Alan's ‘Blues Memories' (a fascinating read, my man.) inspired me to dredge up
some of my own.
entered planet Earth (but where from??) on 30th August, 1940, in
Woking, Surrey in the stockbroker belt. As a young child in the village of New
Haw (my home) which lies nearly equidistant between Woking and Weybridge, my
first links or ‘steps' towards the Blues came about as early as 1946!
off, I came across an item called a ‘gramophone record' and a 78 at that. This
was at my grandmother's house in Tooting Bec, South London. My mother's parents
sometimes ran a fruit and veg. stall at a market on Tooting Broadway -my great
grandmother was born within the sound of Bow Bells; a true Cockney!
my very first recollections included an historic (to me!) journey involving a
bus, a tram, and a train. The local bus, a 456 single-decker on London Country
Buses (colour green, man!) dumped us at West Byfleet station on what was then
still the Southern Railway - the British one, don't you know!. On the up-bound
platform for Waterloo we caught the 8-coach electric passenger (still in
Malachite green) and after some 45 minutes duly arrived at the heaving London
transferred to a tram (red this time) which I remember had wooded slatted seats
in much the same style as those found at older stations and parks today. The
tram (same as the models used in the Blackpool-Fleetwood run, even as I write)
was a thrilling, sometimes terrifying 'white-knuckle' ride - but wow! I loved
‘em. The noise as it rattled along the busy London streets was indescribably
(ten times louder than the Tube) interspersed with the whip-crack sounds of the
electrics on the overhead wires which illuminated with hellish vivid, blue/white
flashes every so often.
I seemed to have digressed somewhat (that's not like me!). Even with all this
transport we still had a fair walk to my grandmother's house, as she did not
live on a tram route, or a trolley bus route, for that matter. Well, once there,
(and only for the day) my parents would spend the time in the dining
room/kitchen and so would my younger sister then around 4 years old. And moi?
Well, l don't know how it came about but I must have emanated 'I want outa here'
vibes to the adults after a short while! So my grandmother took me by the hand
and led me into their ‘Front Room'. Younger readers must know that working class
people in those days - and well into the 1950s - never used this room except for
very special occasions; Christmas, etc. For most of the year it was never used,
except cleaning visits to keep it in pristine condition - in case the King
(then) or other very important person showed up!!
can imagine how in awe I felt as a small boy entering this ‘shrine of the
masses'! Once inside, my grandmother introduced me to my very first sight of---a
phonograph! It was the very concept of a record playing machine - which I had
never heard of - that floored me. Grandma opened the lid and there was the
turntable and heavy, shiny playing arm. She brought out (from somewhere in this
magic room) a small tin of Robin needles, nearly ½-inch long, I think. Then she
showed me THE RECORDS!! Glistening black shellac 78s with sometimes brightly
showing me how to load a disc on to the turntable and place the needle/arm
nearly on the rim of the 78, she left me to rejoin the others in the kitchen! So
I played another record even though I had been told a needle only really lasted
for one time. But as l had no idea how to change the needle I just used the one
in place. But then I had to go and fetch my grandmother to replace the worn
needle. And the records? I can just remember some of the labels: Regal Zonophone,
Odeon, Rex (?), and HMV. Some of these were the colour of faded red wine stain,
some a much brighter red, and a black label with gold lettering which was a
only guess at some of the artists on these mystic platters. With hindsight,
there must have been sides by Billy Cotton and his Band, Geraldo's orchestra and
Glen Miller. This is because I was an avid fan of the ‘wireless' (aka radio) at
the time - no telly then - and was familiar with a daily show on the BBC Light
Programme called Workers' Playtime. Although I had no idea what a worker
was then! Lasting about half-an-hour for 5 days a week these shows would
regularly feature the artists already listed and many others besides. In
addition, I always listened to the Billy Cotton Band Show-`Wakey, WAKEY!'-and
Henry Hall's Guest Night (another famous British bandleader), both of
which were weekly shows, I think.
