Original LP (1966)
By Jack Winsley
The history of the Blues, though quite short in time, is too complex in content for the present purpose. Analytically, a few hundred words would barely scratch the surface our subject. In any event, there will always be innumerable points of argument which are often questions of subjective, rather than objective decisions.
What we have tried to do in these few minutes is virtually impossible; we thought it worth the effort. Blues Incorporated ranges from one man to six – through solo guitar, guitar and harmonica, guitar, bass harmonica and drums and, finally, tenor, trombone, harmonica, guitar, bass and drums. The sounds, of course, vary. However, the feeling, irrespective of instrumentation, is the common denominator. It is all Blues of one sort or another; that is the point to bear in mind. The Blues you may hear on this record are an honest expression of personal feeling. Each musician/singer involved is showing, quite openly, what he feels about things. No matter whether it is a 'country' feel, as in "Louise Louise", or a contemporary Jazz feel, as in "Honesty", it is still, we maintain, The Blues.
Apart from this, we have also tried to present the sounds of Blues Incorporated as they might play in public. There is tremendous spontaneity on this record, due mainly to the zany way in which this LP was made. Daytime sessions, night time sessions, tapes just rolling without stringently pre-arranged planning, all contributed to the final outcome. There are several reels of music which have not been used. That is how much was actually recorded to get the right feel.
There is something for al Blues lovers in these tracks but remember that Blues Incorporated have always been more concerned with emotion than plain technical ability. Remember that the musicians have always been asked to 'try for something' rather than to just play safe. This way you may make a lot of mistakes, but you do actually achieve moments of real music. 'To hell with the consequences' has always been the band motto. You cannot bring off what you do not try for; no mistakes no music. Maybe this appears too far out as a principle for public performance, but it is at least a guide to the way the band feels.
The individual performances speak for themselves and it would be invidious to single out any one track for particular praise – or condemnation. Open your ears and you will hear at least some things worth hearing, some things which you may not have heard before. And the things may not all be in strict blues metre (8, 12 or 16 bars), but they are full of the 'feel' we have been talking about. That feel is what we're aiming for. It comes down to this: on a bad day, you are on the ground, on a good day you just seem to be floating.
Re-issued CD (2006)
By Neil Slaven
As the 1960s got up to speed, so too did Alexis Korner's fortunes improve - never by much, but invariably in the right direction. His skill as a self-promoter reaped further benefits; not only was he a musician, he knew at least as much as he played. On top of that he was a garrulous and inspiring speaker, capable of sweeping audiences up in his enthusiasm, with a knowledge of music beyond the narrow confines (as they were then perceived) of Blues and R&B. Strange to tell, he was becoming a figure of respect in matters musical and radio producers were rediscovering that he was a natural broadcaster.
Back in the mid-1950s, Alexis had worked for the BBC for almost two years, an arrangement from which neither side had derived much satisfaction. Thereafter, he'd worked as a freelance broadcaster, creating programmes and interviewing the likes of Count Basie, Kid Ory, Josh White, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus. Blues Incorporated had also benefited from the BBC's commitment to live music, appearing on programmes such as Jazz Session, Bandbeat and Jazz Club. Then, sometime in 1964, he met up with a young producer named Jeff Griffin, who'd been commissioned by his BBC bosses to put together a fifteen-minute Blues-oriented show for the World Service, the format and content of which he was free to create.
"I wanted to find somebody who had the same authority as Humphrey Lyttleton had for Jazz," he told Harry Shapiro, Alexis's biographer, "and the obvious person was Alexis. I'd seen the band play at Ealing and once we met up my office, I thought, 'yes', and he was keen to do it." With several dictionaries and a book of Phrase and Fable at their fingertips, they came up with Rhythm & Blues with Alexis Korner. No one could doubt the programme's purpose, not when each show was aired three times a week. Its success garnered Alexis further work, also enabling him to use his language skills.
This increased profile opened other doors and in the Spring of 1965, an opportunity presented itself to put together another one-off album deal, this time with Spot Records, the label owned by Ryemuse Studios. By now, Blues Incorporated was a pared down quartet of Alexis, bassist Danny Thompson, who'd joined back in June 1964 for the recording of Red Hot From Alex, drummer Terry Cox, and 24-year-old singer Duffy Power. On four tracks they would be augmented by tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore and trombonist Chris Pyne.
