The 20 Greatest British Blues Albums: 1960 – 1966
The 60s started swinging long before the Beatles and the Stones donned their Afghans. Part 1 of our history of British blues starts here with the 20 greatest albums…
This article first appeared in The Blues issue 1, June 2012
To many people, the British Blues Boom found its fullest expression in late 60s releases from the likes of The Yardbirds, Cream, the Rolling Stones etc, but the UK blues scene had been simmering throughout the 1960s, with certain key acts inspiring – and acting as a training ground – for that new generation of stars. Think Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Georgie Fame, Chris Barber, Long John Baldry… Here we look at the 20 most important albums of 1960-67.
Chris Barber’s Blues Book Volume 1 (Columbia)
In the words of the late Alexis Korner, Chris Barber was the only person to ‘put his money where his mouth was’, by leading his own band and importing black American blues artists via the National Jazz League. His own ace in the pack was Ottilie Patterson, a Northern Irish blues singer with an effortless range, who was an emotive interpreter of song and a blues stylist who rarely sounded derivative.
In 1959 the Barber Band gained great acclaim for two US tours which also gave them the opportunity to explore the American blues scene that had inspired them so much. Imagine their surprise therefore when Ottilie discovered that back home Muddy Waters didn’t actually play guitar in his own band!
Unperturbed, Chris integrated a blues repertoire as Alexis Korner swapped his banjo for a guitar and joined harp player Cyril Davies for a regular 30-minute blues spot featuring Ottilie on some numbers and climaxing with I Got My Mojo Working.
Ottilie’s repertoire stretched from Irish folk and trad jazz to the exemplary blues such as Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues, her own single Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean and the self-penned Bad Spell Blues.
Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated
R&B From The Marquee (Ace Of Clubs)
Alexis Korner owed his significant role in British blues as much to his intuitive sense of timing as to his grasp of the club scene with its ‘music to twist to, jive to, jump to, swing with and get with’.
He took Chris Barber’s efforts one step further to cut the first British blues album and incorporate the likes of Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Charlie Watts, Hughie Flint, Danny Thompson, John Renbourn, Mick Jagger and as here, John Baldry.
Together with the gruff but dedicated harp player Cyril Davies, the band landed a Marquee club residency in May ’62, though the album was actually cut live at Decca’s studios in West Hampstead and adorned with Marquee gig photos. The title was statement of musical intent.
Alexis’s other residency was on the Five O’ Clock Club kids’ TV show, but he found a fractured blues community, eventually leading to a suitably withering repost to the stiffs at monthly music magazine Blues Unlimited; ‘The blues are for everyone. Unfortunately not everybody understands them’.
R&B From The Marquee is raw, seminal, passionate and driven, it’s Brit blues on the rise, best summarised by the song I Wanna Put A Tiger In Your Tank.
The Downliners Sect
The Sect (EMI Columbia)
Like The Pretty Things, The Downliners Sect proved that blues and R&B didn’t necessarily inspire note by note copying. The Sect ripped up the R&B genre with a fierce determination and irreverence that still sparks the flame of Don Craine and Keith Grant all these years later.
Legend has it the band was smuggled into the studio at 2am by their producer Mike Collier, who had a deal with the studio engineer. The Sect thrashed away at their live set, taking little more than 12 hours to record their homage to the likes of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. When asked to come back to mix the album, the band looked puzzled thinking it was all done.
The album’s stylish cover photo and Don Craine’s deer stalker are in sharp contrast to The Sect’s rough and raucous brand of R&B, later known as garage rock. The thematic titles such as the Bo Diddley-inspired Sect Appeal was another Collier idea – he also copped a songwriting credit.
Ugly Child is a highlight and features a rasping vocal from Don Craine, who adds an opening rap on Cops & Robbers, while the derivative Little Rendezvous finds Don in Phil May mode, which is where we came in.
Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames
Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo (Columbia)
It’s September 1963 and The Flamingo on Wardour Street is jumping to the sound of Georgie Fame and his band romping through mod standards, including Night Train, Do The Dog, Parchman Farm and Shop Around. You can reach out and touch the atmosphere on this recording as the band take in Mose Allison, Rufus Thomas and Jamaican ska along the way, highlighting why they ruled the roost in clubland at the time, the fussy mod crowd championing Fame as their first homegrown hero before The Who and The Small Faces arrived on the scene. With Glyn Johns overseeing the recording, R&B At The Flamingo is one of the most enduring live albums you will ever hear, perfectly capturing a period of the mod scene as it begins to take hold on London and further afield. Before long Fame would go on to have a couple of No.1 singles and head for solo success. Expect to pay around £80 for a mint copy of this.
The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones (Decca)
The Stones’ debut was recorded in mono on Revox two-track in a room insulated by egg cartons at Regent Sound Studio, Denmark Street, London, in January and February of 1964. Though dominated by blues, R&B and soul covers, this was something new, its almost punk-ish sound emitted youthful energy and sneering rebellion not present in say, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated with whom Charlie Watts had drummed and Mick, Keith and Brian sat in on.
The ultra hip Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham planned the album, producing, persuading Decca to release it with a dark, moody photograph of the band without their name on the cover and writing in the sleeve notes, “The Rolling Stones are more than just a group, they are a way of life.” Built around their stage act, they motor through Bobby Troup’s Route 66 and a supercharged version of Muddy Waters’ I Just Wanna Make Love To You with wailing harmonica, while their cut of Slim Harpo’s I’m A King Bee with slide guitar by Brian Jones is outrageously lascivious.
The album reached No.1 in the UK and was retitled England’s Newest Hitmakers, with their UK hit version of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away replacing Bo Diddley’s Mona, which peaked at 11 in the US.
Five Live Yardbirds (Columbia)
Fresh from stepping into The Stones’ winkle-pickers at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond and touring with Sonny Boy Williamson, The Yardbirds released this debut recorded live at the Marquee in 1964. It consists of blues standards, including Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It and Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, which became The Yardbirds’ second single.
Eric Clapton chipped in on vocals for the latter, as well as providing a ‘Slowhand’ on guitar. The line-up was blessed by the golden lungs of Keith Relf, who died tragically at only 33. This is the best blue-eyed version you’ll hear of Smokestack Lightning, while Bo Diddley’s Here ‘Tis clatters along like a runaway train.
Although Clapton departed the group in a purist huff in 1965, this LP provided the blueprint for distorted guitar wizardry in the mid-‘60s, courtesy of later members Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
The Five Faces Of Manfred Mann (HMV)
Manfred Mann dominated the mid 60s pop pages almost as if a mirror reflection of the band’s enduring crossover appeal.
Back in 1964 this album bristled with musical ideas, restless energy and musical virtuosity even if those attributes sometimes completely missed the mark – 48 years on you can still feel the vibe.
The band gained a new pop audience on the back of the rise of Paul Jones as a pop star and the high impact R&B hit single 5-4-3-2-1 - also the theme to the Ready Steady Go!. The subsequent cover of The Exciters’ Do Wah Diddy Diddy and the pop meets R&B crossover of (Hubble Bubble Toil And Trouble) gave only a fleeting nod in the direction of this album’s more studious approach to R&B.
There’s almost an illusion at play, as a few unremarkable R&B covers including I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine (hardly comparable with the Spencer Davis version) are ultimately overridden by the jazzy explorations of Cannonball Adderley’s Sack O’ Woe and the cool vibes of the Jones-penned King Pin. The latter’s tough, uncompromising Without You also benefits from the kind of flute solo that Ian Anderson was to explore some four years later.
R&B With Dave Berry, Alexis Korner, John Mayall, Zoot Money And Graham Bond Organisation (Decca)
A beautifully simplistic sleeve beckons you to get this platter of UK R&B artists on the turntable, which opens the with an amazing take on Tommy Tucker’s Hi-Heel Sneakers by The Graham Bond Organisation, all driving bass and pumping Hammond. Bond’s Organisation supply another three tracks and featured Dick Heckstall-Smith, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
Sheffield’s Dave Berry tackles Not Fade Away, Bo Diddley’s Diddley Daddy and Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On, while Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band takes Rufus Thomas’ dog for a walk. Bournemouth born Zoot also covers Ray Charles’ Get On The Right Track Baby, while his band included Andy Summers, later to find success with The Police.
