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Blues Memories - Max Haymes

Well, Alan's ‘Blues Memories' (a fascinating read, my man.) inspired me to dredge up some of my own. 

I entered planet Earth (but where from??) on 30th August, 1940, in Woking, Surrey­ in the stockbroker belt. As a young child in the village of New Haw (my home) which lies nearly equidistant between Woking and Weybridge, my first links or ‘steps' towards the Blues came about as early as 1946! 

First off, I came across an item called a ‘gramophone record' and a 78 at that. This was at my grandmother's house in Tooting Bec, South London. My mother's parents sometimes ran a fruit and veg. stall at a market on Tooting Broadway -my great grandmother was born within the sound of Bow Bells; a true Cockney! 

One of my very first recollections included an historic (to me!) journey involving a bus, a tram, and a train. The local bus, a 456 single-decker on London Country Buses (colour green, man!) dumped us at West Byfleet station on what was then still the Southern Railway - the British one, don't you know!. On the up-bound platform for Waterloo we caught the 8-coach electric passenger (still in Malachite green) and after some 45 minutes duly arrived at the heaving London terminus. 

We transferred to a tram (red this time) which I remember had wooded slatted seats in much the same style as those found at older stations and parks today. The tram (same as the models used in the Blackpool-Fleetwood run, even as I write) was a thrilling, sometimes terrifying 'white-knuckle' ride - but wow! I loved ‘em. The noise as it rattled along the busy London streets was indescribably (ten times louder than the Tube) interspersed with the whip-crack sounds of the electrics on the overhead wires which illuminated with hellish vivid, blue/white flashes every so often. 

Anyway, I seemed to have digressed somewhat (that's not like me!). Even with all this transport we still had a fair walk to my grandmother's house, as she did not live on a tram route, or a trolley bus route, for that matter. Well, once there, (and only for the day) my parents would spend the time in the dining room/kitchen and so would my younger sister then around 4 years old. And moi? Well, l don't know how it came about but I must have emanated 'I want outa here' vibes to the adults after a short while! So my grandmother took me by the hand and led me into their ‘Front Room'. Younger readers must know that working class people in those days - and well into the 1950s - never used this room except for very special occasions; Christmas, etc. For most of the year it was never used, except cleaning visits to keep it in pristine condition - in case the King (then) or other very important person showed up!! 

So you can imagine how in awe I felt as a small boy entering this ‘shrine of the masses'! Once inside, my grandmother introduced me to my very first sight of---a phonograph! It was the very concept of a record playing machine - which I had never heard of - that floored me. Grandma opened the lid and there was the turntable and heavy, shiny playing arm. She brought out (from somewhere in this magic room) a small tin of Robin needles, nearly ½-inch long, I think. Then she showed me THE RECORDS!! Glistening black shellac 78s with sometimes brightly coloured labels. 

After showing me how to load a disc on to the turntable and place the needle/arm nearly on the rim of the 78, she left me to rejoin the others in the kitchen! So I played another record even though I had been told a needle only really lasted for one time. But as l had no idea how to change the needle I just used the one in place. But then I had to go and fetch my grandmother to replace the worn needle. And the records? I can just remember some of the labels: Regal Zonophone, Odeon, Rex (?), and HMV. Some of these were the colour of faded red wine stain, some a much brighter red, and a black label with gold lettering which was a Brunswick record. 

I can only guess at some of the artists on these mystic platters. With hindsight, there must have been sides by Billy Cotton and his Band, Geraldo's orchestra and Glen Miller. This is because I was an avid fan of the ‘wireless' (aka radio) at the time - no telly then - and was familiar with a daily show on the BBC Light Programme called Workers' Playtime.  Although I had no idea what a worker was then! Lasting about half-an-hour for 5 days a week these shows would regularly feature the artists already listed and many others besides. In addition, I always listened to the Billy Cotton Band Show-`Wakey, WAKEY!'-and Henry Hall's Guest Night (another famous British bandleader), both of which were weekly shows, I think. 

So in my grandmother's Front Room I was listening to familiar names and sounds a lot of the time. The only detail I can remember about the record labels (apart from colour) was the legend appearing usually on the right or lower down in the center which ran ‘foxtrot'. I realize now, looking back, I somehow sub-consciously ‘knew' these mysterious black discs with labels and sounds were going to become a major, if not the major, part of my life later on. Of course I couldn't have verbalized this at the time (I was barely six years old) - not even in my head. 

