By Dave Thompson
With a career that included a stadium-stuffing stint with the pre-Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac, and a contrarily rehearsals-only spell fronting Black Sabbath, plus two solid solo albums so far this century, Dave Walker is rightly proclaimed one of the true warriors of the British blues scene.
His last album, "A Tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson," contains some of the finest interpretations the old bluesman ever received; while his latest, 2007’s Walking Underwater, sees him unleash that so distinctive growl across 10 originals to conjure up one of the most authentic sounding discs of the last few years.
Walker is best remembered, however, for the two years he spent helming Savoy Brown, truly the most explosive British blues band of the early 1970s, a band that elevated itself to mega-success on the U.S. live circuit of the age.
Three albums, including the essential Street Corner Talking and Hellbound Train, and the less-dynamic (but still worthy) Lion’s Share mark out Walker’s time with the band and, though guitarist and founder Kim Simmonds has operated any number of Savoy Brown lineups in the years since then (as, indeed, he had beforehand), for any number of American concert-goers of a certain age, Walker’s boisterous vocal and persona continues to symbolize the definitive Brown sound, raw and rambunctious, exciting and energetic.
Still churning out a blistering brew today, the reasons behind the band’s inspired longevity are manifold, but the primary focus of Savoy Brown’s success is one man, guitarist Kim Simmonds.
Nineteen years old when he formed the band back in 1966, his vision immediately created such a sensation that, within weeks, the band had landed a residency at one of London’s most prestigious blues clubs, Kilroys, in Battersea.
From there, the Savoy Brown Blues Band, as they were then called, graduated to such world-famous venues as Klooks Kleek and the Marquee, and became the first homegrown act signed to producer Mike Vernon’s Purdah label (an offshoot of the legendary Blue Horizon).
“Theirs was a style which took no prisoners,” Vernon later recalled and, by early 1967, that no-nonsense aggression and blistered blues battering had landed Savoy Brown a deal with the major label Decca.
Over the next two years, the group released the albums Shake Down and Getting To The Point, making a lot of friends in the process.
However, the Savoy Brown that was to take America by the throat and score some of the most uncompromising hit albums of the age was still in its formative phase, and it was 1969 before the first of several classic lineups began to gel around Simmonds, lead guitarist “Lonesome” Dave Peverett and the memorably monocle-and-bowler hat-clad vocalist Chris Youlden. That year’s Blue Matter and A Step Further albums conjured up any number of future Savoy classics, including “Train To Nowhere,” the live show-stopper “Louisiana Blues” (a Muddy Waters number taken to incendiary heights), and Youlden’s unforgettable “I’m Tired.”
“I’m Tired” became the group’s first American hit single in late 1969, a success that convinced the band members that the U.S. was where their future lay. And when Raw Sienna, their fourth album, arrived in April 1970, it raised the temperature even higher. Yet, while fans and critics acclaimed it a masterpiece, the band itself was in disarray as Youlden departed for a solo career.
It was a blow from which few bands could be expected to recover. Not only was he an absurdly charismatic vocalist, Youlden was also Savoy Brown’s principle songwriter. But he was feeling squeezed out by the band’s newfound American prominence and the demands that was making on the music.
Talking with another Savoy Brown alumnus, bassist Bob Brunning, in the latter’s authoritative “Blues: The British Connection” book, Youlden explained, “The pressure was on us to decide what we were going to do. Led Zeppelin were the kings at that time; every guitar band’s aspiration was to emulate them, and they were setting the tone for what was happening. Blues was fading out. I was developing my songwriting, But, I think the rest of the band were getting more into the big heavy rock thing.”
They also knew what they were doing. Confirming Savoy Brown’s resilience, what could have been a fatal severance instead saw them bounce back even stronger. With Lonesome Dave taking over lead vocals, Savoy Brown went straight back into the studio to record Looking In, a behemoth of an album blessed, incidentally, with one of the most memorable LP sleeves of the age, a troglodyte-like savage staring into one of the eye sockets of a monstrous, overgrown skull.
Again, the critics were unanimous; Savoy Brown had delivered another classic. And, again, they spoke too soon.
Just months after the release of Looking In, the group completely shattered. Peverett, bassist Tone Stevens and drummer Roger Earl all departed to form a new band of their own, Foghat; Simmonds was left alone to piece together the next generation of Savoy Brown. He succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest expectations.
