7 January, 1964
It was all starting to happen for the British blues. The Rolling Stones had just begun their first headline UK tour and were recording their debut LP. Waiting in the wings were multitudinous groups including The Animals, The Yardbirds and, a few years later, Fleetwood Mac. And yet. South Harrow bluesman Cyril Davies, a harmonica master, vocalist and Leadbelly obsessive who had done so much to fan the British blues flame, died today, just weeks from his 32nd birthday.
Born in Denham on January 23, 1932, Davies was a panel beater and car mechanic by day. He’d played banjo in trad jazz and skiffle groups before converting to the blues. After he met guitarist Alexis Korner, the two opened the London Blues And Barrelhouse Club at The Round House pub on Wardour Street in 1957. With booking assistance from Chris Barber, the night hosted eminent visitors including Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Champion Jack Dupree, among many others. A game-changing electric appearance by Muddy Waters presaged Davies’ conversion to playing amplified harmonica, and by early ’62, he and Korner were playing in Blues Incorporated at such volume that they were asked to vacate The Round House.
“He told me to fuck off, basically.”
They duly decamped to The Ealing Club, hailed as the first bona fide R&B night in the country, where various Stones, Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon and more came to hear the new sound. One fan, and occasional guest vocalist, was a young Mick Jagger, who asked the older man for harmonica tips. “[Davies] was a very taciturn and difficult person, and he didn’t want to show me anything,” Jagger recalled. “He told me to fuck off, basically.” He also remembered the famously thirsty Davies emptying his bag of harmonicas on the floor if he couldn’t locate the correct model. Jimmy Page, meanwhile, would later write, “one man pioneered a sound that was to give incentive to every group of this time… Cyril Davies.”
Though they cut the studio-recorded faux gig document R&B From The Marquee LP in summer, Davies’ insistence on playing the pure blues sat uneasily with Korner accommodating jazz elements, after new drummer Ginger Baker replaced a Stones-bound Charlie Watts and Graham Bond came in on sax. In October ’62 Davies left the band and formed his R&B All-Stars with various ex-members of Lord Sutch’s Savages and briefly, Jimmy Page. Later, singer Long John Baldry and South African backing vocalists The Velvettes joined the firm. With a repertoire of Chicago blues covers and originals, they took over Blues Inc’s Thursday night Marquee slot and won fans including Rod Stewart, who recalled, “Davies… could play a real storm.”
1963 was a good year for Cyril ‘The Squirrel’. He signed to Pye and released debut 45 Country Line Special (hailed by Ray Davies as “one of the greatest records of its type ever made… seminal English R&B”), appeared on TV shows including ITV’s Hullabaloo and began touring the regions. He told Record Mirror’s Norman Jopling that he was planning a trip to Chicago and that, “although I have been playing the blues for 12 years, I feel that there is so much more for me to do.”
Association With The Kray Twins...
Yet, given to dropping references to the Krays and other criminal associates, he was also a man of complex moods who believed that to play the blues, you had to live them. Keyboardist Nicky Hopkins recalled to NME how one night at the Marquee Davies punched a mirror and shattered it: “You could see the pain in his face – mental pain.” By summer ’63, the whisky-downing Davies had entered the arena of the unwell. Already balding and heavy
set, eventually he had to walk with a stick. Speaking to Spencer Leigh, Long John Baldry recalled Davies
prophesying his own death.
Baldry marked Davies’ demise with a performance by the All-Stars at Eel Pie Island, with support from Jeff Beck and The Tridents. Afterwards, attendee Rod Stewart recalled waiting for the Waterloo train at Twickenham station and playing Smokestack Lightning on his harmonica, whereupon Baldry approached with an offer to join the All-Stars. They later worked together in the Hoochie Coochie Men and Steampacket, just two individuals who spun out of Davies’ orbit to achieve a musical success he would never enjoy.
Like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson or Sonny Boy Williamson I, mystery surrounds his early death – some accounts have him dying after collapsing on-stage at Eel Pie Island – the cause of which has been variously attributed to pleurisy, endocarditis and alcohol poisoning. Like those figures, he’s similarly suspended in time. Fifty-eight years on, Cyril Davies is still a no-surrender standard- bearer for the Chicago blues, but then, he always knew the advantages in taking the hard line. As his old partner Alexis Korner said in tribute, he was loath to engage another harmonica player. “When you’ve worked with Cyril,” he said, “you just cannot accept second best.”