The other major ‘link' on the journey to the Blues was part of the transport used to get to Tooting in the first place. Although I loved the trams it was a far more thrilling, fearsome machine which captured my soul - the train. Travelling to my grandmothers' I had not really time to take this phenomenon in, fully. Partly because I was part of it (i.e. inside the train). However, maybe a year later, in 1947, I would take my sister on a mile walk down Scotland Bridge Road (quite a busy one at times, even then) until we reached West Byfleet station. Perching Sylvia (my kid sister) on top of a gate I would spend hours staring through the fence with hypnotic intent at the trains passing by, and sometimes stopping right in front of me! 

By the time I was able to get a penny (about ½p.) platform ticket I would have been around 9 years old. Now, West Byfleet was on the main line from Waterloo which shortly after leaving Woking split with one ‘arm' going on down to Devon and Cornwall and the other to Portsmouth Town or on to Portsmouth Harbour to catch the paddle steamer ferry to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. The line was quadruple track and nearly straight as an arrow from Hersham via Walton-On-Thames to Woking a distance of some 10 miles. Thus enabling passenger trains to take this stretch at high speed - which they generally did. Thereafter, the main lines split into two sets of double tracks. 

While most stations had 4 platforms (from Woking to Surbiton) or 2; West Byfleet had 3. The up London one (Platform 1) where my sister and I had watched outside the station fence and an ‘island' platform across the other side which served the down trains, to Portsmouth, etc. Now, Platform 3 was – inexplicably - the one directly opposite No. l with three tracks running between. While Platform 2 was on the far side of the island which is where trains for the South coast stopped for passengers. Platform 3 saw express trains thundering through (long before Inter City trains). Only very rarely did I see a train stopped at this platform.

If you can imagine through a young boy's eyes looking as far up the track as he could see when suddenly a small black speck appears on the horizon. Within a minute or two this speck looms larger than life as it becomes an express electric train with 12 or sometimes 14 coaches coming at you doing some 80 miles per hour or more, because of the long length of straight track The coaches seemed to sway violently as they approached the station, rattled through Platform 3 at a frightening speed, and an almost unearthly noise. The green train was almost a blur. As if this wasn't traumatic/exciting enough, it was as nothing when compared to a steam train's appearance! 

Although the Southern (by 1949 the Southern Region of British Railways) was the first to adopt the third rail electrification system in the UK there were still some expresses hauled by steam. The Devon Belle, Bournemouth Belle and the Atlantic Coast Express for example. Not to mention the long, dirty goods (aka freight) trains all using steam locomotives. 

Now, when looking up the track, the tiny speck seemed to be on fire! As it loomed ever larger, belching thick black smoke and white hissing steam clouds, it took on the aura of a monster from hell! Ever nearer and louder it got, practically blocking out the sky, and now showers of white-hot sparks joined the smoke and steam; from the smoke stack and the big driving wheels being pumped round by solid steel pistons. The noise was frightful as the train pounded towards me on Platform 3. I didn't need the porter (remember them?) to tell me to stand back as this fiery demon on wheels like a visitation from outer space screamed, snorted and smashed its way on the twin silver rails past the quaking platform! Again, 12 or 14 coaches, they seemed sucked into the beast's maelstrom of steam power as the train stormed through West Byfleet station. And above all else, steam or electric was - the sound. The pulsating rhythms of the wheels crossing short length rails as they passed over the gaps where they were joined; giving the ‘clickety-clack' effect which must have been one of the roots of the Blues. Interestingly, this sound became even more obvious and incisively rhythmic when sitting in a train. The 


was as hypnotic as the drone of John Lee Hooker's electric guitar which even as I rode the train was being recorded by the Man in far-off Detroit, Michigan. A place I had never heard of at that time. Once more, this whole scenario would have branded itself into my sub-consciousness, just waiting for 1954 and the Blues to give birth to rock and roll and hit the UK ground running. 

Even the 8-12-14 coach electric trains emitted sounds you could adapt to a beat! The low-down "nuh, nuh, nuh, nuh, nuh, nub, nuh, nuh, nub" followed by a more sophisticated hiss "ssssssshhhhhhh" of air brakes being released, signalled (no pun intended!) the departure of the train up or down the line. I started to use the trains as much as possible and when I had any money either from parents/relations or casual farming work in the summer school holidays. Around 1953, along with hundreds of other kids, I had been down on the turn row-chopping weeds if not cotton! I mean those rows seemed so long (usually on our knees) and often the field would rise towards the center so you couldn't see the other end of a row! Not that it mattered very much as you had to turn right round and come back on the next one. On top of that, the mean old farmer (boss man!) would find any excuse to with-hold/reduce our already paltry wages; at least to us kids, if not the adults who worked along side of us­. I shoulda got a newspaper round, but there was always a long waiting list, and "I got to keep movin"'. So certainly by the start of anew decade (1950s) I was ‘setup' emotionally and physically, via those iconic 78s, for what was I suppose THE major happening of my life. 

