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Blues Memories - Richard Miller

Richard Miller - Blues from the Surrey Delta

I was born in Surrey in 1954 the youngest of five children. My older siblings bought records and so started my musical education. Firstly rock and roll with 78s by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Charlie Gracie and Fats Domino, Later 45s by Chuck Berry and others. About 1966 my brother bought home a record called Rhythm & Blues All Stars on the Marble Arch label. It had a blue cover and an image of Sonny Boy Williamson on it (although I didn’t know that at the time). This album had a profound effect on my musical taste. I’d never heard the blues before, well I had, the Rolling Stones had made blues records but this was so much more brutally intense, but what had a even greater effect on me than the powerful vocals and guitar was the harmonica amplified. This wasn’t some white guy with his mouth organ this was stark black emotional energy and I fell in love with it. The imagery of the lyric took me across the Atlantic to places my mind couldn’t comprehend. Most of the lyrics I didn’t understand I thought the line “Look here mama” was Howling Wolf singing about his mum. Although when Little Walter sang “My Babe” I knew it wasn’t about his offspring, but Muddy Waters “Mojo” had me perplexed.

It didn’t matter because I got the feel of it, I knew how the singer felt and although here was a virile black American singing about his woman I felt I understood the message even as an eleven year old schoolboy. I didn’t know anyone my age who liked this music (or in fact of any age apart from my brother) For some reason I believed that the ten artists on the record were the only blues singers there were. I suppose I’d not heard the music before and figured it was not that common. It was not long before I bought my first record and even though today I have got rid of most of my vinyl records I will never part with this. It was simply called ‘The Blues’ and the cover showed an electric guitar in a bare room. Most of the artists on this album were the same as on Rhythm & Blues All Stars with two exceptions so now I knew there were twelve blues singers in the world not ten! Soon I bought albums by Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf. Walter was the greatest blues harmonica player ever and possessed a fine singing voice. Wolf sang like no one before or since with a voice that comes from so deep within him.

One night on Top of the Pops there was a blues number ’On the Road Again’ by Canned Heat I started buying their albums and discovered that white people could sing the blues too so I bought a harmonica and thought that I would join the gang. Unfortunately it was the wrong type of harmonica for the blues although I figured it was me that was wrong. Meanwhile my record collection was growing all the time almost all of it was blues I discovered Robert Johnson and started buying pre war country blues. I would seek out compilation albums to give me a taste of different artists.

One Canned Heat album had in the sleeve notes ‘Subscribe to Blues Unlimited' and gave an address in Bexhill Sussex. So one day I made the trip down there and found the premier blues magazine in the world and found out that there were more blues singers than I could ever have imagined. I subscribed and started buying back issues. I also started reading Melody Maker, Sounds and The NME so I was getting knowledgeable about all types of contemporary music. By the age of fourteen or fifteen I was mixing with a crowd that were into music other than chart music, even if I was the only one into blues.

By this time I was getting more into British blues bands like John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack. So one Sunday evening in 1970 I went to my first gig at the Fairfield Halls Croydon. They were doing two shows that evening I opted for the early one at 5.30 as I had to get up for my paper round the next morning. This was a bad move as bands doing two shows in one night don’t pull out all the stops on the first show. Also the theatre was less than half full for the first show. I had purchased a seat in the second row and looking around there were lots of empty rows of seats until the cheaper seats at the back which were quite full. This was Fleetwood Mac just after Peter Green had left but they were still very much a blues band. They opened with a rousing version of Elmore James ‘Madison Blues’ after which Christine Perfect surveyed the masses of empty seats and said “Oh this is ridiculous why don’t you all come down the front?” No I thought I’ve paid a pound for my seat you’ve only paid ten bob for yours but I must admit it made for a better atmosphere with the crowd down the front.

