The Thames Valley Cotton Fields
“I have heartaches, I have blues. No matter what you got, the blues is there. ‘Cause that’s all I know - the blues.”
John Lee Hooker
In the early 60’s something rather strange was taking place in Britain and particularly around Twickenham. Roy Carr of the ‘New Musical Express’ summed it up rather neatly…
“Squeezed into off-the-peg Italian mohair bumfreezers and cuban heel boots, earnest young singers attempted to disguise regional accents as they made their chest beating claims….”Ah’m A King Bee…..”, “Ah’m Yo Hoochie Coochie Man…”, or just plain “Ah’m A Ma’an…” before crowing on about mojos, lemon squeezers, wang dang doodles, crawlin’ king snakes, hell hounds on their trail, American cities most would never get to visit and all those pretty women allegedly left panting for a repeat 60-minutes more of their inexhaustible favours.”
White middle class boys had just discovered the blues!
Of course blues music had been enjoyed in Britain, often with a puritanical reverence, even since the invention of the gramophone but it was mainly the jazz band interpretation by stars like Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton. The electric blues with the primeval throb and raunchy undertones that was to captivate spotty youth in Britain in the 60’s didn’t appear in the U.S until the 1940s when the bluesmen moved north from the Mississippi delta to Detroit and Chicago. Competing against the amplified beat of big band boogie-woogie they swapped their acoustic guitars and washboards for electric guitars and drum kits. British youth liked the change. Having learned a few guitar chords during the Skiffle craze of the late 50’s and bored rigid by the “You’re my baby and I don’t mean maybe” teen ballads of the time they decided to form blues bands of their own — lots of them. The music sounded easy enough to play, (oh yeah?), it was rough and rebellious, the girls liked it, their parents hated it and with inspirational bluesmen like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker leading the way who could blame them?
There was Cyril Davis, a panel beating harmonica player from Denham and Alexis Korner, a guitarist who discovered the blues listening to records during a German air raid. There were others too. Mick Jagger and his friend Keith Richard who he met carrying blues records on Dartford Station. There was Eric Clapton, a guitarist from Guildford, Brian Jones from Cheltenham, and John Mayall from Macclesfield. There were local boys caught up in it. In 1962 Jim McCarty, Paul Samwell-Smith and Keith Relf from Twickenham formed a blues band that was to become one of the most influential on the scene - The Yardbirds. Drummer McCarty recalls “We were playing with Cyril Davis at Eel Pie Island. We didn’t have a name or anything; we were just playing twelve bar blues. Then when we’d finished playing Cyril Davis said, ‘That was a great set, thank you, and what was the name of the band?’ Keith said to him, ‘The Yardbirds’. That was the first time I had heard the name!”
During the subsequent ‘blues boom’ of the 1960’s Twickenham and Richmond became the hub of the rhythm and blues scene in Britain. Maybe it was because of easy access to specialist record shops and jazz halls where authentic blues ‘greats’ like Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee sometimes played. Maybe it because of the high profile blues clubs in the area like the Crawdaddy in Richmond and the Eel Pie Hotel in Twickenham. Maybe it was because local teenagers were more switched on than most. Whatever the reason it was good enough for blues shouter George Melly to call our bend in the river the “Thames Valley Cotton Fields.”
In October 1963 with blues growing in popularity the Yardbirds took on a new lead guitarist Eric Clapton. He would soon have his name scrawled on walls across the country — “Clapton is God”. Later that year the Yardbirds toured the U.K with a genuine American blues hooter, the grumpy and irascible Sonny Boy Williamson II. The legend wasn’t too impressed…
“They wanted to play the blues so bad — and they played it so bad!”
Sonny Boy Williamson
In March 1965 the Yardbirds had their first world wide hit. “For Your Love” was a long way from the blues the group had originally started out with and marked a clear step towards psychedelia and heavy metal. This was too much for devoted blues purist Eric Clapton. He resigned. The band played on with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
In time the ‘blues boom’ ran its course and then died, taking the Yardbirds with it. They played their final gig at Luton College of Technology in Bedfordshire on 7 July 1968. Like all good pop music blues didn’t outstay its welcome. It came, British kids copied it and then it went, forcing young musicians to start writing their own material. Fortunately we were soon to discover that young musicians were rather good at writing their own material.
Nearly 50 years on rhythm and blues and the spirit that drove it is still alive and well in Twickenham. On the riverside, opposite Eel Pie Island, is a plaque celebrating the many R&B heroes of the ‘blues boom’ that once played on the island. The music too can still be enjoyed twice a month at the Eel Pie Club at the Cabbage Patch by Twickenham Station. The hair may be gray or absent and the voices hoarse but veterans of the 60’s scene and younger musicians too still climb on stage to crank out what old time bluesman Willie Dixon once described as — “The true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling and understanding.” — and if you didn’t know that then you don’t know the blues. Sho nuff?
John Lee Hooker playing “Boom Boom” for an audience of British teenagers
- For more information about the Eel Pie Club check out their website on www.eelpieclub.com
- The Yardbirds reformed in 1995 and are now approaching the end of a year long tour that finishes next week in Tel Aviv.
— from Martyn Day
19 October 2011 | Category » around town