By 1954 I was firmly situated at a boarding school in East Anglia at Holbrook. Although the nearest station was at Bentley. This was in the county of Suffolk and the Royal Hospital School (660 boys) was situated on the River Stour looking across to Essex, where the thin white wisp of a steam train could be followed traversing the rural vista - and often in the classroom I ached to be on that train! 

I had now to travel up to Waterloo and cross London by Tube to get to Liverpool Street Station. Until nationalization in 1948 this was on the London & North Eastern Railway (L.N.E.R.). In passing, the London Underground must also have indelibly imprinted itself in my psyche. The departing, nasal-sounding "yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy­yoy-yoy" of the seemingly endless stream of red coaches reverberating eerily in the subterranean depths of the city as train and passengers melted into the Stygian blackness is an unforgettable happening! 

Now, this school was not quite as grand as it sounds. Moving from Greenwich in London, to make way for the famous ‘Arsenal', it was open to all boys - for free­whose fathers had been in the Royal Navy. Although an excellent and broad range of education right up to the age of 18 (for entrance to a university) existed; you had to have the right quota of the General Certificate of Education (GCE) to stay on after the age of 15 - the legal leaving age at the time. To get to even take the exams you had to first take another - the ‘Mock' GCE. The criteria being that you had to pass in at least three subjects in the curriculum to sit the exam ‘proper'. I only got two passes and was thus ‘written off by the education system and presumably as a worthwhile member of society - or that is how I felt at the time. Over the years, thousands of other pupils were in the same boat. I left school at 15.

But in the interim before this happened, the major event I referred to earlier, took place. The school term averaged out at around 12 weeks. For that period I could only access sounds on my beloved radio once a week - if we were good! This was on Sunday evenings when deejay Keith Fordyce hosted ‘The Top Twenty' programme, again on the BBC Light Programme. This was the only show of this kind running in the UK in 1954. I can remember hearing a hit version, in Britain, of Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford and endless records by the Stargazers (UK), Lita Roza, Gary Miller, et al. "Tons" was the only cool disc - as much for the words as the accompaniment. 

I've got as mind that's weak, and a back that's strong. 

This seemed so REAL! Unlike much of what else Fordyce played. But I knew of the rock ‘n roll explosion via the record papers my mother used to send every week Record Mirror, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and later on Disc. In the R. M. at the back end of the paper were two full pages listing dealers' ‘returns' or Top Ten sellers - from all over the country. Titles such as Shake Rattle And Roll,  and Ain‘t That A Shame leaped out of these lists, but what did they sound like? Well, one end–of-­term when I got home, my mates (our ‘gang', I suppose) were raving about a band called Bill Haley & His Comets and their Rock Around The Clock After first getting wrong-footed with a vastly inferior version by the Canadians on the cheap red label Embassy (from Woolie's) I discovered ROCK `N ROLL! I started haunting local record shops in Woking and Weybridge and bought 78s (still!) of my early heroes. POW!! This was our music - we suddenly became Britain's first Teenagers. As well as my beloved trains I NOW HAD THE ‘Big Beat' on my side. 

But I must take a little time out to relate how I heard my first black artist on a record. A friend of mine (sadly now dead) who was on the periphery of our gang was Mike Trotman. It was he who said to me one day - in 1956 I think - that I should listen to a record called I'm In Love Again by Fats Domino! Although I subsequently bought this title (on a 78) I was not utterly convinced for quite a while that this was ‘proper' rock ‘n roll! Of course, I was, unknowingly, hearing the strong presence of the Blues for the first time. Once I got into the Fat Man (he's still there doing it - cool, kind people!) I picked up another 78 of his which was not nearly so popular and was in fact a version of an old song from the 1930s: When My Dreamboat Comes Home. WOW! This was rockin' stuff, indeed; with attitude and a great honking tenor sax. However, it was when I flipped the record over (usually two sides on a single - CDs Only cats) I found the Blues - I didn't know that was what it was known as, at the time. The song was called So Long, a low-down, piano-based, blues-drenched performance. 

So long. I'm all packed up an' on my way,
So long. You gonna need me same old lonely day.
So long. This time I'm goin' to stay. 

The alto sax, on this occasion, booting and moaning the blues riffs in response to the call of Fats' inimitable and essentially black vocals. 

