Tuesday, 1 May 2007

May - The Rise of Rythmn n' Blues

Hi lovers of Brumbeat, all Brummies wherever you may be, and all those who are not either of the former!?

Well we've had a couple of months worth of lunacy and without wanting to be a boring fart, I think I'll take the opportunity to give my sanity a rest this month and talk from a personal perspective about the birth of Rythmn and Blues groups in Birmingham that was such a feature of the early to mid sixties music. A little bit of Headstock fun too for the guitarists out there......... but first.........

On behalf of the Alex's Pie Stand Musicians Gourmet Association I would like to wish a fond farewell to Birminghams own - HP Sauce factory - What's a Fleur de Lyse pie without HP?

Another blow to employment to support an increase in conglomerate profits. I imagine the Deputy Prime Minister will be moving to Holland, where the work is going, so the freshly made sauce can be nearer to his enormous collection of very large pies. For those who dont know, HP stood for Harry Palmer - not the Houses of Parliament.


Most people know that the title "Brumbeat" was only accorded in 1964 as an advertising medium for Birmingham bands at the time of the "Mersey Sound" which also never existed as a sole entity. The real "Beat" part did exist though, throughout the UK. For two or three years from sometime in late 1963 through to about 1966 was the time for Beat groups, or more properly, Rythmn and Blues groups - a cross-over period from pure Rock and Roll to a sound which incorporated the music of the blues as a major influence. The Beat Boom.


Before Rock and Roll there was really NOTHING for the youth of the country. The UK was still recovering from the financially crippling effects of the post war years when Rock and Roll raised its ugly head above the 'decency' parapet. Although "Rocket 88" had been released in 1952, "Rock around the Clock" recorded some two years later is still regarded as the first RnR song (presumably because it was sung by a white guy). The youth music culture had been driven by the all american, clean living USA balladeers dressed in their cardigans and immaculate hairstyles, singing love torn laments about high school sweethearts. There were later British equivalents too like Mark Wynter (Venus in Blue Jeans) or Jess Conrad (Mystery Girl) who, halfway through singing a 'hip' song might just work up their energy levels enough to click a finger. The audience all duly clapped politely and Mums in Britain could see them taking out their daughters. "Such a nice boy".


The former US college boy 'crooners' had jumped on the Rock and Roll bandwagon when it arrived, ably assisted by record companies, to cover the songs of those black artists who were arguably, the real originators of Rock and Roll music but these kids never really 'cut the mustard' and were just a watered down version of the real thing. After having sung songs about "swell days in college, I hope she wears my ring" they now had to sing songs that were definitely not college girl material of the day

The songs they now sung were loaded with sexual innuendo but misunderstood by the censors i.e. Jesse Stone's lyrics in Shake Rattle and Roll - "I'm just a one eyed cat peeping in a seafood store" is most certainly not about a one eyed cat and even less about a shop that sells fish!! Still, the censors were not alone in their naive knowledge of "jive" and the whole country regaled in the worst cover version of them all - being the very christian white boy, Pat Boone's, recording of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti". As the youth demand for Rock and Roll increased the record companies were left with no choice but to promote the black artists, so in the end a few of them won. A lot more didn't. The college boys generally disappeared. Jess Conrad's 'Mystery Girl' has won the worst ever song a few times since then. Of course there were the great white artists too Jerry Lee Lewis (The Killer), Karl Perkins and naturally Elvis Presley who (pre army) was the 'real' gift to Rock and Roll above all others of the time. Black or white.

In the US, girl group The Marvellettes scored a Number One, million seller with 'Please Mr Postman'. Later to be a regular number in The Beatles early R and B stage show. Their first LP release had no picture of the girls on the cover so that reportedly, people wouldn't know they were black.

In the UK, the class war and social structure was such that it suffocated rebeliousness or open minded attitudes and it was armed with moral codes, standards of behaviour and stiff upper lips that had to be maintained. Hypocrisy was rife. Young people who went to jazz clubs were to be avoided at all costs, these were the original 'Beatniks' who had funny dances and shared cigarettes. A female friend of my sisters' was a 'jazzer' and my Father told them that they were not to associate with her because of the manner of her dress - she wore bright blue woolen stockings. Mind you he also said that Cliff Richard was a danger and should be Locked Up!!!!! These days he might well be right.

It was against this sort of stifling moral backdrop that the youth of my Birmingham grew up, really without expectations, leave school - factory job 8 till 5 every day looking for some way to burst free of the system. Live "electrified" rock music was in its infancy but there were already some great Rock n Roll acts in town; Johnny Neal, Danny King, Pat Wayne and the Beachcombers, Gerry Levene, Nicky James with Denny Laine and the Diplomats - the list goes on......

I have taken the time to explain the social structure so much to try to give some perspective on the dynamic impact that the radical changes in music of the 1960' s had on the population - no, the world. It was the spearhead of revolution and open mindedness in the fields of the arts and fashion. Possessing free movement, it changed like a chameleon with new types of music competing for a place in the dance halls. It was like stepping out of a black and white drawing into HDTV full blown colour with lots of channels. The music of Rock and Roll and commercial 'pop-tastic gimmick filled hits' had had its run for a few years and the time for another change was on the cards - duck!!! - the blues sound cometh!


I can't really remember how I first found interest in playing the music of the Blues but I found that I couldn't let go of it again. I must have heard it first at someones house who was related to a 'Beatnik', on their Dansette record player or, if they were posh, their Stereogram (they would have called it "A lovely piece of furniture") - with speakers. I certainly wouldn't have heard blues on the radio because they never played that type of music. It would only be a short matter of time though before I started meeting other young musicians who also had the same depth of passion and interest and we all learned from each other. About a year earlier, Pete Oliver had taught me the rudiments of finger picking when I was interested in playing Chet Atkins stuff,
so I could play along, primitively at first, with those old time blues pickers like Ma Rainey. Willie Dixon, although a bassist, was a hero and his songs were amongst the very best, Hoochie Coochie Man, Spoonfull etc. A lot of my musical friends were still into Cliff and The Shadows or The Ventures type instrumental stuff which had been OK for a while but was now stale, predictable and played without any feeling or innovation.
The blues, on the other hand lent itself to creative application, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson amongst others, soon became familiar names to me and became the musicians to learn from. Dimples, My Babe, Smokestack Lightnin', Baby Please Dont Go and a host of other numbers would emanate from my bedroom practice sessions normally accompanied by the parental comments of "What the hell is that stuff your'e playing, its not natural" - it was completely natural for me and I felt at home with the honesty of the recordings and the great repetitive, insistent riffs, as in Rufus Thomas' "Walkin the Dog" for example.
The music of the blues could be re-arranged and played a lot faster (i.e. Rythmn and Blues) which fitted in nicely with those Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry Rock and Roll classics like Not Fade Away, Carol and Johnny B Goode.

Cliff and The Shads, were now the property of the Mums and Dads who saw them on the London Palladium Sunday night TV show, Rock and Roll was no longer fresh and the kids were looking for something new on the horizon to replace that professional, polished approach. Youth fashion was also finding its own niche and there were the beginnings of clothes shops just for teenagers opening.

A telling moment of perceptible change in music, fashion and attitude for me, was one night at The Ritz in Kings Heath. The Modernaires, who were a benchmark group and had been the resident band there for what seemed like an eternity played their set, they were very polished and professional, all good musicians, well dressed and well groomed and playing the hits of the day.

They were followed onto the stage by The Cheetahs, dressed in their animal print outfits, who were also a good act for their time. I had gone specially that night though because unusually for a dance hall, Sonny Boy Williamson was performing there. He was backed by Gary Farr and The T Bones, who visibly dawdled onto the stage, dressed in jeans and old sweaters, carrying a beer in their hands and smoking.

From their opening number I was hooked on the whole anti-establishment attitude.