my grandmother's Front Room I was listening to familiar names and sounds a lot
of the time. The only detail I can remember about the record labels (apart from
colour) was the legend appearing usually on the right or lower down in the
center which ran ‘foxtrot'. I realize now, looking back, I somehow
sub-consciously ‘knew' these mysterious black discs with labels and sounds were
going to become a major, if not the major, part of my life later on. Of course I
couldn't have verbalized this at the time (I was barely six years old) - not
even in my head.
other major ‘link' on the journey to the Blues was part of the transport used to
get to Tooting in the first place. Although I loved the trams it was a far more
thrilling, fearsome machine which captured my soul - the train. Travelling to my
grandmothers' I had not really time to take this phenomenon in, fully. Partly
because I was part of it (i.e. inside the train). However, maybe a year later,
in 1947, I would take my sister on a mile walk down Scotland Bridge Road (quite
a busy one at times, even then) until we reached West Byfleet station. Perching
Sylvia (my kid sister) on top of a gate I would spend hours staring through the
fence with hypnotic intent at the trains passing by, and sometimes stopping
right in front of me!
time I was able to get a penny (about ½p.)
platform ticket I would have been around 9 years old. Now, West Byfleet
was on the main line from Waterloo which shortly after leaving Woking split with
one ‘arm' going on down to Devon and Cornwall and the other to Portsmouth Town
or on to Portsmouth Harbour to catch the paddle steamer ferry to Ryde on the
Isle of Wight. The line was quadruple track and nearly straight as an arrow from
Hersham via Walton-On-Thames to Woking a distance of some 10 miles. Thus
enabling passenger trains to take this stretch at high speed - which they
generally did. Thereafter, the main lines split into two sets of double tracks.
most stations had 4 platforms (from Woking to Surbiton) or 2; West Byfleet had
3. The up London one (Platform 1) where my sister and I had watched outside the
station fence and an ‘island' platform across the other side which served the
down trains, to Portsmouth, etc. Now,
Platform 3 was – inexplicably - the one directly opposite No. l with three
tracks running between. While Platform 2 was on the far side of the island which
is where trains for the South coast stopped for passengers. Platform 3 saw
express trains thundering through (long before Inter City trains). Only very
rarely did I see a train stopped at this platform.
If you can imagine through a young boy's eyes looking as far up the track as he
could see when suddenly a small black speck appears on the horizon. Within a
minute or two this speck looms larger than life as it becomes an express
electric train with 12 or sometimes 14 coaches coming at you doing some 80 miles
per hour or more, because of the long length of straight track The coaches
seemed to sway violently as they approached the station, rattled through
Platform 3 at a frightening speed, and an almost unearthly noise. The green
train was almost a blur. As if this wasn't
traumatic/exciting enough, it was as nothing when compared to a steam train's
Although the Southern (by 1949 the Southern Region of British Railways) was the
first to adopt the third rail electrification system in the UK there were still
some expresses hauled by steam. The
Belle, Bournemouth Belle
Atlantic Coast Express for example. Not to mention the long, dirty goods
(aka freight) trains all using steam locomotives.
when looking up the track, the tiny speck seemed to be on fire! As it loomed
ever larger, belching thick black smoke and white hissing steam clouds, it took
on the aura of a monster from hell! Ever nearer and louder it got, practically
blocking out the sky, and now showers of white-hot sparks joined the smoke and
steam; from the smoke stack and the big driving wheels being pumped round by
solid steel pistons. The noise was frightful as the train pounded towards me on
Platform 3. I didn't need the porter (remember them?) to tell me to stand back
as this fiery demon on wheels like a visitation from outer space screamed,
snorted and smashed its way on the twin silver rails past the quaking platform!
