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British blues is a form of music derived from American blues that originated in the late 1950s and which reached its height of mainstream popularity in the 1960s, when it developed a distinctive and influential style dominated by electric guitar and made international stars of several proponents of the genre including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. A number of these moved into mainstream rock music and as a result British blues helped to form many of the sub-genres of rock. Since then direct interest in the blues in Britain has declined, but many of the key performers have returned to it in recent years, new acts have emerged and there have been a renewed interest in the genre.
American blues became known in Britain from the 1930s onwards through a number of routes, including records brought to Britain, particularly by Black GIs stationed there in the Second World War and Cold War, merchant seamen visiting ports such as London, Liverpool, Newcastle on Tyne and Belfast, and through a trickle of (illegal) imports. Blues music was relatively well known to British Jazz musicians and fans, particularly in the works of figures like female singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and the blues influenced Boogie Woogie of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. From 1955 major British record labels HMV and EMI, the latter, particularly through their subsidiary Decca Records, began to distribute American jazz and increasingly blues records to what was an emerging market. Many encountered blues for the first time through the skiffle craze of the second half of the 1950s, particularly the songs of Leadbelly covered by acts like Lonnie Donegan. As skiffle began to decline in the late 1950s, and British Rock and Roll began to dominate the charts, a number of skiffle musicians moved towards playing purely blues music.
Among these were guitarist and blues harpist Cyril Davies, who ran the London Skiffle Club at the Roundhouse public house in London’s Soho and guitarist Alexis Korner, both of whom worked for jazz band leader Chris Barber, playing in the R&B segment he introduced to his show. The club served as a focal point for British skiffle acts and Barber was responsible for bringing over American folk and blues performers, who found they were much better known and paid in Europe than America. The first major artist was Big Bill Broonzy, who visited England in the mid-1950s, but who, rather than his electric Chicago blues, played a folk blues set to fit in with British expectations of American blues as a form of folk music. In 1957 Davies and Korner decided that their central interest was the blues and closed the skiffle club, reopening a month later as The London Blues and Barrelhouse Club. To this point British blues was acoustically played emulating Delta blues and country blues styles and often part of the emerging second British folk revival. Critical in changing this was the visit of Muddy Waters in 1958, who initially shocked British audiences by playing amplified electric blues, but who was soon playing to ecstatic crowds and rave reviews. Davies and Korner, having already split with Barber, now plugged in and began to play high powered electric blues that became the model for the sub-genre, forming the band Blues Incorporated.
Blues Incorporated became something of a clearing house for British blues musicians in the later 1950s and early 1960s, with many joining, or sitting in on sessions. These included future Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Brian Jones; as well as Cream founders Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker; beside Graham Bond and Long John Baldry. Blues Incorporated were given a residency at the Marquee Club and it was from there that in 1962 they took the name of the first British Blues album, R&B from the Marquee for Decca, but split before its release. The culmination of this first movement of blues came with John Mayall, who moved to London in the early 1960s, eventually forming the Bluesbreakers, whose members at various times included, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar and Mick Taylor.
British rhythm and blues
While some bands focused on blues artists, particularly those of Chicago electric blues, others adopted a wider interest in rhythm and blues, including the work of Chess Records' blues artists like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, but also rock and roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Most successful were the Rolling Stones, who abandoned blues purism before their line-up solidified and they produced their first eponymously titled album in 1964, which largely consisted of rhythm and blues standards. Following in the wake of the Beatles' national and then international success, the Rolling Stones soon established themselves as the second most popular UK band and joined the British Invasion of the American record charts as leaders of a second wave of R&B orientated bands. In addition to Chicago blues numbers, the Rolling Stones also covered songs by Chuck Berry and Bobby and Shirley Womack, with the latter's "It's All Over Now", giving them their first UK number one in 1964. Blues songs and influences continued to surface in the Rolling Stones' music, as in their version of "Little Red Rooster" went to '1 on the UK singles chart in December 1964.
Other London-based bands included the Yardbirds (who would number their ranks three key guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page), the Kinks (with the pioneer rock-guitarist and songwritter Ray Davies), Manfred Mann (considered to have one of the most authentic sounding vocalists in the scene in Paul Jones) and the Pretty Things, beside the more jazz-influenced acts like the Graham Bond Organization, Georgie Fame and Zoot Money. Bands to emerge from other major British cities included The Animals from Newcastle on Tyne (with the outstanding keyboards of Alan Price and vocals of Eric Burdon), The Moody Blues and Spencer Davis Group from Birmingham (the latter largely a vehicle for the young Steve Winwood), and Them from Belfast (with their vocalist Van Morrison). None of these bands played exclusively rhythm and blues, often relying on a variety of sources, including Brill Building and girl group songs for their hit singles, but it remained at the core of their early albums.
The British Mod subculture was musically centered on rhythm and blues and later soul music, performed by artists that were not available in small London clubs around which the scene was based.[ As a result a number of mod bands emerged to fill this gap. These included The Small Faces, The Creation, The Action and most successfully The Who. The Who's early promotional material tagged them as producing "maximum rhythm and blues", but by about 1966 they moved from attempting to emulate American R&B to producing songs that reflected the Mod lifestyle. Many of these bands were able to enjoy cult and then national success in the UK, but found it difficult to break into the American market. Only the Who managed, after some difficulty, to produce a significant US following, particularly after their appearances at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967) and Woodstock (1969).
