How ironic is it that white kids living in England in the mid-1960s were more exposed to black American blues than your average white teenager in the United States?
Without knowing it, in 1950s England, I’d heard the blues of Lead Belly, Leroy Carr and Little Son Joe, on national TV and radio, through the raucous skiffle of Lonnie Donegan. And I wasn’t the only one. It’s no exaggeration to say the Beatles, Stones, Cream, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Queen and just about every other British band worth its salt, was inspired by Lonnie Donegan during the 1950s. All started off as skiffle groups. “He was the man,” Paul McCartney once said.
Donegan, in turn, had been so inspired watching the great New Orleans-born blues guitarist and singer, Lonnie Johnson, in London in 1952, he changed his name from Tony to Lonnie Donegan. In 1956, Lonnie D covered Ernest Lawlar’s ‘Diggin’ My Potatoes’, released by Ernest in 1939, under the name Little Joe Son. Here’s Ern with his wife, blues legend, Memphis Minnie. Just think, we were listening to this sort of magic in the UK in the mid-1950s.
Britain even had the Rolling Stones version of Willie Dixon’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ sitting atop its singles chart over Christmas, 1964, the only time an authentic American blues has ever topped the British pop charts or, as far as I know, any major pop chart. Funnily enough, when I saw the Stones three months later, the only song I managed to actually hear, due to a lull in the incessant shrieking of hundreds of hysterical girls in the audience, was the slow blues of Little Red Rooster.
Even so, not even the Stones’ blues covers, nor Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle records, were the catalyst that turned me onto blues. Sure, they sounded great, but most young Brits in the early 60s, didn’t know the difference between mainstream pop, black blues and white mountain music. All were simply popular music. Blues fell in the same bag as pop, the two genres seeming interchangeable.
What a place to be introduced to the blues.
Then came the day blues became forever seared in my brain. It was when I was sent to Coventry … to a school swimming tournament at Coventry’s Olympic-sized pool. Leaving the train station, I headed into an area that barely 25 years earlier was one of the finest medieval city centres in Europe.
German bombers put an end to that in WW2, reducing Coventry to rubble, killing some 1250 civilians. In one raid, the flames could be seen 100 miles away.
In the next county, my 16-year-old father burned his 350cc Sunbeam motorcycle through dark country lanes, returning home late. Disobediently, his lights were on, even though a national blackout was in place. A German bomber, returning eastwards from the Coventry raid, spotted his headlight and chased my father along the road, skimming hedgerows, trying to hit him for sport with its remaining bombs. Those bomb craters exist on the road to Moreton Pinkney, Northamptonshire, to this day. One bomb came so close to the old man, it blew him off the road, through a hedge and into a stream. I remember him saying the tarmac burned through his leathers into his thighs, arms and arse, as he skidded across the road.
So, while Britain never had slavery to give us the blues, we did have World War Two to dish out some hardship. Not only did London and loads of other cities get bombed mercilessly, unlike most flattened cities in Europe, our bombed buildings weren’t rebuilt to replicate those destroyed. Dreadful 1960s architecture went up in their place.
As I walked through Coventry’s soulless, modernist, concrete city centre, where beautiful ancient buildings and a 14thcentury gothic cathedral had been recently blown away, I was blown away by the sound of an electric blues guitar coming out of a nearby basement of which is now Coventry University. No doubt it was a record turned up loud and if ever a place gave off a sense of the blues, desolate, wounded Coventry was one of them.
Was it T-Bone, Albert, BB or Freddie?
It might have been a record by that great 1940s innovator T-Bone Walker, I heard, or one of the Kings of the blues guitar: Albert, B.B. or hard-drinking Freddie. Whoever it was, the sound of their reverberated single-note electric blues entered my psyche, ricocheting through me like bolts of lightning. That guitar electrified me like no music had before, or has since. The nearest I’d got to electric blues before then was the brilliant George Barnes guitar solo on Connie Francis’s ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, which I’d loved as a child. Now I know why; but, then, it was just pop music, not even rock ‘n’ roll.
The only electric guitars you heard in those days belonged to the Shadows; although Brian Jones had introduced electric slide guitar blues to Britain three months earlier on the Stones’ ‘Little Red Rooster’. But, until that day in Coventry, like all the other Stones covers, it had been just another pop record.
The next day, I went to my local record shop to search out electric guitar blues like that I’d just heard. I bought two Albert King albums with money put away for my holidays.
Two years later, Eric Clapton would be playing the same licks with Cream. Life would never be the same again.