Musical Autobiography

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      The governor of British Blues, Alexis Korner was a pioneer and major influence in the sounds of the 1960's British pop groups. Alexis had twenty-five solo albums released in his lifetime and enjoyed the accompaniment of The Who's Who of English musicians and singers who performed with him.

      Born in Paris on 19 April, 1928, Alexis emigrated to England with his family at the start of the second World War. At twenty, he joined Chris Barber's band, becoming associated with the London skiffle scene, headed by Barber and Ken Colyer. At its height during the 1950's, skiffle merged the American white folk and black blues genres into a new colorless mold.

      Leaning more towards blues, he and Cyril Davies started their own blues club in London's Soho in 1954, where they played on the same stage as their visiting American heroes. In 1961, they formed Blues Incorporated, which, after Davies untimely death, Alexis led into the late sixties, when he formed some short-lived outfits: Free At Last in 1967, followed by duos with Victor Brox, Robert Plant, and Peter Thorup. After a Scandinavian tour with Thorup in 1968, they started New Church, which lasted into 1970.

      Alexis' only commercial success in England was in the early seventies with producer Mickie Most, director/composer John Cameron, and Peter Thorup in a big band, CCS. Their rendition of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love even became the theme of Top of the Pops. By 1972, Korner worked with Snape, with Thorup and ex-King Crimson members. In the late seventies, Korner worked as a broadcaster, hosting and playing in the house band for Five O'Clock Club, a children's TV show, and returned the more intimate solo and duo appearances, mostly with Colin Hodgkinson. His last group effort was with Rocket 88 in 1981, and featured swing blues with Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, and Ian Stewart.

      Always a vibrant personality, Alexis proclaimed, "I'm part Turk, part Greek and part Austrian and as I don't know any part-Turk, part-Greek, part-Austrian music, I feel I'm perfectly entitled to play blues."

      The following has been transcribed and edited from one of Alexis' radio programs: Work up this morning and got those I've never been on Desert Island Discs, Star Choice or My Top 12 Bar Blues in which he related some stories of his life and played "a load of records that happened to have had some sort of serious effect on him in one way or another."


      Right back when I was a very little boy, I used to have piano lessons, which I didn't particularly like. I used to browse around my mother's piano stool. Underneath all the very correct piano parts for Liszt and Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, right at the bottom of the piano stool, there were two copies of pop sheet music. One of them was called The Music Goes Round and Round and the other copy of the sheet music, away from my father's disapproving eyes, was It's a Sin to Tell a Lie.
      Now that would have taken me up to the age of seven, I suppose. I was living in England at the time. Well, most of the time. I used to get sent around all over the place. By the time I was eight, I had been sent to France for reasons of health, and to get me out of the way, and various other..., oh, I don't know. Anyway, I was living in France at the time. In this place that we lived, the kids gave concerts every now and then. I was forced, one day, to my absolute horror, [to be dressed] in a miniature

American sailor's uniform. They stuck a fake ukulele in my hand and stuck me on the stage, and said "Sing this." And I hated every second of it. I think it was my first ever appearance on a stage, and it was loathsome. I was so embarrassed and so full of hate for these people who were making me do this. The song that I had to sing was, God help me, San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gates. Oh, how I hated it!
      I was also very good at winning fancy dress contests, dressed as fancy hula girls and things. It was a disgusting childhood; it really it was. Never mind. I got over it!
      One of the pop songs of that period which has always stuck in my mind (not that I like it -- I think it's awful), but I can't get it out of me head (it's still stuck in there), was Hear My Song, Violetta. Another song which I remember from that period, French song, French singer, altogether very sunny, very much the south of France, where I was living at the time, was La Mer ("The Sea").