Mayall provides a studio take of Crawling Up A Hill and Mr James while the daddy of British Blues, Alexis Korner, gives us Early In The Morning and Night Time Is The Right Time, featuring Ronnie Jones on vocals who went on to record with The Night-timers. Rare but a reasonable £60.
Animal Tracks (EMI)
If The Animals’ debut album sounds like a supremely tough, tight and confident club band rocking through their regular set more or less live in the studio, it’s because that’s exactly what it was.
Their repertoire included three songs by John Lee Hooker, two each by Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, plus Eric Burdon’s bravura reinterpretation of Bo Diddley’s autobiographical Story Of Bo Diddley. Burdon’s finest moment came with an astonishingly authoritative and authentic performance of Hooker’s menacing monologue I’m Mad Again: plenty of groups would tackle his bouncy hits like Dimples and Boom Boom, but few of Burdon’s peers could have attempted that.
The Animals lacked a virtuoso soloist like Clapton or Beck, but their sound was impressively swinging, solid and punchy: Alan Price’s floridly funky keyboards and Hilton Valentine’s deceptively simplistic guitar firmly seated atop a powerful rhythm section groove. Unlike the Stones, Kinks and Who, The Animals never grew an in-house songwriting machine, and their follow-up album would be their last, but the debut perfectly documents the passion, panache and commitment of the British R&B era.
Long John Baldry & The Hoochie Coochie Men
Long John’s Blues (UAS)
Often overlooked as an integral part of the British blues cannon, Long John Baldry’s Long John Blues proves white performers can sing the blues with both feel and authority. Baldry had the voice, the range, the power and real feel. Above all, he was capable of intuitive expression through elaborate phrasing, which, with his sense of showmanship, gave him real presence.
Baldry cut this enduring slice of his blues legacy somewhere in between appearing on Alexis Korner’s R&B From The Marquee and his later liaison with Rod Stewart in Steampacket. In 1964 he transformed the late Cyril Davies’s R&B Allstars into The Hoochie Coochie Men. Baldry’s high standing was confirmed by his former Cavern-mates the Beatles, who asked him to perform I’ve Got My Mojo Working on their first worldwide television special. Mojo is included here, alongside Times Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough and the deftly phrased Dimples, all delivered with passion and class.
Blues Now (Decca)
Want to see how the homegrown bands of the 1960s measured up against the famed American originals? Here’s Blues Now, a 1965 compilation featuring US Blues giants such as Otis Spann, Champion Jack Dupree, Mae Mercer and Curtis Jones alongside upcoming UK talent The Artwoods, Them, Ronnie Jones, John Mayall, Graham Bond, Davy Graham and Rod Stewart with his debut single – a passable take on Sonny Boy Williams’ Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. Graham Bond once again comes up trumps with a rousing version of Wade In The Water while The Artwoods’ take on Sweet Mary is nothing short of masterful.
Probably least known of all the UK acts included here was Davy Graham and his version of Goin’ Down Slow. Graham had already recorded two albums with folk singer Shirley Collins before appearing on this record. Them provide their supercharged big hit Baby Please Don’t Go, the song that helped propel Van Morrison into the arms of fame and fortune. Ending the album is the transatlantic meeting of minds of Ronnie Jones and The Night-timers with I Need Your Loving. Ronnie was born in Massachusetts while The Night-timers were a homegrown act formed by saxophonist Mick Eve after he left Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames. You’re looking at spending somewhere between £50 and £70 on this one.
John Mayall Plays John Mayall (Decca)
Recorded live at West Hampstead mod hang-out Klooks Kleek in December 1964, this early line-up of The Bluesbreakers featured Roger Dean on guitar, John McVie on bass and Hughie Flint on drums with Nigel Stanger adding saxophone. John Mayall had relocated from his native Manchester some 18 months earlier and the multi instrumentalist penned 11 of the tracks contained, with the 12th being a neatly blended mix of Night Train and Lucille. Alongside the biographical debut single Crawling Up A Hill, there’s the quirky Hoot Owl making full use of Stangers’ slide saxophone, the rather excellent What’s The Matter With You and instrumental second single Crocodile Walk.
The influence of Chicago blues looms large throughout, the last track being titled Chicago Line. And giving the LP a large seal of approval with his sleeve notes is Alexis Korner. Between £70 - £100 should secure a nice copy of this.
