UPDATED October 11, 2021
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“Cor blimey, guv’! Old London tarn a blues city? We ain’t Septics yet!”, cackled the black cab driver, as cockney as they come. I’d just put the question to him on my way to watch London garage blues band, the Jim Jones Review, at the Blues Kitchen, Shoreditch. The band sounds like a gang-fight set to 12-bar blues, I’d once read in a newspaper.
|London blues circa June 2014. The Jim Jones Review. Check them below
The taxi driver, oblivious to London’s rich blues history, was speaking cockney rhyming-slang, originally created around the 1850s by London’s criminal classes to prevent the police and ‘the Establishment’ eavesdropping on their dodgy conversations. Septic, for example, is short for Septic Tank, which rhymes with Yank. Only the first word of any couplet is usually used, adding to the confusion of the listener. Not for a moment, though, am I suggesting my taxi driver was dodgy, just that he was ignorant about London’s connection to the blues. Nor is the subject of cockney rhyming-slang totally irrelevant. When rhyming-slang was being created in mid-nineteenth-century London, England’s capital was a goldmine for visiting American musicians: minstrel performers – white and black.
|The Georgia Minstrels, formed around 1865, toured UK and even Australia
The rock and pop stars of their day, minstrels performed primarily African-American-inspired music, a precursor to the genres that led to the blues. And the minstrels weren’t just American. During the 1800s, many top British musicians were employed by American minstrel troupes touring the United States and elsewhere. It was two-way traffic.
Even so, London’s embrace of minstrelsy was no more than that of any American city, so how else can London claim to have contributed to the development of the African-American style of music that ended up as blues?
|David Garrick didn’t have the “blews” but he was the first known to mention them on paper.
Let’s start with the term itself. The first known reference to blues, as a description for sadness, appeared in London in 1741. The famous actor, David Garrick, wrote in a published letter, “I am far from being quite well, tho not troubled with the blews as I have been.” If you’ve been to London, you’ll know the Garrick Theatre named after him, as are many Garrick theatres around the world. The blues took its name from the earlier term “The blue devils”, meaning “the horrors, or remorse that usually follows an ill course of life”. This first appeared in a volume of English satirical poetry published in London around 1599, details of which are in my printed book America’s Gift (the untold story of how blues evolved) and eBook, How Blues Evolved Volume One.
Getting back to the blues as a musical genre, right back in the beginning, an English soprano from London, Catherine Comerford Hillier, became the first person known to perform an African-American-inspired song before a paying audience. (It seems extremely unlikely slaves themselves were ever paid to perform in those mean-spirited days.)
Meet the London lady who sang an African-American-inspired song way back in 1799.
Catherine, the daughter of a London attorney, performed her German husband’s slave-inspired song, ‘The Gay Negro Boy’, on stage, in an interlude between acts at the Federal Street Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, in 1799. Catherine, 30, had married the famous oboist, Johann Christian Gottlieb Graupner, in London three years earlier, when Graupner was part of Joseph Haydn’s London-based orchestra.
|Johann Graupner was first to compose a slave-inspired tune publicly performed before a paying audience.
Catherine was 27 at the time and Johann, 25. On moving to Boston, the high-flying young couple became the leading lights of the city’s classical music scene and I believe their descendants still live in the USA today.
Jo Graupner is said to have been inspired by black street music that “overwhelmed” him, after wandering by mistake into a slave quarter, in Virginia, on arrival in America in 1795. More details about this can be found in my post of 10 June 2013, “The Englishwoman who Sang the Blues in 1799”. But it was another Londoner, born in 1776, who was virtually single-handedly responsible for creating the birth of the blues as we know it. He was the most famous comic actor of his generation, renowned on both sides of the Atlantic, a comedian called Charles Matthews. Matthews’ repertoire included making fun of typical British characters and their broad regional accents. Naturally, when touring the United States in 1822 and 1833, he was expected to poke similar fun at American stereotypes. To the delight of local audiences, Matthews incorporated into his act caricatures of what he called certain American types and their dialects.
