Subculture Unsung: Alexis Korner

The father of British Blues

Thursday 15th August 2019

As the man himself told it, Alexis Korner fell in love with the blues after stealing a Jimmy Yancey record from a market in Shepards Bush and riding away on his bike. After getting home and listening to it he became obsessed with the style of music and for the first time, wanted to play the piano.

In 1949, Korner began playing with Chris Barber's Jazz Band, which later evolved into Ken Colyer's Jazzmen, after the latter's return from New Orleans. It was during this period that Korner met Cyril Davies, the two bonded over their mutual love of American blues and started performing together as a duo in 1954.

‘Midnight Special' by Ken Colyer's Skiffle Group

Cyril Davies had been running the London Skiffle Club upstairs at the Roundhouse Pub in Soho. Despite its popularity, Davies wanted to close the club and convinced Korner to reopen it with him in 1957 as The London Blues & Barrelhouse Club. The new club attracted blues royalty like Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim and Jack Dupree to perform. In fact, it was Muddy Waters who inspired Korner and Davies to embrace Chicago style Blues; with electric guitars and amplifiers.

The landlord at the Roundhouse kicked them out shortly after they went electric, for fear of them being too loud. The trad Jazz clubs in town were also resistant to the new style and would not allow amplifiers either. It was Chris Barber who again stepped in, sensing a change in the winds and hired the duo to play an electric blues set during the intervals at The Marquee Club.

'Roundhouse Stomp' by Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group feat. Cyril Davies

Korner and Davies soon went their own way again and in 1961 formed Blues Incorporated; the first amplified Rhythm & Blues band in Britain. On the lookout for a new club, it was the groups sometimes-singer Art Wood (Older brother of Ronnie and later frontman for The Artwoods) who found and suggested the Ealing Jazz Club. The new club was a huge success, acting as a mecca for R&B fans across Britain and within months Blues Incorporated were invited back to the Marquee Club for their own Thursday night residency in May 1962.

On the site of the Ealing Jazz club there now reads a blue plaque that says 'The Ealing Jazz Club. 17 March 1962. Alexis Korner & Cyril Davies began British Rhythm & Blues on this site.'

‘Gotta Move’ by Blues Incorporated

The club attracted people from all over the country and brought them together, any musicians who wanted to play and could play were given the chance to. Blues Incorporated was always intended to have fluid membership; acting more as an evolving coterie of R&B enthusiasts, inspiring them to go out and form their own bands. Many of which went on to achieved huge, critical and commercial success.

Brian Jones and Ian Stewart both performed with Blues Incorporated and they met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Dick Taylor through Korner and formed The Rolling Stones. Dick Taylor would later go on to form The Pretty Things. Charlie Watts was a frequent Blues Incorporated drummer and he'd later permanently join the Rolling Stones too.

Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce at one point formed the rhythm section for Blues Incorporated and left, along with fellow British blues progenitor Graham Bond, to form the Graham Bond Foundation. Baker and Bruce would later form Cream with Eric Clapton.

As well as The Rolling Stones and Cream, Blues Incorporated's ever-changing roster included future members of Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, as well subsequent iterations of those bands such as Blind Faith, Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin.

‘Steal Away’ - W/ Robert Plant & Steve Miller

Despite not finding mainstream success Korner remained a relevant figurehead in the British R&B scene. In 1968 Korner was working with a then-unknown singer from Birmingham called Robert Plant and it is through this association that Jimmy Page invited Plant to join his new Yardbirds lineup that would go on to become Led Zeppelin.

At the same time, Korner had also been mentoring a young blues-rock band called Free. It was Korner who had suggested the name to them, taken from a short-lived project he'd previously been involved in called Free At Last. It was also Korner who introduced Andy Fraser to the line-up, who had only recently been playing with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers.

‘Rosie’ by Free At Last

The Father of British Blues was a term that never sat well with Alexis Korner, feeling it earmarked him as an elder statesman before his time. But he always acted as a mentor and a father-like figure to bands like Free - plus countless other musicians over years. Korner is always fondly remembered as a kind, open man who had time for everybody. Offering sage advice and never craving fame or the limelight for himself.

‘Might-Mighty Spade & Whitey’ New Church

Korner's closest brush with fame came while he led the big band music group C.C.S (Collective Consciousness Society) alongside Scandinavian blues musician Peter Thorup, who Korner had previously been in a band with called New Church. C.S.S had a string of hit singles in the early '70s and are most remembered for their instrumental interpretation of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' which was adapted and used as the theme tune for the BBC's show 'Top Of The Tops'.

‘Whole Lotta Love’ by C.C.S

Korner had had ties with BBC for many years. Back in 1964 producer, Jeff Griffin had approached Alexis to put a Blues show together for the BBC's World Service (then still known as the Overseas Service). Griffin has since stated that his reason for approaching Korner was due to a number of reasons; he had a great voice for radio, already had some minor broadcasting experience and was so embedded in the R&B scene that he'd be able to get the groups on to perform as he knew most of them personally. In 1977 Korner also began a weekly Blues & Soul show for Radio 1 which aired on Sunday nights, which an until 1981.

At around this time, Korner had been playing with a 'supergroup' by the name of Rocket 88; bringing his musical journey full circle. The group played a mix of blues and boogie-woogie jazz and featured some familiar faces from the early days of Blues Incorporated; Ian Stewart on piano, Jack Brice on bass and Charlie Watts on drums.

‘Rocket 88’ by Rocket 88

"Alexis Korner has had a great influence on the British Blues Scene. If only for helping bring the Rolling Stones together, Alexis should be carried round London on a sedan chair for the rest of his life." (Pete Townshend, The Who) 1971.

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