IT’S OFFICIAL – THE BLUES BAND ARE STILL ROCKIN’
One of the joys of today’s thriving ‘live’ music scene is that it ensures the continuing presence of the Blues Band, one of the UK’s longest established touring and recording outfits.
It combines the talents of such legendary performers as Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness along with stalwarts Dave Kelly, Gary Fletcher and Rob Townsend and during 2011 they were as busy on the road as they were in the studio.
With a career stretching back 32 years the band has released a succession of fine albums, many of which are now scheduled for release on Repertoire. We have already seen the release of ‘The Best Of The Blues Band’ together with brand new studio album ‘Few Short Lines.’
Now their 1980 debut ‘Official Blues Band Bootleg Album’ and its follow up ‘Ready’ are all due out on Repertoire, complete with new interviews with the band members. They certainly have some fascinating stories to tell about the birth of the group. Tom and Paul were both original members of 1960s pop hit makers Manfred Mann and then enjoyed prolific solo careers before assembling the Blues Band in 1979.
Dave Kelly, a superb singer and slide guitarist was recruited to share guitar duties with Tom and he recommended bass guitarist Gary Fletcher formerly with East London ravers Sam Apple Pie. On drums in the original band was Hughie Flint, a veteran of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Hughie was later in McGuinness Flint with Tom and had a hit with ‘When I’m Dead And Gone’ back in 1970. Today’s Blues Band drummer is the brilliant Rob Townsend, who first came to fame with Family and has been a BB regular for the past 30 years.
The ‘Official Bootleg’ mainly features ‘covers’ of blues standards like Elmore James’ ‘Talk to Me Baby’ and ‘Two Bones And A Pick’ by T Bone Walker but also has a few originals such as ‘Dave Kelly’s ‘Going Home’. The album’s defiant title comes from the decision to fight back against the record companies that ignored them and said they were ‘too old’ and to press and distribute their own LPs. Eventually the album proved a best seller and a ‘real’ contract was awarded, leading to ‘Ready’ the band’s second and truly official album. Its 12 tracks have songs from the likes of Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles but also original compositions by Paul Jones, Dave Kelly and Tom McGuinness such as ‘Noah Lewis Blues’, ‘Come On In’ and ‘SUS Blues’.
But back to the beginning. Paul and Tom were Manfred Menn when they hit the charts with ‘Doo Wah Diddy Diddy in 1964. After many more hits Paul embarked on a successful career as an actor and broadcaster. Tom later formed McGuinness Flint in 1969 but the group split in 1971.
After a decade in the theatre Paul Jones yearned to return to the music he loved. He phoned Tom and wondered if he’d be interested in forming a blues group. McGuiness would, as long as it didn’t involve too much touring. Tom: “We got together to do just two gigs in the Spring of 1979.”
These were held at the ‘Bridge House’ pub in Canning Town. Tom: “It sort of mushroomed in the most surprising way. Often a lot of the best things in life happen by chance. After one night at the Bridge House all our phones started ringing.” They were asked to do other venues like the Half Moon, Putney and the Golden Lion, Fulham. But there were more surprises to come.
“We were astounded at the reaction. We went to the Bridge House for a sound check and then drove back to my place in Greenwich for a bite to eat. Drove back to the gig and we couldn’t park anywhere. It sounds naïve but we thought there must be a wedding or a function on. But the place was packed out with people coming to see us!”
Fans came up to them after the performance saying they’d love to buy a record. “So we thought we’d better make one. We had recorded a few tracks at the Hope & Anchor in Islington for an album called ‘R&B In London’. Then we went into a studio and laid down a few more tracks and put an album together.”
‘I’VE GOTTA START A BAND…’
Paul Jones: “At the time I’d been making my living as an actor for ten years doing straight plays. During that time I had very little to do with music of any kind. Then by the end of the Seventies, punk rock happened. As a side issue of punk a lot of bluesy bands came out of Essex like Dr.Feelgood, Eddie & The Hotrods and the Kursaal Fliers. By 1978 I was haring out of whatever theatre I was in and racing to the nearest gig. I might be at the Queens Theatre in Hull then when the curtain came down, I’d go off to see The Pirates playing in pub, still with my face make up on, just in time for the last two songs and the encore. Then I thought ‘This is ridiculous, I’ve just got to start a band.’
One night in late 1978 he chatted to the manager of the Hope & Anchor in Islington about his plan to put a blues band together. He replied: ‘Anytime you want a gig, ring me.’
Jones then contacted McGuiness. “Tom said: ‘I’m rather busy. It’s not going to be every night is it?’ I said it would only be one night a week. So then he was interested. I asked who we should get and he said ‘Hughie Flint’. For a while the band was a trio with no bass player. Then somebody told us Dave Kelly was around, doing solo gigs in folk clubs. He joined us on slide guitar and he brought Gary Fletcher with him. So that was the band. Gary was the least experienced but he had played with Sam Apple Pie a real heads down, no nonsense boogie band. “
Dave Kelly says: “Tom and Paul were looking for another guitarist and a mutual friend put me in touch. I wasn’t playing much at the time, just in a pub band called Dogs that had Wilgar Campbell, Rory Gallagher’s old drummer and Gary Fletcher who came into the Blues Band with me and Tom Nolan on guitar. As I had two young children I had to get a day job and was driving a laundry van. Then Tom called, we rehearsed and it all worked out. Tom played lead and I played slide and it made a nice contrast. What I liked about the band was every song was a single and didn’t go on for 15 minutes. I was also able to sing as well, which was nice because in every other band I’d been in, I’d been the lead singer.”