The Londoner who introduced African-American-inspired song to the world in 1823.
Matthews’ ‘types’ included the Fearless Frontiersman, the Clever Yankee, and the African Tragedian, whom the Londoner performed in blackface, singing and talking in the slave idiom of the 1820s. This was the moment black slave music started a 90-year evolutionary journey that culminated in blues, as a form of music, being captured on paper and specifically named, for the first time, in Oklahoma City, in March 1912. (See Great Blues Cities post of 11 May 2014.) Charles Matthews came up with his blackface act after watching African-American actors perform a Shakespearean play at New York’s African Theatre. During a soliloquy performed by the company’s principal actor, James Hewlett, the mainly white audience began clamouring for ‘Possum up a Gum Stump’, a popular slave song in vogue in 1820s America. To Matthews’ amazement, the actor Hewlett abandoned his eloquent Shakespearean speech and performed the slave song with gusto, in the required vernacular of the southern plantations.
|Londoner Charles Matthews started blues ball rolling.
Charles Matthews, noting the wild reaction Hewlett received from the packed audience, quickly added the slave song into his own act. Matthews’ version of Possum up a Gum Stump would become the highlight of his sell-out American tour. When Matthews took the act back to Britain, the demand for African-American-style music left by his departure was filled by a host of imitators. These entertainers would become known as Ethiopian delineators.
One of Charles Matthews’ first imitators, ironically, was the very same black actor, James Hewlett, who had inspired Matthews in the first place. James Hewlett, observes Prof. Shane White of Sydney University, performed a similar one-man show for another decade, mainly to white audiences. “In his early shows of 1823 and 1824, Hewlett had been virtually a Matthews clone,” writes White. According to theatre playbills, the African American’s performances were completely dominated by material that originated with Matthews. At the end of 1824, Hewlett, too, set sail for London, “to give entertainments after the fashion of Matthews”. (Check 28 June 2013 archive, The English Comedian who Sparked the Blues.)
|Joel Sweeney: first white banjo player
The man who introduced white America to the banjo, did likewise in London
It may surprise you to learn that the development of Ethiopian delineating – performing the music of the African-American slave plantations – was happening simultaneously in both Britain and America throughout the nineteenth century. For example, Joel Sweeney, the first white American to learn the banjo, toured England with the Sands Great American Circus Company in 1843. Sweeney, who was taught by slaves as a teenager on his father’s farm in Virginia, first performed in London on January 23, 1843, and was received so well in England, he stayed for two years. Significantly, then, the man who first popularized the banjo in the United States also first brought it to the attention of audiences in England.
London hosted the longest-running American minstrel show ever: 1862 to 1902
|London handbill for Moore & Burgess
While minstrelsy is looked down upon these days, it did, nevertheless, play a major part in the developing the blues. In 1862, one of the many incarnations of America’s famous Christy Minstrels floating around Britain and USA, took up residency at London’s top concert venue, St. James’ Hall in Piccadilly. They featured the only original Christy’s Minstrels still performing at that time, two Americans called George ‘Pony’ Moore and Freddy Burgess. These two showmen were the only authentic claimants on the over-used Christy name left surviving. Unbelievably, the group remained resident in London, pumping out their Ethiopian melodies, for over 40 years, although they did change the name of their act in the 1870s to the Moore & Burgess Minstrels. By then, Moore & Burgess now had obtained even more cachet than Christy’s.
London: home of the first recorded black blues in 1917
|The first black band to record the blues recorded them in London
One of the most important international blues milestones of all took place in London in 1917. This was the first black recording of a blues song, anywhere in the world. The recording took place three years before what is almost universally considered to be the first African-American blues recording, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”, in New York in 1920. The musicians at that London session, were mainly African Americans recruited in New York by a Jamaican band leader, Dan Kildare. They took a residency in 1916, during the midst of World War One in Europe, at a London nightclub called Ciro’s. (It’s interesting to note that Hollywood’s famous movie-star hangout, of the 1940s and 50s, was also called Ciro’s, which is Spanish for throne or sun.)