Again, 12 or 14 coaches, they seemed sucked into the beast's maelstrom of steam
power as the train stormed through West Byfleet station. And above all else,
steam or electric was - the sound. The pulsating rhythms of the wheels crossing
short length rails as they passed over the gaps where they were joined; giving
the ‘clickety-clack' effect which must have been one of the roots of the Blues.
Interestingly, this sound became even more obvious and incisively rhythmic when
sitting in a train. The
hypnotic as the drone of John Lee Hooker's electric guitar which even as I rode
the train was being recorded by the Man in far-off Detroit, Michigan. A place I
had never heard of at that time. Once more, this whole scenario would have
branded itself into my sub-consciousness, just waiting for 1954 and the Blues to
give birth to rock and roll and hit the UK ground running.
the 8-12-14 coach electric trains emitted sounds you could adapt to a beat! The
low-down "nuh, nuh, nuh, nuh, nuh, nub, nuh, nuh, nub" followed by a more
sophisticated hiss "ssssssshhhhhhh" of air brakes being released, signalled (no
pun intended!) the departure of the train up or down the line. I started to use
the trains as much as possible and when I had any money either from
parents/relations or casual farming work in the summer school holidays. Around
1953, along with hundreds of other kids, I had been down on the turn
row-chopping weeds if not cotton! I mean those rows seemed so long (usually on
our knees) and often the field would rise towards the center so you couldn't see
the other end of a row! Not that it mattered very much as you had to turn right
round and come back on the next one. On top of that, the mean old farmer (boss
man!) would find any excuse to with-hold/reduce our already paltry wages; at
least to us kids, if not the adults who worked along side of us. I shoulda got
a newspaper round, but there was always a long waiting list, and "I got to keep
movin"'. So certainly by the start of anew decade (1950s) I was ‘setup'
emotionally and physically, via those iconic 78s, for what was I suppose THE
major happening of my life.
I was firmly situated at a boarding school in East Anglia at Holbrook. Although
the nearest station was at Bentley. This was in the county of Suffolk and the
Royal Hospital School (660 boys) was situated on the River Stour looking across
to Essex, where the thin white wisp of a steam train could be followed
traversing the rural vista - and often in the classroom I ached to be on that
now to travel up to Waterloo and cross London by Tube to get to Liverpool Street
Station. Until nationalization in 1948 this was on the London & North Eastern
Railway (L.N.E.R.). In passing, the London Underground must also have indelibly
imprinted itself in my psyche. The departing, nasal-sounding "yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy-yoyyoy-yoy"
of the seemingly endless stream of red coaches reverberating eerily in the
subterranean depths of the city as train and passengers melted into the Stygian
blackness is an unforgettable happening!
this school was not quite as grand as it sounds. Moving from Greenwich in
London, to make way for the famous ‘Arsenal', it was open to all boys - for
freewhose fathers had been in the Royal Navy. Although an excellent and broad
range of education right up to the age of 18 (for entrance to a university)
existed; you had to have the right quota of the General Certificate of Education
(GCE) to stay on after the age of 15 - the legal leaving age at the time. To get
to even take the exams you had to first take another - the ‘Mock' GCE. The
criteria being that you had to pass in at least three subjects in the curriculum
to sit the exam ‘proper'. I only got two passes and was thus ‘written off by the
education system and presumably as a worthwhile member of society - or that is
how I felt at the time. Over the years, thousands of other pupils were in the
same boat. I left school at 15.
the interim before this happened, the major event I referred to earlier, took
place. The school term averaged out at around 12 weeks. For that period I could
only access sounds on my beloved radio once a week - if we were good! This was
on Sunday evenings when deejay Keith Fordyce hosted ‘The Top Twenty' programme,
again on the BBC Light Programme. This was the only show of this kind running in
the UK in 1954. I can remember hearing a hit version, in Britain, of
Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie
Ford and endless records by the Stargazers (UK), Lita Roza, Gary Miller, et al.
"Tons" was the only cool disc - as much for the words as the accompaniment.