The kids in the audience found the music hard to dance to but you could tell that there was some interest in the rawness of what they were hearing, probably for the first time. This was R and B (not Chuck Berry RnR) - hard driving blues music powered along by insistent bass playing that thumped into your gut, no echo chamber to ponce up the vocals or guitar solo, very loud, crass, crashing drums. To me, at that moment, the previous two bands seemed like yesterdays news in an instant - image wise and their choice of music.

The group suited the brilliant Sonny Boy Williamson well and his harmonica playing was stunning. You certainly wouldn't take these lot home to meet your folks - in honesty they didn't come across as a great group, musically speaking, they were just the first group I'd seen playing with that attitude and rawness. I was laughing with excitement. There was a definite feeling of "thats what I want to do"... It must have been the same sort of feeling in the mid-seventies when Punk came along to replace the over produced bands who relied on technology and pre-recorded backing tracks to make them sound good. It all comes back to honesty and excitement in the end.

It wasn't long before groups in Brum started changing their style, their choice of material and their volume levels and became great R&B acts but a lot of other "Cliff" type bands with "Hank" type guitarists just faded away or moved onto the cabaret circuit or working mens clubs. There was always plenty of work around for groups then but not for all of them at the cutting edge. Groups that had no immediacy or energy for the music by having spent too many years trying to be perfect didn't fit in and nothing that they could do could save them from the fate of changing fashion trends. Groups with names that ended in -aires or -ettes changed them pretty quickly too. The Modernaires became The Mods, The Dominettes became The Uglys etc....plus, established acts were getting older - a crime in burgeoning youth music. Another surprising thing occurred too, Fender Stratocasters became remarkably unfashionable and sales plummeted with most guitarists switching to Gibsons or Epiphones which gave a harsher sound and better sustain. It was also the end of the road for Hofners and Watkins and the Burns 'Marvin'. Those other guitars that had copied the Stratocaster and had been the mainstay of groups for so many years were now consigned to the garage or loft space. Second hand shops were full of Watkins Copycat echo chambers going cheap.... cheap.... cheap (sorry - I promise to behave!).

It was a time of fantastic excitement, The Beatles were an out-and-out R&B group, The Rolling Stones at their R&B zenith with massive Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley influence, playing Chuck Berry covers, The Animals 1964(House of the Rising Sun), Them - with the revamped 1936 Blues classic "Baby Please dont Go". Along side these were the incredible new numbers coming from groups like The Kinks "You Really Got Me" and "All day and All of the Night" (1964) they were such milestones in music and as a guitarist, were a thrill to play. Later in 1965 came The Small Faces (What' ya gonna do about it) and The Who with their youth anthem "My Generation". It was just improving all the time. All of those acts from that short period went on to be enduring, giant names in the memory of Rock music and you could have seen them all at The Ritz, week after week! By now there was a proper dedicated youth music show on TV, "Ready Steady Go" which went out on Friday evening with their clarion call - the weekend starts here! There was a vitality emerging on the streets and everyone was up for it!!

Birmingham had its fair share of great energetic R&B groups. Denny Laine, at full throttle with The Moody Blues was a sight to see (unlike the latter years armchair variant), the immaculate Steve Winwood with the Spencer Davis group took your breath away with the sheer soul and volume of his voice combined with mature blues musicality. The jive and The Twist disappeared overnight and were replaced by more energentic hip wiggling antics called "The Twitch", in addition the clothes got brighter and more individual. Guys didn't have to wear a suit to go out dancing on a Friday night and things started to get Hairy!! - in a lot of different respects. There were plenty of midlands Beat groups of great note but other than the two mentioned above I will keep my personal preferences to myself so as not to offend anyone by not including them. All of this change in musical style and street fashion happened very quickly. The youth of the country were rearing up and the Mods and Rockers scene emerged at about the same time creating a sense of tension. This was the era of the screaming audiences, it could get very intense at times and you would be urged on more and more to throw yourself into what you were playing. Small, smoke-filled venues would have sweat dripping off the walls it was so hot with the energy that was expelled both on and off stage - sometimes I felt like I was running out of breath. There was so much adrenalin flowing that you didnt want to stop playing and it would take hours for you to "come down" from the rush after a good night with a great audience.

