A Potted Musical History
It was October 1963 when I got home from doing my afternoon paper round and turned on the BBC Light Programme to hear "Pop goes the Beatles", introduction by John Lennon ...
... (in his thick scouse accent) ..."Well good evening everybody and welcome to the show. Tonight we're going to start off with one of the world's best blues harmonica players. He's British, his name is Cyril Davies and here he is playing Countryline Special."
I was 15 years old when I first heard the sound of real blues harp, which, to me, sounded like an unholy mixture of mouth organ and funky electric violin. I was brought up on rock & roll, which had been going through a boring spell until the Beatles came along and made everyone aware of of the great heritage of R&B in the States. But I had never heard anything like this before. Upstairs I went to dig out the family harmonica (which I had never been able to play), this time with a purpose. An hour later I'd cracked it and, although being just a bit short of Cyril's ability, I wanted to join a band.
I later went to see the Ronettes & Crystals (both 60s Phil Spector US "Girl Bands") at the Coventry Theatre, where the backing band was Manfred Mann, who were then a superb blues band. Their own 4-number opening set opened with Howlin' Wolf's Smokestack Lightning", featuring Paul Jones's superb blues harmonica, and I was "blues-hooked".
I, later still, went to a party and heard Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee together with some "work-farm" chants from a Paul Oliver compilation and got into the down-home stuff. Yep, my introduction to country blues came from no less than the one & only Pete Waterman, whose party it was.
A schoolfriend of mine, Steve Bentham, put me straight on the fact that I needed a cheaper harmonica to get the right sound. I spent 10s 9d (55p in today's money) on a Hohner Echo Super Vamper in C and I was all set.
Two weeks later I made my first public performance with newly formed blues band, the Boll Weevils at Willenhall Youth Club. A week later we played Trinity Hall, Pool Meadow, Coventry City Centre, the big time at last. We then did the rounds and learned the ropes for a few months but our most successful regular gig was the Coventry Gauge & Tool Social Club - you may laugh but they were a hip audience and about the only crowd who didn't want us to play chart material. But we dreamed of playing the big local gigs such as the Locarno, Matrix and so on.
Our opportunity came via school colleagues, Colin Towe and Dave Taylor, who took over our management, and Fred Liggins who joined the band on alto sax. Before long we were playing all of the above places plus the Leofric Jazz Club and The Birmingham Marquee, making us the only local band to get anywhere near these gigs, the rest having never got past merseybeat. Our sound was unique, featuring alto sax and harp riffs, more jazzy than most but still funky, too good to last ... and it didn't.
We were soon locally famous and touring the Northern & Midlands R&B circuit. Drummer Joe Craner was mercilessly replaced by Kev Dempsey and ,soon after, all of the originals except me had gone. We were now playing soul music, were known as the Bo-Weevils, and everyone in the band now had the ambition of being rich & famous ... except me ... all I wanted to do was play the blues ... naive idiot! So when I left school (in 1966) I left the band. I was offered a recording contract with Columbia which I turned down, because no way was I falling into the usual cesspit of singing Tony Hatch songs. I would rather get a day job to earn money and play music for enjoyment, which is exactly what I did.
In May 1966 I joined a band called the Soul Sect, which had a comparatively posh Bedford Van, a good PA and plenty of gigs, albeit in working mens' clubs. Here I learned a valuable lesson, how to get enjoyment by revamping music that I initially hated. Sometimes it turned out that my initial hatred was unfounded - but not always. I still refused to have anything to do with Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich numbers. The HP company eventually repossessed the gear and I was invited to join a band called 3am, who played just blues, no soul or chart sell outs.
This was just what I wanted. The band were tight and slick. We went straight out with little or no rehearsal, played the Jazz Club and went down a storm. But Murphy's Law had to surface. The band could not improvise, they could copy anything note perfect but that was as much as you got, it was soon more boring than the previous club band. Luckily, by lending an old junior schoolfriend, Des Kendrick, a Shure microphone and accompanying it on its night out I finished up jamming with, and being invited to join, a band called the Perfumed Garden.
At last, it was great to play with people who enjoyed playing progressive music and weren't afraid to improvise and experiment. It was the music of the era, without any of the bullsh*t around at the time. But all too soon it was September 1967, Pete and the horn player were off to to university and the band had to fold. But in its place sprang up the Acme Patent Electric Band, a fine original band which was really in the wrong place at the wrong time. After a short time Malc Harker and Bob Jackson left to form Indian Summer, a band aiming towards "class" heavy metal. I now had the opportunity to regroup, learn to play saxophone, and try to fulfill my long term ambition of playing jazz. I took sax lessons (subject to James Law) from Terry Perry and at last received some formal musical education.