I've got as mind that's weak, and a back that's strong.
seemed so REAL! Unlike much of what else Fordyce played. But I knew of the rock
‘n roll explosion via the record papers my mother used to send every week
Record Mirror, New Musical Express, Melody
Maker, and later on Disc. In the R. M. at the back end of the paper
were two full pages listing dealers' ‘returns' or Top Ten sellers - from all
over the country. Titles such as Shake Rattle And Roll, and Ain‘t
That A Shame leaped out of these lists, but what did they sound like?
Well, one end–of-term when I got home, my mates (our ‘gang', I suppose) were
raving about a band called Bill Haley & His Comets and their
Rock Around The Clock After first
getting wrong-footed with a vastly inferior version by the Canadians on the
cheap red label Embassy (from Woolie's) I discovered ROCK `N ROLL! I started
haunting local record shops in Woking and Weybridge and bought
78s (still!) of my early heroes.
POW!! This was our music - we suddenly became Britain's first Teenagers. As well
as my beloved trains I NOW HAD THE ‘Big Beat' on my side.
must take a little time out to relate how I heard my first black artist on a
record. A friend of mine (sadly now dead) who was on the periphery of our gang
was Mike Trotman. It was he who said to me one day - in
1956 I think -
that I should listen to a record called I'm
In Love Again by Fats Domino! Although I subsequently bought this
title (on a 78) I was not
utterly convinced for quite a while that this was ‘proper' rock ‘n roll! Of
course, I was, unknowingly, hearing the strong presence of the Blues for the
first time. Once I got into the Fat Man (he's still there doing it - cool, kind
people!) I picked up another 78
of his which was not nearly so popular and was in fact a version of an old song
from the 1930s: When My Dreamboat Comes
Home. WOW! This was rockin' stuff, indeed; with attitude and a great
honking tenor sax. However, it was when I flipped the record over (usually two
sides on a single - CDs Only cats) I found the Blues - I didn't know that
was what it was known as, at the time. The song was called
So Long, a low-down, piano-based,
long. I'm all packed up an' on my way,
So long. You gonna need me same old lonely day.
So long. This time I'm goin' to stay.
alto sax, on this occasion, booting and moaning the blues riffs in response to
the call of Fats' inimitable and essentially black vocals.
with this truly mind-boggling event, I was still getting the record papers and
in particular the Melody Maker.
A much more serious and jazz-based weekly that featured a critic, and my
namesake, Max Jones. He would review LPs and EPs by names like Leadbelly, Leroy
Carr and Big Bill Broonzy. Who were these people? What did they sound like? I
somehow wanted desperately (and I use the word purposely) to hear and LIKE these
artists and their unknown music! I cannot explain why, to this day. Maybe
because it seemed so different. Just like the feeling I had back in my
grandmother's Front Room over 10 years earlier. This was music that was largely
without a set of drums or a tenor sax - two of the mainstays of music as I saw
it. This was the reason my ‘entry' into the world of the Blues was on a
backburner until the early 1960s.
But I just knew I would enter it! Jones also reviewed a Big Joe Turner
(the real original one!) LP. He remarked that this was where Haley got it from.
I wanted to hear this and subsequently find out where Big Joe Turner got it
late 1950s, I was working as a
painter's labourer, brickie's labourer, ground labourer, (getting the picture?)
on various building sites; having no academic qualifications, remember. But some
of my mates, particularly Bob Lodge and Dave Lewis and I, used to go to Record
Hops and traveling fairs; where our music was blasted out at great volume -
Heaven! But on one occasion, maybe in 1957,
Bob, whose father worked at a factory which exported buses in nearby
Addlestone (called Weymans) had got us lads into their Working-Man's Club for a
sort of Christmas bash, I think. Anyway, it was featuring the Crane River Jazz
Band with such future jazz stars as Chris Barber, Cy Laurie, Max Collie, Ken
Colyer, etc. If rock ‘n roll records were played loudly at the Hops, the sound
of the six/seven-piece band was deafening! But thrilled us to the core, even if
it shook us to the bone! This it turned out was authentic New Orleans jazz. But
it was in the break that another link to the Blues was forged for lil' old me.