Recording under the demeaning name of Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra (such was the ignorance of the era) the band not only cut the world’s first version of ‘St. Louis Blues’ with vocals, they were also the first black musicians ever to record a blues track. Take a listen to the link below. The quality’s poor, and what sounds at first like a kazoo is actually the vocal, sang by Dan’s brother, Walter Kildare, another Jamaican. The lead instrument is probably a banjolin, a mandolin with a banjo body.
Here it here. The world’s first black blues recording
If you’re interested in reading more about Dan Kildare and his band, please check my archive of 21 December, 2013. All through the nineteenth century, prominent African-American performers entertained in London and the UK. The father of tap-dancing, Master Juba, caused a sensation in London in 1847. He was known as Boz’s Juba because he was championed by the writer, Charles Dickens.
|19th century tap dancing pioneer, James A. Bland. Michael Jackson’s dance moves started with Mr. Bland.
The African American billed as the world’s greatest minstrel man, the banjo player and singer, James A. Bland, spent 20 years in London from 1881. And the Afro-Canadian duo, the Bohee Brothers, are said to have taught the Prince of Wales, later King Edward V11, how to play the banjo at Buckingham Palace in the 1890s. Apparently, the eldest son of Queen Victoria was an African-American music lover from way back.
Into the twentieth century, African-American singers like Alberta Hunter, were performing in London, even before she cut her first record, ‘Downhearted Blues, in 1922. ‘The Dixie Nightingale’, Eva Taylor, born in 1896, had toured Europe, New Zealand and Australia while still in her teens. While blues divas like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were known in Britain during the 1920, it was the African-American jazz bands (who sometimes included blues in their repertoires) who toured the UK until the 1950s. Duke Ellington performed in London many times in the 1930s Louis Armstrong was based, and recorded, there. Even during WW2 in the 1940s, blues and jump blues was regularly performed live at the many US military bases dotted around England.
|Blues is born again, in 1950s London. Blues singer Ottilie Patterson paved the way
In the 1950s, things began to get serious again. As blues was falling out of fashion in much of America, a whole host of influential African-American blues performers started playing London’s folk clubs. Big Bill Broonzy was a constant visitor. Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon went over as did Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lonnie Johnson (for the first time since WW1) and a host of others. Indeed, Rosetta and Lonnie duetted with the Northern Irish blues singer, Ottilie Paterson, who not only fronted Chris Barber’s Jazz band in London, she was married to him. Mostly forgotten but still great, check out Ottilie here:
Discover Ottilie Paterson’s Weeping Willow Blues
While formally a jazz band, Londoner Chris Barber’s band played some mean blues, as you’ll have heard in the last link, backing his wife, Ottilie Paterson. Also in Barber’s band was Lonnie Donegan, who later had a smash hit with an up-tempo version of Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line.
|Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle inspired John Lennon’s Quarrymen plus countless other British blues rock bands
Two years earlier, Lonnie had changed his name from Tony Donegan to Lonnie Donegan, in honour of his idol, the great blues guitarist and singer, Lonnie Johnson. (See Why Lonnie Johnson Was The Most Influential Blues Guitarist Of All post – archive 17 June 2013.)
Between them, Chris Barber, Lonnie Donegan and Ken Collier started Britain’s skiffle craze although Lonnie took the lion’s share of the limelight. Skiffle, a uniquely British precursor to rock & roll during the 1950s, took its name from the African-American skiffle parties of the 1920s, held to raise rent money. Earlier US bands like Jimmy O’Bryant & his Chicago Skifflers and Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys inspired the name. It was the excitement created by skiffle, backed up by the constant visiting of African-American blues stars, that inspired a whole generation of English musicians such as John Lennon, who founded the Quarrymen skiffle group (who became the Beatles) and London’s own Johnny Kidd and the Pirates who are today looked back upon as Britain’s best-ever rock & roll band. (See post of 15 May 2014 and the Mick Green post just before it.)