World War II

      Actually, on the third of September, 1939, I was in the sea. When war was declared, we were swimming. Someone came to the edge of the beach, and shouted "They've declared war!" We thought, "Oh, great, war," and just sort of lazed around the water and got out. Didn't mean anything. Hell, I was what? I was eleven years old. War doesn't mean anything. Death doesn't mean anything. However... in less than a year, we on our way out of France. Mind you, my parents had left it a bit late. It was the summer of 1940. It was after France had collapsed (which she has done on more than one occasion), and it wasn't so easy to get out. We had to get out via Toulon. Got a refugee ship. The Italians came over and bombed us as we were leaving. But they hit absolutely nothing. I mean, you know, the bombs dropped in the sea. I believe they knocked one crane off of one pier in Toulon harbour, and everyone said it was because they were waving at the chicks, in fact. Perfectly possible! I wasn't aware at the time whether they were or not, but I know we got this ship and it was a great adventure, a lot of us in a very small ship. It took five days to get from Toulon to Oran, which should actually take about eighteen hours, but we seemed to have zigzagged all the way across the Mediterranean being attacked by Italian submarines on the way, which was also futile but exciting. We got to Oran, and then we sat in Oran being told that we'd have to change ships, so we shipped over to a Scottish collier, which was about eight hundred tons, a coastal collier. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people on board, and we were on the decks and all over the place, draped here and there and everywhere. They shipped the coal out of the holds and dumped everybody in the holds. So I mean, anyone who went in white, came out quite a few shades darker by the time we made Gibraltar twenty-four hours later. And as we were steaming out of Oran harbor towards Gibraltar, we were met on the way by
some fairly heavy ships going in the other direction. It turned out to be the British naval force which had gone to bombard Oran, because the French navy at Oran hadn't made up its mind which side it belonged to at that time. It was sort of toying with going with the Italians (ridiculous idea), or coming with Britain (which seemed to the French a pretty ridiculous idea). Anyway, we got to Gibraltar, and there we were trans-shipped to a large passenger ship, "The Empress of India," and there were about five thousand of us on that. Once again, we were draped all over the decks, and this time, the stewards had got the whole thing well together, and everything was sort of mixed up. My father had a cabin, 'cause he was ill, and my mother was in the cabin with him, looking after him, and I was sort of rushing all around all over the place seeing what was happening: bombers, fighters, machine guns, bangs, and flashes.
      Great! Absolutely marvelous! Like a strip-cartoon come to life. The second day out (because it took five days to get from Gibraltar to Portsmouth), we used to get all the tea all mixed up in the pot, all together: tea, condensed milk, and sugar and everything. And the second day, I got the bottom of the pot, and I've never been so sick in my life. The Bay of Biscay was a bit choppy, and this thing was so thick, I couldn't drink it. I brought the whole thing up immediately, and I've never drunk sugar in my tea since, as a matter of fact; it put me off totally. Very useful when we got back with sugar rationing; I didn't like sugar in my tea, anyway. So, we got back, we got into Portsmouth to be met by dive bombers, JU-88's, sort of whirling down on you and dropping bombs, and shooting back up again. This, I must repeat, was marvelous, fantasy for me, because death doesn't mean anything. This is just pure excitement. We got up to London; it took twelve hours because the line was being bombed all the way. In fact, everything for me was associated with the three big B's from then on: bombing, the blitz, and boogie-woogie.

