Wednesday, January 8, 2014

# 19 Ready, Steady, Go

   So, the American folk music revival of the fifties and sixties inspires the interest in rural blues, which then leads young musicians to the sounds of electric urban blues. In mid-sixties Chicago, these young white blues enthusiasts are lucky to be living so close to real blues men like Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Muddy Waters. More than any of the other bluesmen, Waters affords the most attention on the young musicians, and so, becomes the unofficial musical father of the young Chicago Crowd.

    Across the Atlantic, the London blues scene has a patriarch too. Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies have been playing urban blues since the fifties, but their audiences are so tiny the two are forced to earn money working in local Jazz bands. In frustration, they open their own club in London in an effort to garner support for their love of the music. Their venture proves to be a success, as the club develops a following of young blues enthusiasts from in and out of London. Regulars at the club, mostly guitarist, will become some of the most influential artists of their generation. Among these kids is Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwoond, John Mayall, Mick Fleetwood and Eric Clapton; they will bring bring the profile of the guitar slinger idol to America.

   As the interest in urban blues takes root in Britain, American artists like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson the 2nd and Lightin' Hopkins are invited to tour the UK.  Interest in their music is declining back home, so they gratefully accept the opportunity to work abroad. However, as much as they are impressed with the new interest in their music, they are also confused by the expectations of the audiences. It seems that the British have the romantic view of the blues singer as a black sharecropper with an acoustic guitar. Audiences don't seem to realize that blues is a living breathing art form, and consequently changes with the times.

    After the success of the first The Paul Buttefield Blues Band album in America, other record labels decide to tap into the new market with their own versions of the style Butterfield created. In the U.S., Vanguard contracts an album from Charlie Musselwhite, Stand Back, and in Britain, Decca hires John Mayall to record a similar album.

    In spite of the fact that he is about ten years older than most of the young crop of British blues men, John Mayall is considered part of the group who grow out of the Korner scene. Similar to Butterfield, Mayall is a singer and harmonica player, but more in the tradition of Jimmy Reed and J. D. Lenoir than Waters and Wolf.  He does do some recording in the earlier part of the sixties, but it isn't until he forms his band The Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton on guitar that he earns commercial success.

    So, by July of 1966, Mayall records an album to challenge The Paul Butterfield Blues Band which includes a rival to Bloomfield with the introduction of Eric Clapton. Mayall's album The Blues Breakers is a very similar format to Butterfield's, even down to the cover photo of young men in street clothes with defiant stares. (Clapton is reading a copy of the comic The Beano which I am sure did much for the sales of that publication.)

    However, John Mayall and Blues Breakers, featuring Eric Clapton isn't anything special next to the first Butterfield album, it's really just a collection of mostly covers with Mayall mimicking the original artists. Butterfield has already released that format a over year earlier, and it comes off as being more progressive next to Mayall's attempt. In the end, Mayall’s album is more important because of its introduction of Clapton than its contribution to sixties blues rock.

  Nevertheless, after the success of The Blues Breakers album, Elektra can't deny the competition. A tour of England is planned for the Butterfield band for November, 1966. They will be play several clubs, and share the bill with blues rock acts like: Georgie Fame & Chris Farlowe, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, The Animals with Eric Burdon and Cream. In addition, there will be an appearance on the nationally televised show Ready, Steady, Go, plus a recording session with Mayall.

    So, in early November, Paul and his band fly to England for an intense sixteen date tour of clubs in London, Manchester, Edmonton, Birmingham, Brixton, sometimes playing two and three separate audiences in one day. They start out on November 10th, play central London’s famed Marquee Club, and then drive to Manchester to play at The Jigsaw Club, then on to Brixton for two gigs at The Ram Jam Club concluding Cooks Ferry Inn in Edmonton. In addition to the jet lag and culture shock, it must have been an exhausting journey. Adding to the pace, the band then goes into the studio to record with Mayall.

    After the recording session, they play Birmingham the next day, then travel back to London to appear on the premier pop music television show. Paul is unhappy because he will need to lip-synced their single Droppin' Out to a live studio audience. Once they finish playing Ready Steady Go, the band immediately leaves to play two shows at separate clubs in London, and then a final show the next day before they board the plane for the trip back to New York. The tour is so rapid that everyone barely has a chance to blink. In between gigs they give a succession of interviews to the press where Paul is so tired he offers up an almost inaudible voice when answering the media questions. Fortunately, Bloomfield conducts most of the interviews with all the political savvy of a master blues man.

    There does not seem to be any video available of the Ready, Steady, Go performance, which is odd considering that it has in been in and out of publication many times over the years. The only thing available is a poor audio track of the song they performed Droppin' Out and a photo. The Mayall recording sessions I will cover in the next installment.

No comments: