Brit author and musician Mel Wright talks about British blues boom, Juke Boy Bonner, Son House, & Big Boy Crudup

"You have to have passion and commitment for playing but as to making a career – get some professional advice"

Mel Wright: Beyond The Blues

Mel's experience of playing music and as a social worker and community development worker has enriched his interest in writing about London communities and the social history of popular music.

As a drummer Mel has spent over forty years gigging. Working Men's clubs, pubs and sixties & seventies blues club scene. Played at Eel Pie Island, Studio 51, The Marquee, The Flamingo, Les Enfants Terribles, 100 Club.
Accompanied and supported black American blues legends Son House, Howlin Wolf, Eddie Guitar Burns, Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup (BBC TV appearances on Late Night Line Up & Disco 2), Lightnin’ Slim, Juke Boy Bonner, Champion Jack Dupree and Curtis Jones. During seventies & eighties with Strike-A-Light theatre rock, folk rock band, Traitors Gait playing festivals. He now plays with The Flying Chaucers who have performed at Glastonbury and many major venues in UK as well as playing drums with UK blues legend Shakey Vick & Chris Youlden’s band – Waydown, UK clubs and European festivals.
Recordings include Things Ain't Right- Juke Boy Bonner, Book Of Changes Ian A Anderson, I Wish You Would - Brunning Hall Sunflower Blues Band, Blues & Gospel, Key To The Highway - Jo Ann Kelly, Poor Young Willie - Traitors Gait, The Complete Mess - Mess of Blues, About Time - The Flying Chaucers, Greek Street - Waydown, What Jazz Can Do For Your Life - Jazz Circus with Billy Jenkins & Jazzman John Clarke, Highlife In The Sun - Jimmy Beckley Trio.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music, who were your first idols & what does Blues offer?
I first became interested in playing music as a bass player and a drummer. The Shadows in early sixties were my idols.
Jet Harris – bass player had a moody image that appealed to my early teenage years but their drummer, Tony Meehan,   I followed his playing more studiously. I failed dismally on bass and quickly switched to drums particularly as II had learnt basic rudiments in a marching band.  This early start wasn’t really the blues but it led on to it.  

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the old days? What is the “thing” you miss from the “OLD BLUES”?
I’m not sure you can categorize it in this way. Clearly classic recordings eg Muddy, Wolf, Hooker etc. have a compelling significance and magic about them. In fact I heard some tracks quite unexpectedly in a café the other day and was really moved emotionally when Elmore James came on. I don’t go to see many modern bands and performers to comment but I know that there are some current players who take the older style and transform it well to their own – just as they should. Big Joe Louis is one.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Hard to say – the best and the worst may still yet come!
Not so much a single moment really, more a period 1967/68 in London playing with Shakey Vick’s band and later Dynaflow Blues in Soho clubs was a great time. Les Enfants Terribles, a French student hang out, The Marquee where we played alongside  Jethro Tull, Savoy Brown, Aynsley Dunbar etc. Accompanying American blues players who we had only heard before on record. (see below). More personal memories were playing hot, sweaty clubs outside of London where people seemed starved of blues music and after the gig collapsing in the back of the van, exhausted for the drive back to London in the early hours. One of the worst  experiences was returning late from a gig when our van hit a trafficisland and swerved into a shopfront. I was in the back and only had minor bruising  when the equipment fell on top of me but Wolfie's girlfriend sitting in the front smashed her head on the windscreen and had to go to hospital. (the days before seat belts) All ok in the end. 

