That said, there’s some seriously enjoyable blues operators in the Midlands – Steve Ajao’s Blues Giants, The Grey Goose Blues Band from Kidderminster, Babajack from Malvern. Trevor Burton plays some blistering stuff too, and I know I’ve missed out loads of good guys.
This post talks to two practitioners: a Birmingham 70s original, Steve 'Big Man' Clayton, coming in for a reunion Boogie Woogie gig, and Frankie Williams from the Grey Goose Blues Band. They're not taking any prisoners.
Big Man, What’s the thinking behind the Adam and Eve gig?
Big Man Clayton: It’s 20 years this February that "Steve 'Big Man' Clayton and The 44s" released the "Can't Stop The Boogie" CD. What better way to celebrate this than to go back to where it all started, at The Adam and Eve?. We used to hold a Monday night residency there. The place used to get packed. So we’ll be there on Saturday Feb.16th - free admission, by the way - with the original line-up: Howard Smith, Drums, Howard Gregory, Guitar / Violin and Bob Boucher on bass.. I’m really looking forward to it!You’ve been living and working in Germany for some time...
Big Man: I met my wife in Germany 20 years ago. She used to work for a music agency who organized gospel and blues tours. It was a thriving scene in those days and I toured Germany a lot. I’ve been there for 16 years now.
Tell me what it was like getting started?
Big Man: I started playing in pubs in and around Birmingham in the late 70's. You still had a few pubs with pianos then and I used to bash out the boogie woogie until my fingers got sore ! I sometimes ended up in some very suspicious places where - always looking over my shoulder - but that’s how I learnt my trade. When I wasn't playing, I was watching other bands playing live at Bogarts, The Mercat Cross or Barbarella's.
Frankie: My first band was a punk / folk experiment - ‘Kevin Pacemaker and the Tumours’, in 1983. The first gig I ever played was at the Communist Party Headquarters in Digbeth, Birmingham, under a bust of Lenin. The next band was post punk psychedelic: ‘Ron’s Neighbours’. After this I went on to play in my first blues band in the mid 80’s, the T Bones, a Walsall blues covers band. We liked Muddy Waters, Albert King, BB King and Dr. Feelgood. After that I played in two Soul bands, and then I started to write songs. Eventually I returned to the blues, setting up the T Bones for a second time. Finally, in 2008, I set up The Grey Goose Blues Band. The band is deeply rooted in my idea of the blues. I write personal lyrics which are informed by the styles, themes and tone of the works of my most admired artists, most of which are blues people.I’m interested in the fact that there is still a very healthy appetite for blues – both to play and to listen - forty years and more after the British blues boom.
Big Man:I think there will always be an interest in the blues. As a musician, I think it’s very important to go back to the roots and learn the basics before finding your own path. Because of the economic climate, a lot of blues and jazz clubs have had to close their doors. However, those that have survived certainly do attract a healthy audience, albeit an older one. Human beings have basic needs.
Frankie: After food, shelter and warmth - there’s blues. Rhythm to make you dance in time and tune with your heart beat. Blues has been the biggest 20th Century musical influence. No blues - no Jazz, no soul, no reggae. Blues was the music of the clandestine party. Robert Johnson and many others provided the music for wild and exciting parties way before amplifiers and DJs. The blues was the music of early variety theatre in Harlem, the music of the dance halls of the 40’s. It’s has been so influential because it’s so universal.And the ‘Blues hobbyist’ is alive and kicking. Cigar box guitar makers… loads of British blues bands operating at various levels. It seems like every town has a blues club of some sort. There are blues guitarists everywhere in the UK - more young virtuoso blues guitarist today than ever before.
Look at Seasick Steve. He’s a great performer and the Brits have really bought into his ‘poor boy made good’ story and his 3 string guitar, making music out of nothing style. I’m guessing the biggest influence on young players and people like me are the American greats who influenced the British Blues first time round.
But the first generation British blues artists were lucky enough to see, meet, play with some of their heroes. I know Tony McPhee (Groundhogs) - he actually led John Lee Hookers backing band on his first tour of the UK!
Although I also think that during the British Blues Boom, a lot of Brit bands simply didn’t ‘get’ what the blues was really about… they picked up on the power and sexuality aspects, and nothing else. That led to some bits of Heavy Metal, and all those boogie monsters that filled stadia all over the US for a lot of the 70s. Any thoughts about that?
Big Man: There was certainly a lot of "strange" stuff going on then, but it did give rise to bands like Led Zeppelin who I thought were terrific. As a piano player, well, I used to get fed up being asked to play Hendrix, Clapton or Johnny Winter songs. I was playing Memphis Slim, Roosevelt Sykes and Otis Spann. The blues definitely got loud and heavy at one point, too loud for my liking.
