U.K. Blues Rock: There must have been something in the water

Music fans around the world were exposed to some of the finest white blues singers that the U.K. ever produced between 1964 and 1970.
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Top U.K. blues singers (L-R): Mike Smith, lead vocalist and keyboard player with The Dave Clark Five, The Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon and John Mayall.

Top U.K. blues singers (L-R): Mike Smith, lead vocalist and keyboard player with The Dave Clark Five, The Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon and John Mayall.

By John "Jay Jay" French

If The Beatles never happened, if the British invasion never occurred, then music fans around the world would more than likely never have been exposed to some of the finest white blues singers that the U.K. produced between 1964 and 1970.

And note, the following piece will only cover the time frame from 1964-70, and only U.K singers.

There are always caveats and guidelines, so here are mine: As incredible as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were as rock and roll and pop singers (among my all-time faves, of course), they were never blues singers — notwithstanding Lennon’s vocal on “Twist and Shout,” “Please Mr. Postman” and “This Boy,” and McCartney’s on “Oh! Darling” and “Helter Skelter.” There really is a difference in style, even though both styles are steeped deeply in black blues voicings.

Mick Jagger may cast himself as a blues singer, but to me, as good as he is in the way The Rolling Stones do their Chicago blues versions, Jagger just ain’t a great blues singer and is not on my list. Jagger does the Stones perfectly and he’s done wonders with his very limited range, but in truth, the Stones were a better blues band than Jagger was a blues singer during the time that they were a blues cover band.

Neither were Elton John, David Bowie, Ray Davies, Roger Daltrey or Peter Frampton stylistically blues singers.

Also, Pink Floyd may have started out as a blues band (they were named after two blues singers, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council), but Syd Barrett and Roger Waters were never blues singers.

You either get where I’m coming from or you don’t, and I’m ready to hear your comments, so bring ’em on!

Most of you will know the U.K. singers I will list. I have read multiple interviews with most of them over the past 50 or so years. They all share similar stories that led to the idea for this article. All of these singers, along with countless other musicians, somehow started to hear American black music on the radio late at night or from the 45 singles given to them by a family member or family friend, who brought the music back from the U.S. and it resonated in ways that can only be described as culturally connected, at the same time!

Most of these U.K. singers cite very similar influences such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, J.B. Lenoir, Memphis Slim, Big Mama Thornton, T-Bone Walker, Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim, Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon ... I could go on, but first, the thing to know is that if you love this stuff and want to know more about it, there are a couple of Grammy Award-winning DVDs that feature all of the above performers, plus many more. The performances are from a series of German TV shows that were filmed between 1962 and 1966. These artists were treated so well in Germany (ironic, actually, as this was filmed less than 20 years after WWII) that many of them didn’t want to return to the U.S. Memphis Slim moved permanently to Paris, and Sonny Boy Williamson stayed in England for a while and joined The Yardbirds for an album.

The DVDs are called The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966. There are two of them. And they provide an amazing “Cliff Notes” version of this purely American music art form. Just about every blues legend alive at the time performed. Don’t be put off by the TV stage settings as many of them look like slave quarters (I’m sure the producers thought that the setting was going to lend some kind of authenticity). Most people do not notice it. I have and, given the times we live in, they need to be seen in context. These were two young Germans who produced this event and loved these performers, so just accept this as a time capsule.

These DVDs were produced for commercial release by Experience Hendrix, the licensing arm of the Jimi Hendrix estate run by sister Janie Hendrix.

Now, getting back to the list of British singers, here it goes:

The first British Invasion (referred to as BI from now on) band to smash into our shores within weeks of The Beatles were The Dave Clark Five. Although they didn’t have their first No. 1 for a year and a half (late 1965 with “Over and Over”) one knew right away that the lead singer Mike Smith was incredible. His vocals on “Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces” and “Because” were great, but on the track “You Got What It Takes,” he totally crushes it.

The first BI band to have a No. 1 record on the U.S. charts after The Beatles were The Animals, late in 1964. The world got to hear Eric Burdon for the first time in his without-a-doubt definitive version of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Time after time, successive hit after hit, Burdon brought it!

Next up, another new band Manfred Mann with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” That vocal blew through the AM airwaves like a jackhammer. The singer of that track was Paul Jones. Jones was replaced a year later, but everyone who grew up with radio from that era knows how amazing that vocal was.

By late 1965, the world heard about John Mayall and his band The Bluesbreakers. Although Eric Clapton was the star of their debut record, Mayall’s blues voice became synonymous with the British blues scene and anyone who was anyone in that circle owes their success to the exposure of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Listen to the track “Have You Heard” from that debut album and you will understand how good he is.

