In January 2005 blues fans in the Peterborough area were stunned by the re-emergence of the Shakedown series of live blues jams. The last Shakedown gigs were seen in 1972 when promoter Gerard Homan put up the shutters and decided he needed a proper job to keep the wolves at bay. These now legendary shows began in 1966 and featured , Dr Ross, Boogie Woogie Red, Lightnin' Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Rev Gary Davis, Big Boy Crudup, Jimmy Dawkins, Little Brother Montgomery, Roy Bookbinder, Baby Boy Warren, Erwin Helfer, King Biscuit Boy, Eddie Burns, Sunnyland Slim, Larry Johnson, Curtis Jones, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Jo-Ann Kelly, T.S. McPhee, Stefan Grossman, Alexis Korner, Spider John Koerner etc, etc together with a funky little house band called Ma Grinders Blues Mission.
Now thirty-six odd years later, he was back with a stellar cast and a new funky little band called The Ma Grinder.
THE DROUGHT WAS OVER! THE REAL BLUES IS BACK.
Ramblings of a blues promoter:
I began my retirement with a concert by Travis Haddix which led me back to my old love of promoting blues, this in turn meant that I have become re-acquainted with other enthusiasts from the good old days and in particular with David Popple from The Stamford Arts Centre who had kept the faith almost single handed with a superb series of Guitar Festivals which are now in their 8th year. Together Dave and I decided to run a series featuring 'top dollar' black American blues people who in the main have never been to the UK before and do not rely on 'Sweet home Chicago' to win over the audience.
The aim of the series is to allow aspiring blues musicians the chance to see, hear and feel the music of working black American artists and to re-establish the link between the music's true origins and it's future 'stars'. All the gigs have been enjoyable, if not always financially sound. Fortunately in one of our darker monetary moments a sponsor visited us and was happy to meet our shortfall. 'Bottom Line' is that the shows are being run for the love of the music and it is our way of thanking the originators for all the years of enjoyment that they have given us.
Our thanks go the artists for travelling 1000's of miles to be with us, Rowena for putting up with me, Caroline for her help in the 'office', Ian Sheldon for setting up everything and being a good friend, Dick Cartmel for his unstinting support, Duncan Vessey for his photography, Evening Telegraph, Blues & Rhythm, Juke Blues and Tales from the Woods for their interest in the project, Dave Williams for his tireless enthusiasm, the various members, past and present, of The Ma Grinder without whom none of this would be possible, Rex Gates for all his help and friendship and Jeremy Watson who made it possible in the early days with his charts and open-ended generous offer to help with loans of guitars, amps, PA etc;
We would also like to thank the few independent shops and restaurants that display our posters and distribute our leaflets - we know who you are- and to Paul Jones on BBC Radio 2 for his enthusiastic support, Foz on Radio Suffolk, Gary Hearn on Fen Radio, Key Theatre for listing us in KeyTimes and Spalding Art Centre for handling our flyers also Sue Marchant on Radio Cambridge and Lite FM for their 'What's on' mentions.
Even more Ramblings of an agitated Blues Promoter:
I was recently asked what had prompted me to promote Jazz and Rhythm and Blues in the 60’s. This question made me think about the early days, the people involved in nurturing my interest in Afro-American music. I thought perhaps some of you might be interested in the answer.
Thinking back over the years I realise that my interest in jazz was fostered by my elder brother John’s collection of modern and main stream jazz records. He also inadvertently lit the fuse of my lifetime obsession with Blues by bringing home a Decca 78 of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by the white Louis Jordan stylist Bill Haley. I had never heard anything so exciting and from that day onwards I decided to devote myself to buying as many Rock and Roll records that my meagre pocket money allowed. Little did I know that Alan Freed had coined the name ‘Rock and Roll’ to encompass a mishmash of different musical styles including Rhythm and Blues, Doo-Wop, Rock-a-Billy and pure pop and so each week I would buy the latest ‘must have’ rock record by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Moonglows, Little Richard or Chuck Berry - all of which were being touted as being ‘a great R&R record’ by various record companies.
In 1956, whilst languishing in a boarding school in Hitchin, I crept into a local cinema one Saturday afternoon to watch Alan Freed’s film ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’. I became so engrossed by the performances by Lavern Baker, The Flamigos, Frankie Lyman and Chuck Berry that I was late returning to school and soundly beaten for my misdemeanour. Undaunted a few months later I went to see ‘Rock Around The Clock’ - and caught my first glimpse of Little Richard and the wonderful Platters. The following year I managed to see ‘Mr Rock & Roll’ and I still remember being bowled over by Clyde McPhatters superb rendition of Rock and Cry. ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ came next featuring Fats Domino and The Treniers with their ‘oh so cool’ drummer twirling his sticks.
More importantly, as far as furthering my musical scholarship was concerned, I queued up during the holidays to pay my sixpence in order to watch the seminal 1958 Newport Jazz Festival documentary ‘Jazz On A Summers Day’. This film starts with the brilliant ‘Train and The River’ by Jimmy Giuffre and wends its way through performances including those by Thelonious Monk, Billy Holiday, Chuck Berry - singing, playing and dancing with Sydney Bechet, - Big Maybelle, Mahalia Jackson and the wonderful Chico Hamilton Quartet. At the end of the film I was left feeling dazed and shortly thereafter I came to the realisation that the music which really appealed to me was being produced by black Afro-Americans.
With a little research, using back copies of Jazz Journal, it dawned on me that ‘The Blues’ was the bedrock of all great Afro-American jazz, R&B and R&R records that I enjoyed. For a while I decided to only buy ‘pure blues’ recordings by the likes of Skip James, Blind Gary Davis, Lonnie Johnson, Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Bill Broonzy, Scrapper Blackwell, Snooks Eaglin. However, this phase didn’t last too long because a chance hearing of Howlin' Wolf ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ on a London EP knocked me sideways and put pay to my purest period. After that my shekels were also spent on Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, Little Walter and Young Jessie.
In the early 60’s I moved to Holland and my arrival happened at the same time as the flowering of the Dutch main-stream/modern jazz craze. My new friends bombarded me with jazz records by the likes of Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Dave Brubeck and the MJQ I reciprocated by playing the latest rhythm & blues records by John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
Moving to Paris the following year coincided with the first ‘American Folk Blues Festival’ and my being able to see my blues idols ‘live’ was a mind blowing experience. That same year saw the ‘American Blues and Gospel Festival’ in town and my first ‘live’ encounter with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann was almost eclipsed by the brilliant set by the electric guitar toting gospel artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. During that time in Paris live music was not just confined to the odd festival experience. Every Friday night I would venture into the Quatre Latin and would encounter the likes of Memphis Slim, Curtis Jones. Mae Mercer, and Ornette Coleman playing in tiny bars that would be full if thirty people turned up! Sessions would start around 10pm and end at 3 or 4am. Memories are made of this!
Moving back to Britain I found the first U.K blues boom in full swing with regular tours being organized featuring Freddie King , Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Alexis Koerner, John Mayall and Eric Clapton were becoming household names and they could be seen playing on the bandstand or as audience members attending these gigs. By this time the blues and gospel fusion, known as soul music - created almost single-handedly by Ray Charles - was also being adopted by the blues/jazz fraternity who correctly considered it to be a blues form. The British bands enthusiastically ignored pigeonholing the various blues styles and created a new and exciting music which embraced Jazz, Blues, R&B and Soul and added a British twist. The future for the music looked bright and my record collection expanded with sides by Eugene Church, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Don Covay.
Meanwhile, whilst the rest of Britain basked in a surfeit of live blues music, we in Peterborough could only read about these legendary shows with envy as one by one these tours passed us by. The odd gig by Freddie King or Sonny Boy Williamson might turn up in March or Wisbech but Peterborough remained a desert as far as Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Soul or any other decent music was concerned.
There was of course the Peterborough trad; jazz club at the Halcyon and the Peterborough folk club at The Crown Inn. As I had an intense dislike of the former and a distain for the latter my choice was limited. I think I eventually drifted into the folk club simply because it had a surfeit of good looking women in the crowd. However, it was here that I met a bearded guitar player Ed Humphries and his harmonica playing sidekick Rod Garfield, who made the evenings bearable for me with excellent versions of Leadbelly and Broonzy songs. We kept in touch and had long conversations bemoaning the lack of live blues in the area. This then eventually led to us beginning a series of concerts, initially under a variety of banners, which included The Bloo-Doo at the Crown Inn in Peterborough, which morphed into the Blues Project at the Elwis Hall, and eventually becoming ‘Shakedown’. The booking policy assumed blues to be a jazz form and included a number of modern and avant-garde jazz sessions. By the time the programme had became housed in the Halcyon under the Shakedown banner we had decided to form a house band. With the help of Ed’s friend Bob Green we advertised in The Peterborough Evening Telegraph for local musicians with a penchant for the blues to audition for a place in the Ma Grinder’s Blues Mission.
For those of you who have wondered about the name of the band and the club - Shakedown was the title of the initial album by the Savoy Brown’s Blues Band and I liked the name. As for Ma Grinder’s Blues Mission the first half was a brilliant piano piece by Robert Shaw and should have been the name of the band however Bob insisted on calling it ‘The Blues Mission’ so we compromised on a combination of the two. So there you have it.
When Shakedown eventually closed down through lack of funds in 1972 I did run Peterborough’s first discotheque (nightclub in modern parlance) in a back room of the Crown Inn, Westgate together with a friend, Frank Webber. Whilst Frank sat on the door taking money and keeping undesirables from getting in I had a ball playing a selection of the latest R&B singles by Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Desmond Decker and Ike and Tina Turner to an audience ‘that didn’t give a damn’ as long as Bobby Bland, Junior Parker or B B King played material that they could dance to. Our outlay for this affair was minimal with Frank begging for the loan of a decent amp from a friend, us paying for a large pot of paint for the walls and ceiling and enough money to buy ‘I Spy for The FBI’ and bucket loads of Motown – the money poured in and after six months we went on a budget holiday to the Costa Brava with the proceeds and met up with a bunch of Dutch friends to eat Paella and drink cooking wine. This was the high life. Unfortunately returning to Peterborough a couple of weeks later we found that the oiks who asked us to allow them to DJ whilst we were away buddied up with the landlord and Frank and I were out of the disco business. However I did have the makings of a great record collection.
By this time I had managed to talk my way into a job in sales for the Palmers Fertiliser Company and eventually was offered work in their fishmeal department, which had seen better days. Working for a boss who could not make decisions led to a quick learning curve in management skills and before you could say Jack Robinson I was head of the department and had a steady income which allowed me to pay the mortgage and grow my children - but there was little left for record buying. A chance conversation with a local Jazz fan that wrote reviews for a local Jazz magazine pushed me into asking Peterborough Evening Telegraph to let me write a blues/R&B/soul column in the paper.
This eventually led to a torrent of LP’s pouring through my letterbox. Whole series’ of Pablo records honed my knowledge of jazz with records by Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Bryant, Art Tatum and Ella Fitzgerld whilst I was also kept busy listening to the latest Delmark’s by Sleepy John Estes, Junior Wells, Arthur Crudup, J B Hutto and then there was Alligator’s first Hound Dog Taylor LP – what a revelation, total anarchy. On Blue Thumb came the Crusaders with their wonderful new noise and the Pointer Sisters first album, which set such a high standard that most of their subsequent work, was a disappointment. Whole swathes of Sonet’s blues and jazz series’ awaited me on my return from work, I still have a shoulder bag that holds the legacy of the blues series by Sam Charters with records by Bukka White, Snooks Eaglin, Champion Jack Dupree, Mighty Joe Young, Juke Boy Bomber, Big Joe Williams, Memphis Slim, J D Short, Robert Pete Williams, Eddy Boyd, Sunnyland Slim and Lightnin’ Slim. Bizarrely it also held Sam Morgan’s brother Andrews recipe for Red Beans. Who the hell was Sam Morgan?