Frankie: Led Zep have a lot to answer for. Whilst I like much of their music and see them as quite revolutionary, they guided the blues of Chicago and the Mississippi down the biggest blind alley in music history. The result was too ugly to contemplate. I think people like Free, The Groundhogs, the Rolling Stones, Spencer Davis, Clapton, Steve Winwood, The Animals, Alexis Corner, Graham Bond, Jeff Beck, and many others all found blues based spinoffs, retaining some - in many cases, a lot - of the ‘essential’ elements.. But the British Rock scene, which started with the Yardbirds, The Kinks, the Who…became a monster that should have been strangled at birth. The mega tour, loudness for its own sake, ideas like ‘if it’s too loud your too old’, ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’, ‘smash up the stage’ the myth of the rock star god.. I must stop, I’m getting upset.
For me Deep Purple and Black Sabbath really cemented the decline into what was mistakenly named ‘Progressive Rock’. But then, Elvis Presley had a hand in this also. Brilliant though he was, his repackaging to a pure white audience started the train that carried it on to Led Zeppelin and beyond. Oh! and then there was Jimi….. a great blues man…. Misinterpreted by so many ‘wanna be’ Jimi’s. Enough said.
What about other areas that crossed over and formed part of the blues: Rag-time, boogie, and the like - where does your repertoire take you?
Frankie: My repertoire takes me all over the genre and I certainly like to experiment with some of the ‘core elements’ of the blues. I will use different rhythms, often taking the music beyond a traditional blues feel but to me blues in context is about making people move to their present day grooves. Having said that, there are some universal truths about rhythm that blues music, at its best, has at its heart. We use shuffles, ska feel, rock and roll, soul groove, swing and more. Ragtime is perhaps slightly outside of my current repertoire. I tend to position my music nearer the groove music like Albert King and Albert Collins, Magic Sam and perhaps the current Gary Clarke Jr. even. Electric blues with, if anything, a modern 60’s retro feel. But I do pride myself on being a blues musician for the 21st Century so in a way, anything goes, as long as it sounds like blues. A generic label I would accept would be Rhythm and Blues and I know how many different connotations that has but it suits my band. Also, Blues and Boogie, that works for me.
Big Man: I find it really interesting to see how such styles like ragtime and stride piano developed from the blues. They do say that boogie woogie came about because piano players were too lazy to learn the more difficult left hand styles of stride and ragtime. Thank God !! I really like to cover the whole spectrum of blues piano in my repertoire. Apart from self-penned songs and boogie woogie classics, I cover Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. I am always looking to improve my repertoire by concentrating on my songwriting.Several Brit blues guys now wind up making a living in the US – Joanne Shaw Taylor, Davy Knowles. Again, that’s almost coals to Newcastle territory. Your thoughts?
Frankie: Blues is one of the USA’s best exports - if not the best. I’m really pleased that there's still a big market there for the blues. It’s only right! I found it heartening to see Gary Clarke Jr playing to President Obama at the White House. I would be honoured to be invited to play in the US - I'm looking forward to doing just that one day. Any British blues artist would love to play in the home of the blues.
It's great that some Brits are making a living there and I wish them good luck. I would love to see a better paid circuit over here. One thing I will say though. I am proud of my British blues roots. I will not attempt to sound American or attempt to play ‘in the style of’ any of the great artists from there. I pay homage and express my blues influence through my own quest for an original blues music that reflects my reality and my experience. I use recognisable blues themes, styles and sounds. I reference guitarists that I like when I play but I do not want to be a copyist. And my voice, well that could never sound like Howling Wolf, I will stay true to my own voice. That is very important.
Big Man: I've played the States a few times in the 90's in and around Chicago. My second CD "I got a right" was recorded in Chicago at Delmark studios. I had Muddy Waters' old drummer S.P. Leary and Harmonica player Lester "mad dog" Davenport playing on that. I remember Homesick James was sitting in the room next door listening in! Yeah man, the States was fun. I met and played with some awesome musicians and the audiences were ready to party right from the start.Links:
Steve 'Big Man' Clayton
Grey Goose Blues Band
Steve 'Big Man' Clayton is at the Adam And Eve, Feb 16th. Free admission.
Grey Goose Blues Band are at:
Feb 22nd The White Lion, Sandwell Street, Walsall
Mar 23rd The Wheatsheaf, Bham Street, Walsall
April 1st Botanical Gardens, Birmingham
April 5th Walsall Town Hall
May 16th Crossroads Blues Club, The Tower of Song, Birmingham.
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