Photo: Shakey Vick's Big City Blues Band 1967

What are some of the most memorable tales with Shakey Vick's Big City Blues Band, Brunning/ Hall & Jo Ann Kelly?
How long have you got? I Look back at this period with great affection– I was really lucky to have played with UK blues performers on the London blues scene. 1967 – 1970. Firstly the venues: Studio 51 Gt. Newport Street, near Leicester Square run by two kindly and straight laced ladies. These Sunday afternoon blues sessions were vital for getting together with fellow players: Jo Ann and Dave Kelly, Bob Hall, Bob Brunning, Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts, John Dummer Blues Band and others. Bands would do spots of their own but there was a lot of jamming amongst players.  It was on the strength of this that I got to play with Jo Ann Kelly, a really lovely person but who also knew what she wanted. I did a few solo gigs with her playing hand-drums at Bunjies folk cellar and The Anglers club at Teddington. She had a voice that really did stop you in your tracks. This bespectacled, small young woman from the London suburb of Streatham, could really holler the blues. Where did she get it from? I rehearsed with her band at Studio 51 and Johnny and Edgar Winter who were fans of hers turned up and jammed with us. Around about this time Jo Ann was being courted by Canned Heat to join them. It seemed that quite a few American players rated her singing very much.   

Photo: Jo Ann Kelly

Shakey Vick’s Big City Blues Band that also included Rod Price (later with blues rockers Foghat) and singer bass player Ron Skinner. It was my first real adventure into playing the blues. Ron was very knowledgeable about the roots of American blues and we would listen to Muddy Waters around his parents’ home. We had played in quite a few beat groups together playing numbers by Beatles, Searchers and The Stones which got us into blues.  Shakey invited us to join him and we then auditioned guitarists. We turned down Paul Kossoff in preference to Rod Price because he had the use of his mum’s car! He was also a good guitarist – especially his bottleneck playing.  The band played some interesting and bizarre early gigs – weddings, youth club dance etc. that we went down very badly.  Also some of Shakey’s second hand cars left much to be desired. One evening, after we had bundled all our gear in up to the roof, on our way to a rehearsal the brakes failed and we hit a lamp post. In order to play regularly we ran our own club The Hole In The Ground – a cellar club underneath a Jewish café in Swiss Cottage. It got us known and we soon started playing support at more known places: The Flamingo, Ram Jam Club, Klooks Kleek, The Marquee etc. Also we began accompanying

Photo: Mel Wright With Champion Jack Dupree 1968

Champion Jack Dupree who then lived with his English family in Halifax. He would turn up in a big station wagon with Champion Jack Dupree painted on the side. He was a bit like Chuck Berry ensuring cash payment for the gig beforehand. (we were paid separately by the club promoter and often it was a very low fee).  Jack was quite a character and good fun, full of jokes (some on stage about us!) but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him – he’d had a hard life and had also been a boxer!  I learnt a lot about blues drumming, accompanying Jack. Listening to his choppy staccato New Orleans chords, picking up the rhythm as we went. “This ones in G, boys,” Never any rehearsal and the upright pub and club pianos would often be out of tune too!  But we also did our homework before the gig as a backing band – playing over and over again his album Blues From The Gutter.  Ron, Rod & myself amicably left  Shakey’s band early in 1968 to start a new band Dynaflow Blues. Rod really came into his own at this time and it preceded his joining Black Cat Bones and later Foghat. We also recruited a harp player Chris Elvin – he was something else!  He had harps in every pocket – he would pull one out at any time and play a blues. What a sound he got.  We got a signed up by Manfred  Mann/Tom McGuinness’s management company who got us gigs and we recorded some tracks at Olympic Studios, London that Tom produced. Things began to happen for us – we played at the National Jazz & Blues Festival alongside John Mayall, Traffic  etc. A great time but Chris was only with us for a while as he was starting University. On our ecording Duster Bennett depped for Chris as he’d gone to college by that time. We were all hopeful that we would get an album out of it  but it was not to be. Great gigs though. Unfortunately apart from me the rest of the band have all passed on now.
I did a few gigs with Brunning Hall Sunflower Blues Band at 100 Club then a renowned jazz venue in London.  Bob Brunning was a full time head teacher and I’ll never know how he managed that as well as travelling around doing gigs! Bob was a great organizer and got a deal with Saga Records to do a few albums.