Drummer Dave Bidwell and keyboard player Paul Raymond were recruited from fellow blues maestros Chicken Shack, and bassist Andy Pyle hailed from Blodwyn Pig. The true revelation, though, was vocalist Dave Walker, a hitherto unknown diamond mined from the Birmingham club circuit. Savoy Brown had always prided themselves on singers of distinction, but Walker was the most distinctive yet
Wild At Heart
A native of the nearby city of Walsall, Walker’s musical background lay within the same Birmingham scene that conjured Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, Black Sabbath, the Move and half of Led Zeppelin out of the ether, a tough, working-class district whose audiences took no prisoners, and whose bands quickly developed a suitably retaliatory stance.
He was a rock and roller at heart, dedicated to the primal screams of Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and all, but even in his teens, onstage with his first band, the Redcaps, his performance took things to the next level. He was wild.
Walker joined the Redcaps as rhythm guitarist in early 1963, graduating to the microphone when original vocalist Ronnie Brown quit. Lining up now with guitarists Mick Blythe and Roy Brown, bassist Mike Walker, drummer Alan Morley and saxophonist Mac Broadhurst, the Redcaps were snapped up by Decca around the same time as the company grabbed the similarly styled Rolling Stones; there was even talk, Walker recalls, of the label placing their publicity in the hands of Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.
It would probably have helped a lot. While the Stones soared straight out of the blocks, the Redcaps foundered. The band cut three singles for Decca, covers of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and Chuck Berry’s “Talking About You” (which did not, despite persistent rumor, feature a passing Jimmy Page on guitar), and a Mick Blythe original, “Funny Things.” But, all three failed to bother the chart in the slightest, and the Redcaps broke up.
Walker moved onto Beckett, Birmingham superstars who sadly, and strangely, never made their way out of the local circuit. They folded, unrecorded, in 1969, when Walker took on the unenviable task of replacing Jeff Lynne in the Idle Race (another late 60s Birmingham legend, of course), after the maestro quit to join the Move.
His recruitment, incidentally, was Lynne’s own parting gift to his erstwhile bandmates. This lineup of the Idle Race recorded a new album (their third), but their fame spread no further than Latin America. Their version of Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” was an Argentinean #1 in summer 1970.
By the end of the year, Idle Race had broken up, and Walker was at something of a loose end when he heard of a ‘60s Nostalgia night taking place at the Belfry Hotel, in nearby Sutton Coalfield.
“It was for all the Birmingham bands from the early ‘60s. I didn’t know how to get in touch with any of the Redcaps. We’d scattered far and wide, but I went along just to hang out. I got there, and there was a bunch of us at the bar who didn’t have a band to play with — there was myself, Stan Webb [Chicken Shack], Roger Hill, Dave Pegg [Fairport Convention] and John Bonham [Led Zeppelin]. We looked around and suddenly realized that hey, we have a band here! So, at the end of the evening, the emcee, who was a DJ friend of ours, told the crowd there was an special supergroup surprise, he read our names off — of course he saved Bonzo [Bonham] for last — and we went out there and played six songs, killed everybody dead.”
It was an impressive performance; so much so that Stan Webb was soon reporting back to the manager whom he shared with Savoy Brown, Kim Simmonds’ brother Harry, that if the band was still looking for a new singer, Dave Walker was their man. And it so happened that they were.
A few weeks later, in April 1971, Walker was driving down to London (he got a lift from Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi), to meet with the Simmonds brothers and audition for Savoy Brown. A couple of weeks after that, he was sitting in the Coach and Horses pub on London’s Poland Street when he bumped into Chris Youlden, his predecessor at the Savoy Brown microphone.
“Chris gave me the best advice I’ve ever had. He said he’d heard I joined the band, wished me luck and told me, ‘Be yourself and enjoy it.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
Days later, Walker and his new bandmates were on their way to Olympic Studios in Barnes to begin recording Savoy Brown’s next album, Street Corner Talking.
“I remember we made it in a day and a half,” says Walker.
A fabulous album, shattering the blues constraints that had hitherto bound the band, Street Corner Talking remains one of the landmark albums of 1971. Certainly it stunned everybody who encountered it, and Walker’s vocals were the key to that effect.
“Somebody wrote in one of the reviews that when I joined Savoy Brown, they morphed from a great blues band, into a really great rock band,” Walker recalls, although he refuses to take the credit. “We had an excellent band there; Dave and Andy were a terrific team, Paul was great and Kim was Kim. That lineup was really cooking.” And that was before they visited the U.S.
Savoy Brown already had a fiercesome live reputation, as Walker discovered on the handful of shows they played around the U.K. and Belgium during his first months on board.
He wouldn’t discover precisely how powerful Savoy Brown was, however, until the band arrived in the U.S. that August, and Walker found himself still soundchecking on stage as the first night’s audience rushed into the hall in Wichita, Kan.
Since its first visit in January 1969, Savoy Brown had criss-crossed the country with undying passion, building a reputation for an utterly relentless live show. And it didn’t matter who else was on the bill with them — Savoy Brown blew everyone away.
The American media rarely applauded Savoy Brown. But, who believes what they read in the papers?
Walker explains, “I was watching all these kids running into the auditorium; they couldn’t wait to get in. They were desperate to get as close to the stage as they could. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Audiences back home tended to file in somberly and then hang around the back of the hall for fear of looking uncool in front of their mates.
These American kids didn’t care what they looked like, and Walker adored them for it. “The crowd just went nuts, so I went nuts with them. Suddenly, I was somewhere where people understood the sort of singer I was.”
Onstage and off, Walker’s natural exuberance established him as a firm favorite with the audience; in his trademark hat and boots, he was the first member of the band that the kids would gravitate to after a show, confident in the knowledge that he’d be the first to join them for a smoke or a drink or anything else that was going on. “I loved America, and, of course, I took advantage of everything it had to offer.”
Walker’s own father was an American, a USAAF airman who perished on a mission during the last months of the World War II. Walker never met him, but still, he felt as though he was coming home. And America welcomed him with equal enthusiasm.
The band’s American success was never reflected in their homeland, but the group didn’t care; in fact, band members welcomed the calm that awaited them when they arrived back in the U.K. Kim Simmonds told journalist John Pidgeon, of Britain’s Let It Rock magazine, “The band makes most of its money in America, has most of its popularity and recognition in America — in terms of crowds pulled, album sales — and when you come back here, it’s all a bit unreal. In many ways it’s good to come back here and get your feet back on the ground and get away from all the shit that surrounds a successful band. Your feet get firmly planted because no one knows you. For the four years that I’ve been going back and forth, it’s done me good to get away from the success and be myself. Whereas if we were popular over here, then we’d be caught up in it all the time, and I might get my values a bit mixed up.”
Off the road, Savoy Brown immediately returned to the studio and cut their next album, the behemoth that was Hellbound Train. Again, the record was cut in record time, and again, it launched the band back onto the road for a sprawling U.S. tour, which itself catapulted the record into the chart.
Street Corner Talking had made #75; Hellbound Train would leap to #34, Savoy Brown’s highest-charting album ever, and one of their most beloved — Walker still laughs when he recalls the fan in Cleveland, Ohio, who turned up at a show with the album’s distinctive artwork tattooed around his torso. “We had some real nutcases come to see us!”
They were loyal nutcases, however. The American rock scene of the day was in perpetual ferment, with any number of new bands seemingly poised for a major breakthrough of one kind or another. But “below the upper echelon of Zeppelin and The Who,” Walker explains, “there was just four groups who really looked likely to join them up there — the Allmans, the J. Giels Band, Humble Pie and us.”
Savoy Brown ruled a concert circuit that, to modern eyes, was literally littered with brilliance, so much so that there simply weren’t enough venues to pack them all into. Walker recalls headlining over any number of bands that could, in any other era, have effortlessly filled the same halls on their own — Rod Stewart and the Faces, Wishbone Ash, Fleetwood Mac, the Grease Band and another British blues hero, Long John Baldry.
One more great album, one more phenomenal tour, and everybody associated with Savoy Brown was convinced that they would clinch it. Which is when Kim Simmonds decided to break up the winning team. Walker remembers how it all went down.
“We did the Hellbound Train tour — 63 performances in 70 days — then we went back to London to rehearse at the Country Club in Belsize Park. Kim had just taken delivery of a new guitar, a Gibson Stereo, and we were about halfway through the first song when he said ‘I can’t play this anymore.’ I thought he meant the guitar! He walked out, then came back in about 10 minutes later.
“He pointed to Dave and I, and said ‘Dave and Dave, take yourself off to Harry’s [manager Harry Simmonds] house; Andy and Paul, come with me.’ Dave and I looked at one another and it was, ‘Oh shit, we’ve been sacked.’ In fact, it was Andy and Paul who’d been sacked, and while Paul managed to talk his way back in, Andy was gone and that effectively destroyed the band.”
Walker never learned why Simmonds swung the axe. “I just don’t know. But boy, when Kim gets weird, he gets really weird!”
