If John Mayall is acknowledged as the "father of British Blues," it should be indisputable that Alexis Korner is the genre's grandfather. As early as 1952, Korner had formed a blues duo with harmonica legend Cyril Davies, before forming Blues Incorporated with Davies in 1962. During the group's early 1960s' residency at the Marquee Club in London, Blues Incorporated included future members of The Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things, Cream, and the Graham Bond Organization. When the blues boom went psychedelic, Korner soldiered on as a purist, and eventually formed the band New Church, which in its nascent stage included vocalist Robert Plant in his pre-Led Zeppelin days. He formed the CCS (Collective Consciousness Society) big band with Peter Thorup in the early 1970s and went on to form several "super groups" with members of Cream and the Rolling Stones, until his death from lung cancer in 1984.
Korner was born in Paris, France. Boasting Turkish, Greek, and Austrian roots, he spent the early years of his life in France, Switzerland, and North Africa. At the outset of World War II, Korner's family relocated to London, England. As London was being blitzed by Nazi Germany's warplanes, Korner heard a recording by American bluesman Jimmy Yancey, which awakened in him a desire to write and perform blues.
Following the war Korner taught himself piano and guitar. By 1949 he was a member of Chris Barber's Jazz Band. He remained with Barber when the bandleader merged his group with the Ken Colyer Jazz Group. During this period Korner met Cyril Davies, a mercurial harmonica player whose passion for Delta and country blues meshed perfectly with Korner's. The two set out as a duo, playing electric guitar and amplified harmonica. The pair also formed the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, which met at the Roundhouse pub in Soho. The Club gave the two an opportunity to book American bluesmen, which increased the popularity of blues among British music audiences.
In 1962 Korner and Davies formed Blues Incorporated, which originally featured the core group of Korner, Davies, pianist Ken Scott, and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith. The group featured a rotating lineup of guest musicians that included future Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts and future Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Other musicians who guested with Blues Incorporated included future Cream and Blind Faith drummer Peter "Ginger" Baker, future Animals and War vocalist Eric Burden, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Davy Graham, Long John Baldry, and Rolling Stones' guitarist Ron Wood. Because England at the time was equally divided among the skiffle, jazz, and pop music crowds, Blues Incorporated needed to open its own club—the Ealing Rhythm & Blues Club—in order to play blues music. Musicians who visited the club and jammed with the band on a frequent basis included Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Paul Jones and Manfred Mann, Ian Stewart, John Mayall, and future Small Faces leader Steve Marriott. The group's burgeoning popularity led to an invitation for them to establish a residency at London's Marquee Club.
The crowds flocking to see Blues Incorporated perform at the Marquee eventually convinced record companies that the music was more than a fad. As a result, Blues Incorporated recorded R&B from the Marquee in 1962. A watershed moment in British music history, the album opened the floodgates for the British blues boom. Within a year the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds had begun to add distinct touches to American blues. Korner's insistence of adding horns to Blues Incorporated prompted the departure of Davies. Korner further insisted on adhering to the more rigid structures of blues, rather than adapting and evolving the form to reflect the experiences and musical vocabulary of his audiences and band mates. This in turn led to Blues Incorporated's lack of enduring success in light of the new prominence of the younger bands.
Although he continued to record and perform, Korner's music got left behind in the wake of the many new directions his fellow blues artists pursued. By the time John Mayall's Bluesbreakers recorded their debut album with former Yardbirds' guitarist Eric Clapton, Korner was bemoaning the evolution of blues music. When Clapton pioneered the extended blues solo as a guitarist in the psychedelic blues trio—which featured former Blues Incorporated bass player Jack Bruce—Korner was openly disparaging. In 1967 he formed the group Free at Last with Marsha Hunt and Victor Brox, but that project went no further than a few performances. Korner began recording an album with Robert Plant in the first months of 1968, but the project was not completed because the vocalist left to join Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham in Page's post-Yardbirds' endeavor, Led Zeppelin. In 1968 he toured Scandinavia with Danish vocalist Peter Thorup and a Danish band named the Beefeaters. Korner next teamed with his daughter, Sappho Korner, bass player Colin Hodgkinson, and Thorup in a band called New Church. The group opened for the Rolling Stones for their 1969 Hyde Park concert. For a brief period New Church entertained the notion of hiring guitarist Brian Jones, who had recently left the Rolling Stones. Whether they were serious or not, Jones died before a final decision could be made.