My next trip to the Fairfield Halls was to see John Mayall with the USA union band. In 1971 I went to Crawley College and they regularly had bands including Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts, Jo Ann Kelly and Duster Bennett. My main musical enjoyment though was in London usually the 100 Club which at that time was still a Jazz Club but Tuesday was blues night I saw my first US blues artists there starting with J B Hutto. The next month was Lightnin’ Slim this was more intriguing than JB Hutto as Slim had only recently been rediscovered after nearly twenty years inactivity. He came on stage unaccompanied looking like an old farmhand. He plugged in his guitar and it was magical, when he finished the first number the audience went wild and called out for requests he looked taken aback with his reception and in his husky southern drawl said

“Well thank you thank you, I believe I’ll play that one too. I’d just as soon play that than any other”

He came on the stage like a country hick and by the end of the evening he must have felt like a star. When he returned the next year he was dressed in a gold lame suit.

The Melody Maker had a questions column every week where you could write and ask what guitar was so & so playing on a certain track. One week somebody had written in to ask about blues harmonicas. Duster Bennett informed him that the U S blues men used marine band but the U K alternative was the Honner Super Vamper. I immediately went and bought one. I also read from somewhere else that to bend a note on the harmonica you increased the cavity in your mouth. These two pieces of advice started me on the path of blues harmonica playing. Everything fell into place and it was just a matter of practice and working things out for myself. When Stray played at Crawley College I asked the support band Incredible Hog if I could jam with them on one number they agreed. I drank quickly to get the courage and when my opportunity came I was flying. Unfortunately I knew how to play the harmonica but nothing about keys. You need a different harmonica for each key a song is in and the harmonica I had was not compatible with the song the band were doing. However I had never heard myself amplified before and I thought I sounded great!

Over the next year or so I made regular trips to London to the 100 club to see Willie Mabon, Boogie Woogie Red, Homesick James and Snooky Prior. The Marquee to see Chicken Shack, The Climax Blues Band and Medicine Head. The Rainbow to see Chuck Berry and Fairfield Halls to see Ten Years After. The best gig was definitely Muddy Waters with his American band, Pine Top Perkins et al (all other US blues men had used a British band normally the Brunning Hall band for their backing) His band played the first set without him and part of the second set but although Muddy only played for 45 minuets he gave his all and I would rather that than hear him going through the motions for an hour and a half. I doubt if I will ever experience an other evening of real authentic blues like this again in my life.

In July 1973 I moved to London.

Two weeks after starting in London there was a one day rock festival at the White City stadium. Canned Heat were the main reason for my being there however without Al Wilson and Bob Hite they were a shadow of there former selves. As darkness fell Edgar Winter took to the stage. I was much more familiar of his brother Johnny’s work. They were brash and confident and tried to work the audience with calls of “Are you having a good time” and “Let me hear you shout yeah” which got a lethargic response from the crowd. His band was Johnny’s old band with Rick Derringer on guitar. The exuberance and technical brilliances of the performance soon won the crowd over. It was rock showmanship at its best. During ’Frankenstein’ his recent hit Edgar played guitar, keyboards, drums and sax. When they played Tobacco Road Edgar would sing a phrase this would be played back note for not by Rick on guitar the process repeated with longer and more elaborate parts sung and played back note perfect. The roles were reversed and Rick would play a stunning guitar solo that Edgar would sing back the crowd were loving it and when they finished their set everyone was screaming for more. They reappeared to even louder applause and cheers from the earlier reticent audience. Rick Derringer strapping his guitar back on went up to the microphone and said in his Texan drawl “I knew you’d all rock n roll, you couldn’t fool me none.” Sly and the Family Stone were topping the bill but for most of the crowd they were an anticlimax after what they’d just witnessed. Two days later I was at the 100 club to see Freddy King.

1973 saw a new trend in music “Pub Rock” prior to this groups would play in clubs that charged an admission fee but some enterprising landlords figured that buy having groups play for free in pubs they could more than cover the cost of the bands fee from the increased bar sales generated by full pubs. Groups like Brinsley Swartz (that included the yet unknown Nick Lowe), Bees Make Honey and the Winkies were well established on the scene by the time I got to London. Ducks Deluxe had already got a recording contract. The three pubs I used to frequent the most were the Lord Nelson in Holloway Road witch had a low stage, dance floor and balcony and a second room with a close circuit television showing the stage so if the main bar was too crowded you could still hear and see the group. The Kensington at Sheppard’s Bush which was a long room with the stage in the corner at an angle. And the Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road which had bars on many different levels. The Greyhound was probably the first pub to start the trend and differed from the others by the fact that where other pub rock venues had residencies, that is a group might play a venue every Tuesday for two months The Greyhound had a different group every day of the month. Also the bands that played pub rock venues tended to only play them, whereas the Greyhound would put on bands that played the club and college circuit.

