Born: 19 th April 1928

Died: 1st January 1984 aged 55 years

Contribution to British Blues: formed the UK's (and the world's) first all-white, electric Blues Band; established the UK's first Blues Clubs (The London Blues & Barrelhouse Club & The Ealing Club); and inspired a generation of new British Blues and R&B musicians.

Which Era: late '50's/early 60's

Album to get: 'Blues Incorporated R&B at the Marquee' (see the Classic Album section.)

Bands Led: Alexis Korner Skiffle Group, Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group, Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, Free At Last, New Church, CCS, Snape, Rocket 88.

Bands played in: Beryl Bryden's Backroom Skiffle Group, Ken Collyer's Skiffle Group, Chris Barber's Jazz Band.

“ Founding Father of British Blues.” What images, dear reader, does that oft-used phrase conjure up for you? A modern virtuoso, a Paganini of the pentatonic? A dynamic performer, a commanding presence, a Colossus of charisma? Perhaps some dignified elder statesman with the grandeur and gravitas of a Britannic Muddy Waters? Unless you knew, it probably wouldn't conjure up anyone quite like Alexis Korner.


Alexis Andrew Nicholas Koerner was born in Paris to an Austrian Jewish father and a Greek mother, and spent his childhood in France, Switzerland and North Africa, arriving in London at the start of World War II. "It was in 1940 that I came across a record by Jimmy Yancey. “ Korner recounted. “I can't say how important that record is. From then on all I wanted to do was play the blues.”

"I had piano lessons from the age of five," Korner remembered. "I played OK, but my father really was convinced that I should become a virtuoso violinist, who would never, of course, dream of becoming a professional.” Papa, the story goes, disapproved strongly of boogie-woogie Blues, and when Alexis's attempts to play something so frivolous were discovered, the piano was locked and never re-opened.

He was called up for National Service – yes, kiddies, we still had something called “conscription” then, serving one's country was mandatory – and spent several fairly fortunate years placed with the British Forces Network record library in Hamburg. During that time he learned to play guitar, and saw Leadbelly playing in Paris. Returning to the UK, he persuaded Jazz Band leader, trombonist Chris Barber (more of him later) to give him a job playing Folk Blues in a sort of “intermission” spot.

When Jazz trumpeter Ken Colyer returned, deported, from the USA, he joined forces with Barber to form the Ken Colyer Jazz Band – his mission was “to popularise New Orleans music without distorting it, aborting it, or slapping any gimmicks on it.” But within a year or so he had argued with Barber about musical direction, and quit. Korner was briefly a member of the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group, contributing guitar and mandolin, and making his earliest recordings on the ten-inch album, 'Back To The Delta.'



As his confidence increased, Korner began playing as a solo act in clubs, and found his way to Cyril Davies' and Bob Watson's London Skiffle Centre above the Roundhouse Pub in Soho, where Cyril was bashing out Leadbelly numbers on his custom Grimshaw 12-string. In spite of their differences (one the urbane, intellectual son of an affluent family, the other a surly and abrasive panel-beater) Alexis and Cyril discovered they were very musically compatible. After a while, as Korner tells it, “Cyril said to me one day, 'Look man, I'm tired of all this Skiffle stuff. If I close this place down, will you come in with me and open it up as a Blues club?'”

From the new London Blues and Barrelhouse Club came the music that was recorded as the now-classic 'Blues From The Roundhouse' by Alexis Korner's Breakdown Group featuring Cyril Davies. Issued in 1957 as a limited-edition 10” album on the '77' label by Dobell's Jazz Record Shop in the Charing Cross Road, its contents are now available as tracks on a CD of the same name, and on the Cyril Davies Memorial Album 'Preachin' The Blues,' the 'Alexis Korner Easy Rider' compilation, and half-a-dozen or so similar re-issues.