After bumping into my old friends Joe Craner and Phil Porter we rehearsed for fun and were soon playing our own style of free-form jazz. Phil bought Barry Smale's old Burns bass guitar and talked us into a support slot at Warwick University Jazz Club. On our first gig we were asked the band's name and used a slogan written on the front of Joe's bass drumskin at the time, "Ra Ho Tep", which later stuck. At the university we were thrown in at the deep end supporting some of the best jazzers of the day, John Surman, Tony Oxley, Don Rendell, to name but a few. They were great guys who gave us free, useful advice. It was a great way to learn your trade, albeit a bit scary at times.
Ra Ho Tep was not an exclusive deal and hence I also played with a lot of sometimes short-lived and part-time bands including Danny & the Heartthrobs, Monster Magnet and Condition Red . I also roadied, and learned to drive great big Commer potato vans, for Indian Summer. By 1977 all of these activities had diminished and I was now DJ-ing for the Dive Bar.
A fellow DJ from the Dive, Mick Lynch, got me a job in the Band with No Name. The punk/new wave era had really caused a revival of pub bands and we got a residency at the Dog & Trumpet , as well as playing a few other places. My diabetes was now causing problems and on one occasion I was shipped off from a Leamington pub gig to the local hospital casualty department. On the 29th May 1979 I broke my ankle and by the time I could walk again, 6 months later, the band had long since ceased to exist.
For the next 10 years playing music went on standby. I dj-ed, did odd gigs and record sessions on sax but my unstable health would have made me a liability for a performing band. John Alderson, bless him, did try to start a blues band with me in 1980 but I was unreliable, kept crashing out at rehearsals, and he formed the Travelling Riverside Blues Band without me. One memorable short spell of playing was with the reformed Sorrows in about 1983 when we played the Dive Bar on a fortnightly basis. We took requests, any requests, and jammed (arranged the numbers as we went along). If we got it wrong we simply stopped and started over again ... but when we got it right we were hot! The audience, used to posing set-piece bands, loved the informality and it was great fun, if hard work.
During the 80s I also got married and adopted 2 sons.
In 1987 it became my responsibility, in my day job, to find out about computers so I bought an Amstrad and started going to computer exhibitions. While browsing through spreadsheets, databases etc I came across a guy demonstrating a music sequencer and thought "hmm..."
In March 1989 fellow DJ Boris persuaded me to play sponsored saxophone in the Dive for "red-nose day". I protested incompetence but it got me nowhere. Unaccompanied, I played Bye Bye Birdie (Rice Miller) on harp & vocals and Blueberry Hill (Fats Domino) on tenor sax. The response from the (comparative) youngsters to a performing geriatric surprised me and I thought "hmm..." again!
In July 1989 I came home from Argos with a Yamaha mini-keyboard and said to my wife "look what I've bought for the kids..." 2 weeks later my kids asked if they could yet have a go with this thing that I'd bought them and then monopolised. My thoughts now were that as a "front-man" (singer, harp,saxes, keyboards) all I needed was simple backing tracks and I could perform again, without having to worry about letting other musicians down if it all became too much for my fragile health. During the next umpteen months I spent all of my spare time putting down backing tracks, a lengthy process until you get used to "sequencer-speak" and learn how to structure other instruments, particularly drums. By April 1990 I was still procrastinating when old friend John Alderson suggested that it really was time I got out there and started gigging.
On 3rd May 1990 I did a 1 hour, 1mbb show at the Dive as support for the Travs. I was skeptical about audience acceptance of "black boxes" but it went down well , a lot more gigs (300 to be precise) followed, and here I am today. The giglist says it all.
But during the last 10 years I did get my sugar under control, via the hard graft of gigging and playing golf, my favourite 2 "occupations". I have therefore been able to join bands again, and for all I go on about the reliability of computers (compared to people) there's really nothing quite like going out with a bunch of foul-mouthed, unreasonable, unreliable musicians. It probably takes one to know one !
I spent a few years jamming with the Joe Beale Blues Band but they, alas are doing little these days
I also went along to monthly meetings of the Coventry Rock & Roll society, fronted by the Phoenix Rock & Roll Band and did stand-up solo performances - me and a harmonica playing blues and Rock & Roll, which was most enjoyable and well received until it eventually died.
In September 2007 myself, guitarist John Alderson & teacher/singer Darren Sheldon got a job for Coventry Education Authority, via the head of music Owen Dutton, doing weekly performances of "The Story of the Blues" to all Coventry Primary Schools. The kids loved it, the teachers loved it and we loved it. Coventry Performing Arts amazed me with their forward looking approach encouraging kids to write and record songs, form bands and all of the things that we were discouraged from doing when I was a kid. I also got a job teaching harmonica at St Augustines Primary School, Radford, Coventry which I loved. Alas, in April 2009 Owen retired and his successor was a classical trumpeter who believed that kids should either learn violin or trumpet and not be polluted by the vulgarity of Rock & Roll. So Coventry musical education e=went back to the Dark Ages and in September 2009 we got the sack.
And I have since done nothing, not by choice but all the pubs I used to play at have shut or concentrated on employing youngsters, a qualification I lost some years ago.
Click here for my personal history or the epilogue
1mbb website by Tim James