BIOGRAPHY TAKEN FROM ARTS IN SOCIETY INTERVIEW, KEELE UNIVERSITY PRESS 1998
How did you get into the blues?
When I was a kid in the mid fifties (about nine or ten years old), I spent a lot of time listening to radio Luxembourg which was the main station for the rock 'n' roll music of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and all that great stuff. I had been picking out tunes on the piano since I was five or so and I had always loved the sound and feel of the instrument. When I heard the players on these rock 'n' roll records it had a powerful effect on me and I tried to imitate them without much success at first. I was totally obsessed, and I spent hours trying to sort out those walking bass left hand patterns. I didn't know it was called Boogie Woogie, Blues, or whatever, where it came from, or the names of the musicians, and I didn't care, all that came later. I think it stopped me doing a lot of things that other kids were doing, like mending bikes, taking girls to the pictures. Anything that wasn't related to me and my chosen path I simply wasn't interested in. I didn't think I needed to learn about anything else as long as I sorted out the piano playing. When I first started Secondary School, I didn't want to share my obsession with anyone else, because the piano was regarded as an instrument that your Auntie might play. Everyone at school loved Elvis of course, and most of the blokes tried to get that look, with the greasy hair, sideburns and stuff. The girls had ponytails and weren't the least bit impressed with lads the same age or younger than themselves - even if they could play the piano. Mind you I didn't tell anyone about it as first (because you rarely saw Elvis with a piano). Instead I remember posing around with a guitar that my Uncle Tom made for me which was really heavy and only had three strings. It was totally unplayable but that didn't matter because it looked great. Around that time we started a school band. It was a skiffle group with a tea-chest bass and drums. I bought a Hofner Committee guitar out of the catalogue which looked just like the one that Eddy Cochran used, but more importantly it was playable. I had lots of fun playing the guitar but I never got really serious with it the way I did with the piano. The skiffle group played at School Dances and Youth Clubs and I really enjoyed my last two years at school.
I left school at fifteen in 1962 and the times they were a changing. The skiffle group became a Beat Group with a proper electric bass. We still played a lot of the same songs, but now I was beginning to find out who had written them. I learnt that songs like The Midnight Special, Cotton Fields and Rock Island Line were written by a man called Hudie Leadbetter. According to the sleeve notes on his records he had served time in jail on a murder charge, and been shot in the stomach whilst actually performing (hence the nickname Leadbelly). There was a story about him writing a song for the Prison Governors wife whose name was Irene and he called it Goodnight Irene. Apparently it went a long way towards earning him a pardon. I also learnt that he had befriended, travelled and worked with other musicians, such as, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy. One discovery would quickly lead to another and this whole Blues Mythology opened up and I got right into it, looking back into the past before the days of rock 'n' roll. It became clear that Elvis and the other rock 'n' rollers hadn't simply come out of nothing, there was a whole folk/blues tradition going back many years in America. The Negro blues singer Arthur Big Boy Crudup had written That's Alright Moma, which was of course The King's first record. The Ray Charles song Mess Around was a straight lift off a 1920's Barrelhouse piano player called Cow Cow Davenport. It seemed to me that in order to go forward with my piano playing, I first had to go back and hear the stuff first hand from the original players.