Boogie Woogie

      When I got to London, I met up with a crowd of friends and inverted commas who took me in, and Saturday afternoons used to be good out in the Shepherd's Bush market, and knick '78's from the stalls. You had to have a bicycle saddle bag which was at least twelve inches big before you could join the club, because you had to be able to slip the records in fast, and vanish. And as it happens, one of the very first records that ever vanished into my saddle bags was Jimmy Yancy's Slow and Easy Blues.
      Now one of the things that was absolutely involved with the music for me was bodies, because on the way back from France, for instance, I had seen my first whole dead bodies and bits of bodies. It didn't mean a thing, like I said before. Boogie-woogie and the blitz -- that meant fire, and flames, and excitement every night. It was all bound up in this sort of strip cartoon way of living which the war forced on me. Not that I found it very hard to accept, I must admit. And the Jimmy Yancy record totally changed my life, because for the very first time, I wanted to play the piano. Secondly, I found a music that I was so involved with straight away that I thought of nothing but that. Then, one day, my father came back to find me playing boogie-woogie, and he blew his top, totally and absolutely, and slammed down the lid of the piano, and locked it with a key which he carried in his pocket, and said, "You don't play stuff like that on my piano." And I thought, whatever I thought at the time. I didn't think things like "you miserable old sod" because I didn't know the words, but that's what I would have thought had I known the words. He had bought the piano, so he owned it. He couldn't play it! He wasn't even interested in playing it. Everyone else in the family had to play it to entertain him, but he owned the piano so that was it. So from then on I rushed around all over the place trying to find pianos I could play. I also found a friend who collected jazz records, and couldn't play them in my house. We used to go over to his and play the Jimmy Yancy's and the Albert Ammons' and Pete Johnson's because I was a boogie-woogie freak by then, total boogie freak. Anything with boogie-woogie in it, I bought. I didn't even wait to hear what it was; if it said "boogie-woogie" on it, I got it. And at that time boogie-woogie was the pop music of the day. You had the Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, and Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar, and Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat, and all those sort of songs. Boogie-woogie boom boom boom boom boom! It went on and on and on. And then I decided to start playing the guitar, because it annoyed my father more than anything else I could do. He hated the guitar. He loathed it. He said it wasn't even

a serious instrument; ladies played it and tied ribbons on it. It wasn't to be taken seriously. I don't know what Segovia would have said to him, but still, there you are. That was my father's attitude. "Bah, bah, boom, that's finished. Thank you very much." And so I started to play guitar, and I started to play country songs like The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train, and Roll Along Covered Wagon, Roll Along, and things like that. Piano, for me, was the instrument on which you played the blues, and the jazz, and the boogie, and guitar you played what we used to think "hillbilly music." Now we call it Country and Western. But after a while, through meeting various friends, particularly a man called Ken Lindsay, who used to give recitals on blues and folk music in Camden Town, this would have been just about the end of the war, I was introduced to Huddie Ledbetter, and at the same time, to Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. This is a song which is involved for me with the whole Skiffle movement as well, because that was the forties. Then I played a stint with the Chris Barber Band, and then, round about 1951, when I got married, my wife, whose father was very, very much into jazz, and who brought her up on Beiderbeck, and Armstrong, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and everybody, and I met one or two people. We met Ken Colyer and Bill Colyer, and found that we liked these songs, we liked to sit and sing these songs together, so they used to come up to our flat, which was in Norfolk Crescent, and just sing and play. Bill Colyer used to play brushes on the suitcase so as not to make too much noise. Ken Colyer and I used to play acoustic guitars, and there was an American, a mysterious American. We didn't know what he did, because he didn't seem to have to work for a living, but he used to sing with us and play with us. Anyway, the song for us at that period was The Midnight Special, the foundation tune of the Skiffle movement as far as we were concerned.
      Incidentally, that strange, secretive American who used to sit in with us was called Ralston Crawford. It turned out that later that he was a major painter! We hadn't even thought of it because we were interested in music. And also, it turns out, that now I occasionally play with his nephew -- twenty-nine years later, his name is Danny Adler, and he's a good guitar player and singer. We work together sometimes now in a band called Rocket 88. Strange how it comes around!

