It almost seems hard to believe but the roots of British R&B lay less in a certain rubber lipped, snake hipped vocalist and more in an ageing, balding, ex-panel beater, nicknamed ‘Squirrel’. Cyril Davies helped to pioneer electric blues in Britain as part of Chris Barber’s band in 1960 alongside guitarist Alexis Korner, before the pair of them fled Barber to set up Blues Incorporated, the first amplified R&B band in the country. In March ’62, after building up a sizeable following at Soho pub The Roundhouse, they moved to the Ealing Club where Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Art Wood and Paul Jones regularly joined them on stage. By the end of May ’62, the band had a more regular line up and was offered a Thursday night residency at The Marquee in Oxford Street. Their first appearance attracted just 127 loyal followers but by October they were regularly pulling in a crowd of 1,000.
In November 1962, Davies left the band to form his own Cyril Davies’ All-Stars with members recruited from Screaming Lord Sutch’s Savages, including drummer Carlo Little, pianist Nicky Hopkins, Long John Baldry on vocals and black female trio, the Velvettes. Davies soon claimed that weekly Thursday night Marquee residency for himself and subsequently played there every week throughout ’63. He also released two singles that year, ‘Country Line Special/’Chicago Calling’ (at the time the only British single that ‘American Only’ purists bought) and ‘Preachin’ the Blues/Sweet Mary’. Within a year of forming his band, he unfortunately contracted pleurisy and began to drink heavily to relieve the pain throughout the band’s punishing touring schedule and the cold bitter winter of 1963.
The All-Stars appeared on stage with Sonny Boy Williamson at The Marquee that Christmas Eve. Davies was in his element, playing alongside one of his heroes. The first edition of Jazz Beat magazine was already out (dated January ’64). It carried a half page advert for Hohner harmonicas featuring a photo of Davies and the words ‘For the purist in R&B’. The gig listings in the Marquee advert for January listed all of the All-Stars’ weekly Thursday night residencies but these didn’t feature Davies. He passed away on January 7th 1964, two weeks before his 32nd birthday. Official cause of death was stated as endocarditis, although leukaemia is often quoted.
On January 28th, the first of two benefits concerts in aid of his wife and two children took place at the Flamingo featuring Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, Alexis Korner and the remaining All Stars under the new banner Long John’s Hoochie Coochie Men. The second took place at Fairfield Hall in Croydon on Feb 21st and featured Sonny Boy Williamson and Barber’s band. Cyril Davies was on the verge of national recognition. Whether he would have been successful in the long term is questionable, but it remains undisputed that he was the greatest harmonica player in this country at that time.
Listen to him wail again.
Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson