If the Beatles never happened, if the British Invasion never occurred, then music fans around the world would more than likely never have been exposed to some of the finest white blues singers the UK produced between 1964 and 1970.
Note…this list only covers the time frame from 1964 – 1970 and only British singers!
There are always caveats and guidelines with any list like this so here are mine:
As great as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were and are as singers (among my all-time faves), they were never blues singers, notwithstanding John’s vocals on “Twist & Shout,” “Please Mr. Postman” and “This Boy,” and Paul’s on “Oh Darling” and “Helter Skelter.”
They were/are incredible rock n roll and pop singers.
There really is a difference in singing styles even though both blues and rock are steeped deeply in Black blues vocals.
Mick Jagger may cast himself as a blues singer but to me, as good as he is in the way the Stones do their versions of Chicago blues songs, Jagger just ain’t a great blues singer and is not on my list. Jagger does the Stones perfectly and he’s done wonders with his very limited range but in truth, the Stones were a better blues band than Jagger was a blues singer during the time that they were a blues cover band.
Neither are Elton, Bowie, Ray Davies, Freddy, Roger Daltrey or Frampton blues singers stylistically.
Also, Pink Floyd may have started out as a blues band — they were named after two blues singers, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council – but Syd Barrett (love him!) and Roger Waters were never blues singers.
You either get where I’m coming from or you don’t and I’m ready to hear your comments so bring ’em on!
One more thing…
Most of you will know these British singers. I have read multiple interviews with most of them over the last 50 or so years. They all share similar stories, which led to the idea for this article. All of these English singers, along with countless other musicians, somehow started to hear American Black music on the radio late at night or on the 7-inch 45 RPM singles given to them by a family member or family friend who brought them back from the US. The music resonated with these musicians in ways that can only be described as culturally connected, and all happening at the same time!
Most of the singers cite very similar influences such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, J.B.Lenoir, Memphis Slim, Big Mama Thornton, T-Bone Walker, Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim, Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon. I could go on, but the thing to know is that if you love this stuff and want to know more about it, there are a couple of Grammy-winning DVDs called The American Folk Blues Festival 1962 – 1966 that feature all of these performers plus many more. The performances are from a series of German TV shows that were filmed during the time. These artists were treated so well in Germany that many of them didn’t want to return to the US. Memphis Slim moved permanently to Paris and Sonny Boy Williamson stayed in England for a while and joined the Yardbirds for an album.
These discs provide an amazing “CliffsNotes” version of this purely American musical art form.
Just about every blues legend alive at the time performed. (You’ll have to deal with the fact that some of the TV stage settings look like slave quarters. I’m sure the producers thought this was going to lend some kind of air of “authenticity” and need to be seen in context.) The two young Germans who produced this event clearly loved these performers. The DVDs were produced for commercial release by Experience Hendrix, the licensing arm of the Jimi Hendrix estate run by his sister Janie Hendrix.
OK, here goes:
After the arrival of the Beatles in the US, the next British Invasion (referred to as “BI” from now on) band to smash into our shores Beatles was the Dave Clark Five. Although they didn’t have their first number one for a year and a half (late 1965 with “I Like It Like That”), one knew right away that the lead singer Mike Smith was incredible. His vocals on “Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces” and “Because” were incredible but on the track “Baby, You Got What It Takes” he totally crushes it.
The first BI band to have a number one record on the US charts after the Beatles were the Animals in August, 1964. The world got to hear Eric Burdon for the first time in his without-a-doubt definitive version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Time after time, with successive hit after hit like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “It’s My Life” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” Eric brought it! [See Ken Sander’s article on hanging out with Eric Burdon in Issue 109 – Ed.]
Next up, another then-new band, Manfred Mann with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” That vocal blew through the AM airwaves like a jackhammer. The singer of that track was Paul Jones. Jones was replaced a year later but everyone who grew up with radio from that era knows how amazing that vocal was.
By late 1965 the world heard about John Mayall and his band The Bluesbreakers. Although Clapton was the star of the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton record, Mayall’s blues voice became synonymous with the British blues scene and anyone who was anyone in that circle owes their success to the exposure of the genre given by Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Listen to the track “Have You Heard” from that debut album and you will understand how good he is.
Special mention goes out to Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry who were UK legends but never really made it in any commercial way over here, except maybe for Long John Baldry’s “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll.” It was all over the New York FM airwaves in 1971.
