alternate take, dubbed from an acetate which has been lurking unheard in the Korner archives for fifty years.
Alexis joined the BBC as a trainee studio
manager, although his heart wasn’t fully in it. That organ beat faster
when he met Cyril Davies, a 12-string guitarist and harmonica player who ran
the London Skiffle Club at The Roundhouse pub in
The Blues as a mighty oak was still some
years away but, nothing daunted, Cyril and Alexis were prophets for their
cause. The ensuing years saw their ‘great working mismatch’ raise
awareness of what was still regarded as a branch of Jazz appreciation. Part of
the endeavour comprised a series of recordings for
various tiny independent labels, variously by Alexis Korner’s Breakdown Group (‘Roundhouse Stomp’, ‘Rotten Break’) or The
Alexis Korner Skiffle Group (‘Kid
Man’, ‘Country Jail’).
By now, Alexis and Bobbie had three children, Sappho,
Nico and baby Damian, living off the
As the decade turned and their Roundhouse residency continued, cracks began to appear in Alexis and Cyril’s partnership. Each had his own idea of what a Blues band should be, although neither as yet followed it through. Alexis espoused the Folk movement, doing sessions with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Davy Graham (‘3/4 A.D.’), while also recording with Champion Jack Dupree, Memphis Slim and Little Brother Montgomery. He also embarked upon his long career as a broadcaster, presenting Jazz Session and contributing Jazz and Blues inserts for Tonight At Six, Roundabout and Today.
In Autumn 1961,
Alexis rejoined The Chris Barber band, its leader newly inspired after seeing
Muddy Waters on his home turf in
But Alexis always wanted to play more and sometimes Blues Inc. encroached on The Barber Band’s time – to which end he and Cyril decided to look for a club of their own. The band’s then-current singer Art Wood, knew of The Ealing Club, a Trad Jazz hangout known by musicians as ‘The Moist Hoist’, since the stage would become awash with condensation. Blues Inc. made the club its own and it quickly became a Mecca for a burgeoning crowd of would-be Blues musicians, of whom the most notable were probably Mick(then, ‘Mike’) Jagger, Keith Richards, Long John Baldry, Paul Jones and Eric Burdon.
Art Wood was no longer with Blues Incorporated when the band recorded R&B From The Marquee in June, vocals being shared by Cyril (‘I Wanna Put A Tiger In Your Tank’) and Long John Baldry (‘Rain Is Such A Lonesome Sound’). A real collector’s rarity, recorded later this year, saw Blues Inc (billed as Alexis Korner & His Band) backing TV presenter Nancy Spain on an unlikely revival of ‘Blaydon Races’. The flip, ‘Up-Town’, was something else again, featuring Cyril in demonstrably fine form on harp. However, for Cyril, who hated saxophones and only wanted to be part of a Chicago-style Blues band, the presence of tenor man Dick Heckstall-Smith in the band signposted a parting of the ways. But Alexis was in his element, as was further evidenced by a single cut in June 1963 (but unissued until two years later), comprising ‘See See Rider’ b/w ‘Blues A La King’, with Art Themen added on tenor and alto sax.
Life quickened in many ways. As the guiding spirit of the growing Blues fraternity, Alexis’s stature grew and grew. The Korner home became a staging post for musicians who needed a floor to flop on, or just wanted to hang out. “Home life in Queensway was strange…” Damian remembers. “The window was left open at night, so people could come in and hang out without disturbing those who were asleep. People regarded him as someone to feed off when it came to their careers. Everyone had a great deal of respect for his abilities because he was such an amazing listener.” And life could get adventurous: “I can remember going to Newcastle with Blues Inc. on a Friday, to avoid the arrival of the rent man!”
The middle 60s saw the band flourish and the recordings it made reflected the rapid but international turnover of musicians. The group that cut ‘Sappho’ and ‘Taboo man’ in the Summer of 1963 (although the album, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, would remain unreleased until 1965) had completely changed by the time At The Cavern (‘Hoochie Coochie Man’) was recorded live, in February 1964. Familiar faces like vocalist Herbie Goins and Dick Heckstall-Smith returned for Red Hot From Alex (‘Woke Up This Morning’), and Herbie was still around to take lead vocals on a single, ‘Please, Please, Please’ b/w ‘I Need Your Loving’. But it was Alexis himself who sang ‘Big Road Blues’, on the Sky High LP (an album which also featured Duffy Power on vocals – as on ‘Louise’) and his 1968 Liberty album A New Generation Of Blues (a great reading of Duffy’s ‘Mary Open The Door’). It’s also Alexis who takes lead vocals on ‘Rosie’, a 1967 single which carried a label credit simply to ‘Alexis Korner’, but was actually recorded by Free At Last, a shortlived ensemble whose line-up usually comprised Alexis on guitar & vocals, with either Binkie McKenzie or Andy Fraser on bass and Hughie Flint on drums (NB: a previously unreleased alternative take is included herein). And all the while, he continued to support and encourage struggling artists like 20-year-old Robert Plant, with whom he recorded ‘Steal Away’, which remained unissued for almost 30 years.
With Blues Incorporated, Alexis was
intent on creating an environment for musicians who loved Blues but like him
had open ears and a willingness to explore other musical genres. With the 60s
coming to an end, his enquiring mind brought forth the concept of New Church, a band as eclectic as Blues
Inc. but with a solid ingredient of Gospel music. Members included bassist Nick
South, singer/guitarist Peter Thorup, saxophonist/flautist Ray Warleigh, and daughter Sappho on
vocals. Alexis’s plan was for the band to concentrate on Europe, but they
Nor did the public have trouble accepting the concept. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ climbed readily into the Top 20, and hung around for three months. It lived on even longer in most peoples’ consciousness as the long-running theme music to Top Of The Pops. A year later, ‘Tap Turns On The Water’, an Alexis original about, ahem, ‘growing up’, got to No.2. The only one not entirely happy about that was Damian: “I went through hell at school. What do you expect if your dad writes a song with lyrics along the lines of ‘open up the bathroom door, see your sister in the raw’?” C.C.S. would make three albums and Mickie Most’s label, RAK, would release Bootleg Him, a compilation of recordings Alexis had made over the years since 1962, with songs taken from the many radio programmes he either guested on or introduced, including Top Gear, Rhythm & Blues, Jazz Club, Jazz Beat and In Concert, alongside various unissued studio sides (e.g. ‘Hellhound On My Trail’).
But these were just part of Alexis’s
busy schedule. With the demise of
Throughout the 1970s (and into the following decade) Alexis continued to record with any number of ‘friends’ and collaborators, the latter represented here by Bob Hall (‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’) and Colin Hodgkinson (‘Key To The Highway’ and ‘Blood On The Saddle’). “The early 70s were fabulous times, but very dangerous for dad. He got involved in some indulgences from which he had to start pulling back.” says Damian. “He had to get his life back under control – and he did. After that, dad’s happiest time was when he played with Colin.” As for the ‘friends’ – well, they ranged from Eric Clapton to Jon Surman, with Zoot Money, Duffy Power, Mel Collins, Paul Jones, Chris Farlowe alongside Art Themen, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Dick Morrisey and Stuart Speer. Not to mention ‘Robert Jones’, recorded – “from an audience perspective” – with some of those very friends, on the mighty Get Off My Cloud album (1975), whilst a further star-stubbed studio jam yielded The Party Album (‘Hey Pretty Mama’, ‘Lining Track’) some three years later.
Alexis’ biggest market during the
70s was in
This last is the context in which Damian likes to remember his old man. “He wanted natural music. I love my father’s guitar playing, how his voice and guitar complemented one another. Expression was a click of the fingers thing. That’s why, when he was recording, he was always a first take man. He’d say, ‘Never disregard a take if there were a couple of mistakes.’ Dad was always as you saw him, he never set up a front that he had to change. He was always open. He had a quality that’s hard to encompass.”
Alexis’ final album, Juvenile Delinquent, was released posthumously in June 1984, some six months after his death. A standout track on the album was the semi-autobiographical ‘Mean Fool’, a song which meant a great deal both to Alexis and his family. It had immediately found its way into his live set, and he recorded a spine-chilling version for the BBC, in his last-ever session, in December ’83, just weeks before his death; it’s this version which closes this special compilation.
Some of the unique, indefinable quality that Alexis Korner possessed is captured in the music presented here. The good news is that there’s a whole lot more on its way.
You lucky people.