Special mention, of course, goes out to Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry, who were U.K. legends but never really made it in any commercial way over here in America.

Van Morrison. Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Van Morrison. Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Van Morrison came into the picture in late ’65 as well with the band Them. The band had the garage band hit “Gloria.” Maybe you didn’t know about him until “Brown Eyed Girl” two years later. Van has one of the great soul voices of all time and when you hear Van ... well, you know it’s Van!

In October 1966, the U.S. AM airwaves once again were shaken to its foundation with the vocal of 18-year-old Stevie Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group hit “Gimme Some Lovin’.” One of greatest debut singles in BI history.

Winwood went on to front Traffic with the enormous FM radio hit “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and two years later fronted the band Blind Faith. Listen to his vocal on “Presence of the Lord” on their one and only release, Blind Faith. Years later, he gave the world “Higher Love.” His live version of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” will bring you to tears.

When Lennon was asked what his favorite song was in 1967, he not only did not mention any of The Beatles’ songs from Sgt. Pepper, his immediate response was “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum. That song was the biggest hit of the summer of 1967 in the U.K. Bigger than “Purple Haze,” bigger than “Light My Fire.” Yes, it was a watershed year for great music, but “A Whiter Shade of Pale” ruled both the U.S. FM and AM pop radio and U.K. record and radio charts, and the lead vocal by Gary Brooker has become one of the all-time classic vocals in pop music history. Procol Harum had many more FM radio hits (“Shine on Brightly,” “Simple Sister,” “Whisky Train”), but only returned to the U.S. pop charts in 1967 with “Homburg” and in 1972 with a live version of “Conquistador” performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

As I go down this list, I am amazed at what this short period of time brought us from the U.K. If the above was all there was, that would have been incredible, but the decade wasn’t over yet.

1968 brought the release of the Jeff Beck Group’s debut album and gave the world “lead vocal extraordinaire” Rod “The Mod” Stewart. The album opened with The Yardbirds’ hit “Shapes of Things.” Stewart’s vocals almost blew my stereo apart. Nothing more about Stewart needs to be said as his recorded history with the Faces, and as a solo artist, speaks for itself.

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Steve Marriott. Photo byAndrew Maclear/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Steve Marriott. Photo byAndrew Maclear/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Maybe some of you don’t know much about Steve Marriott. Many singers consider him one of the greatest U.K. blues singers of them all. He started out with the Small Faces, a very English mid-’60s pop group. He left them in 1968 and, along with Peter Frampton, created Humble Pie in 1969. They became one of the first “super groups” and many consider them, along with the Jeff Beck Group, the founding fathers of heavy metal. Marriott’s vocals on the Humble Pie album, Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore, cemented his super vocal status and Humble Pie’s performance opening for Grand Funk Railroad at Shea Stadium blew GFR off the stage.

The late ’60s also brought us Free with lead singer Paul Rodgers. The song “All Right Now” reached its climax in 1970, but their 1969 debut tour, opening for Blind Faith in the U.S., was legendary, as was the first single off their debut album, “The Hunter,” written by all the members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s. That vocal tells you all you need to know about how great Rodgers is. Add to this the entire Bad Company era and you have a world-class singer whose only misstep was his short stint as Freddie Mercury’s replacement in Queen. Rodgers’ voice just didn’t fit the Queen songs and it was even weirder seeing Queen playing Bad Co. songs!

Closing out the 1960s is the 1969 debut album from Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin has become second to The Beatles in total album sales by a rock group in the history of U.S. record sales. Robert Plant’s vocals on that debut album are legendary and his blues-based vocal stylings owe much to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker, to name just a few.

I was at many of the shows of the artists listed above. I can tell you that, as I was front row at Led Zeppelin’s first show in New York City, at the Fillmore East in January of 1969. Plant, in a show of his incredible lung power, held the microphone away from his face and sang alone, a cappella style, to the sold-out Fillmore East crowd during a quiet part of the song “You Shook Me.” The place went crazy, and I have never seen a vocalist with that much power before, or since.

That’s my list. I have no doubt that many of you will offer up your own. All I can say, again, is that, if The Beatles never happened, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to hear these incredible blues-based singers from the U.K.

  

Do you agree or disagree with my list of artists? Join the discussion. Send me your list of artists or your feedback to John French at goldminemag@goldminemag.com — subject line: U.K. Blues Rock. 

  

Jay Jay French is the founding member, guitarist and manager of Twisted Sister. This is French's ongoing Now We're 64 Beatles-related column for Goldmine. French is also a motivational speaker and writes a business column for Inc. com.