Tag Archives: Ma Rainey

The Deity of British Blues – Alexis Korner

8 Sep

Alexis Korner

Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Ma Rainey, Big Bill Broonzy – Names that are forever linked with their god-like status among the propagation of American Blues – an extensive genre that had an indelible impact on the future molding of rock ‘n’ roll.

On the other side of the pond, British jazz musicians and fans became ensconced with the Blues music of musicians like Ma Rainey and Fats Waller, acquiring much of these tunes from African-American GIs stationed there during the Wars. After the Skiffle craze died down in the 1950s, many Skiffle-influenced musicians turned their attention to pure Blues music. Muddy Waters had a shocking electric (literally) visit to England where he shocked Brits with his amplified electric blues. Some were appalled by his lack of reverence for the classic style, but the youth ate up this edgy playing. Among them was a guitarist by the name of Alexis Korner, who, like the Blues ancestors above, would spark a focus on Blues in Britain and influence a slew of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest musicians. Thus, he too should be considered a true Blues god, and it should come to no surprise that he is often given the moniker of the “Father of British Blues.”

Korner’s elaborate music history is extensive and impactful. It is not easy to keep the plenitude of anecdotes to a minimum, but for the sake of the reader I shall limit my focus to a few stories. Like, for example, in 1969 while touring with a new band, Korner was jamming with a little-known singer named Robert Plant. Jimmy Page, who often performed with Korner at the Marquee Club, was intrigued by Plant’s voice and asked him to join The New Yardbirds…who would soon turn into a rock band called Led Zeppelin with Page and Plant at the helm.

But I am getting ahead of myself. That was in the late 60s. Korner’s career (even though he dabbled in Skiffle) really began in 1961 when he founded Blues Incorporated with Blues harmonica extraordinaire Cyril Davies. Blues Incorporated (like The Yardbirds, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, and Cyril Davies’ All-Stars) was an early example of a “supergroup.” But, in truth, it was just a platform for talented blues musicians to play music. Blues Incorporated, though, has the special mark as the first electrified Blues band in Britain. The band secured a residency at the Marquee (mentioned above) and even established an R&B Night at Ealing Jazz Club.

Remember what I said about the youth loving electrified Blues music? Well, where do you think they went to hear this music? And who do you think inspired them to pursue this music? So when I tell you that Korner played with musicians like Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Paul Jones, Eric Burdon, and many, many others, you should not be too surprised. Most of the early Blues musicians in Britain are linked with Alexis Korner in some way. He is like the Kevin Bacon of British Blues. And when Cyril Davies left Korner to form his All-Stars he played with musicians like Nicky Hopkins and Long John Baldry until he died far too young in 1964. The All-Stars were led by Baldry who created Hoochie Coochie Man, featuring a singer named Rod Stewart. Page also had a few All-Stars jam sessions, adding individuals like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, and Mick Jagger to the mix.

But back to Korner for one more story before I urge you to watch this documentary about him.

Blues Incorporated was asked by BBC radio to broadcast a session in the early 60s, but the producer only had room for six musicians. The seventh member of the group with a singer named Mick Jagger. Jagger was asked to gather some friends and play the normal spot at the Marquee. The friends he gathered were Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Ian Stewart on piano, Dick Taylor on bass and Tony Chapman on drums. The band went by the name of  Rollin’ Stones after a Muddy Waters tune.

Cyril Davies on vocals and harmonica. Alexis Korner playing a mean acoustic guitar. Released in November, 1962.

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Many Matches in the Matchbox

4 Sep

It’s often shocking how often you find yourself unknowingly enjoying a modern incarnation of a song that has its roots embedded in the past. Covers are great, but they spawn histories that are often forgotten. The Blues Evolution is The Music Court’s attempt to combine two engaging topics, music and history, and share tales of popular blues songs that were first recorded before the first rock n’ roll song was ever created.

Today’s song of choice is “Matchbox,” a blues song born in the 1920s and covered 30 years later by Carl Perkins (and later the Beatles). It is also a great example of musical telephone, where Perkins was forced to guess on the lyric of the decade-old blues song, thus creating an entirely new song that simply held the original’s foundation. So, if you will oblige, let’s take a trip down the long stretch of road that is blues history.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

It all begins with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Well, kind of. Blind Lemon was just one of the many ultra-talented blind blues musicians who inspired the eventual creation of rock n’ roll, but he developed “Matchbox” because he was inspired by a lyric in a Ma Rainey song. Blind Lemon, who has been called the Father of Texas Blues, was inspired by Ma Rainey – “The Mother of the Blues.” The blues ancestry works much like mythology, it seems. Blind Lemon and Ma Rainey inspired Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and many, many others.

In Ma Rainey’s 1924 record “Lost Wandering Blues,” she sings, “Lord, I’m standing here wondering, Will a matchbox hold my clothes. I’ve got a sun to beat, I’ll be farther down the road.” In a pre-sampling example of sampling, Blind Lemon took that lyric and wrote, “I’m sittin’ here wonderin’ would a matchbox hold my clothes.
I ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go.” Quite similar, indeed. Blind Lemon’s version of the lyric became more popular, but credit must be given to Ma Rainey as well.

There is Blind Lemon’s high croon and traditional Texas acoustic blues guitar. Gosh, pre-rock n’ roll blues is just awesome, isn’t it? This song was recorded several more times through the 30s and 40s but to no true popularity, though it was through one of these covers that the song was reintroduced to the public.

Thirty years later, Carl Perkins’ father suggested he cover the song in a December, 1956 recording session. Perkins’ father, Buck, was a student of old country music, and several country musicians covered the Blind Lemon song in the 1930s and 40s. He only remembered a few lines of the song. Carl decided to try his luck, and the session pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis (not a bad session pianist!), played a boogie rhythm on the piano. Perkins transformed the song into fast-paced rockabilly…with completely different lyrics.

The line that Blind Lemon adopted from Ma Rainey is still there. It is the only similarity that remains. The song, which Blind Lemon made about a mean woman, became a about a poor boy a long way from home. Here is Carl Perkins performing the song with Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton because we can!

The Beatles, who were inspired by Perkins, had received a request to record a Perkins song, and in 1964 they recorded the song with Perkins himself standing by. Yes, he was invited to the session, and did jam with the band (just not on the track). Ringo was tasked with the vocal responsibilities, and he sang the song while playing his drum set.

From the mother to the father to Mr. Blue Suede Shoes to the greatest band of the 20th century. And to think, I’m sittin’ here wondering if a matchbox will hold my clothes.

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