Then the sheer number of records issued began to be a problem for both listening and storing. Eventually the weight of all this ground me down and I stopped reviewing and took a breather. For a while all this music kept coming and I particularly remember the first Dirty Dozens album arriving and it being a reason for collecting New Orleans music again. But I did miss live music, blues wasn’t available locally and the British jazz scene wasn’t my bag. I eventually washed up at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague in 1983.
Once inside the convention centre I was complete captivated by the depth and breadth of promoter Paul Akers vision of what a Jazz Festival should be. Three days of Dixieland, Mainstream, Bebop, Funk, Soul Jazz, Third Stream, Modern, Avantguard, and blues, blues, blues, it was all there and more. If you didn’t like what you heard you could walk over to another stage. Even if you didn’t like the music you knew that you were listening to the very best of what it was you didn’t like. Old timers and young turks rubbed shoulders and eventually this years unknowns would become next years headliners. I can’t remember now which jazz artists I saw at this first visit to the Festival but I do remember being completely bowled over by Luther Allison, Johnny Copeland, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, the quirky Dr John, the unbelievably exciting Buddy Guy, the manic Screamin Jay Hawkins, a stomping John Lee Hooker and the debonair John Hammond who I remembered fondly from a Vanguard Newport compilation and if this wasn’t enough there was Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon and Jay McShann. No wonder I came home bug eyed and dreamy.
In subsequent years I saw Miles Davis, a disorientated Dizzy Gillespie forgetting the title of 'A Night In Tunisia' much to the distress of band members, Albert Collins, a grotesquely fat Les McCann in the piano room singing blues and banging out boogies much to my surprise and delight; on the back of which I bought many of his records, but most disappointed. I saw Jimmy Smith being funky, Albert Ayers being difficult, Yusef Lateef never being quite as good as his name and Cannonball Adderley even better than his name. I also saw Fats Domino playing a set that was almost note for note the same as the recorded versions, Ernie K Doe who needed Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer to sit in and bring his set alive, Magic Slim whose set was alive from the very first note that he played, Papa John Greech playing wonderful blues on violin in a small basement room downstairs, Otis Rush having a bad time, the magnificent J B’s strutting their stuff and the following year the same band being fronted by James Brown who amazingly pushed the funk up to a higher level. I also remember second lining with my sister to Dave Bartholomew's amazing big band, laughing at Swamp Dogg and his ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe’, being astonished at ferocity of T-Model Ford, amazed by Ray Charles and listening whilst Nina Simone was spinning her web (and watching her on a different occasion being dragged off the stage totally stoned). Then there was Mose Allison, as cool as a cucumber, and Robert Cray ushering in the new. I observed Albert King smoking his pipe whilst berating the sound man and his band members and also remember listening to the angelic voice of Aaron Neville over the funk that is the Neville Bros. There was of course much more and every year and I would pack my bags in July and go to get my fix of live jazz in The Hague. Then one day Paul died and the new management decided to chase the money.
The first thing to go was the limit on the audience, you could not longer move between acts so easily. This meant you had to be more careful with choices so unknowns were not high on the list of ‘must sees’. Then there were the big pop star acts that were brought in to draw bigger crowds and this was followed by world music acts for the lovies. Eventually they started to theme the festival, one year it would be big band jazz (actually a great idea) another year it was South American Bossa Nova’s and Cuban takes (that was a dreadful year) and every year the jazz headliners became more and more predictable and the blues content would be B B King and Buddy Guy. It would be less about musicianship and more about star status. I stopped going.