Along with this truly mind-boggling event, I was still getting the record papers and in particular the Melody Maker. A much more serious and jazz-based weekly that featured a critic, and my namesake, Max Jones. He would review LPs and EPs by names like Leadbelly, Leroy Carr and Big Bill Broonzy. Who were these people? What did they sound like? I somehow wanted desperately (and I use the word purposely) to hear and LIKE these artists and their unknown music! I cannot explain why, to this day. Maybe because it seemed so different. Just like the feeling I had back in my grandmother's Front Room over 10 years earlier. This was music that was largely without a set of drums or a tenor sax - two of the mainstays of music as I saw it. This was the reason my ‘entry' into the world of the Blues was on a backburner until the early 1960s. But I just knew I would enter it! Jones also reviewed a Big Joe Turner (the real original one!) LP. He remarked that this was where Haley got it from. I wanted to hear this and subsequently find out where Big Joe Turner got it from! 

By the late 1950s, I was working as a painter's labourer, brickie's labourer, ground labourer, (getting the picture?) on various building sites; having no academic qualifications, remember. But some of my mates, particularly Bob Lodge and Dave Lewis and I, used to go to Record Hops and traveling fairs; where our music was blasted out at great volume - Heaven! But on one occasion, maybe in 1957, Bob, whose father worked at a factory which exported buses in nearby Addlestone (called Weymans) had got us lads into their Working-Man's Club for a sort of Christmas bash, I think. Anyway, it was featuring the Crane River Jazz Band with such future jazz stars as Chris Barber, Cy Laurie, Max Collie, Ken Colyer, etc. If rock ‘n roll records were played loudly at the Hops, the sound of the six/seven-piece band was deafening! But thrilled us to the core, even if it shook us to the bone! This it turned out was authentic New Orleans jazz. But it was in the break that another link to the Blues was forged for lil' old me. Up to the microphone stepped a tallish, gangling, white American (somewhere in his late 20s?) who was trailing a 12-string guitar! The first I had seen or even heard of. He had 3 numbers to do and commenced to consult a set list! He pretended to read this and then screwing up the bit of paper threw it on the stage. The point was whatever he played that night had a profound effect on me and more so because of the rich twangy sound of his trusty 12-stringer. Of course skiffle was just about to ‘break' nationally and I also bought 78s, and by now 45s, on Pye Nixa of Lonnie Donegan and one by the Vipers Skiffl e Group on Parlophone Don't You Rock me Daddy-O also covered by Donegan. Decades later l was to add to my burgeoning record collection an earlier source in the form of an old timey performance by Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers from 1927. 

I should mention that by early 1956 I had joined the Royal Navy instigated and manipulated by my other grandmother on my father's side. A domineering and sometimes frightening woman, but one who I feel helped shape my character for a decade from the mid-1940s onward. Signed up as a ‘Regular' meant I had agreed to give up civilian life for the next 10 or 11 years! The 9-year service did not kick in until my 18th birthday. As my sight had deteriorated a little (from perfect 20-20) since 1954 I could not apply to be a seaman, The alternative was a ‘career' in the Supply & Secretariat branch; office work, stores and serving in the officers' mess (dining room to landlubbers) as a steward. Since the job description "Writer" was at the top in a hierarchical set-up (working in a Pay Office, etc.) I figured that as the best bet I could always change and go ‘down' to a storeman's job (a "jack dusty") if I didn't measure up. Thus not only the education system had written me off but - with hindsight - I too, had expected to stay ‘on or near the bottom' for the rest of my life. I only include this piece on my RN service as it led to the second most important incident which would lead me to the Blues. 

Readers must know that the Royal Navy, certainly in the late 1950s, almost ‘owned' you body and soul once you had signed the dotted line. Indeed, a senior Chief Petty officer (CPO) once told me "We own you for the first 24 hours of the day; after that the time is your own". He was only half-joking. But - and it is/was a big but, the ‘Andrew' (I still don't know why the navy was called that) could not compel any rating under their command to switch from the branch in which they had signed up for originally. Whether as a Seaman, Stoker, or as a Writer. Because I had only been working in physical labouring jobs (the ‘mind that's weak an' the back that's strong' syndrome) I was totally unsuited to office work of any kind. So one beautiful day (in the larger sense) I was called to Commander's Report and informed (to my well­-hidden glee) I was to be "Discharged Unsuitable". That old grey goose ‘the hogs couldn't eat ‘im!' So in early 1959 I was flown back to the UK from Singapore and duly left the RN from Portsmouth barracks - with all my final pay entitlement! Nearly £100: in those days that was ‘actually cash money', I'm tellin' you! 

