Dave McCumiskey's memories
of the early 60's


BRITISH BLUES CORNER – The Early Sixties

By Dave Mack

I remember well, as a teenager in 1959, my visit down to London from my North Country home in Carlisle , Cumbria , with the other four members of our band, The Ramrods.  This was my first visit back down South since my family's evacuation from South London during WWII.  Carlisle had a fairly isolated music scene, and we were all keen to scour the clubs and see as many bands as we could during those four to five days.  And where else could we find all the fancy new gear for our band to wear on stage including white moccasin-like shoes and Winkle Pickers - sharp-toed Italian shoes (which, by the way, were perfect for clearing the front row of trouble-makers who would try to mount the stage when a fight broke out.) We did see a ton of stuff, and my life was never the same again!


LONDON

The Ramrods arrived in the heart of the West End of London, a short walk through Soho and the Theater District, and followed our ears to the music.  During those days, skiffle music was very big and all the juke boxes were ringing with Lonnie Donnegan's Rock Island Line, Charles McDevitt, and Nancy Whiskey who were all top names in the coffeehouse scene.  Interestingly, these three artists were from Glasgow , Scotland , and not Londoners.  Acoustic music was very popular and skiffle bands were popping up everywhere.  The instrumentation was very basic:  a washboard with some sewing thimbles similar to the Zydeco bands of today, one or two guitars, and a tea chest bass.  I previously made such a bass for myself up North.  All you needed was a used tea chest which was approximately a 3-foot cube with an open top.  Turn it upside down, mount a locking bridge, a broomstick, and a cat gut E or A string, and bingo, you have a standup bass.

After returning home North, I knew from that point forward, that in three years, as soon as I finished my apprenticeship in carpentry, I would be headed South again to the big lights, never to return.  London and music were constantly on my mind and I couldn't wait to move to “The City.”

In the early ‘60s, our first introductions to good blues music were mostly supplied by the pirate radio stations off shore in international waters, as the BBC pretty much had a monopoly on what music did and did not get played.  Those pirate radio shows were very popular as they controlled their own format and were not beholding to a program director.  Also a large influence, were the U. S. servicemen stationed in the U.K. who brought in great records or got them through the military exchange.  This was a major part of the birth of British blues interest.  At that time, the two major musician newspapers were NME (New Musical Express) and the Melody Maker.  They were the sources for anything musical – gigs, bands looking for new players, and what bands were performing and where. 

Finally, 1963 arrived, and there I was in London again, seeking my fame and fortune, hanging around the Greek and Turkish coffee houses in the West End .  These seemed to be the places where musicians hooked up with other players and were also sources of good, inexpensive food for us starving musicians.  Pretty soon, I connected with a drummer and singer--good players--who were looking to make some moves.  All we needed was a good guitar player and some gigs, but this first hook-up did not pan out.  During one of those many days hanging out at the coffee houses (when the Stones were all the buzz in London), here came Keith Richards and Billy Wyman for a “cuppa” after recording one of their first singles, Buddy Holly's “Not Fade Away.”  Since the Stones were really starting to catch on, we all felt closer to achieving our own personal goals, that being stardom and getting the girls!!


THE FLAMINGO CLUB

My first exposure to a night of solid blues was at Ken Colyer's Club in the West End where Alexis Korner (the British Blues Godfather) and his band were playing.  Later that month, the Stones were playing there, sticking pretty much to an all blues set.  I eventually found the Flamingo Club and a huge favorite at the time, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames.  Georgie was incredible on the Hammond B3 and was a great blues singer.  He could walk the line into jazz voicings doing some James Moody and was heavy into scat singing.  Georgie had a killer bass player named Boots as everybody knew him.  He was the steadiest bass player I had heard to date and laid a foundation down for the band on his P Bass like nobody I had ever heard .

The Flamingo featured two different sets on a weekend.  The first set was from 8:00 p.m. to 11:30ish when the club would close.  It would reopen at 1:00 a.m. for the killer session when literally anybody who had a name could show up and join Georgie on stage.  I remember one night when Van Morrison arrived and Eric Burdon of the Animals along with the late Tubby Hayes ( a baritone sax player).  Amazing nights—who needed sleep anyway!

My apartment in South London was about 25 miles away, and since the last subway train in those days departed at 12:30 a.m., staying in the West End was the only option.  Many nights I would crash on anybody's floor just to be close to the music.  Those were great nights for me as a musician, and sitting in the front rows watching Boots made my weekend.  I couldn't wait to get back to my apartment and apply all the stuff I had visually digested watching Boots.

Zoot Money and the Big Roll Band was another exceptional band and were regulars at the Flamingo.  They always attracted big crowds for the late nighters.  This was truly the musical heart of The City during those days.  Ronnie Scott's Club on Oxford Street was a favorite haunt of many blues players and many guest American performers, including the Manfred Mann Band.  At the time, just about every band during their set would slip in some Chuck Berry; Jerry Lee; Little Richard; Fats Domino; and Buddy Holly pieces.  Much of the bands' repertoires had a noticeable U. S. flavor , and nobody could go on stage without the ability to play Booker T's Green Onions or John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom.  Other names that really stick out in my mind are Otis Redding; Wilson Pickett; Lightning Hopkins; Alvin Lee; Blues, Inc.; Cyril Davies; The Faces with Rod Stewart; Long John Baldry; Ten Years After; and Albert Lee, always one of my personal favorites.  Of special mention were The Hollies, who were probably the tightest band I have ever heard.  They had some great harmonies and obviously worked at it.  These are by no means all the names, but certainly memorable ones for me.

After making some good contacts with bands looking for a bass player, I eventually ended up playing in three groups at the same time.  Two were just pick-up gigs, but the one that showed promise was a country band that included two U. S. servicemen - one a pedal steel player, the other a Merle Travis style fingerpicker--both great players.  We also had a terrific fiddler - another Englishman who performed a lot for the BBC2.  Playing with that band was a lot of fun because there were no required rehearsals; we just had to show up and bring our best stuff!  We played a lot of U. S. air bases around the London area.  


CASEY JONES & THE ENGINEERS

Another band we formed was more of an attempt to capitalize on the Beatles' success with a Liverpudlian named Casey Jones (real name, Brian Casser) who was a total nut case.  Reflecting on those times, I'm sure he never paid us in the four-month period we were together, but we did get food and drink.  Casey was a great showman and knew how to please an audience and pocket the money!  He named the band Casey Jones & the Engineers. Casey sang in keys in the upper stratosphere—sometimes, if we sang in the key of E, Casey would sing the same song in G.   We figured it was all about tight underwear!  Casey was also the one who suggested to John Lennon that they name the band The Silver Beatles.

The Engineers had some good players.  Among the lineup were Ray Stock on drums and Tom McGuiness on rhythm guitar and harmonica.  Ray went on to major success in studio musician gigs, and Tom eventually left to join Paul Jones in the Manfred Mann Band, then on to the McGuiness Flint Blues Band.  On Guitar was E. C. as many of us knew him.  Eric played a bloody awful Kay semi acoustic/electric guitar that had action so bad you could drive a bus between the strings and the fingerboard.  But somehow, it didn't matter to him—his version of Freddie King's Hideaway was as sharp as it is today.  Interesting to note, Eric also played very good blues harp, and I remember one night in Southwest London , going down to the Crawdaddy Club when Eric was on stage playing harp with the great Sonny Boy Williams.  Lastly, on P bass was I, Dave McCumiskey.  The group was together around four months and did a bit of traveling between the Oasis Club in Manchester and many of the clubs in London including the happenin' place at the time, The Scene, in the heart of the West End (WC2).

One fond memory of E. C. was of weekends hanging around the West End together and trying to drag him away from the front window of the Selmer Music Store as he was absolutely mesmerized by a red Gretsch Firebird solid body guitar—it was a beauty!  Thinking about it later, at a quick glance, it looked like a red Les Paul. 

After hanging in together for those four months, when it looked like we weren't getting anywhere with Casey, Eric announced he was taking the gig with the Yardbirds.  We were all stoked about his success and felt this was the kind of break he deserved.  I took off to Germany in early '64 with the Steve Laine Combo, soon to become the Liverpool Five (RCA Victor LPs and Sundazed/Sony CDs).


GERMANY

During the early ‘60s, British bands were very much in demand in Germany .  During those days, we all took the Ferry from Dover to Calais or Ostend long before the Chunnel existed.  This was a killer trip for all us “poor sailors,” so most of us hit the bar before the ferry left the dock, and about an hour into the four-hour journey, we'd hurry to the deck to give it all back to the fishes.  The English Channel and North Sea crossings can be severe. 

I was always amused that the German audience didn't seem to care about understanding the lyrics to the songs; it was the rhythm they were after.  We could not go through the evening without playing “Skinnie Minnie” (with the audience participating and clapping), and we knew we were good for a 15 minute set with that song.  The German audience loved it.  We first heard “Skinnie Minnie” played by Tony Sheridan in Hamburg in 1962-63.  Tony had a huge following in Germany , and was probably the only American singer who could brag about having The Silver Beatles for a back up band.  Yes, The Beatles were fairly regular at the Top 10 Club and the Star Club in Hamburg .

Those gigs in Germany were the closest thing to slave labor that any of us had seen before—eight sets a night, 45 minutes on stage, and 15 minutes off.  After two weeks of playing in Cologne , we realized that all the members of the band needed to do some soloing and singing in case our vocalist lost his voice, which did happen a few times.  Fortunately, a good Scottish friend told us, “If you lose your voice and need it back that night, gargle with Scotch, and for God's sake, don't spit it out afterwards.”

After our first six months in Germany , Switzerland , East Germany and Holland , we returned back home to England and couldn't wait to hear what was going on in both the pop and blues scenes.  It was also an opportunity to buy some new gear as Carnaby Street was starting to happen - Beatle boots and clothes that clashed as much as possible—hey, that's rock ‘n roll for ya!!