Up to the microphone stepped a tallish, gangling, white American (somewhere in
his late 20s?) who was trailing a 12-string guitar! The first I had seen or even
heard of. He had 3 numbers to do and commenced to consult a set list! He
pretended to read this and then screwing up the bit of paper threw it on the
stage. The point was whatever he played that night had a profound effect on me
and more so because of the rich twangy sound of his trusty 12-stringer. Of
course skiffle was just about to ‘break' nationally and I also bought 78s, and
by now 45s, on Pye Nixa of Lonnie Donegan and one by the Vipers Skiffl e Group
on Parlophone Don't You Rock me Daddy-O
also covered by Donegan. Decades later l was to add to my burgeoning
record collection an earlier source in the form of an old timey performance by
Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers from 1927.
should mention that by early 1956 I had joined the Royal Navy instigated and
manipulated by my other grandmother on my father's side. A domineering and
sometimes frightening woman, but one who I feel helped shape my character for a
decade from the mid-1940s onward. Signed up as a ‘Regular' meant I had agreed to
give up civilian life for the next 10 or 11 years! The 9-year service did not
kick in until my 18th birthday. As my sight had deteriorated a little
(from perfect 20-20) since 1954 I could not apply to be a seaman, The
alternative was a ‘career' in the Supply & Secretariat branch; office work,
stores and serving in the officers' mess (dining room to landlubbers) as a
steward. Since the job description "Writer" was at the top in a hierarchical
set-up (working in a Pay Office, etc.) I figured that as the best bet I could
always change and go ‘down' to a storeman's job (a "jack dusty") if I didn't
measure up. Thus not only the education system had written me off but - with
hindsight - I too, had expected to stay ‘on or near the bottom' for the rest of
my life. I only include this piece on my RN service as it led to the second most
important incident which would lead me to the Blues.
must know that the Royal Navy, certainly in the late 1950s, almost ‘owned' you
body and soul once you had signed the dotted line. Indeed, a senior Chief Petty
officer (CPO) once told me "We own you for the first 24 hours of the day; after
that the time is your own". He was only half-joking. But - and it is/was a big
but, the ‘Andrew' (I still don't know why the navy was called that) could not
compel any rating under their command to switch from the branch in which they
had signed up for originally. Whether as a Seaman, Stoker, or as a Writer.
Because I had only been working in physical labouring jobs (the ‘mind that's
weak an' the back that's strong' syndrome) I was totally unsuited to office work
of any kind. So one beautiful day (in the larger sense) I was called to
Commander's Report and informed (to my well-hidden glee) I was to be
"Discharged Unsuitable". That old grey goose ‘the hogs couldn't eat ‘im!' So in
early 1959 I was flown back to the UK from Singapore and duly left the RN from
Portsmouth barracks - with all my final pay entitlement! Nearly £100: in those
days that was ‘actually cash money', I'm tellin' you!
during my stay in the Senior Service I had always had my records and on one
occasion I was allowed on the bridge of the frigate I was on.
HMS Llandaff. I
was permitted to feature the likes of Fats, Chuck Berry, Little Richard
and Haley, et al piped throughout the ship's tannoy system! (P.A.). But after
getting several requests from stokers below to keep turning up the volume
(because of the noise of the ship's engines) the Captain (bless him!) had had
enough. Well you can't win ‘em all.