Danny Thompson was at the beginning of what would be an illustrious career as he became the favoured rhythmic rock for a host of Pop, Jazz and Blues (and eventually, Folk) outfits. Born in Devon in 1939, he'd grown up in Battersea in straitened circumstances typical of postwar Britain. Discovering a penchant for music, he'd tried guitar, mandolin, trumpet and trombone before settling on the double bass, making his own from a tea chest, with piano wire for strings. "The main influence when I was a kid was The Blues - especially Big Bill Broonzy," he said later. "Like all fourteen-year-old kids we got a band together, my mate Paddy on mandolin and guitar and me on tea-chest bass. We used to play the Skiffle Cellar and the King's Head pub in Gerrard Street." Soon the tea-chest wasn't enough and he searched around for a proper double bass. He heard that an old, local mad had one ("a great big black thing") for sale. "I asked him how much he wanted and he said, 'Five pounds', which was a lot of money to me. So I asked him whether I could pay it off at five shillings a week and he agreed." Thompson was due to play with a Jazz group that night, so he took it away with him and tied it uncovered on top of the band's car. It rained on the way to the gig and when he wiped it dry the black paint came off to reveal a beautiful varnish finish underneath.
Eventually, he had the bass valued and was very surprised to learn it was worth ￡150. "I went back to the old boy and told him it was worth much more than a fiver. He said, 'I know that, son, but if you want it and you're really going to do it then just give me five bob a week like we said'." As time went by, he christened it 'Victoria' and discovered that it'd been made by a French instrument maker named Gand. Its current worth is around ￡30,000 and they will never be parted. "I've tried other instruments but I've felt worse than unfaithful. It's been like a betrayal. We come as a pair, a partnership."
At the puce-ｆaced age of sixteen, he was accompanying strippers at The Spider's Web in Meard Street. After they finally got dressed and went home, musicians from across town would turn up and sometimes the jam sessions would last till dawn. A stint in the Army left him driving lorries until ha was asked to back Roy Orbison on tour. He was so grateful he even agreed to play a bass guitar, the only time (along with two further Orbison tours) this would happen. Then he joined Tubby Hayes' student orchestra, although he was always on the lookout for another gig. He became aware of Blues Incorporated. "People said it was a good blowing band. And when I heard Alexis, it was right up my street."
"It was really a musician's playground," he told Shapiro. "While he was playing his Blues augmented by a stellar brass section making up riffs on the night, which then became the tune arrangements coming on the hoof, everybody made a contribution." Since Blues Inc's gigs were by no means consistent, Thompson also found time to play with the cream of London's Jazz fraternity, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey, John Stevens and Harold McNair among them. He was always on hand when visiting American Blues and Jazz musicians needed a bass and he'd begun to endear himself to several members of the burgeoning Folk scene, including Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. After his departure from Blues Inc., this would lead to the formation of Pentangle, with Jansch, Rebourn, vocalist Jacqui McShee and drummer Cox.
Duffy Power had enjoyed a chequered career before joining Alexis, and would go on to battle further adversities once his time with Blues Inc. was over. The shiny carapace of his R&B persona hid a thoughtful, Blues oriented musician (in keeping with his real name, Raymond Howard) with more talent than his initial lip-curing, nostril-flaring cavorting indicated. He'd got into Skiffle in 1956, and with some friends formed Duffy Howard & The Amigos, 'Duffy' because another friend had seen a billboard for a film starring Howard Duff (White The City Sleeps, perhaps, in which Duff played Lt. Burt Kaufman - or is that too much information?). Then there was the Sandsend Skiffle Band; "They would wind me up to try to sound like Leadbelly," he told Wim can Cleef. "We mixed Skiffle and Elvis things."
