The legendary guitarist on his first musical steps and how the blues came to Surbiton.
Tell us about your first musical memories in the early 1950s..
The way it was set up then, there were very few windows of opportunity to hear good music on the radio. Two Way Family Favourites was one programme that you always listened to, because you never knew what you were going to hear. Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour was the other. He was a strange character but he played some extraordinary music. We had a children’s party the other day and I put this little band together to play Teddy Bear’s Picnic and stuff like that. I got hold of an Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour record and listened to The Runaway Train, which was one of his favourites. He used to play it all the time. When I heard it again I was shocked at how good it was! It’s like pure bluegrass. Real hillbilly stuff. So there was a lot of really strange, eclectic music getting played and I was responding to all of it.
Did you fall for Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle craze?
We all loved skiffle. But that was coming from a fairly safe place. The cutting edge of it was Elvis singing “Hound Dog”. There was something about that music that got me excited. Elvis was dangerous in a way that even Buddy Holly wasn’t, let alone Lonnie Donegan, and I could see already the link between Elvis and black music. One of the big haunting musical memories from those days for me is an instrumental by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee called “Whoopin’ and Holerin’”. That was Uncle Mac again. He was playing that. Which is bizarre, isn’t it? It was regarded as a novelty record but it was really hardcore blues.
So was that the start of your love affair with the blues?
I didn’t know it was called the blues. Some part of my being responded to that record and filed it away in the right place. In later years it re-emerged as part of my musical journey. But I think I was already headed that way and it was Big Bill Broonzy who really got me. Once I heard him, I realised what skiffle was and how all these other kinds of music had evolved. Broonzy’s “Hey Hey” and “Key To The Highway” were some of the first tunes I learnt.
He was also one of the first bluesmen to visit Britain. Did you see him when he came here in the 1950s?
No. I think I missed him by a few years. But my grandparents took me to see Josh White as a special treat when I was 12 or 13. I loved that song “Scarlet Ribbons” and I remember him doing that. But he was a bit of a showman who was used to playing white audiences and I was aware that as a bluesman he wasn’t quite the full ticket.
When did you hear Robert Johnson?
That was a bit later, when I was 15 or 16. He was the full ticket all right, but you had to get to him in steps. You started out with someone like Chuck Berry and you worked your way further back, deeper and deeper until you got to Robert Johnson. I was confused and a bit intimidated when
I initially heard him. It was so powerful it was almost unlistenable at first. But eventually I was ready.
At what point were you aware that there was a community of like-minded people listening to this music?
Around the age of 12 or 13, I was still spending all my time in the country, at the secondary modern school in Ripley. But then I passed something called the 13-plus on the strength of my art accomplishment and got a scholarship to a school in Tolworth, near Surbiton. I had to go on a Green Line bus up there and I met a bunch of people at that school. They were all bright and they were all talented at art and we were all nutcases and it was a perfect breeding ground for this stuff.
And you introduced each other to different kinds of music?
There were people there who knew about Muddy Waters. That was serious stuff. And they knew other, older people who collected records and they’d have club nights where we’d go and listen to them. Of course I’d heard of John Lee Hooker. But I’d never seen one of his records until then. When I did, I was totally taken with everything about it. The cover artwork. The label. Everything. So that was the next stop on my journey. I began to meet lots of people who saw the world the same way as I did. It’s a fantastic moment when you realise it’s a fellowship and you meet other people who have respect and reverence for this music. That’s what ultimately leads you to becoming a musician. After that, I started going up to London and going to record shops like Dobells and looking through their bins and searching for these rare albums. That treasure hunt was part of the value of it. You had to hunt the music down and that made it all the more valuable. I’m still trying to find on CD the original Broonzy album I had back then. I’ve been on the Internet to look for it, but it doesn’t seem to exist any more.
You then went to Kingston art college and it’s often said that art school was the breeding ground for 60s British rock’n’roll…
I think it’s true. When I was at the secondary modern everybody was into cricket and football. I was always the seven-stone weakling. But there were others in the same predicament and we were the people who ended up buying
78rpm records. We were considered oddballs and we were scorned and ridiculed for our tastes. They used to call us ‘the loonies’. It was a hard journey. But even when you got to art school, it wasn’t just a rock’n’roll holiday camp. I got thrown out after a year for not doing any work. That was a real shock. I was always in the pub or playing the guitar.
You’d started playing Broonzy tunes on an acoustic guitar. When were you first aware of the possibilities of the electric instrument?
I knew they had electric guitars in America. I’d seen them on record covers. But it wasn’t until I saw Alexis Korner at the Marquee when I was about 15 that I thought an electric guitar might be available to me. I saw Alexis play one, and that was the first time I was aware they even existed in England. So then I had to persuade my grandparents to get me one, which they did. It wasn’t a very good guitar. The action was about two inches high and impossible to adjust.
Did you follow Alexis and his band around?
Yes, because what he had was the first real R&B band in the country. He had Cyril Davis on harmonica and it was truly exotic stuff, because it was still so rare. They played once a week at the Marquee and the rest of the week the club put on jazz. But it made me realise it could be done. I was listening to Muddy Waters by then, so I knew full well what a blues band ought to sound like. Then the second time I went to see Alexis play, Mick Jagger was there and we got talking. Brian Jones and Keith Richards were also there, and they’d all get up and play with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, or whoever was Alexis’ rhythm section that particular night. After that, it was only a matter of time before I thought about trying to do it for myself.