“In the States, it takes you a lifetime just to get from Chicago’s South Side to the West Side.” – Luther Allison, blues singer
Probably the first blues artist to perform at Band on the Wall is a man whose life constantly defies convention: the (very) bearded, eccentric, iconoclastic Victor Brox – Manchester’s own blues legend, a richly rugged vocalist who, it seems, can turn his hand to any musical instrument. At short notice, Victor played in the first week when Steve Morris and Frank Cusick reopened the club in 1975; he also played in the final week before the venue’s closure, for refurbishment, in 2004. In between these dates, the Victor Brox Blues Train played The Band more than 50 times, of which around 30 dates were in the 1980s and, almost invariably, Saturday night sell-outs. He also led many blues workshops at The Band.
In a video interview in 2012, Victor, now in his 70s, describes how “I managed to escape commercial success by the skin of my teeth”. He also recounted his times with Alexis Korner, Aynsley Dunbar, Jimi Hendrix, John Stevens, Janis Joplin, Nico, Peter Green and BB King, as well as revealing his concepts of the pre-history evolution of music and how he played cornet to golden eagles and was pronounced dead in an ambulance in California (but then came out of his yogic trance). As of now (2017), Victor continues to perform solo, also with his vocalist daughter Kyla and with his own band, at home and abroad.
During the 80s, the Saturday night programme at Band on the Wall increasingly veered towards R’n’B and soul – and found a ready audience and an expanding number of local bands, including Gags, Soulfinger, No Mystery, Bare Wires, Yes-Sir, The Bamford Band, the Marauders and Ozzie and the Zappas. Then there was the classy, jazzy, instrumental soul of Snake Davis and his Alligator Shoes (later with The Suspicions, and Zoot and The Roots) and occasional UK-based visitors, such as The Groundhogs, Howlin’ Wilf & the Vee-Jays, the Climax Blues Band, Blues’n’Trouble, Otis Grand & The Dance Kings and Brian Knight’s Thin Line,* led by the vocalist, slide guitarist and harmonica player who was a founding member of The Rolling Stones (pre-Jagger and Richards).
In a genre that is male-dominated, stand-out performances were by Jo Ann Kelly**, labeled British Queen of the Blues, and by Manchester’s Helen Watson whose repertoire stretched the boundaries of blues, jazz, soul and country music. Helen was signed to EMI in the 80s but the company failed to promote this talented vocalist. Now based in Sussex, she continues to perform solo and with the a capella group The Lovenotes and with Burden of Paradise, a drummer-less quartet that includes Snake Davis, saxophone and flute.
*Brian Knight — died 25 Sept 2001, aged 61
**Jo Ann Kelly – died 21 Oct 1990, aged 46
A long line of USA bluesmen also came to The Band in the 80s: Memphis Slim, Big Joe Duskin, Lowell Fulson, Nappy Brown, Joe Louis Walker, Louisiana Red, Dr John, Charlie Musselwhite, Carey Bell, Johnny Mars, Phil Guy, Jimmy Rogers, Luther Allison, Eddie Kirkland, Little Willie Littlefield, Lucky Lopez Evans, Lefty Dizz, Rockin’ Sydney and Lazy Lester.
Some, like blues and boogie exponent, Joe Duskin, were living proof of the blurred borders between blues and jazz; Dr John’s solo performance on piano encompassed much of 20th century American music, from zydeco to contemporary jazz, blues to pop and pointed forward to funk and Afro-beat; some, like Californian singer/guitarist Joe Louis Walker, came with their own – and in his case superb – American band; others performed with UK musicians.
At Band on the Wall, the band most frequently chosen to accompany visiting American bluesmen was the Norman Beaker Band, from Stockport, that also doubles as the touring backing band for London-born veteran vocalist Chris Farlowe. Norman and his band have also toured extensively with the Louisiana blues vocalist and guitarist Larry Garner.
Though the harmonic basis of most blues is just three chords, many blues players pride themselves on more sophisticated musicianship. Norman Beaker’s website makes a comparison with the punk scene:
… at the height of the Punk era Norman formed No Mystery, with a lineup of experienced and talented musicians who played the blues with a sense of humour. They stood out on the gig circuit at a time when bands prided themselves on their inability to play more than three chords and audience participation meant spitting at the band.
The visiting Americans to Band on the Wall in the 1980s were part of a lineage going back to the origins of the blues, first described as an identifiable genre in the 1920s, though rooted much earlier than that. Some were part of the emergence in the 1940s of Rhythm and Blues that led to Rock ‘n’ Roll. Inevitably, with time, the opportunities for fans and musicians to connect directly with that lineage have diminished: of the 19 American bluesmen listed above,* only five were still alive in 2017: Joe Louis Walker, Dr John, Charlie Musselwhite, Johnny Mars and Lazy Lester. In the 1980s Band on the Wall was one of the few venues in Europe where there was a regular conduit with that lineage.
*Memphis Slim – died 24 Feb 1988; Big Joe Duskin – d 6 May 2007; Lowell Fulson – d 7 Mar 1999; Nappy Brown – d 20 Sept 2008; Louisiana Red – d 25 Feb 2012; Carey Bell – d 6 May 2007; Phil Guy – d 20 Aug 2008; Jimmy Rogers – d19 Dec 1997; Ed Kirkland – d 27 Feb 2011; Luther Allison – d 17 Aug 1997; Lefty Dizz – d 7 Sept 1993; Rockin’ Sydney – d 25 Feb 1988; Lucky Lopez Evans – d 28 Jan 2004