However, the sackings were not truly a surprise. “None of us ever felt truly secure in the band, because Kim had a reputation for constantly changing musicians. He always treated his band like sidemen, we never got paid well. But I think he made a big mistake that time. Savoy Brown could still have been playing together today if Kim had realized, back in 1971, what a great band he had. Instead….”
Simmonds tried to explain his actions during that same Let It Rock interview.
“What happens is that people join, and they want to do their own thing. Obviously, the majority of people just go along with what I want to do, but we’ve had a lot of talented people who want to move on, and so, we’ve parted company. Other people are just sidemen virtually, and they leave because they cause trouble, because they’re not the right type. Someone might join and say, ‘Yeah, I’m into your music, man,’ and all the while he just wanted to cop some bread, go to America. That’s no good.”
Yet the distrust cut both ways.
Pyle was replaced by Andy Sylvester, and the band went on to record their next album, Lion’s Share. But, the magical chemistry that once sparked in the studio was lost.
“At the time we were recording it, I thought, ‘Oh good, we’re going back to the roots a bit … I think some people found Hellbound Train a little too heavy metal. But Lion’s Share really wasn’t a very good album. The morale of the band was poor. Dave in particular was suffering. He and Andy Pyle had been very tight together, and when Dave was having problems with heroin, it was Andy who pulled him back. Now Andy was gone, Dave was sinking again. The dynamic had changed; we still weren’t making any money — Kim and Harry were, but we weren’t. We all felt that we were living on borrowed time.
“The whole ambience around the band had changed. It just wasn’t fun anymore, and then, I started to hear Jackie Lynton’s name being bandied about.”
Lynton was one of the British rock scene’s veteran performers, a terrific vocalist whom Simmonds had long admired.
“I’d complained a lot about the lack of money with Savoy Brown, which I had every right in the world to, and I’d heard from somebody in the agency in New York that I was going to be fired, so I was, ‘Oh here we go …’”
In the event, however, it was the singer himself who swung the axe.
“We were in Boston, and I woke up one morning and I just felt terrified. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think straight; we played the gig, and it was dreadful, and the next day they sent me to see a doctor who took one look at me and said, ‘You’re exhausted, physically and mentally. You need to get back to England now — no more concerts, no more traveling, just go home and if you have anyone there you can call, do so, and tell them to have a doctor waiting for you when you land.”
Walker reported the dire tidings back to management, and announced his intention to follow the doctor’s orders. He was ultimately persuaded to stay around for one final gig, a New Jersey performance that may or may not have been promoted by the local branch of the Mafia (“All I know is, it was a gig we couldn’t afford to blow out!” Walker murmurs), then boarded the next flight home.
The remainder of the tour, two weeks worth of shows, was cancelled, and halfway across the Atlantic, Walker made his decision. He turned to Dave Bidwell and told him “I’ve had enough. I’m quitting.” Days later, Savoy Brown unveiled their new vocalist. It was Jackie Lynton.
The Fleetwood Mac Connection
Walker was not concerned; he was too busy recovering. Friends who remember seeing him when he returned from that final tour still marvel at just how sick he was, although Walker now jokes that the moment he left Savoy Brown, it was as though a monstrous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Besides, every cloud has a silver lining.
“About a week later … Fleetwood Mac were in the States at the time, and John McVie called me up and said ‘Hey, do you want to join the band?’ He said Danny Kirwan was gone, and Bob Welch was going, so I was, ‘Well, yeah. Oh great, man. OK,’
“About a day later, Mick Fleetwood’s wife, Jenny, calls up and says, ‘Dave, that was a bit premature of John to offer you a gig in the band;’ I said, ‘Okay Jen, that’s all right. I understand.’ But a couple of days later, there was another call, ‘Yeah, you’re in.’”
“We had gotten to know him on tour,” Mick Fleetwood explained, “and thought he was a good guy and a rabble-rouser.”
And so it proved. Walker was followed into the band by lead guitarist Bob Weston, from Long John Baldry’s backing band, and, over the next month or so, the six-piece lineup rehearsed in readiness for the full block of live shows that would take them through the end of 1972: Scandinavia in October, the remainder of Europe and the U.K. through November and back to the U.S. in December.
It was a successful affair.
“Walker did get the crowds going in his big boogie style,” Fleetwood recalls. “He had a shtick. He was a good singer.”
Sadly, the band’s newfound live flair was scarcely evident over the one album that this lineup recorded together. Penguin proved Fleetwood Mac’s biggest U.S. hit yet, but Walker was scarcely present. He co-wrote and sang on one song, “The Derelict,” and led the band through a fuming cover of Bo Diddley’s “Roadrunner.” But that was the extent of it.
“There’s something in one of the band biogs saying, ‘He was always in the pub;’ well, I was always in the pub because they sent me to the pub. ‘Just go down the pub, Dave, and we’ll call you when we’re ready.’ Plus, I was going through a few little things of my own, involving my wife of the time … some stuff going on behind the scenes which distracted me. So, I didn’t contribute at all.”
Neither were the band’s principal songwriters, Christine McVie and Bob Welch (who hadn’t left after all), making life easy for him, as they continued turning out songs that were clearly not cast in Walker’s mould. Further tours in the wake of Penguin continued successfully, but it was clear that the lineup did not have a second LP in it.
Walker was not necessarily discouraged, however.
“It may have worked. I don’t know. They’d only seen me with Savoy Brown, and they had that whole Savoy Brown idea in mind. In fact, at the time, they’d have been well-advised to turn into Savoy Brown, because they were dying on their asses. They were OK, and they had a lot of fans. They played well. But they had no direction at all.”
The Fleetwood Mac connection was not immediately severed. In 1974, Walker teamed with another of that band’s alumni, guitarist Danny Kirwan, (plus Savoy Brown’s Dave Bidwell and Andy Sylvester) as Hungry Fighter.
The band made its live debut at the University of Sussex and was looking forward to its next gig, opening for Patrick Moraz at the University of London, when disaster struck. Its road manager was seriously injured in a motor accident as he drove the band’s gear-packed van up to the capital.
Arriving at the venue with only a fraction of their instruments, Hungry Fighter asked Moraz if they could borrow his equipment. The great man refused. “So we couldn’t play, and that was it. We broke up.”
Walker relocated to San Francisco in 1975. There he formed Raven, a breathtaking partnership with former Quicksilver genius John Cippolina, Steve Miller Band guitarist Greg Douglas and bassist Skip Olson.
When Cippolina left to concentrate on the various other bands with whom he was then working, his bandmates reformed as Mistress. Then came the phone call from old Birmingham friend Tony Iommi that found him flying back to England in November 1977 to join Black Sabbath.
A Cup Of Coffee with Black Sabbath
Walker was brought into the fold to replace the recently sacked Ozzy Osbourne and then eased out again when Osbourne was reinstated (for the criminally horrible Never Say Die album).
The Walker lineup never recorded together, but it did make one television appearance, performing an early version of “Junior’s Eyes” on the BBC regional show “Look Hear” in January 1978. And that, for many people, was the last they heard from Walker until he resurfaced in a new Savoy Brown lineup in 1986 — his only other enterprise, the San Francisco based Dave Walker Band, folded in 1979 with nothing more than a box full of demos to show for its trouble, and Walker himself left the music industry.
In common with so many other gallant survivors from their era, Savoy Brown operated far below the popular radar, touring small clubs and blues festivals, playing to audiences that may have remained devoted but were minuscule compared to the crowds of the past.
Still, the band cut three albums over the next four years: Make Me Sweat, Kings Of Boogie and the concert recording Live And Kickin’, and all proved that the Simmonds/Walker partnership remained an incendiary one. But, Walker quit in September 1991 for many of the same reasons he left in 1972.
“We’d do these enormous long tours, and then I’d get home and realize I’d made just enough money to pay the next month’s rent, so I had to go out on the road again. And you can only live like that for so long.”
It would be 13 years before those distinctive vocals were heard again, with the release of Mostly Sonny in 2004; since that time, he has recorded with psychedelic revivalists Donovan’s Brain and singer Angie Pepper, and even found time to record, then scrap, a whole new album, a somewhat ill-advised attempt to re-record some of his past hits.
“I couldn’t let it go out, it was just crap!”
He also moved to a new home in the old gold mining town of Virginia City, Mont., and cut — we’ve said it once, so we’ll say it again — one of the greatest blues albums of the 21st century so far.
Now Walker is getting ready to go out on the road again, with a red-hot band built around guitarist Jim Lewis and drummer Mike Gillan (both of whom appear on Walking Underwater), bassist Eddie Tsuru and keyboardist Chris Cundy. All four are local musicians — Gillan is a cattle rancher by day and is, Walker laughs, about 5’8” tall and 5’8” across — but, together, they kick up the kind of noise that will set every street corner talking. The hellbound train rides again!
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