“The blues had a baby, and they named it rock and roll”
– Muddy Waters and Sonny Terry
Believe it or not, in the early 1960s British musicians helped save American blues and rock and roll. In its earliest incarnation, rock and roll had brought the meteoric rise of Bill Haley & The Comets, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and other movers and shakers. Their music was raucous, thrilling, and seemingly unstoppable, but the initial ride was short-lived. By the late 1950s, Haley was washed up. Elvis was in the army. Chuck Berry was in jail. Little Richard had abandoned rock to preach the gospel, and Buddy Holly was dead. Payola scandals had ended the careers of Alan Freed and other seminal DJs. Fundamentalist preachers were publicly burning records that, they rabidly frothed, brought white youths “down to the level of the Negro.” As a result, American rock and roll was nearly sanitized to death.
By 1963, it had hit its nadir. Month after month, forgettable pop like Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet,” Paul & Paula’s “Hey Paula,” Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack,” and the Singing Nun’s “Dominique” dominated the charts. Across the Atlantic, though, something earthy and primal was taking shape as young British groups such as the Beatles, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds drew inspiration from Chuck Berry and American blues artists. In an ironic yet welcome twist of fate, most kids in America became aware of the great bluesmen via cover songs and songwriting credits on albums by their favorite rock bands. “That’s a funny damn thing,” Muddy Waters exclaimed. “Had to get somebody from out of another country to let my white kids over here know where we stand. They’re crying for bread and got it in their backyard.”
After the war, these records inspired the creation of trad jazz, a lite re-creation of Dixieland. Chris Barber, a leading trad bandleader and trombonist, had the foresight to arrange British club gigs for some of the original blues artists. The first to arrive, Big Bill Broonzy in 1951, managed to convince many concert-goers that he was “the last American bluesman,” but Lonnie Johnson’s breakthrough solo set at Royal Festival Hall the following year put an end to that publicity stunt, as did appearances by Josh White, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. These artists became musical touchstones for Britain’s first pop guitar stars, Big Jim Sullivan and Hank Marvin. Idolized by young Jimmy Page, studio legend Sullivan was steeped in records by Lead Belly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. “When I was starting the guitar,” Sullivan recalled, “we used to go out on the Thames in a big riverboat with people like Sonny and Brownie and Big Bill Broonzy. They would be playing, and I’d just sit there watching them. That was the highlight for me.” Instrumental star Hank Marvin, who formed the Shadows with Cliff Richard in 1958, cited Broonzy and Lead Belly as his main influences.
In Chicago, Big Bill Broonzy usually played electric guitar with a small ensemble, but in England he stuck to traditional solo acoustic blues. Before his death in 1958, Broonzy recommended that Chris Barber bring over Muddy Waters, the reigning king of Chicago blues. Just back from a tour of raucous clubs in the American South, Muddy flew over with his pianist, Otis Spann. Unaware that Broonzy had presented himself as a country blues artist, Muddy opened his first British show with his Fender Telecaster and amp at full throttle. Aghast purists retreated from the venue. “I didn’t have no idea what was going on,” Waters explained to writer James Rooney. “I was touring with Chris Barber – a Dixieland band. They thought I was a Big Bill Broonzy, which I wasn’t. I had my amplifier, and Spann and I was going to do a Chicago thing. We opened up in Leeds, England. I was definitely too loud for them. The next morning we were in the headlines of the paper – ‘Screaming Guitar and Howling Piano.’ That was when they were into the folk thing before the Rolling Stones.” Muddy lowered his settings for the rest of the tour, which reportedly went well. Among his concert-goers were Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, and Eric Burdon, who’d later front the Animals.
By 1960, many aspiring British musicians were avidly seeking American blues and rock and roll records. Jeff Beck was enraptured by Cliff Gallup with Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps. Elvis’ “Baby, Let’s Play House” with Scotty Moore inspired Jimmy Page to play guitar, and Page rapidly made the progression through Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Gene Vincent to the hard-core blues of Elmore James and B.B. King. After teaching himself Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee,” Eric Clapton formed his first band, the Roosters, to cover songs by Waters, Lightnin’ Slim, Fats Domino, and T-Bone Walker.
Boyhood pals Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hadn’t seen each other for years when they met by accident on a train platform in 1960. The way Keith tells it, at that moment he was as interested in Jagger’s albums as he was in Jagger. “Mick had The Best of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry Is on Top under his arm, which were very hard to get in England. I said, ‘Hey, man, nice to see you, but where’d you get the records?!’” Small-label reissues of American country blues from the 1920s and 1930s were also enthusiastically received.
“When we started the Rolling Stones, we were just little kids, right?” Richards continues. “We felt we had some of the licks down, but our aim was to turn other people on to Muddy Waters. I mean, we were carrying flags, idealistic teenage sort of shit. There was no way we thought anybody was really going to seriously listen to us, but we wanted to get a few people interested in listening to the shit we thought they ought to listen to – which is very elitist and arrogant, to think you can tell other people what to listen to. But that was our aim, to turn people on to the blues. If we could turn them on to Muddy and Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, then our job was done.”