Korner and Thorup disbanded New Church in 1970 and formed CCS (Collective Consciousness Society). The group was a 25-member studio big band that scored a massive British hit with an instrumental version of the Led Zeppelin classic "Whole Lotta Love." The CCS version eventually became the theme song for the BBC music program Top of the Pops. The group scored two more hits with the singles "Walking" and "Tap Turns on the Water," before disbanding. In 1972 Korner and Thorup formed a band with disgruntled members of King Crimson—bass player Boz Burrell, saxophonist Mel Collins, and drummer Ian Wallace. The group called itself Snape, and recorded the album Accidentally Born in New Orleans. In 1975 Korner recorded Get Off My Cloud, which featured pianist Nicky Hopkins, Keith Richards, Peter Frampton, Steve Marriott, Colin Hodgkinson, and members of Joe Cocker's Grease Band.
Possessed of a rich baritone, Korner began to make a steady income as a voiceover announcer for television commercials and programs. The income made it possible for him to ignore commercial considerations for his music. In 1978 a celebrity musician gala was held to honor Korner's 50th birthday, featuring Eric Clapton, Paul Jones, and Chris Farlowe. In 1981 he formed Rocket 88 with Jack Bruce, Ian Stewart, and Charlie Watts, for a tour of Europe. Live recordings of the tour wound up on the album Rocket 88. The album ended up being Korner's last hurrah, as he succumbed to throat cancer on New Year's Day in 1984. Although he never became a household name like many other British blues musicians, the musicians who have proclaimed their debt to Korner are many. He was among the first artists who tilled the fertile soil of American blues music in England, and he planted the seeds and nurtured one of the most significant musical movements of twentieth-century popular music.
For the Record …
Born on April 19, 1928, in Paris, France; died on January 1, 1984, in London, England; children: Sappho (daughter).
Recording and performing artist, 1947-84; joined Chris Barber's Jazz Band, 1949; joined Ken Colyer Jazz Group, 1952; formed blues duo with Cyril Davies, 1954; formed Blues Incorporated with Davies and granted residence at London's Marquee Club, 1962; formed big band CCS, early 1970s; honored with 50th birthday party featuring Eric Clapton, Paul Jones, Chris Farlowe, 1978; formed Rocket 88 band with Jack Bruce, Ian Stewart, and Charlie Watts, 1981.
R&B from the Marquee, Ace of Clubs, 1962.
At the Cavern, Oriole, 1964.
Blues Incorporated, Polydor, 1964.
Red Hot from Alex, Transatlantic, 1964.
Sky High, Spot, 1966.
Blues Inc., Ace of Clubs, 1967.
I Wonder Who, BGO, 1967.
New Generation of Blues, BGO, 1968.
Blues Inc./Alexis Korner All Stars, Transatlantic, 1969.
The New Church, Metronome, 1970.
Alexis, Rak, 1971.
What's That Sound I Hear, Sunset, 1971.
Bootleg Him!, Castle, 1972.
Accidentally Born in New Orleans, Warner Brothers, 1973.
Alexis Korner, Polydor, 1974.
Mr. Blues, Toadstool, 1974.
Snape Live on Tour, Brain, 1974.
Get Off My Cloud, See for Miles, 1975.
Just Easy, Intercord, 1978.
Tell, Teldec, 1990.
The Original, Transatlantic, 1980.
The Party LP, Intercord, 1980.
White & Blue, Blue Silver, 1980.
Profile, Teldec, 1981.
Rocket 88, Atlantic, 1981.
Alexis Korner and Friends, Amiga, 1982.
Juvenile Delinquent, Charisma, 1984.
Live in Paris, Magnum, 1988.
Me, Castle, 1993.
Lost Album, Thunderdome, 1996.
On the Move, Castle, 1997.
Musically Rich ... and Famous, Castle, 1998.
Testament, Magnum, 2000.
Logan, Nick, and Bob Woffinden, Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Salamander Books, 1977.
"Alexis Korner," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 2, 2004).
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