Country Blues and Guitar

      Now at that time, it was also necessary for me to decide to start to play the guitar properly, because I had gotten away for years by playing an open tuning of my own, which no one could quite work out. It was fine for jazz tunes, because it was an open B-flat tuning and it was fine for E-flat and things like that, but when it came to playing country blues, which I now decided I wanted to do, it was absolutely useless. So, I was having problems, because, by then, we had already started the first skiffle group. This was 1952. Ken Colyer had come back from New Orleans, and we'd made a promise to each other that when he came back, we'd see if we could do something about getting a skiffle group together. He joined Chris Barber when he came back and it became the Barber/Colyer Jazzmen. In that, there was a skiffle group. It consisted of Chris Barber on bass, Ken Colyer on guitar, Bill Colyer on washboard, Lonnie Donegan on guitar and vocals, and me on guitar, mandolin, and for a couple of weeks, very occasional harmonica, because I was one of the first and one of the worst harmonica players in the country. We dropped that one very quickly.
      Anyway, I wanted to be a country blues player, so I was trying to work out how to do it. I knew I had to retune. I didn't want to do that, so one day, my very dear wife Bobby went out and bought a guitar and said, "You're not re-tuning this one. You better learn how to play it now," because we were playing the gigs once a week, and I had to be able to play in proper tuning by the next week. Well, fortunately, it was only three chords, but I slogged away for a week, and I managed to get through the gig. And she said, "Right, now what are you going to do about playing country blues?" So I said, "Well, we'll have to start doing it." I couldn't work my thumb independently from my fingers at that time, so she worked my thumb for me, stretched 'em up and down the strings while I worked my fingers until I got enough control of my thumb for her to let go of it. So, she is totally involved in me learning to play the guitar. See, you're to blame, dear. Very much so! I never would have managed to get this far without you working me some.
      And, one of the first people, who actually, very, very deeply influenced my guitar playing from that time on, was a great guitar player, singer, who was the other half of the duo with Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell. From then on, the music kept flooding in on us, absolutely from all sides. One of the most shattering records that I heard 'round about that time was, in my opinion, one of the two or three greatest bottle-neck guitar solos ever recorded. That was by Blind Willie Johnson, and it was Dark Was the Night. Marvelous sound! The next man who blew a hole in my head (you'll have gathered by now that my head was already full of holes, so there wasn't much room to blow any), it had to be something quite amazing. I don't think I could conceive now of music without having heard him. That was Robert Johnson's, The Preaching Blues. I first heard that in the mid '50's, round about the end of skiffle time. It must have been around the time I first met Cyril Davies, because by 1953-54, I got passable enough to be able to go around working solo in the clubs. In the meantime, I was serving a certain amount of time as a studio manager with the corporation, where I was on the staff for a couple of years. Then I left because I really had to play music. I just had to play, so I was working around the clubs, and my wife had already spun a coin and said, "If it lands tails, you're unemployed; if it lands heads, you're freelance." So it landed heads, and we decided I best be freelance. So I was working solo around the skiffle clubs,

and there was a club in a pub on the corner of Wardour Street and Brewer Street called The Roundhouse, the pub was, and upstairs, there was The London Skiffle Club which was run largely by Cyril Davies. I used to guest there occasionally, and Cyril said to me one day, "Look man, I'm tired of all this skiffle stuff. If I close the place down, will you come in with me, and open it up as a blues club?" So I said, "Sure, why not? Yeah, let's open a blues club." So he closed down The London Skiffle Club which was packed every Thursday night, absolutely packed to the ceiling and it was tremendously successful. We closed it down for a month and opened it up again as The London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, and three people came on the opening night. Three people and there were four of us on the stand. "Never mind," we thought, "to hell with this," and we played. Bit by bit, more people came. It was also a time when a lot of black American players were coming over, and also white players like Jack Eliot, and Darryl Adams, and people like that. They all used to come up to the Roundhouse on Thursday. So, sometimes [we] used to get about twenty-five musicians and twelve [in the] audience. But all in all, that was quite a few people in the place, and it sort of swung itself round. Muddy Waters played up there when he played in Britain in '58; the only club he played in London was the Roundhouse. Memphis Slim and Speckled Red and Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were president and vice-president of the club. And masses of people came and played, and we got a chance to learn our blues at that time accompanying the men whose records we had been trying to learn for the last ten years, or fifteen years, or however long it was. To be accompanying Jack Dupree, or Little Brother Montgomery, or Memphis Slim, or Roosevelt Sykes was quite something else. Better teachers -- there just weren't any better teachers and that's all there was to it. On the whole, the critics all laughed at us. We were totally unimpressed by their laughter, because, quite honestly, the only people whose opinions we were interested in, were encouraging us. We just carried on, and carried on, and carried on. Muddy, of course, was the next, great, big influence on us, because we decided to go electric. So we got slung out, 'cause the landlord wouldn't have electric music. We couldn't guest in any of the trad jazz clubs because they wouldn't have amplifiers in the place, and the only places we'd been able to play other than our own club on a Thursday night were traditional jazz clubs. So there we were, well and truly lumbered, but, never mind, we just carried on. We wanted to play! We wanted to play this sort of music, Muddy Waters' Louisiana Blues .
      [ Louisiana Blues ] is one of the important records in rhythm and blues, because it was Muddy Waters who really made that change over. Robert Johnson reached such a degree of sophistication, that I suppose, it was difficult to find what else to do with a country blues. Muddy electrified them and took them to the city. He coarsened them, sure, he coarsened them, but all the guts was there. It's what I always think of as belly-button to knee-cap music. That's where it works on you; that's where it's meant to work on you. And that was one of the greatest blues records ever made.
      Then, Cyril and I came to [a] splitting point...very largely over my involvement with jazz, which had been permanently there, and very much over my involvement with Charlie Mingus, and Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.