Because of the very different circumstances from which they came, and in which they played, the rhythm and blues these bands produced was very different in tone from that of African American artists, often with more emphasis on guitars and sometimes with greater energy. They have been criticized for exploiting the massive catalogue of African American music, but it has also been noted that they both popularized that music, bringing it to British, world and in some cases American audiences, and helping to build the reputation of existing and past rhythm and blues artists. Most of these bands rapidly moved on from recording and performing American standards to writing and recording their own music, often leaving their R&B roots behind, but enabling several to enjoy sustained careers that were not open to most of the more pop orientated beat groups of the first wave of the invasion, who (with the major exception of the Beatles) were unable to write their own material or adapt to changes in the musical climate.
The British blues boom
Blues Incorporated and Mayall's Bluesbreakers were well known in the London Jazz and emerging R&B circuits, but the Bluesbreakers began to gain some national and international attention, particularly after the release of Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album (1966), considered one of the seminal British blues recordings. It was notable for its driving rhythms and Clapton's rapid blues licks with a full distorted sound derived from a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp, which became something of a classic combination for British blues (and later rock) guitarists. It also made clear the primacy of the guitar, seen as a distinctive characteristic of the sub-genre. Peter Green started what is called "second great epoch of British blues", as he replaced Clapton in the Bluesbreakers after his departure to form Cream. In 1967, after one record with the Bluesbreakers, Green, with the Bluesbreaker's rhythm section Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, formed Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. One key factor in developing the popularity of the music in the UK and across Europe in the early 1960s was the success of the American Folk Blues Festival tours, organized by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau.
The rise of electric blues, and its eventual mainstream success, meant that British acoustic blues was completely overshadowed. In the early 1960s, folk guitar pioneers Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and particularly Davy Graham (who played and recorded with Korner), played blues, folk and jazz, developing a distinctive guitar style known as folk baroque. British acoustic blues continued to develop as part of the folk scene, with figures like Ian A. Anderson and his Country Blues Band, and Al Jones. Most British acoustic blues players could achieve little commercial success and, with a few exceptions, found it difficult to gain any recognition for their "imitations" of the blues in the US.
In contrast, the next wave of bands, formed from about 1967, like Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After and Free, pursued a different route, retaining blues standards in their repertoire and producing original material that often shied away from obvious pop influences, placing an emphasis on individual virtuosity. The result has been characterized as Blues-rock and arguably marked the beginnings of a separation of pop and rock music that was to be a feature of the record industry for several decades.
Fleetwood Mac are often considered to have produced some of the finest work in the sub-genre, with inventive interpretations of Chicago Blues. They were also the most commercially successful group, with their eponymous début album reaching the UK top 5 in early 1968 and as the instrumental "Albatross" reached number one in the single charts in early 1969. This was, as Scott Schinder and Andy Schwartz put it, "The commercial apex of the British blues Boom". A rapid decline followed, as surviving bands and musicians tended to move into other expanding areas of rock music. Some, like Korner and Mayall, continued to play a "pure" form of the blues, but largely outside of mainstream notice. The structure of clubs, venues and festivals that had grown up in the early 1950s in Britain virtually disappeared in the 1970s.
Survival and resurgence
Although overshadowed by the growth of rock music the blues did not disappear in Britain, with American bluesmen like John Lee Hooker, Eddie Taylor, and Freddie King continuing to be well received in the UK and an active home scene led by figures including Dave Kelly and his sister Jo Ann Kelly, who helped keep the acoustic blues alive on the British folk circuit. Dave Kelly was also a founder of The Blues Band with former Manfred Mann members Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness, Hughie Flint and Gary Fletcher. The Blues Band was credited with kicking off a second blues boom in Britain, which by the 90s led to festivals all around the country, including The Swanage Blues Festival, The Burnley National Blues Festival, The Gloucester Blues and Heritage Festival and The Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival at Colne. The twenty-first century has seen an upsurge in interest in the blues in Britain that can be seen in the success of previously unknown acts like Seasick Steve, in the return to the blues by major figures who began in the first boom, including Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, Chris Rea and Eric Clapton, as well as the arrival of younger artists like Matt Schofield and Aynsley Lister.
Beside giving a start to many important blues, pop and rock musicians, in spawning blues-rock it also ultimately gave rise to a host of sub-genres of rock, including particularly psychedelic rock, progressive rock. The pursuit of this line of development from the late 1970s by the next generation of blues based rock bands, including Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, would lead to the development of hard rock and ultimately heavy metal. Perhaps the most important contribution of British blues was the surprising re-exportation of American blues back to America, where, in the wake of the success of bands like the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac, white audiences began to look again at black blues musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker, who suddenly began to appeal to middle class white Americans. The result was a re-evaluation of the blues in America which enabled white Americans much more easily to become blues musicians, opening the door to Southern rock and the development of Texas blues musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughan.