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Blues Memories - Steve Pilkington

My Story of the Blues

Like many blues fans of my generation, it all started way back in 1967 when a mate of mine played me an LP by the name of “John Mayall – Eric Clapton – Bluesbreakers”. Immediately, I was hooked on this music called “blues” and soon snapped up Mayall’s “A Hard Road”, the first Cream album and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in quick succession. 

I had embarked on a lifetime journey of discovery and early ’67 was certainly a good time to start. The early 60’s R&B boom had died out and the late 60’s British Blues Boom had yet to get underway, so there were plenty of blues albums in the bargain bins. Soon, the sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter were blasting out of my trusty Dansette. 

The real turning point came one summer’s day when I happened across a trio of albums that were to change my life in the sale rack of the Golden Disc Bar in downtown Accrington. “Chicago/The Blues/Today” vols 1, 2 & 3 were the gateway to another world and a steal at a quid each, too! From the opening bars of Junior Wells to the final notes of the Johnny Shines Band, I was totally hooked. But it wasn’t just the music, the whole package entranced me - the covers with their bleak, image of a grim-looking tenement building surrounded by snow-covered railtracks, the scene-setting sleeve notes with their vivid descriptions of southside Chicago. I resolved that one day I would visit this strange, fascinating city. While “Sergeant Pepper” might have been the soundtrack for most teenagers in that magical summer of ’67, those three albums were mine. 

My journey into the blues continued with increasing speed over the next couple of years as the advent of the British Blues Boom heralded a flood of albums onto the market from both the original masters and their British imitators. I lapped it all up eagerly, but I had still not experienced the thrill of seeing a live blues performance. That all changed one Sunday night in late ‘68/early ’69 at a wooden hut in a derelict football stadium. Accrington Stanley Sportsmen’s Club, more popularly known as the Jazz Club, usually offered a diet of trad jazz combos and fourth division rock bands, but at last, a real American bluesman was due to appear – Champion Jack Dupree, who lived just over the hill in Halifax. To say his performance was a revelation would be an understatement. A totally breathtaking set of rollicking barrelhouse piano blues ensued, interspersed with Jack’s inimitable patter. Just for a couple of hours, a small corner of a Lancashire milltown became a New Orleans juke joint.

Time rolled on and in Autumn, 1969, bright lights, big city beckoned, as off I went to college in Birmingham. This opened up new vistas of record buying and live music appreciation. One of my favourite haunts was the Diskery, a small shop boasting shelves crammed with albums and a somewhat volatile manager who tended to get a little irritable if you spent too much time browsing, without purchasing. However, he knew his onions – I vividly remember him pulling out Junior Wells’ “Hoodoo Man Blues” and Magic Sam’s “West Side Soul”, while saying: “this is just your sort of stuff.” He was right, too, but as they were American import albums at the eye-watering price of two quid each, I certainly had plenty of time to get acquainted with them over the ensuing weeks, as I sat, penniless in my humble bedsit! I’m also in eternal debt to this gentleman for introducing me to an LP called “Kings of R&B” featuring Wynonie Harris on one side and Tiny Bradshaw on the other which led to a lifelong appreciation of jump blues. My other record shop of choice was Reddington’s Rare Records, run by two very knowledgeable brothers, who introduced me to the exotic world of US import 45’s on colourful labels like Chess, Excello and VJ. 

As for gigs, the city was peppered with clubs, concert halls and student unions, all featuring live music on a regular basis. One that sticks in the memory is the legendary George Smith, backed by Rod Piazza and his band, Bacon Fat, playing their hearts out to an audience of around fifty. Another one is being distinctly underwhelmed by a so-so blues/rock band playing at “Henry’s Blueshouse” in the upstairs room of a pub behind New Street station. Some of you may have heard of them…their name? Black Sabbath. 

So, eventually college days ended, as did the Blues Boom, and I returned up North to spend the 70’s and 80’s picking up my blues fix wherever I could via records and gigs. Fortunately for us blues hounds, the last 20 years or so has given rise to a blossoming of interest in our chosen music. The arrival of those little silver discs, combined with intelligent reissue programmes has seen the whole spectrum of recorded blues become available – a fact which I’ve been quick to take advantage of (just ask my missus!). The rise of the blues festival has led to some memorable experiences, too – seeing Rosco Gordon rocking out on stage at Burnley and enjoying a little bit of Crescent City magic from Snooky Prior in the grounds of a Welsh castle, to name but two. I’m also still just as much into new bands as I was back in the Mayall-Butterfield days. My latest discovery is the Dirty Aces, who hail from that well-known blues hotspot, Jersey, and play like they’re in a Southside club, circa 1955. 

And finally…yes, I did realise my ambition by visiting Chicago (three times in the last four years in fact!) to see the blues festival, hit the clubs, buy far more albums than I could really afford at the Jazz Record Mart and pay a reverential visit to Chess Studios. What’s more, I’m going back again next year, because, as everyone reading this knows, once the blues have got you, you’re hooked for life!


Steve Pilkington
July 2009 

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