Q&A with British blues musician Norman Beaker - kept his signature sound alive throughout his career around the world

"Blues is a great outlet for your emotions, after a gig you feel like you have emptied your soul"

Norman Beaker: British Blues Crusader

Norman "Beaker" is a British guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and record producer, who has been involved in the British blues scene since the early 1970s. The Norman Beaker Band has toured and recorded with many blues artists including Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Alexis Korner, Chris Farlowe, BB King, Fenton Robinson, Lowell Fulson, Buddy Guy, Van Morrison. A self-taught guitarist, Norman Hume, learnt to play the guitar at the tender age of seven whilst confined to bed after a serious accident. In 1964, whilst on holiday in Llandudno, Norman entered and won first prize in a holiday camp talent competition, winning an appearance on skiffle king, Lonnie Donegan's Show. Norman's early influences were people like Lonnie and Hank Marvin though everyone who heard him play said he sounded like a blues guitarist. Elder brother Malcolm was a keen blues fan and introduced Norman to the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. In 1967 Norman formed his own band, 'Morning After' with a lineup that included brother, Malcolm on drums and Ian Stocks on bass. Gigging extensively throughout the late sixties and early seventies they built up a regular following. Often playing alongside Victor Brox, Norman eventually joined Victor's 'Blues Train', playing numerous gigs and appearing on Granada TV's 'So It Goes'.

In fact, Victor Brox played a very particular role in Norman's career, christening him 'Beaker' after the Neolithic 'Beaker' folk to whom he considered Norman bore a resemblance! He introduced Norman 'Beaker' on stage one night and the name stuck to the point now where most people think it is his real name! Perhaps one of their finest hours was guesting with BB King at Manchester's Free Trade Hall and the Hammersmith Odeon where the audience included Eric Clapton who went on to cover one of Norman's songs ('Break It Down') for a radio session, BB commented "I think we've found a white Freddy King", a compliment indeed and one not wasted on the many artistes Norman has subsequently worked with including: Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulson, Fenton Robinson, Chuck Berry, Katie Webster, Louisianna Red (with whom Norman appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test), the list goes on and on. Even the young up and coming stars such as Larry Garner have called on Norman and his band to give them their unique style of modern day blues. Norman Beaker, legendary Blues Hall Of Fame® Inductee, is back with a brand new album. ‘Running Down The Clock’ (2020) encompasses all of the genres that have influenced Norman over the last 50 years including rock, blues, jazz, soul, gospel, rockabilly, funk and some infectious crossover songs as well. In 2017, Norman Beaker became only the eighth 21​st​ century British legend in the Blues Hall Of Fame® alongside the likes of Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John Mayall and Jeff Beck. Norman has kept his signature sound alive throughout his career whether playing solo or with a who’s who of blues, soul, jazz, rock and pop from both sides of the Atlantic – including Chuck Berry, Jack Bruce, Buddy Guy, Van Morrison, Lowell Fulson and B.B. King.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues n' Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think it has certainly helped me to understand and appreciate other cultures and the need for different genres of music, and I think it has helped me to be tolerant of the differences between the cultures.

Are there any memories from "Running Down the Clock" sessions which you’d like to share with us?

When we are recording, we work very fast and hard, but always there are funny moments, a nice one one was when a few of our friends from Croatia dropped in the studio and we got them doing backing vocals. Another thing that made me laugh was after doing the vocal on Long before you came along, I sang really hard, and when I asked Leo if I could hear it back he told me he did not recorded it, but he had thank god, when I asked him seriously what it was like he shouted BAM !

When we arrived at the studio late on a Sunday evening, we decided we would just set all the amps and drums up so we could start straight away on the Monday morning, but we were having so much fun we put four tracks down as well. We realized the speed we were recording was going to leave lots of time for beer.

"I think it has certainly helped me to understand and appreciate other cultures and the need for different genres of music, and I think it has helped me to be tolerant of the differences between the cultures." (Norman Beaker / Photo by Nemanja Đorđević)

What were the reasons that made the UK in 1960s to be the center of Skiffle & Blues experiments?

I think the skiffle thing came about as we had many ports in London, Manchester Liverpool etc. so people used to bring in American records we would never have got to hear in to the country, and Skiffle was very accessible to every one homemade tea chest basses, washboards and acoustic guitars. Then later people discovered the Blues in very much the same way, and soon went from acoustic to electric following people like Muddy Waters, from there of course Chuck Berry influenced a lot of musicians such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones, who both took it to another level of popularity

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think I would like to see more education in history of popular music in schools, and on TV it would give young musicians a perspective in what’s important, now if you ask people on X Factor what they want they say to be Famous, well that is nothing compared to what you can get from music for your soul.

What is the impact of Blues music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I would like to think that played properly its cathartic for both the musician and the audience, the whole point of the music we play is to have an effect on people, just like a film or a book, perfection is not important emotion is. But I like to speak to an audience with some humorous stuff too, so it has an entertainment value too.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

I first started to listen to blues music when I was about 12 years old, my brother, who is 3 years older than me a,d now owns a record shop, used to go and see Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson and tell me about them. I had been playing guitar since I was 7 years old, after a road accident I had to stay in bed  for over a year and my Father bought me a guitar to pass the time, and I loved it. At the time there were not too many guitarist to learn from so you had to use your imagination. I was a normal young kid, into pop music etc, but when I played the guitar my brother told me I sounded like a blues guitarist, and then so did everyone else. My Mother entered me in a guitar competition and I won, and the prize was  10 shillings and a spot on the Lonnie Donegan Show, he was the King of Skiffle in the UK, and I went on a few shows with him after thet, in fact we always kept in touch right up to his death, so I suppose it was Lonnie who got me started really.

Who were your first idols?

The album that really got me was the 1st Bob Dylan album with songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson etc, really emotional stuff, and it really inspired me. Electric wise the album for me that changed everything for my playing was the Five Live Yardbirds with a very young Eric Clapton, it was so raunchy and exciting, and that was it, I was hooked for ever. I have many heroes I was lucky enough to tour with BB King, Buddy Guy etc, but my real fave has to be Freddie King, such energy and emotion, if I am allowed on regret it is that I never played or even met him, wonderful player.

Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best like a friend?

I have been very lucky, all my band are like my best friends, very much a family we all look after each other, after a long time together you need that John Price on bass has been with me for 20 years, Dave Baldwin on keys for 17, Steve Gibason on drums for about 8 years and the new boy on sax Kim Nishikawara, so you can see we don’t have a big turn around in musicians, because they all gel so well together. Alexis Korner was a very close friend an indeed was the Godfather of my eldest son also named Alexis, Jack Bruce is another, Chris Farlowe who I have worked with for 17 years about, Paul Jones, also Larry Garner who we have started touring with again, very funny guy, he always stays at my house when we are in the UK, and he likes to join in Village life, he is like a local now.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

So many best ones and not too many bad one’s (yet) I suppose playing at the Royal Albert Hall with Van Morrison was up there, also the first gig I did with Jack Bruce, who is really my mentor, his attitude to musical intensity is far greater than anyone else I know. I don’t really have any bad memories, but there are a lot of people I miss who are no longer with us, Tony Ashton, a great friend and musician, Dick Heckstall- Smith who I palyed with for many years, Tim Rose I also miss a lot, but its inevitably going to happen, so I just try to enjoy everyone while they are with us.

"I think I would like to see more education in history of popular music in schools, and on TV it would give young musicians a perspective in what’s important, now if you ask people on X Factor what they want they say to be Famous, well that is nothing compared to what you can get from music for your soul." (Norman Beaker / Photo by Wolfgang Mülter)

Are there any similarities between the blues today and the blues of the sixties?

Not so much, the 60’s tended to be more raw and exciting, now it is more sophisticated and song oriented. When I  released the album “Into the Blues “ in 1988 people were amazed to find songs not in a 12 bar format, now everyone does it, but for me blues should be more from the heart than the brain.

What do you think were the reasons for the Brit blues boom at early of ‘60s?

Mainly the reason was the link with jazz & Skiffle, when Cyril Davis started the Skiffle club in London it was really popular for a short time until, rockers like Keith Richard , Mick Jagger and Alexis of course  started the Blues club, which was just a bit more rebellious, a bit like the punk scene after bands like Queen, a natural reaction.

Did you help many artist in the meantime did you found any gratitude from them?

I have helped and even managed a few bands, and yes generally they are usually grateful, of course there is the odd one who forgets how they got a break, but I do it for the reason I think they are worth it, so gratitude is nice but not compulsory.

What does BLUES mean to you?

It is a great outlet for your emotions, after a gig you feel like you have emptied your soul.

Which of your work would you consider to be the best?

I’d have to leave that for other people to judge, an album I produced with for Ruby Turner “Guilty” was something I am really proud of, and I suppose the “Into the Blues “ album as it was quite ground breaking song wise.

What does Blues offered you?

A living, a chance to meet some great people including the audiences to whom we owe everything. 

What do you learn about yourself from music?

That there is more emotion inside you that has to come out.

"I have helped and even managed a few bands, and yes generally they are usually grateful, of course there is the odd one who forgets how they got a break, but I do it for the reason I think they are worth it, so gratitude is nice but not compulsory." (Norman Beaker / Photo by Dunja Dopsaj)

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Well all of it really, in the 70’s trying to get yourself notice and working really hard, then making a name for your self and justifying keeping yourself up there as time changes around you.

Why do you play the blues?