“Those shows had a really big impact,” observed French producer/promoter Philippe Rault. “There was a bunch of English bands that had put the fuse to the dynamite – like Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies – who really inspired all those groups like the Stones, but they were always the second-hand product. When those shows came over, there was a lot of attention, not only from the blues fans going to the shows, but from all of the English pop stars at the time. It was a major influence on spreading the blues in Europe at the time. The really pivotal period was 1962 to 1964 – people were so starved for those shows because it was the real thing finally happening.”
Working tirelessly, Willie Dixon ensured that the ensuing festivals would be just as dynamic. His first choice for 1963’s American Folk Blues Festival tour, Muddy Waters, once again misjudged his audience. “I went back – took my acoustic with me – and everybody’s hollering, ‘Where’s your amplifier.’ I said, ‘When I was here before, they didn’t like my stuff.’ But those English groups had picked up on my stuff and went wild with it. I said, ‘I never know what’s going on.’ A bunch of those young kids came around. They could play. They’d pick up my guitar and fool with it. Then the Rolling Stones came out named after my song, you know, and recorded ‘Just Make Love to You,’ and the next thing I knew they were out there. And that’s how people in the States really got to know who Muddy Waters was.” Joining Muddy on the tour were Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Memphis Slim, Victoria Spivey, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Matt Murphy, and Lonnie Johnson, arguably the best of the prewar blues guitarists. At the tour’s conclusion, Lippman arranged for Sonny Boy Williamson to record with the Yardbirds, with 17-year-old Eric Clapton on guitar.
“Horst Lippmann, our employer, was a wonderful fellow. Boy, did he take care of us! The best hotels, best jets, best trains, someone to look after our luggage, dressing rooms, looking after our money needs and so much more. He made us really feel at home in Europe. When the boys and I parted on our return jet flight to New York, I cried like a child and some of them had tears in their eyes too. It was really wonderful that so many stars could work so well together and understand each other so well.” The day after the festival ended, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The 1964 AFBF tour featured band sets by Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, solo performances by sage Texas songster Lightnin’ Hopkins, the old-time guitar-harmonica-jug blues of Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, and lonesome, primitive-sounding country blues guitarist John Henry Barbee. Muddy Waters also returned to England that year as part of The Blues and Gospel Train featuring Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Rev. Gary Davis, and Otis Spann.
Back on their home turf, though, times were still tough for blues artists, as Keith Richards witnessed first-hand: “We went into Chess Studios in 1964, the first time we came to America. Went to Chicago to record most of our second or third album at Chess, and we walked in. There’s Phil Chess and there’s Ron Malo, the engineer, and this guy in white overalls is painting the ceiling. As we walked by into the studio, somebody said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Muddy Waters, and he’s painting the ceiling.’ He wasn’t selling records at the time, and this is the way he got treated. My first meeting with Muddy Waters is over the paintbrush, dripping, covered in white paint. ‘This is Muddy Waters.’ I’m dying, right? I get to meet The Man – he’s my fucking god, right? – and he’s painting the ceiling! And I’m gonna work in his studio. Ouch! Oh, this is the record business, right? Mmmmm. The highs with the lows! Ooh, boy. In that one little meeting, in those few seconds, Muddy taught me more. He said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ but the look in the eye was saying, ‘Well, you can be painting the ceiling next year!’ Because he had no idea that we revered him or anything. We were just another bunch of creeps.”
For the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival, Dixon and Lippman assembled a truly eclectic all-star lineup: John Lee Hooker, piano legend Roosevelt Sykes, rough-hewn Big Mama Thornton, Mississippi bottleneck guitarist Fred McDowell, one-man-band Dr. Isaiah Ross, easygoing J.B. Lenoir, and a first-rate Chicago blues band with harmonica ace Shakey Horton, bassist Jimmie Lee Robinson, drummer Fred Below, and a young Buddy Guy. “I got booed a lot,” Buddy recalls, “because I was the youngest cat there. It was like, ‘Who’s this?’ I was standing up playing, being myself as I normally would, and they wasn’t ready for that.”
While the AFBF continued to be held for several more years, its attendance began dwindling after 1965, mostly due to competition from other festivals. By then, the record sales of many of the so-called British Invasion musicians who’d attended the early shows had helped bring long-overdue fame to their heroes John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters, all of whom saw dramatic increases in their bookings. To a man, these bluesmen were grateful to those long-haired British musicians who helped bring their music center stage in the land of its creation.
Many classic AFBF performances have been issued on DVDs by Hip-O Records. A great first purchase is
The American Folk Blues Festival – The British Tours 1963-1966. In addition, The American Folk Blues Festivals Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 DVDs are highly recommended. For a stellar audio collection, try Evidence Music’s five-CD box set, American Folk Blues Festival ’62 to ’65. For an extensive American Folk Blues Festival discography, visit www.wirz.de/music/afbffrm.htm.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.