I was back in ‘Civvy Street'. I began to hear of Stateside and the
PyeInternational R'n B series - all on 45s as 78s had disappeared almost
overnight. Titles such as Shame, Shame, Shame by Jimmy Reed and
Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker set me
firmly on the Blues path. Singles by the like of Richie Barrett
(Some Other Guy), Money (That's What I
Want) by Barrett Strong, I Can Tell
by Bo Diddley, as well as his mesmeric electric fiddle instrumental
When The Clock Strikes Twelve,
kept driving me on. Chuck Berry sides such as
The Wee Wee Hours, Deep Feeling,
Little Richard's Can't Believe You Wanna
Leave (flip of Keep A Knockin'), the hollering style of Fats Domino
on Detroit City Blues (relevant
today!) and Every Night About This Time
from 1949 and 1950 respectively.
quite naturally, drifted back into the building trade - as a painter's labourer.
One day in early 1959 two of us were
instructed to go to the Walton-On-Thames branch of Woolworths and clean down the
walls - a soap and water job (by hand with wet cloths). It was there I met my
future wife who worked in the haberdashery department as a shop assistant. About
a year after we were married, c. 1962, I was invited by her parents (they lived
in Walton) for a Sunday dinner. It was something I had rarely seen (if ever) in
it's full traditional contents. Roast beef, Yorkshire pud, gravy, brussel
sprouts, carrots, the lot. Heaped up on a large plate, it was a fantastic meal
and is the reason for the next giant step to the Blues. Margaret's (my now
ex-wife) parents always had the radio on during meals. At some point music was
playing (the usual Geraldo Orch., et al) when out of the airwaves came the first
sound of the country blues I had ever heard. A lone black singer only
accompanied by a plangent electric guitar hit me right between the eyes. It was,
I learned, Lightnin' Hopkins! I like to think the song was
Walkin' Round In Circles which was
included on a Stateside LP called Lightnin
'Strikes (SL 10031).
event, I went out and bought this LP. I had recently also acquired another
Stateside album, .Timmy Reed At Carnegie
Hall which included the haunting
Blue Blue Water.
My younger brother Rex and I played these LPs it seems
forever. Man, we were hooked! At some point, possibly 1963, we discovered a book
called The Country Blues by Sam
Charters and published in 1959, Names like Peg Leg Howell, Blind Willie McTell,
Tommy McClennan, and Charter's poetic/musical descriptions of their blues; made
us think that these were beings from another planet - never to be heard by us.
In this truly pioneering book solely on the Blues (Paul Oliver's great tome:
Blues Fell This Morning came out
the following year in 1960) was also featured a whole chapter(!) on Robert
Johnson. I duly ordered the LP The Country
Blues later on which
turned out to be an earth-shattering experience in listening.
before this happened I had remembered seeing in Walton in Rumbelows (of all
places) electrical goods store, a copy of a Robert Johnson LP!! It was sitting
in a revolving vertical rack near the counter along with a lot of other
(non-blues) albums. Actually, I already knew of this before reading the Charters
book. Why I chose to ignore it was the fact that the LP was one in the Philips
series Classic Jazz Masters of
which I was also aware of via my regular copies of
Jazz Journal! This series included
albums by Blind Boy Fuller and Bessie Smith - artists I did not know at that
time! But on reading The Country Blues
chapter I went scurrying (do Blues people scurry??) to Rumbelows
shop. There in the rack it sat! mentally trembling with anticipation I pulled
out the sleeve and going to the counter asked the assistant (if I could hear a
bit of the record. This was common practice in those days in record shops. Some
of them had booths with a glass door so you listened in private. But Rumbelows
was primarily an electrical goods store and this rack of records was only
secondary in their trading priorities - no booths. The guy duly place the LP on
a turntable for all and sundry to hear. But I was the only customer in the
place. Suddenly, Robert Johnson's Crossroad Blues enveloped me. It is the
only way I can describe its effect on me. Indeed, I was hardly conscious of
several other equally awesome tracks I was allowed to hear. "Yes! I'll take
that, please." I walked out of that store in a daze, clutching my treasure into
(for me) a brand new exciting world.
morning MR. BLUES. Sorry I'm late. But NOW! I am here. Have mercy!
‘Mississippi' Max Haymes
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