One day I saw a poster for a group called Dr Feelgood a name used by the New Orleans blues pianist Professor Longhair (so called because he was bald) I thought with a name like that they might be blues. So I went down to the Lord Nelson. I got there before they started and my first impression was how old fashioned they looked. 1973 was the time of loons and glam. These looked like they had stepped out of 1965. The great thing was they played that way too. The singer and harmonica player Lee Brillaux wore an ill fitting cream suit and a mop top haircut. The drummer The Big Figure a navy blue suit. Sparko the bassist would have looked the most appropriately dressed for the era with his collar length hair and flares if it wasn’t for the fact of his diminutive size that prevented him from ever looking cool. They looked like the sort of blokes you would find in a public bar of a provincial town on a Friday night. They certainly did not look like a rock group. The strangest looking by far was the guitarist Wilko Johnson. In his black shirt and black jacket and short back and sides he was accurately described by one rock journalist as locking like a AWOL squadie. They played classic Rhythm and Blues with menace and conviction. Lee sang with an aggressive snarl spitting out the words of songs like Riot in Cell Block 9 and I’m a Hog For You Baby. His harmonica style was enthusiasm over technique, but the main focus of the group was Wilko’s guitar playing his unique style of playing a chopping rhythm while picking single notes simultaneously was stunning enough but combined with his stage antics of moving across the stage like a robot on speed it amounted to a great band. I was soon seeking them out and seeing them sometimes two or three times a week. Tuesdays was the Lord Nelson, Saturdays The Kensington. I got to know the band in particular Lee who was the only one with a day job. He told me he was a private eye, I found out latter he worked in a solicitors office which doesn‘t sound so glamorous. After I left London I only saw the band a couple of time by then they had made it with a top ten album and although musically tighter nothing could match the excitement of seeing them in a crowded pub. After their third album Wilko left the band and a steady decline set in. Poor old Lee died of cancer in the nineties. 

Dave Kelly was the guitarist with the John Dummer Band. I first saw them just before Christmas 1972 while still at college. It was a benefit gig for Howlin’ Wolf who had suffered a heart attack. It was at studio51 at Leicester Square. In the early sixties the Rolling Stones played there the week that their first single “Come On” was released. The was a makeshift bar with this really brassy blond old barmaid who was serving whiskies straight from the bottle without a measure. I thought the place was wonderful. The gig was on a Sunday and lasted from mid afternoon till late at night. The bill was what you might call the second division of the British blues scene but a great occasion all the same. I had seen most of the acts before except John Dummer's Band who were topping the bill. John Dummer himself was a no more than adequate drummer but over the years he had been fortunate to have had a succession of excellent musicians in his group such as Tony McPhee later of the Groundhogs and Nick Pickett. His current guitarist was Dave Kelly brother of the wonderful singer Jo Ann.  

Dave is one of the best if not the best slide guitarists in Britain and I was bowled over with his playing. I had seen Dave as a solo acoustic guitarist while in London but in early 1974 they began a residency at the Kensington on a Thursday, where Dr Feelgood played on Saturdays. At the time although I enjoyed all the gigs I went to, I never really appreciated that I would never again have such an absorbing amount of music on my doorstep and most of it free.  

There was still plenty of U.S. blues artist coming over. BB King and Freddy King and early in 1974 there was another American Blues package touring Europe with Bukka White, Lightning Slim with Whispering Smith, Roosevelt Sykes and Jimmy Rogers. Bukka got halfway through Jitterbug Swing when he broke a string. He stopped playing and left the stage without a word! Roosevelt Sykes didn’t need any encouragement to come back and fill in while Bukka replaced the string and returned. 

Well since then my musical taste may have broadened but my love of the blues continues and my wife and I regularly attend the Swanage Blues Festival as we are this year as well as the Torquay Blues Festival in November. Before that though next month we are making our first visit to USA. New York, Memphis then through Mississippi to New Orleans greatly influenced by your website.

Richard Miller
August 2011 

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