Rhythm and Blues Influences

      It was also at that time that I met someone called James Hamilton, a very good friend [with] a very good taste in records. Although I heard bits of Otis Redding around, it hadn't really sunk into me, and then James played me Mister Pitiful.
      And all that music was going on at the time: Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, all that marvelous Motown lot -- that label that introduced people to the bass guitar, Tamla/Motown. So much music going on then, that it's almost impossible to pick one out from the other. But, it would be totally impossible for me to go through records that had been important to me without playing The Staple Singers. I started out as a blues guitar player, and I still am a blues guitar player, but the man who turned me on to using effects of any sort, was Pops Staples, because his vibrato somehow had something very special for me. It was a Fender Twin Reverb, that's all it was, but it had an incredible sound. And it's affected the way I've played ever since, in fact. One of The Staples Singers' biggest hits was Respect Yourself. That music was so marvelous to dance to. What happened to me from the beginning of soul music on, was that I started dancing. Because as a musician, you were usually on stage playing, and you didn't dance that much -- I certainly didn't. And then this music got me moving, and I've not stopped since, I must admit.
      Now, all sorts of things got mixed up together, so it's not entirely chronological, this. I'm going to flip back two or three years, to Jimi Hendrix, who for me was the last major, individual, solo musician in rock'n'roll, or whatever you want to call it, R&B, or this music of ours. The very strange thing about it is that if right way, way back in the late '40's, and

especially when he was successful with his trad music in the late '50's and early '60's, if Chris Barber hadn't put his money where his mouth is, and there's a lot of mouth there, we probably never would have had Hendrix. Because, he brought over the musicians that were coming over; very often, the promoters didn't want to know. Chris Barber had a successful band. He could afford to bring in Jimmy Cotton, Muddy Waters' harmonica player. He could afford to bring in Sonny and Brownie off his own back. I know he could afford it, but the fact is, he did it! And he was one of the only ones who didn't only pay lip service to the music, and it is a result of all this, that we developed to the stage where it was possible for someone who was as close to genius as Jimi Hendrix to operate in the music at all.
      Now, there are lots of people I've left out; I'm very sorry about that. I left out The Band, J.J. Cale, The G.T.O's. I left out masses and masses of people who I dearly love to put in. The point ... was to play loads of records that were very important to me in influence, in musical ways, in political ways, in social ways, just thinking and feeling generally. And so, it would be just as impossible for me to leave out Little Feat as it would be to leave out Robert Johnson, because where, I think, Robert Johnson was the focal point, the culmination of Mississippi blues of that period -- it couldn't get any more sophisticated, so I think Little Feat was the last of the great "head bands." It was actually Stevie Marriot, to whom I owe a lot of understanding in these areas of music, who finally and totally turned me on to Little Feat. And it was Fat Man in a Bathtub.


On 1 January, 1984, Alexis Korner passed away in London, a victim of throat cancer.

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