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Cyril Davies and the birth of the UK R&B scene
By Todd Allen - Jan 2008

The Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars were an incredible blues band. Formed late in 1962, the R&B All-Stars performed their fiery brand of blues to packed houses of fans and musicians alike for, incredibly, about one year. During this short time they alone set the bar to which all those following in their wake would be measured. Many, many superstars including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, Ian MacLagen, Jeff Beck and Jack Bruce have all, at some point, paid their respects to Cyril’s talent.

The influence of this band on London’s blues scene (and subsequently on Western popular culture) is immense. Seeing the mighty All-Stars perform was a true R&B experience. The late writer / activist David Widgery wrote, “I will never, ever, forget the impact of seeing Cyril Davies and his All Stars steaming into Smokestack Lightning in the Ricky Tick Club in Windsor, the first R&B I'd ever heard live... He humped over his mouth-harp, spat his lyrics and drove his band like a galley master. The noise was phenomenal, a humping, thundering blast. Davies...was a true fanatic, and we loved him for it”.

Cyril was born in Willowbank, Denham but lived out his adult life in South Harrow. His early musical experiences in Steve Lane’s Southern Stompers coincided with his interest in the music of Leadbelly. This Leadbelly fascination was to have a marked affect on the Cyril’s development both musically and emotionally. Cyril identified with the plight and struggles of the black American folk singer and from him formed his understanding of what ‘The Blues’ was and how a ‘Bluesman’ approached the music, the audience and his own life path.

Cyril performed and played host to many visiting American Bluesmen at the Blues and Barrelhouse Club (upstairs from the Round House pub) in Soho in the late 1950’s. Although Cyril’s renditions of Leadbelly’s songs were, by all accounts, incredible, Cyril was still evolving as a musician. The harmonica sounds of Sonny Terry, Little Walter, and James (Jimmy) Cotton were to so deeply affect Cyril that he took up the Blues Harmonica as his main instrument and quickly became ‘the’ established master of the instrument in Britain. Cyril’s stint in the wildly popular ‘Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated’ was groundbreaking in that not only was this the first recording all-white electric blues band - but on a purely musical level - his band mates openly marveled at his ability while the audiences quickly identified with his sincere performance. Bill Wyman wrote, “Brian Jones sometimes visited Cyril Davies at his home, where they would blow harmonicas together. Brian began to imitate (Jimmy) Reed's lazy style and practice Davies' technique of bending and flattening the notes. This was the first step in Brian's departure from the guitar, searching for stimulation from more exotic sounds.

Cyril’s love for the authentic Chicago Blues sound of Muddy Waters’ Band and Alexis’ penchant for Blues / Jazz experiments led to a parting of the ways for these two pioneers of the British Blues movement. Cyril immediately set about recruiting his new band. His gain was Screaming Lord (Dave) Sutch’s loss as Cyril commandeered the Savages Rick(y) Brown (bass), Carlo Little (drums), and Nicky Hopkins (keys) en masse. The first guitarist featured was, albeit very briefly, a very young Jimmy Page. Soon completing the line-up was the final Savage, and permanent guitarist, Bernie Watson. It was this line-up of ‘The Cyril Davies R&B All-Stars’ that recorded the classic Pye single, ‘Country Line Special / Chicago Calling’. This is commonly listed in the top five British R&B singles and is cited by throngs of Britain’s youth (in the early 1960’s) as the catalyst for their own musical awaking and subsequent journeys.

Stalwarts of the London club scene, Cyril and his R&B All-Stars, now including Long John Baldry, maintained, throughout 1963, their Thursday night residency at the Marquee Club but also held court regularly at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, Eel Pie Island at Twickenham, the Roaring 20’s club at 50 Carnaby Street, and Studio 51 in Great Newport Street. Tony McPhee, of Groundhog fame, recently wrote, “I cannot think of anything that could have given me a better start with the Blues than those Thursday nights at the Marquee watching Cyril Davies and the All-Stars!”

The band’s vacancy, forced by Nicky Hopkins’ hospitalization, was filled by Cyril’s old friend, former Blues Inc. and Blues by Six's pianist, Keith Scott. Cyril’s purist blues vision is noted as the common cause behind the departure of Bernie Watson, Rick Brown and Carlo Little. They were replaced respectively by Geoff Bradford, Cliff Barton and Micky Waller and it is this line-up that recorded their second single of the year, ‘Preachin’ the Blues / Sweet Mary’. Another notable session occurred on 1 August 1963 as The All-Stars were asked to perform on the hit radio series, ‘Pop Go the Beatles’. Before 1963 had passed, Keith Scott had left to be replaced by Johnny Parker and Micky Waller had given up the drum seat to Bob Wackett.

Cyril died on 7 January 1964 after a brief illness, shortly before his 32nd birthday. He played right up to his death in the uncompromising, no-holds barred, style that was his trademark. Long John assumed the leader role in the band and re-christened the outfit ‘The Hoochie Coochie Men’ (with Rod Stewart sharing vocals), thus opening another chapter in the London Blues story.

A lot more about Cyril here:

Sat 1st March 2008

Cyril Davies & The Birth of UK Blues Tribute Gig

Saturday 1st March
The Marquee. 14 Upper St Martins Lane, WC2.
Doors 3pm. Screenings 3.30-5pm.

Many of Cyrils band members are going to reform for one day only along with performances from former Marquee ‘House Poet’ Pete Brown (Cream, Battered Ornaments, Piblokto!), and his band, along with special guests Alan Glen (Yardbirds, Nine Below Zero) on harmonica, and Art Themen (Alexis Korner's Blues Inc, and Cyril Davies) on saxes, and special VIP guests including "top UK Harmonica players - yet to be confirmed!"

Headline act will be Dave Ball's Ballbreakers - Sam Kelly on drums Spy on bass, Richard Simmons on keyboards and Dave Ball (Procol Harum, Long John Baldry and Bedlam) on guitar.

Plus... Screenings of a Cyril Davies Allstars TV archive featuring Long John Baldry, and the Velvettes, with guests Rory McEwan, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot unseen since 1962/1963. This will form a part of our afternoon of screenings along with Simon Heyworth's Documentary made for Channel 4 from the 1980's.

Tickets £12.50 admitting entrants to the screenings at 3pm until 5pm, along with the shows in the evening, which will start at doors open 7.30 for 8.00.
For more info check out