In 1959 he was onstage with his band, by now called the New Vagabonds, at Shepherds Bush Gaumont’s Saturday Club, when he was spotted by Pop impresario Larry Parnes, manager of Tommy Steele, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Dickie Pride and others. Parnes signed Duffy up and went with the nickname, to which he and Steele added 'Power'. "Tyrone Power had died that week," he told Spencer Leigh, "so they thought 'Duffy Power'. Larry was like that, he believed in omens and portents." But Parnes' crystal balls couldn't foresee the lack of success his new artist would suffer, despite a lot of prancing around in leopard skin jackets and gold lame waistcoats. In 1962, after some half a dozen singles on Fontana, Duffy withdraw his power from the Parnes stable and re-launched himself as an R&B-styled singer/harmonica-player.
Between 1962-67 he cut a further half-dozen 45s for EMI's Parlophone label, kicking off with a revival of 'It Ain't Necessarily So', which became something of an airplay hit. Following this, Duffy, backed by the Graham Bond Quartet, was the second person to cut a Lennon/McCartney song - although they didn't approve of his arrangement of 'I Saw Her Standing There', as he'd had the effrontery to change the tune. He duly re-cut it, again backed by Bond & co - they also backed him when he reprised the song on the BBC's Pop Goes The Beatles, in July '63.
During 1964 Duffy gigged briefly with The Paramounts, The Flee-Rekkers and The Fentones, whilst session-wise, he kept himself busy laying down self-penned demos, often with John McLaughlin. His most well-known song from this period was 'Mary Open The Door': "I had a hairy and rather dodgy time with women," he later told Spencer Leigh. "I was in the bathroom at this girl's house once and this guy was banging on the door, telling her to open up." Duffy would record the song three times, as would Alexis, and there were other versions by Davey Graham and Zoot Money.
Early in 1965, he cut his own 'Love's Gonna Go', which was issued in the US on the Philadelphia-based Jamie label, credited to 'Jamie Power'. At the time he was living in Cleveland Square, Paddington, in a house where Larry Parnes had corralled his posse of talent. "They had gone, but I was still there," he told Shapiro, "surrounded by dogends and broken glasses. (Drummer) Phil Kinorra lived there and he really liked what I was doing." Kinorra played 'Love's Gonna Go' to Alexis, who then wanted to meet the composer. "Although I'd never met him, I looked upon Alexis as some godly father-figure who was blessed with everything, the upper-class education, everything better than me. Alexis spoke reams with a couple of chords. I loved it. Alexis definitely had it and that's why we all made such a big fuss (of him)."
Excepting great things from this new association, Duffy willingly played Alexis a number of songs he'd been working on. When he returned a few days later, Alexis brazenly played him a song he'd 'written' and Duffy was shocked to realise it was one of his. "I'd only met him twice and I thought, 'What is going on here? He's well above that.' I was shocked." Apparently, Alexis thought he was doing the young songwriter a favour by buying his songs for a few quid and getting them published. He would also record 'Love's Gonna Go' himself. One more positive favour was inviting Duffy to play on the sessions that would yield Sky High.
Ryemuse Studio was situated above a chemist's shop in fashionable South Molton Street, in effect W1's marijuana capital for the duration of the Blues Inc. sessions. Why else would the album be called Sky High? Engineer John Timperley told Shapiro, "One particular session, the guys in the band wouldn't play until they had the right kind of stuff to smoke. They sent out for some and it came back rolled up in newspaper. 'This is no bloody good', they said, 'we'll have to get the real thing.' The session was held up for another hour until it arrived." Being an in-house production, the sessions took place late at night in the studio's 'down time'. Producer Jack Winsley remembered one night two policemen, drawn by the noise, sat drinking cups of tea while marijuana clouds billowed from the studio door. As they were leaving, one remarked, "You're proper musicians, you lot, aren't you?"
Winsley may himself have been under the influence when he wrote the LP's sleevenotes, a curous mixture of apology and boast. "What we have tried to do in these few minutes is virtually impossible; we thought it worth the effort… The Blues you may hear on this record are an honest expression of personal feeling. Each musician/singer involved is showing, quite openly, what he feels about things… Remember that the musicians have always been asked to 'try for something' rather than just to play safe. This way you may make a lot of mistakes but you do actually achieve moments of real music… You cannot bring off what you do not try for, no mistakes, no music… It comes down to this, on a bad day, you are on the ground, on a good day you just seem to be floating." And dope had nothing to do with that, of course.
And the music itself? It was exactly what Alexis and his boys had become modestly famous for playing, an amalgam of established Blues and R&B songs, Jazz-oriented instrumentals, and the occasional original composition. It was already an enduring fact that Alexis's manner of 'control/no control' allowed longterm collaborators and aspiring newcomers to construct a loose framwork within which they were able to take their turns in the spotlight and not get in the way when someone else was having a go. As the producer said, "There is tremendous spontaneity on this record… tapes just rolling without stringently pre-arranged planning… There are several reels of music which have not been used (now sadly lost to the world, we suppose). That is how much was actually recorded to get the right feel."
The first three of songs, written by Alexis and Duffy, featured the basic quartet, with the latter huffing away at his harmonica, establishing the rhythm for 'Long Black Train' while Alexis thrashed power chords and slide flurries from the depths of a capacious echo chamber. Unless Danny Thompson is playing pedal notes, his bass is notably absent from the mix. Alexis takes over the vocal for 'Rock Me', which he rather naughtily claims to have written, with vocal inflections that (doubtless) seem inspired if you're stoned. Duffy goes for a similar intonation in his 'I'm So Glad', his background in Rock'n'Roll giving him a firmer control.
A hectic scamper through Charlie Mingus's 'Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting' heralds the arrival of further instrumentals, 'Honesty' and W.C. Handy's 'Yellow Dog Blues'. In 'Prayer Meeting', Alan Skidmore proffers some superior noodling before Danny Thompson's solo underlines his unique gifts and Chris Pyne indulges his gossiping trombone. 'Honesty' calms proceedings somewhat, playing games with time signatures before the band drops out while trombone and tenor sax explore unaccompanied solos, which then continue after the rhythm section's reappearance. 'Yellow Dog' brought the first side of the original album to a relaxed close.
Then, it was back to familiar territory with half a dozen vocal items selected from the repertories of Louis Jordan, Percy Mayfield, Jesse Stone and Jonnie Temple. Alexis kept four of them for himself, while Duffy sang Big Joe Turner's 'Oo-Wee Baby' and 'Louise'. It may be a surprise that Alexis chose to sing 'Money Honey', since Duffy had recently cut a version himself - but then perhaps he'd had enough of the song. Hindsight suggests that reducing Tommy Johnson's dramatic 'Big Road Blues' to an anonymous shuffle was an ill-considered decision, although the recording functions perfectly well as it is. 'Louise' was performed by Duffy and Alexis as an acoustic duet, mirroring a few gigs that they'd done in this format. The album ends in a curious manner with three solo guitar features, one of standard length, the others shorter fragments. These are what might be called 'events in rhythm', sounding improvised, as if Alexis was experimenting, looking for elements that could be worked up into full songs.
Commercially, the album did nothing at all - which is hardly surprising, as Spot was perhaps the most obscure record company for whom Alexis ever recorded. They had no distribution, and the release was barely reviewed. However, a truncated (10-track) version of the LP somehow found its way out on Polydor Special (their budget label - 19/6d of your sterling old English) a couple of years hence, snappily retitled Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and housed in a suitably snazzed-up sleeve. The same edited version of the album - featuring yet another different sleeve - was issued in Germany on Karussell.
The balance of material presented here (much of it previously unreleased) comes from a plethora of BBC radio sessions cut between April 1965 and January 1966, beginning with Herbie Goins' subtle adoption of Bobby 'Blue' Bland's emotive style on Ray Charles' 'I Got A Woman', the finished performance coming on like Bland's 'Turn On Your Lovelight'. Alexis sings Mingus's 'Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me', cut at the same session with the Sky High band that produced 'Blues A La King'. The next five tracks are from a Band Beat recording made on December 10th, 1965, with some changes in the horn department and the presence of Brian Auger on organ for Jimmy Smith's 'Back To The Chicken Shack'. A Jazz Beat session on January 22nd, 1966 yielded a tortured performance of St. Louis Jimmy's 'Going Down Slow', whilst 'Ramblin’' provided a shortish but straight-ahead platform for improvisation that once again plays with time signatures, allowing drummer Terry Cox to drop more than his fair share of depth charges and fragmentation bombs.
Sky High has long been a favourite of Blues Inc. aficionados and its augmentation here with a generous helping of contemporaneous bonus tracks this reissue to a new 'high'. The story proceeds apace...