JUST ANOTHER RAMBLE…
Meanwhile in Utrecht, Holland an energetic blues record collector was beavering away with a series of annual shows featuring artists that he knew from obscure vinyl 45’s. For the first fifteen years I could only manage to read the names on the Estafette adverts in blues magazines due to ‘fishmeal conferences’, in exotic locations, always clashing with Jan’s Estafette shows. Then in 2001 the conference date was altered and I scuttled off to Holland to get my first fix of the greatest Afro-American blues events that Europe has ever seen. Money did not seem to be an obstacle and relatively unknown artists were flown in, with their full working bands, to play for an hour and then giving way to the next band (Estafette means relay) There were two rooms that were crammed with blues fans from all over Europe and if you didn’t like what was on in one room you could move to the other.
The 2001 show consisted of James Nixon, the wonderful pianist Henry Gray, a super Louisiana artist Classie Ballou, a disappointing Harmonica Shah, from Detroit, the doowop group The Calvanes, the brilliant pianist and singer Lattimore, harmonica player Johnny Dyer, a truly dire Delta Slim and a wonderfully on form Lazy Lester. The buzz I got from this show was similar to my first visit to The North Sea Jazz Festival – I was hooked.
In 2002 I was introduced to Sharrie Williams whose show was breathtaking, it is a shame that it lead to her working in Europe with rock orientated musicians. I subsequently saw her playing with a German band at one of the North Sea Jazz Festival shows and walked out to find something different after a couple of unmemorable songs. I guess the money is good but Crosscut Records could and should have done much better by her. I was looking forward to seeing Jimmy Ellis but his show was marred by a ‘fan’ who had explained to Jimmy that the audience wanted to hear his ‘hits of yesteryear’. Jimmy could not remember the words of these long gone singles but ‘the fan’ was undaunted and wrote down the words before the show. Jimmy manfully attempted to read them during the performance and the band, who probably had never played these numbers before, were completely at sea. It was a disaster and I wanted to string up the ‘fan’. Despite this it was another good year that included Charles Walker, Roscoe Sheldon, The Mighty Hannibal and Joe Weaver with the Ross & Hunt act being my personal favourite.
2003 hit a high note with a magnificent ‘dried out’ Howard Tate, a brilliant Lou Pride – what a band; a healthy Lurrie Bell and Billy Lee Riley, who presumably meant to promote his then recent couple of blues CD’s. He was sidetracked by a loud-mouthed inebriated contingent that bullied him from the balcony into playing a luke warm set of his rock-a-billy classics. I contemplated mass murder! I was pleasantly surprised to see Linda Shell on the show. Charles Walker, Sam Taylor and Chick Willis were excellent whilst Long John Hunter, Little Freddie King and Miss Candy did it for me.
2004 was the 25th Anniversary of The Estafette and from the start it was evident that money was running out. The show had Sonny Burgess playing rock-a-billy, Johnny Drummer being boring and Charles Hayes sounding amateurish. There were highlights however and I received my first taste of the energetic show by the elderly Tommy Brown and the excellent world of SunPie. I also took to the lively Ellis Hooks with his back to front bass player and a sound that reminded me of the Rolling Stones in their blues period. Unfortunately cigarette and booze sponsorship was ending and the bands were not all working bands. The feeling was different and the big audiences were in the past. There was no 2005 Estafette and the lamenting began. Its track record was colossal and its vision amazing. It was a brilliant achievement and I started to consider my retirement plans. I began to wonder if I could organise something similar but without the enormous subsidies. The answer of course is no but a couple of years later I fell back to running Shakedown Blues. It was designed to have a similar Afro-American based formulae but without their own bands. At first I had dismissed the idea because UK based blues bands generally do not play blues. However, I eventually sold myself on the idea of working with good musicians who had a feeling and a passion for the blues and like to jam with Afro-American front liners.