The Graham Bond Organisation
There’s A Bond Between Us (Columbia)
Graham Bond was in his own words ‘born a chronic asthmatic’ and ‘took up the alto sax as an extension of yoga to learn how to breathe properly’.
It was Bond who introduced Georgie Fame to the organ and premiered the Mellotron on Ready Steady Go!, not to mention assembling a stellar cast of musicians in his band. Original guitarist John McLaughlin, said by Ginger Baker to be ‘ a miserable moaner’, was replaced by the multi sax playing Dick Heckstall-Smith and by the time of this recording Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker had already started feuding, leading to Bruce’s departure.
Ginger Baker’s eventual successor Jon Hiseman summarised Bond thus: ‘At best inspirational and at worst thoughtless, devious and irrational’. The lashing of instrumental virtuosity on the opening Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf reflected the band’s exciting live show. However, inconsistent material such as Jack Bruce’s Hear Me Calling Your Name, which sounds hammy in a Georgie Fame sort of way, is in sharp contrast to the Hammond/horn instrumental Last Night. This album offers fleeting glimpses of a great band whose importance should not be overlooked.
The Spencer Davis Group
Their First LP (Fontana)
Still advertised in 1964 as The Spencer Davies Quartet at Birmingham Town Hall’s self-proclaimed First Rhythm & Blues Festival in England, legend has it Muff Winwood came up with the Spencer Davis Group name so that the rest of the band could stay in bed while Spencer went out and did all the interviews. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that Winwood was the pivotal talent in the outfit and it’s still hard to believe that young Stevie was only 14 years old when he joined the band and a mere 17 when he left.
The debut album reflected most of the R&B cover material of the time and must have come as something of a shock to those fans who had enough money to buy the debut album in lieu of the Jackie Edwards-penned chart topper Keep On Running. As it was, the album included their impressive debut single Dimples, which foundered as John Lee Hooker released his own version. Winwood shines on the gospel feel of Every Little Bit Hurts, and he duets with Millie Small (famous for her single My Boy Lollipop) on Ike Turner’s I’m Blue (The Gong-Gong Song), while his own piano-led It Hurts Me So is a soulful outing as good as any of the covers here.
The Pretty Things
The Pretty Things (Fontana)
The Pretty Things' debut long player in ‘65 paid homage to Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed and of course the mighty Bo Diddley. Throw in a couple of originals and the long-haired bad boys of British R&B set the template that’s still adhered to by countless garage bands around the world to this day.
Released in March and reaching No.6 in the album charts, they even took the liberty of renaming Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It to 13 Chester Street, the address in Victoria where they once lived. With vocalist Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor at the helm, they were joined by John Stax on bass, Brian Pendleton on guitar and Viv Prince on drums whom, claimed May, made Keith Moon look like a pussycat. The covers of Roadrunner, Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut and Pretty Thing are uncompromising alongside the original Honey I Need. It’s raw, British R&B at its best and currently worth £100 for a mint copy.
The Angry Young Them (Decca)
Originally pulled together as the house band for Van Morrison’s R&B club at the Maritime Hotel, Them’s formidable live reputation soon rocketed from Belfast Delta to world stage.
This album launched Van the Man’s career as an international superstar and world-class curmudgeon, thanks to his towering vocals on numbers like John Lee Hooker’s Don’t Look Back and I’m Gonna Dress In Black.
Unlike many English bands, whose debuts consisted mostly of covers, Them came up with an equal number of stunning originals, including the mesmeric opener Mystic Eyes, while You Just Can’t Win is probably the only blues song to immortalise Camden Town.
Their cover of Big Joe Williams’ Baby Please Don’t Go reached the Top 10 in 1964, and was one of the Ready Steady Go! themes. The recording also provided a string to the bow of up-and-coming session musician Jimmy Page, who played rhythm guitar.
Production credits on the timeless Gloria go to Dick Rowe, the man who signed John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, The Animals and The Rolling Stones after he decided that guitar groups weren’t on the way out after all. Despite only being released as a B-side in the UK, the anthem to teenage lust still stands as the musical equivalent of Guinness – ‘pure genius’.
Sonny Boy Williamson & The Yardbirds
The Yardbirds got an opportunity of a lifetime on December 8, 1963 to back one of their heroes at their Crawdaddy residency while manager Giorgio Gomelsky taped the session.
In 1963 Sonny Boy Williamson II toured the UK as part of The American Folk & Blues package and his three songs triumphantly closed the first part of the show. He stayed on, and this album is a snapshot in time, with The Yardbirds being far more reverential than The Animals, who also recorded with him.
Sometimes he’s coasting, though his harp flourishes and Clapton’s fills on Mr Downchild work well. On Pontiac Blues the band wait to see where Sony Boy leads them, though by the time of Highway 49 Clapton has hit his stride Williamson remained an enigma to the end, saying, ‘There’s a whole lots of peoples is talking, but a mighty few peoples know’. Maybe after this liaison The Yardbirds knew just a little bit more.
John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton
Blues Breakers (Decca)
By the time The Yardbirds hit the UK Top Five with For Your Love, lead guitarist Eric Clapton had already left to play Proper Blues with John Mayall’s purist Blues Breakers. Less than a year later, this definitive record of the '60s blues boom – informally known as the Beano album because of the kids’ comic Clapton is reading on the cover – had changed the game in many ways. The first Top 10 album by a group who’d never scored a hit single; the first album to demonstrate the extent of a blues audience who didn’t need to be lured by pop hits; the first album to feature the sound of a Gibson Les Paul whacked through a Marshall amp… and the album where the Clapton-Is-God guitar-hero cult began.
Plus it also features Clapton’s first studio lead vocal and his first recording of a Robert Johnson song. The audio spotlight is evenly split between Mayall’s eerie falsetto and murky Hammond organ washes, and Clapton’s blistering, scything guitar, heard to best advantage on Otis Rush’s All Your Love, Freddy King’s Hideaway and Mayall’s own devastating slow blues Double Crossing Time.
By the time the album charted, Clapton had already left Mayall’s band in order to form Cream. The Yardbirds had bounced back after Clapton’s departure by finding Jeff Beck; Mayall, not to be outdone, filled his Clapton-sized gap by discovering Peter Green, but it was the Beano album which marked the tipping point between the pop-tinged R&B era and the harder-core blues boom which followed in its wake.
Fresh Cream (Reaction)
Eric Clapton left John Mayall’s Blues Breakers in July 1966 and formed Cream with Jack Bruce on lead vocals, harmonica and bass and Ginger Baker on drums. Known as the first power trio and the first rock supergroup, Cream’s debut album was still heavily rooted in the British blues boom. A purist approach was rejected, however, in favour of experimentation and improvisation as Clapton’s blues guitar mixes with Baker’s jazz drumming and Bruce’s supple bass and innovative pop/rock songwriting. Half the tracks are covers, including a heavy rendition of the Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf classic Spoonful (replaced in the US by UK hit single I Feel Free) and a frantic harmonica workout on Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ And Tumblin’. Bruce’s original NSU displays nascent psychedelia, while Baker’s Toad showcases his drum soloing. Fresh Cream’s heavy blues rock paved the way for The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin.
Art Gallery (Decca)
Evolving from Red Bludd’s Bluesicians, The Artwoods formed in 1963 and featured vocalist Arthur ‘Art’ Wood, guitarist Derek Griffiths, bassist Malcolm Pool, organist Jon Lord and drummer Keef Hartley. The West London band were first rate musicians and a popular live draw, regularly playing the 100 Club, but they failed to achieve significant record sales despite signing with Decca in 1964, releasing seven singles and appearing on TV show Ready Steady Go!.
Though named after their bluesy singer formerly of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and elder brother to Ron Wood (of Faces and Stones fame, of course), Lord is equally integral to their sole album, produced by blues expert Mike Vernon and released in November 1966. Two of the strongest tracks are organ led instrumentals – covers of jazz man Jimmy Smith’s Walk On The Wild Side and Booker T And The MGs’ Be My Lady, and Lord’s swirling Lowrey Holiday dominates others such as their version of Solomon Burke’s Keep Looking. Lord later found fame in Deep Purple and Whitesnake. Art Gallery didn’t manage to chart on release and high esteem for The Artwoods combined with rarity has seen original copies change hands for an eye-watering £350.