Van Morrison also came into the picture in late 1965 with the band Them. They covered the garage band hit “Gloria.” Maybe you didn’t know about him until “Brown Eyed Girl” two years later. Van has one of the great soul voices of all time and when you hear Van…you know it’s Van!
In October 1966 the US AM airwaves once again were shaken to the foundation with the vocal of 18-year-old Stevie Winwood on the Spencer Davis Group hit “Gimme Some Lovin’.” One of greatest debut singles in BI history.
Stevie went on to front Traffic, who scored an enormous hit with “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and two years later joined the short-lived Blind Faith, considered one of the first rock “supergroups” thanks to Winwood and bandmates Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech. Listen to Winwood’s vocal on “Presence of the Lord” on their one and only release, Blind Faith. It’s hair-raising. Years later he gave the world “Higher Love.” His live version of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind” will bring you to tears.
When John Lennon was asked what his favorite song was in 1967, he not only did not mention any of the Beatles songs from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his immediate response was “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum. While technically “Whiter Shade of Pale” wasn’t the number one song in the US that “Light My Fire” was, it ruled over everything in my book as well as in the UK which is why Lennon said what he said. There was so much amazing music that year: Hendrix bursting onto the scene with Are You Experienced, the Doors debut, Love’s Forever Changes, the Grateful Dead’s first album, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Moby Grape’s first album Omaha, Country Joe and the Fish, Big Brother and the Holding Company…the list goes on and on.
Yes, 1967 was a watershed year for great music but “Whiter Shade of Pale” dominated the US and UK charts for a while and the lead vocal by Gary Brooker has become one of the all-time classic vocals in pop music history. Procol Harum had many other FM radio hits (“Shine on Brightly,” Simple Sister,” Whiskey Train”) but only returned to the pop charts in 1972 with a live version of “Conquistador” performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
As I go down this list I am amazed at what this short period of time brought us from the UK.
If just the above was all of it, that would have been incredible enough, but the decade wasn’t over yet.
1968 brought the release of The Jeff Beck Group’s debut album and gave the world lead vocalist extraordinaire Rod “The Mod” Stewart. The album opened with the Yardbirds hit “Shapes of Things.” Rod’s vocals almost blew my stereo apart. Nothing more about Rod needs to be said as his recorded history with the Faces and as a solo artist speaks for itself.
Maybe some of you don’t know much about Steve Marriott. Many consider him one of the greatest English blues singers of them all. He started out with the Small Faces, a very English mid-sixties pop group (see Anne E. Johnson’s article in Issue 117). He left them in 1968 and, along with Peter Frampton, formed Humble Pie in 1969. Along with Blind Faith, they became one of the first supergroups and many consider them, along with the Jeff Beck Group, the founding fathers of heavy metal. [We could add the MC5 and Blue Cheer. – Ed.] Steve’s vocals on the Humble Pie album Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore cemented his superstar vocal status. Later, Humble Pie’s performance opening for Grand Funk Railroad at Shea Stadium blew GFR off the stage.
1969 also brought us Tons of Sobs, the debut album from Free with lead singer Paul Rodgers. The song “All Right Now” came two years and two albums later, but their 1969 debut tour, opening for Blind Faith in the US, was legendary, as “The Hunter,” the first single off their debut album, was written by the members of Booker T & the M.G.’s and that vocal tells you all you need to know about how great Paul Rodgers is. Add to this the multi-platinum success of him leading the entire Bad Company era, and you have a world-class singer whose only misstep was his short stint as Freddie Mercury’s replacement in Queen. Paul’s voice just didn’t fit the Queen songs and it was even weirder seeing Queen playing Bad Company songs!
Closing out this incredible decade was the 1969 debut album from Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin has become second only to the Beatles in total US album sales by a British rock group. As pretty much everyone reading this knows, Robert Plant’s vocals on that debut album are astounding. His blues-based vocal stylings owe much to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker, to name just a few.
I was fortunate to have been at many of the shows given by the artists listed above. I was in the front row at Led Zeppelin’s first-ever show in New York City, at the Fillmore East on January 28th 1969. Plant, in a show of his incredible lung power, held the microphone away from his face and sang alone, a cappella style, to the sold out crowd during a quiet part of the song “You Shook Me.” The place went crazy. I have never seen a vocalist with that much power before or since.
That’s my list. I have no doubt many of you will offer up your own. All I can say, again, is that if the Beatles never happened, we might never have gotten to hear these incredible blues-based singers from the UK.
Header image of Steve Marriott courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Dina Regine.