We can take a trip to the Club courtesy of Charles Fox, quondam presenter of BBC Radio's 'Jazz Today' and his notes from the liner of the Alexis Korner Skiffle Group EP, 'Blues from the Roundhouse vol. 1' recorded in July 1957. Those were the days when British Blues was American Folk Blues, and warranted serious critical appreciation, in suitably sober tones.

“ At the corner of Brewer and Wardour Streets, hardly a stones-throw from Picadilly Circus stands the Roundhouse, a purple-brick Victorian public house. On a Thursday evening passers by are sometimes startled to hear Blues floating from its upstairs windows, Blues sung and played by the musicians heard on this record. In an area packed with Skifflers strumming away in cellars and coffee-bars, only at the Roundhouse - headquarters of The London Blues Club - are Negro Blues sung regularly and looked upon as an end in themselves.

Alexis Korner has been playing the guitar for eight years and collecting Race Records for double that time. In 1949, as a member of the Chris Barber Jazz Band, he played and sang with the first Chicago-style Race Group ever to be heard in London. Later he helped organize the original Ken Colyer Skiffle Group. Asked for his favourite guitarists, Alexis picks Scrapper Blackwell and Charlie Christian; the singers he likes best are Sleepy John Estes, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Brownie McGhee and Joe Turner.

Not many guitarists have succeeded in playing Blues with sympathy and understanding. One who has is Alexis Korner, another Cyril Davies. Cyril's style of singing and the fact that he had a 12-string guitar specially built for him should be evidence enough of his regard for Leadbelly's work. Yet although he employs many of Leadbelly's phrases, Cyril always tries to use them in a personal manner.

When Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy Rushing visited the London Blues Club they not only sang, but expressed their delight in hearing genuine Blues in the heart of London. Their tributes were appreciated by these young musicians, who take the Blues seriously but not themselves. With humility and sympathy they re-create these songs, striving always for authenticity of feeling, hoping to use the idiom in some personal way.”

And while Alexis & Cyril were singing their Blues humbly in Soho, Chris Barber was also presenting “Race Music” or “the Folk Music of the American Negro” in an interval spot with his Jazz Band, playing upright bass himself, with chanteuse Beryl Bryden on washboard, and band banjo-player Tony Donegan (later better known as Lonnie) on guitar and vocals. As Barber admitted in a 1971 interview, “Lonnie loved the Blues, but he could only sing it in a certain kind of way – he could get quite near to that particular nasal sound of Leadbelly's.”

Following the release of their cover of Leadbelly's 'Rock Island Line,' Donegan became quite the 'pop star' (see our section 'Charting The Blues' for more detail) but the immense interest in Black Folk Music that his success generated, allowed Barber to take a step deeper into the Blues, and in 1957 he arranged for Big Bill Broonzy and Brother John Sellars to tour with his band. “It was the first British concert tour with Blues artists, I think,” Barber remembers. “Big Bill had been over before and done a couple of club dates, but not a concert tour. Brother John was doing a kind of Joe Turner Blues act, and they both went down marvellously with the audience.”

Later that same year he brought over Sister Rosetta Tharpe, then, in 1958, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and finally, later the same year, Muddy Waters. Muddy arrived accompanied by pianist Otis Spann, and astounded everyone by playing electric, urban R&B, rather than the acoustic Country Blues that had been favoured by British Jazz and Folk revivalists. Critical opinions were divided, but Britain's indigenous Bluesos were galvanised. Long John Baldry reported, “Up to that time, we thought of Blues as being strictly acoustic music, and Muddy came over with this electric guitar and a big amplifier, and a lot of people said, ‘Ooh, sacrilegious, dreadful, dreadful, he's selling out the Blues,' but Cyril, Alex and myself looked at this and thought, ‘Hmm, this is interesting,' and we started trying ourselves.” The Roundhouse was the only club in London that Muddy Waters played on his 1958 visit.


Soon after, Barber and his band had undertaken their first American tour, gaining the opportunity to catch Muddy and his band on home turf, and see first hand how it should be done. Barber returned, fired with enthusiasm, determined to try and recreate the Chicago sound in his UK gigs. “I had known Alexis Korner for years,” Barber recalled, “and we heard he was doing electric Blues in England, so someone said, ‘Let's get together,' because it seemed we'd get more of a sound.” In 1960, Barber brought Korner and Davies in to play the closing half-hour of his band's Wednesday residency at the Marquee Club in Oxford Street, giving London audiences their first taste of home-grown, amplified R&B.

Although the experiment was successful for the listeners, the musicians took a different view. The band weren't comfortable with Korner's count-ins, and Barber's wife and singer Ottilie Patterson found her vocals drowned out by Cyril's incessant harp-blowing, so Barber decided, “if playing electric R&B in England meant working with Alex, we wouldn't do it!” But Korner & Davies could see the possibilities, and resolved to form their own band. Thus was born Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, a fluid line-up that would soon include Alexis and Cyril, Long John Baldry, and Cyril's bête noire, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith. “I didn't want to lead a band,” Korner explained, “I just got lumbered into doing it."

The band required a venue, and their solution was to open their own. 'The Ealing Club' as it became known, was originally a Trad. Jazz Club, in a basement under the Aerated Bread Company Tea Shop. Korner and Davies struck a deal with the owner to work for the door money. Their advert in Jazz News ran: “ Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated: The Most Exciting Event Of This Year. Rhythm And Blues Clubs No.1: The Ealing Club, Ealing Broadway, W5 (Immediately Opposite Tube Station). Debut Of Britain's First Rhythm & Blues Band. This Saturday & Every Saturday: 7.30pm.” Their first show, on Saturday March 17, 1962, was a sell-out out as every Blues fan and musician for miles descended on the gig to listen, dance, or sit in and jam. A blue plaque now adorns the property stating appropriately “Alexis Korner & Cyril Davies began British Rhythm & Blues on this site.”


Blues Inc. made such an impact that the Marquee Club invited them to take a Thursday night residency, though initially their Saturday night show at Ealing proved the more popular. But as the crowds grew, Jack Good, producer of hit TV music shows such as 'Six Five Special' and 'Oh Boy!' suggested making a live recording of the band. In fact the resulting Ace of Clubs release “R&B from the Marquee” (see our 'Classic Albums' section) was not a live album, as the title suggests, but was recorded at Decca's West Hampstead Studios, using a session rhythm section made up of bassist Spike Heatley from Johnny Dankworth's Big Band, and Chris Barber's drummer Graham Burbridge, who had the unique distinction of having jammed at Smitty's Corner in Chicago.

Done in a day and mixed in glorious mono, the record is simply bursting with energy, and it's the starting point for almost every kind of British Blues that followed. I'm indebted again to Charles Fox for these verbal snapshots of that day from 'Jazz News.'


“ A recording session demands patience even more than genius. First you spend what seems like hours getting a good balance. Often it means splitting musicians up, putting some on their own behind screens, destroying the physical unity of the group. Here, however, everybody is in touch. Only Keith Scott, the pianist has any troubles. He has to turn his head right round to see when the singer stops – for there's no amplification inside the studio.

Cyril Davies makes the platform beneath him shudder and shake as he plays harmonica, then sings, ‘I Got My Mojo Working'. Around another microphone sit Long John Baldry, Dick Heckstall-Smith and onlooking guitarist Jim Sullivan, exchanging ginger biscuits and shouting responses. On this title the bass guitar is being used, played by Teddy Wadmore. The group's regular bassist Spike Heatley seizes the chance to catch forty winks. A snatch of conversation filters from the control room: ‘Well, what the hell is a Mojo, anyway?” Halfway through the afternoon they all troop off to the canteen for tea.

The last stretch is always the toughest, Bottles get raised slightly more often. Dick Heckstall-Smith crouches over his tenor sax, a cross between Sonny Rollins and the eagle outside the American Embassy. Alexis Korner sits placidly, guitar resting on his tartan trousers…

Surrealism creeps into most human activities. This time it enters during the third ‘take' of ‘Finkle's Café', just as the tenor sax and guitar are swapping phrases. Despite the glowing red light, the studio door opens and in walks a little girl dressed in grey. It's like Alice arriving at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

The end, of course, like most finales, had a quality of anti-climax. Yet fifteen titles – good for one day, more than enough for an LP – have been put on tape. Now for the handing out of money, the packing up of instruments, the telephoning for taxis.

Jack Good, the A&R man, a City-type bowler jammed on his head, looses his last shaft of repartee, then strides out of the control room. Drums are trundled, bottles are discarded. Nobody can quite believe, its still 73* in the shade.” (*degrees Fahrenheit, kiddies!)

In essence it's a Cyril Davies LP – he sings on five of the eight vocal tracks, and composes one of the four instrumentals – and I can only echo the words of Harry Shapiro, when he advises, “Savour his playing here, because there is precious little else to listen to.” Within two years, the “horrible geezer” who first brought Blues Harp to Britain was dead. It was also his last recording with Korner, for while Alexis was quite comfortable with Jazz influences in the band, Cyril was a fervent convert to Chicago Blues, and the threat of more saxophones in Blues Inc. was more than he could take. In the same month as the album was released, Davies quit to form his own band, taking Long John Baldry with him. (For more info see Cyril Davies in our Biographies section.)

While Blues Incorporated continued to gig and record, with its ever-changing line-up, Korner took a job with the BBC on popular children's TV programme The Five O'Clock Club, where he fronted a trio with Pentanglers Danny Thompson and Terry Cox, and later also had his own radio show, R&B with Alexis Korner. Blues Inc. officially disbanded in 1966 after five albums, and Korner played for a while with ex-Mayall drummer Hughie Flint in another trio called Free At Last , until In the spring of 1968, Korner toured Denmark with one of that country's leading blues outfits, The Beefeaters.


The Beefeaters were a very talented Blues band in the “psychedelic” era of the Sixties who had played support to touring stars like Mayall and Hendrix, and released two albums. The first is eponymous, the second is entitled 'Meet You There,' and includes their rather tasteful slowie 'Changed My Way Of Living,' which is easily worth five minutes of your time.

Unfortunately I can't say the same for their version of 'Stormy Monday' featuring Korner, which sadly exposes most of his weaknesses both as a vocalist and guitarist. Nonetheless, Alexis teamed up with vocalist/guitarist/flautist Peter Thorup, initially as a duo, and later in the band New Church. “At one point my daughter Sappho was singing, Nick South was on bass, and it shifted around a lot, but there was always Peter and I,” Korner recalled. The group notably supported the Rolling Stones at their free concert in Hyde Park on July 5th 1969, to mark the passing of Brian Jones. (I was there, but as it was the Sixties, all I can remember is Jagger's little white dress, loads of dead butterflies, and how much better and tighter than the Stones King Crimson were.)

Thorup continued his association with Korner into the big band CCS (Collective Consciousness Society) brainchild of musician and arranger John Cameron, and producer Mickie Most. It was an experiment that provided Korner with some unexpected hit records, including the catchy 'Tap Turns On The Water' on which his gravelly vocal featured prominently. Their instrumental cover of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' (based on Muddy Waters' 'You Need Love') was used as the theme tune for TV's 'Top of the Pops,' and Alexis' unmistakeable growl made him in demand as a voice-over artist for TV advertising.


After CCS, Korner and Thorup worked together in a band called Snape (apparently an acronym for Something Nasty 'Appens Practically Every day) featuring Boz Burrell, Mel Collins, and Ian Wallace, all former members of King Crimson. Korner also recorded his own “super-session” album, 'Get Off My Cloud' with Keith Richard, Peter Frampton, Steve Marriott and Nicky Hopkins. Colin Hodgkinson, who played bass on the album, was a member of the unusual trio Backdoor (their line-up was bass/drums/sax) and remained working with Korner up to Alexis' untimely death.

Korner's 50th birthday concert included Hodgkinson along with Eric Clapton, Paul Jones, Duffy Power, Dick Heckstall-Smith, and many other star names, released as 'The Party Album,' and Korner's final collaboration was the boogie-woogie band Rocket 88, formed by “Sixth Stone” Ian Stewart and including Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Zoot Money, Micky Waller, Pete York, and a host of others in a fluid line-up reminiscent of Blues Incorporated. Sadly Korner, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died on the first day of 1984 at the Westminster Hospital, aged 55.

I sometimes wonder if there was an "Emperor's New Clothes" element to the career of Alexis Korner. His voice, fabulous for speaking, was sometimes less so for singing, and the extent of his musical skills often seemed to vary, though he was never short of capable accompanists. Korner would joke that he was schizophrenic, saying “The me who hears what the other me can't play is the dominant one.” The redoubtable Ginger Baker once described Korner as a "musical tosser who surrounds himself with talent so he can look cool,” but that didn't stop Baker himself from playing in Blues Inc., or booking Alexis to play at his 40 th birthday party. Korner, self-effacing, just said “I'm sure that one of the reasons why so many great musicians chose to work with me was because there was simply no alternative.”

However it was, Alexis Korner managed to fill a role as a catalyst and a source of encouragement to others often far more talented than himself, and without him I doubt if British Blues would have got off the ground, let alone left such a great legacy. Cyril Davies, Art Wood, Duffy Power, Charlie Watts, Long John Baldry, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Dick Heckstall-Smith, these names alone are legend, and all were members of Blues Incorporated at one time or other - along with Ronnie Jones, Herbie Goins, Phil Seaman, Art Themen, Danny Thompson, Davey Graham, Terry Cox and the rest.

And it was Blues Incorporated' s Ealing Jams that brought us Paul Jones, Brian Jones, Mick & Keef, Dick Taylor, Eric Burdon and a few dozen other young wannabes who kicked their own brand of R&B into the Sixties charts. Korner himself recorded well over two dozen albums, in styles that ranged through various combinations of Folk, Blues, Jazz and Gospel, (not bad for someone who was “lumbered” into leading the band) though I'd wager that none of them had as much impact or influence as “R&B From The Marquee.” Alexis could always hear the Blues in many differing forms of music, and remonstrated with British musicians for adhering too rigidly to the Chicago Blues that his old partner “Squirrel” had espoused.

I'm not sure what young music fans will make of the Alexis Korner legacy now. A recent CD claims “Alexis Korner is the founding father of British Rhythm and Blues. Featuring classics such as 'Boll Weevil', 'Leaving Blues' and title track 'Easy Rider', this is essential listening for any Blues fan.” Well, I listened to it, and guess who sung those classics like 'Leaving Blues' and 'Easy Rider'? Cyril Davies, that's who! In fact Alexis' vocals took up only four tracks of a 40-track re-issue double CD bearing his name.

Amazingly, there are currently seventeen versions of Cyril Davies singing 'Death Letter,' (the Leadbelly version that preceded the classic Son House recording) appearing on YouTube. Each one is from a different retrospective or compilation CD, and they are ALL credited to Alexis Korner except one, which simply "features" Cyril Davies. Yet bizarrely, when 'Kid Man' sung by Korner appears on YouTube, it's Cyril who gets the name check.

I can hardly blame any kids who get confused over who was the real founding father of British Blues. But Alexis himself was in no doubt: “I must point out,” he said in 1971, “that one of the people most directly responsible for the R&B boom was Chris Barber.”



© Stevie King 2018 for the British Blues Archive