The only guitar foot pedal available then was a volume/tone control that had been used to beautiful effect by Big Jim Sullivan on Dave Berrys hit "The Cryin Game". Guitar strings came in one thickness. To get a better, bluesier sound I replaced the G string with a B and the B with a top E. There were no mixing desks or fold back speakers. It was only hours of practice, technique and enthusiasm that sorted out the good from the mediocre. Groups were springing up from everywhere and you fought for your place on the music scene by being better than your peers - not by the use of 'kit' technology. That healthy competition was the thing that generated great 'energy filled' live acts and gave the UK worldwide musical kudos. There was not an act in the US that could match up to that current batch of British bands - they were all still pussy cats. In turn, that period of R&B music had its day and was swallowed up by the music that was now becoming more melodic and "Summery" like stuff from the Lovin Spoonful etc. The Beatles and Brian Wilson launched themselves into their competitive creativity phase and the world followed but for a short couple of years when R&B ruled it was just the best time of all to be a young musician and it was head down, on yer' toes R and B that was the original 1960's Brumbeat. Anything that came after that should be called something else. These days some Brummie DJs annoyingly categorise themselves as being Brumbeat - think of at least one thing thats original, 'Kin Tossers!

No Old Rockers were intentionally harmed during the writing of this article!

Keep music, played by real musicians, live!!!!

Bob has left the Blog.......


A sad farewell to Bobby Pickett (The Monster Mash) - I'm afraid he wont be working late in the lab anymore...........



Just for a bit of fun, here are some guitar headstocks from models used during the Brumbeat years but photographed from the back. Answers below:1.

This early solid body guitar was quite a favourite of the group scene and was regarded as being years ahead of its rivals electronically. It had many admirers of note.


This headstock belongs to a guitar that was British made and this particular range came in three models. A budget guitar for people who couldn't afford a Stratocaster but wanted to look like they had one.


Not unlike the shape of headstock number one. There was quite a difference between the two guitars though both in price and quality but the two do have something in common. This guitar company invented the magnetic guitar pick up.

This gorgeous guitar went out of production and when re-introduced again was just a shadow of its former glory. A wild ringing sound from this piece of kit, I know - I had one and would love to have it back again!


Strange and ugly headstock shape. There were only a couple of decent playable electric 12 strings and this was the other one. Used by The Move.


Elpico AC 55

This famous little piece of kit was a run of the mill cheap amp until Dave Davies of the Kinks slashed the cone of the speaker with a razor blade and Shazam - the first distorded guitar sound was born, it probably would just have disappeared into oblivion if it were not for the history of "You Really Got Me" I guess it still is a cheap amp in reality. I dont personally remember anyone using this particular model but do remember Elpico more as a PA amp.

Very 50's styling and choice of colour, it resembles a radio from the front.

Sporting 3 inputs (Mic 1, Mic 2 and Gramophone!), chicken head control knobs and boasting an eliptical 6 inch speaker the volume from this this could probably fill the inside of a shoe box. Paul McCartney used one in his Hamburg days reportedly.

I always scan the background of old group photos to see what kit they were using and I dont recall ever seeing one of these things. Probably someone out there owned one and will no doubt let me know about its history. A nice piece of memorabilia though.


Wow, what a scorcher!!!..Real lovers of early Brumbeat will be pleased to know that I am now in contact with the great TANYA DAY and hope to soon have an article heading your way ... not to be missed!! This really is the biz!!

Dont forget to check out the third article in the 'Six of the Best' series.... coming this month Willie Hammond, guitarist of The Uglys.

Till next time........Could things get any better?

Bulls Head Bob

Headstock answers: 1. Futurama 2. Watkins Rapier 3. Rickenbacker 4. Epiphone Casino 5. Fender 12 string.

Copyright Bullsheadbob

Contributions and/or comments to Bobsbullocks@gmail.com