Gary Fletcher: “Before I joined the Blues Band I was driving a minicab. One damp morning a guy walked into the cab office in Streatham and wanted to go to Heathrow, wait and return. The guy was Wilgar Campbell the drummer, who had recently left Rory Gallagher’s band. We got chatting on the way and he was going to pick his sister up from the airport. It turned out we lived in the same road. When Wilgar heard I’d played with Sam Apple Pie he offered me a Sunday night blues gig.
So I went to the Bridge House where he had Tom Nolan on guitar who also worked at Fender Guitars. Wilgar played drums and he had Dave Kelly was singing and playing guitar. We played the Bridge House a few times as The Wild Cats. We travelled in Dave’s laundry van full of dirty laundry with our amps and guitars on top. One night Dave n said ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’ve had a call from Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness about forming a new band.’ So I said ‘If they need a bass player give me a shout!’ In the end I got a call and went along to rehearse with them in a church hall in Greenwich.”
Paul: “The Bridge House was our first gig and very enjoyable it was too. I was keen that not every song lasted ten minutes. My influence was an album by James Cotton called ‘Live And On The Move’. It was a double vinyl album but he was doing just two and a half minute songs. I thought that was great! So we did short tunes and insisted the flavour of the song persisted through the solos.”
Dave Kelly remembers their first gig: “We sound checked in the afternoon then drove back through the Blackwall Tunnel to Tom’s house and had some food. When we arrived back at the Bridge House at 7.30 p.m. we couldn’t park anywhere near the place. We thought there was a wedding on. But we found the place was absolutely heaving – ‘Oh Blimey!’ And it all went very well. Paul had put in a week of gigs and they were all sold out. So there was a market for the blues!”
The new outfit acquired manager Ray Williams and bootlegged their own album putting it out one thousand copies in a plain white sleeve. They numbered and signed them by hand and sold them all at gigs. Ray Williams got an Our Price record store in the West End to take a hundred copies. At 2 p.m. the store rang up and asked for another hundred LPs as they’d sold out.
THE BLUES BROTHERS – NOT
Tom: “Bear in mind we had offered it to a few record companies including EMI, who said they didn’t want ‘another band of veteran musicians.’ This was in 1979, when we were still in our thirties. A&M turned us down and said ‘Thank you for offering us the Blues Brothers.’ But when we made it into the Our Price chart, Arista steamed in and bought the album off us with options to make three or four more. It was very nice to be suddenly in demand. We were flavour of the month – again. When Paul rang up saying ‘Do you fancy playing some blues?’ I told him I didn’t want to go back on the road. So here I am 32 years later, still going on the road!”
Paul: “Although I told Tom we’d only do one gig a week, by the time the band had been going for a matter of weeks, we were working every night. People came up and said ‘Have you guys made a record?’ We suggested to our manager we should try and get a record deal. We had several rejections and they all said: ‘You are too old.’”
It was after a gig in Fulham that, Paul suggested they pool resources and make their own record. “I said we could do the album ourselves and just sell it. Gradually we aroused a fair amount of enthusiasm. So we dug into our bank accounts and made the album. The reason it is called ‘The Official Blues Band Bootleg Album’ is it was officially our album but it was a ‘bootleg’ in the sense that when we finished the recording we had no money left to pay for the mastering and pressing. They had given us a ‘listening’ copy and we made a thousand recordings from that copy. We’d then re-pay the remaining costs from any money we got from selling them. We got blank white LP sleeves, bought a John Bull printing set and stamped the album name on the front of the sleeves and then numbered them so they were obviously a limited edition. Then we went to the manager’s office, sat on the floor signing all these albums.”
“We knew we had a hit. Our manager got us the deal with Arista and the ‘Bootleg’ album was pressed up again with a band photograph on the cover and sleeve notes. It sold tens of thousands and went into the charts, as did the next two ‘Ready’ and ‘Itchy Feet’.”
CALLING FOR HUGHIE
The success of the Blues Band was a pleasant surprise for Hughie Flint who had been off music scene for a while. “When I got a call from Tom I said ‘Well okay, I’ll see if I can find my drums in the attic!’ I eventually found my drums and we rehearsed and jammed I knew Paul but I didn’t really know Dave Kelly or Gary Fletcher. It was nice meeting them for the first time. I fell in love with Kelly straight away. He’s such a funky and bluesy player and had been with the John Dummer Blues Band. Gary was aged about 12 (!) when he first joined the band and was a lovely guy.
“The band just felt right. Compared to John Mayall’s Blues Breakers it had more of a rock approach. We had all moved on from the early Chicago blues style. With the Blues Band it wasn’t such a rigid format and the repertoire was much more varied. Within the two years I was with the Blues Band it was like a fulfilment of my rock-blues drumming.”
Hughie left the Blues Band in 1981 and was replaced by, Rob Townsend, formerly with Family and Rob has been a stalwart member of the group ever since. Flint played on ‘Bootleg’ and ‘Ready’ but grew tired of touring. “And all my life I’ve had a resistance to being on the road. I talked to the guys, said I wasn’t happy and left after completing the existing gigs at the end of 1981. They couldn’t have got a better replacement in Rob Townsend.”
The Blues Band split up for a while, when Paul returned to the theatre, but has been highly active in recent years. During 2011 The Blues Band embarked on an extensive UK Autumn tour and released new album ‘Few Short Lines’. With their pedigree, there was no need to bootleg it!