Well, during my stay in the Senior Service I had always had my records and on one occasion I was allowed on the bridge of the frigate I was on. HMS Llandaff. I was permitted to feature the likes of Fats, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Haley, et al piped throughout the ship's tannoy system! (P.A.). But after getting several requests from stokers below to keep turning up the volume (because of the noise of the ship's engines) the Captain (bless him!) had had enough. Well you can't win ‘em all. 

By now I was back in ‘Civvy Street'. I began to hear of Stateside and the Pye­International R'n B series - all on 45s as 78s had disappeared almost overnight. Titles such as Shame, Shame, Shame by Jimmy Reed and Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker set me firmly on the Blues path. Singles by the like of Richie Barrett (Some Other Guy), Money (That's What I Want) by Barrett Strong, I Can Tell by Bo Diddley, as well as his mesmeric electric fiddle instrumental When The Clock Strikes Twelve, kept driving me on. Chuck Berry sides such as The Wee Wee Hours, Deep Feeling, Little Richard's Can't Believe You Wanna Leave (flip of Keep A Knockin'), the hollering style of Fats Domino on Detroit City Blues (relevant today!) and Every Night About This Time from 1949 and 1950 respectively. 

I had, quite naturally, drifted back into the building trade - as a painter's labourer. One day in early 1959 two of us were instructed to go to the Walton-On-Thames branch of Woolworths and clean down the walls - a soap and water job (by hand with wet cloths). It was there I met my future wife who worked in the haberdashery department as a shop assistant. About a year after we were married, c. 1962, I was invited by her parents (they lived in Walton) for a Sunday dinner. It was something I had rarely seen (if ever) in it's full traditional contents. Roast beef, Yorkshire pud, gravy, brussel sprouts, carrots, the lot. Heaped up on a large plate, it was a fantastic meal and is the reason for the next giant step to the Blues. Margaret's (my now ex­-wife) parents always had the radio on during meals. At some point music was playing (the usual Geraldo Orch., et al) when out of the airwaves came the first sound of the country blues I had ever heard. A lone black singer only accompanied by a plangent electric guitar hit me right between the eyes. It was, I learned, Lightnin' Hopkins! I like to think the song was Walkin' Round In Circles which was included on a Stateside LP called Lightnin 'Strikes (SL 10031). 

In any event, I went out and bought this LP. I had recently also acquired another Stateside album, .Timmy Reed At Carnegie Hall which included the haunting Blue Blue Water. My younger brother Rex and I played these LPs it seems forever. Man, we were hooked! At some point, possibly 1963, we discovered a book called The Country Blues by Sam Charters and published in 1959, Names like Peg Leg Howell, Blind Willie McTell, Tommy McClennan, and Charter's poetic/musical descriptions of their blues; made us think that these were beings from another planet - never to be heard by us. In this truly pioneering book solely on the Blues (Paul Oliver's great tome: Blues Fell This Morning came out the following year in 1960) was also featured a whole chapter(!) on Robert Johnson. I duly ordered the LP The Country Blues later on which turned out to be an earth-shattering experience in listening. 

But before this happened I had remembered seeing in Walton in Rumbelows (of all places) electrical goods store, a copy of a Robert Johnson LP!! It was sitting in a revolving vertical rack near the counter along with a lot of other (non-blues) albums. Actually, I already knew of this before reading the Charters book. Why I chose to ignore it was the fact that the LP was one in the Philips series Classic Jazz Masters of which I was also aware of via my regular copies of Jazz Journal! This series included albums by Blind Boy Fuller and Bessie Smith - artists I did not know at that time! But on reading The Country Blues chapter I went scurrying (do Blues people scurry??) to Rumbelows shop. There in the rack it sat! mentally trembling with anticipation I pulled out the sleeve and going to the counter asked the assistant (if I could hear a bit of the record. This was common practice in those days in record shops. Some of them had booths with a glass door so you listened in private. But Rumbelows was primarily an electrical goods store and this rack of records was only secondary in their trading priorities - no booths. The guy duly place the LP on a turntable for all and sundry to hear. But I was the only customer in the place. Suddenly, Robert Johnson's Crossroad Blues enveloped me. It is the only way I can describe its effect on me. Indeed, I was hardly conscious of several other equally awesome tracks I was allowed to hear. "Yes! I'll take that, please." I walked out of that store in a daze, clutching my treasure into (for me) a brand new exciting world. 

Good morning MR. BLUES. Sorry I'm late. But NOW! I am here. Have mercy! 

‘Mississippi' Max Haymes
November, 2008

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