There was also this young lad with his skiffle group on the video below. One James Page who, as you probably know, went on to become one of the most influential blues and rock guitarists of them all.
|Here’s how the young lad turned out.
Welcome to the future. Watch Jimmy Page, 14, playing skiffle on UK TV in 1957
Where do we begin, naming the English blues performers who came out of London in the 1960s and regenerated declining African-American blues music in the USA and around the world.
|What aspiring British blues musician (not to mention American blues icon) didn’t play with Alexis Korner?
The great Alexis Korner, who arrived in London aged 12 in 1940, started his Blues Incorporated band in 1961 with his harmonica-blowing mate, Cyril Davis. (See GodFather of British Blues post of 24 July 2013.) British blues icons who were members of Blues Incorporated include drummers Charlie Watts and Ginger Baker, bassist Jack Bruce and vocalist Long John Baldry. Youngsters who were invited to perform with Blues Incorporated include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Rod Stewart, and Jimmy Page. Yorkshire’s John McLaughlin, once described by Jeff Beck as “the best guitarist alive”, was a member of Alexis Korner and the Marzipan Twisters. McLaughlin later became the guitarist in American jazz legend Miles Davis’s band. The Rolling Stones, of course, started their momentous career in London in 1962, as did those other London blues pioneers the Pretty Things, Yardbirds and Kinks a year later.
|Bothers and Dave and Ray Davies lead the Kinks
And if you don’t think the Kinks played raw British blues, take a look at this clip:
The Kinks Milk Cow Blues from 1965
The Kinks used to play some mind-blowing electric blues in their early days even if that tends to have been forgotten. Two thirds of Cream, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, were London lads (even if Eric came from London’s more genteel Surrey outskirts.) Cream, formed in 1966, continued the blues-rock revival in America that the Stones started. For a couple of years they were bigger than the Beatles in America, their US phenomenal US success causing them to become the first band ever to appear in their own documentary on British TV. Cockney Peter Green founded the original Fleetwood Mac in London as a hardcore blues band in 1967, with fellow Londoners, John McVie and Danny Kirwin, amongst others. Unhappily, bad acid trips in Germany put paid to Green’s career, and blues guitar skills, forever. Also formed in London in 1967 was the Jeff Beck Group, the importance of whose ground-breaking US tours, and impact on American blues-rock audiences, today is grossly under-rated.
|Jeff Beck Group in 67. From left: Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood and Aynsley Dunbar
Other Londoners in that band, of course, included singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood.
Londoner session players John Paul Jones (bass and piano) and Jimmy Page (the 14-year old on the previous link) started Led Zeppelin in 1968, with a pair of unknowns from the English Midlands.
Jimmy Page is said to have found out about vocalist Robert Plant when the singer was jamming with Alexis Korner. From their blues roots in London, most of these Londoner musicians went on to become international rock stars of the highest order, influencing millions of musicians around the world.
And of course, one of the most innovative blues and rock guitarists of all time, Seattle’s own Jimi Hendrix, made his name and found fame in London. Jimi lived in London and died there in 1970.
Even if London isn’t in America, it still ranks, in my mind anyway, as one of the world’s great blues cities. To find out more about the fascinating history of this great music we call the blues, invest in my new printed book, America’s Gift, the untold story of how blues evolved. Alternatively (for a song) download my two pictorial blues eBooks, How Blues Evolved. Volume One takes you up to 1895 and Volume Two continues the story. We end at the second Chicago blues era of the 1950s, the era of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and peers. It’s not covered by me because I felt American blues in the 1950s is too well documented to need yet another book.
It’s what went on before then that nobody knows about. I invite you to explore them.