Well I do play other styles, but people always say it sounds like blues so I have no choice, blues is what I do

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

Never taking an anything for granted, live life to the full, and give it everything you have every time.

What was the first gig you ever went to?

Of all things it was The Beach Boys, but after that I saw John Mayall hundreds if times, there is a legend for you.

How was your recording hours with Chris Farlowe?

The first record I recorded with Chris was “Lonesome  Road “ for Indigo, I was sort of the house producer for a while, and we recorded this live, and we have been playing together ever since, great voice, and again we have a lot of fun on stage which people really enjoy.

What mistake of music you want to correct?

A track from my album “Hollywood” which we recorded slower than the way we play live, and it’s not as punchy.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

As I said Freddy King would be number one, but after working with Larry Garner, some stories he has told me I would have love to have met Gatemouth Brown.

"Not so much, the 60’s tended to be more raw and exciting, now it is more sophisticated and song oriented. When I  released the album “Into the Blues “ in 1988 people were amazed to find songs not in a 12 bar format, now everyone does it, but for me blues should be more from the heart than the brain." (Norman Beaker & Larry Garner / Photo by Wolfgang Mülter)

Are your music dreams full feald? To which person do you want to send one from your songs?

Yes more than fulfilled, but we still strive to improve. Stevie Wonder, have you got his address?

Do you believe the MUSIC takes subject from the LIFE? Three words to describe your sound & your progress...

Yes, my songs certainly do! Truthful, authentic and consistent!

When did you last laughing in studio and why?

We are always laughing in the studio, but one I like was when we were recording with Louisiana Red, he said when I nod my head finish, so he nodded and we stopped, he then sais “ What happened”, I said you nodded your head  he replied “No that’s what I do when I get happy “, very funny....

Tell me about the beginning of Morning  After. How did you get together and where did it start?

It was my brothers idea really, we had a close friend Ian Stocks who played bass, and we had s friend who played a bit of a guitar and we were together for about 3 years and played almost every night , it was a good learning ground .

Tell me about your meeting with Lowell Fulson.

We toured with Lowell for many years, great songwriter, but he always seemed a very lonely guy, and a bit awkward with the audience, it was just like “Thank you” and then on to the next song.

How was your relationship with Alexis Korner?

We were very close and I mentioned before he was godfather to my eldest child, he taught me more about the business side than the music side, obviously he had a wealth of knowledge, and was a great raconteur, a great champion of the blues. If Alexis is the Father of UK Blues Chris Barber has to be the Grandfather he paid money out of his own pocket to bring over people like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, at a time when it was a big gamble.

What does GUITAR mean to you?

I love it as an extension of you emotions, I have a 1970 strat which I love and it is just like another part of you on stage, it’s a lot mellower than I am.

What advice would you had given to Graham Bond?

Don’t take so many drugs...

What would you had  given Cyril Davis?

None, he knew everything anyway...

How did you begin playing music and when did you know you would do this for a living?

As I said earlier I started palying when I was seven and was in bands from the age of 14. I only started to play for a living when I had no time to do anything else. The music business chose me really

How do you get inspiration for your songs?

From watching other people and listening to there problems etc.

What musicians have influenced you most as a songwriter?

Stevie Wonder without a doubt and Jack Bruce too.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Yes a lot, when we started in the business everyone had a chance to be on TV etc now, it’s all talent or should I say lack of talent shows like the X Factor, which has stopped a lot of the younger guys coming through.

What advice would you give to aspiring  musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the “blues craft”?

Play everywhere and a lot, you can’t buy experience you have to work at it.

Give one wish for the blues music...

That we give the younger guys time to mature, we had years as no one was interested, so we had time to get it right, no it’s a CD driven industry before they have done  a few gigs.

What do you feel is the key to your success as a musician?

Always trying to do the right thing, and not trying to upstage anyone and being generous with other musicians, it is a team effort that makes things work.

How do you want to be remembered?

That I was a good player and brought a bit of humour to the cause as well.

BB King descibe you as “The White Freddy King"...

I wish I had his voice, I think we both play with a bit of edge, so I suppose we are from the same school, I would love to think so anyway.

"If Alexis is the Father of UK Blues Chris Barber has to be the Grandfather he paid money out of his own pocket to bring over people like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, at a time when it was a big gamble." (Photo: Norman Beaker)

Are “The Blues” a way of life?

In my case yes, but music in general is my way of life, as I do a lot of writing and Producing which I like, it keeps me fresh for gigging.

Do you have a message for the blues fans?

I hope we can come over and play you some downhome UK blues as soon as we can, and keep the faith!

and one last question, I would like to put a song next to each name, Victor Brox: Till You’re Loving Makes me Blue... Paul Jones: Blue Collar... and Van Morrison: Bright Side of the Road

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