I played on I Wish You Would album that included tracks with Dave Kelly (I’m still very proud with the track Hard Luck – Dave’s soulful singing, plaintiff guitar   and my minimalist drumming set a way forward for me - a style that I adopted).  Jo Ann Kelly, Peter Green also guested on this album -  all made in a day. Well it was a budget record label!, Bob also went on to write a book, Blues In Britain.  My association with Jo Ann Kelly picked up again later, in the eighties when Wolfie (from The Nighthawks) and myself formed The Quaggy Delta Blues Band. We played mainly London and Tom McGuinness joined us during a lull in playing with The Blues Band. We recorded some live sets including a few songs with Jo Ann who guested on gigs. They were later released on Jo’s albums on Indigo records: Key To The Highway, Talkin’ Low.
Finally to bring the story up to date. I continued playing with Shakey Vick – doing the odd gig with him at clubs, pubs and parties. Amazingly he’s been at it – playing the blues since the early sixties when he started a band with Chris Youlden.

The circle has kind of been completed with Shakey, Chris and myself playing together again in Waydown and we recorded an album – Greek Street in the classic Chicago blues style. It also featured our dear friend Bernie Pallo on guitar who passed away earlier this year.  Chris is a fantastic blues singer and he is really in great form here on numbers written by Shakey.

What advice has given Juke Boy Bonner, what was your relationship with him & which memory from makes you smile?
I was playing with The Nighthawks – UK blues band 1969 – 72. We got quite a bit of work accompanying American blues players through the British Blues Federation including Texas blues singer guitarist, harp player Juke Boy Bonner.  We did several gigs on his UK tour including 100 Club, The Wake Arms – Epping , Kings Head Fulham etc.  Like all the American players we only got to meet him first just before a gig and we travelled separately to engagements. Most of the chat was on stage or at the bar during the break where he’d get enthusiasts clambering for his autograph or checking out a long ago record date. He was a nice man though, liked British beer and he had a quiet soft Texas spoken way about him. Always very respectful to everyone. With Juke Boy, we recorded some tracks at Regent Sound in London for his album Things Aint Right, released by Liberty Records. On piano was John Lewis (he later had hits under his name Jona Lewie) and who we knew from our Studio 51 club sessions. Most of the tracks were solo Juke Boy but we did an instrumental, Texas Turnpike and Mr Downchild a slow blues.  Juke Boy turned up at the studio straight from his hotel but he had lost his socks! As it was cold the tour manager, Ron Watts had to go out and buy him some new ones. That evening after the session we all played at a club at The Bluesscene in Fulham. It was a great evening and Jo Ann Kelly turned up and joined us on stage singing a few numbers too.

Photo: Nighthawks - 100 Club 1969

What's been their experience from “studies” with black American blues legends Son House, Howlin Wolf, Eddie Guitar Burns, Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Lightnin’ Slim, Champion Jack Dupree and Curtis Jones?
It was a great honour to play with a number of American blues players all booked for UK tours by the British Blues Federation. As mentioned I played with Jack Dupree during Shakey Vick, Dynaflow Blues period  1967-68.  In 1969 with The Nighthawks at a concert at Conway Hall London for British Blues Convention hosted by Alexis Korner and legendaryblues and soul radio presenter, Mike Raven (who we recorded a BBC  radio programme) we were reunited with Jack again, he made a big joke on stage about our tall guitarist Bruce Langsman. Jack was short and stocky built. He stood on the piano stool to try and match Bruce’s height. These blues conventions were a great thing and you met lots of other musicians on the blues scene. Free, the band with Paul Kossoff (who we had passed over at our audition for Shakey’s band) played 1968 event not long before they hit it big with All Right Now. We were pretty friendly with them particularly Paul and rather envious of their signing to Island Records and they had an allowance to buy trendy clothes!  I told him that we did him a big favour by not offering him the job with Shakey – we may never have had Free!
With Dynaflow Blues we got to play more out of London – Liverpool, Brighton, Cambridge, Bath. We played Exeter University in summer of 1968. A long haul in our battered and rather unreliable Comer van that had a problem with the cooling system. Ten pounds would have probably solved it but on a set fee for the gig of about £15 between us how could we afford that? So, regular stops to help cool the van down seemed the only way. Consequently this added to the time it took to travel.

Rod Price often did the driving and we arrived later than we had planned to accompany Texas blues singer and pianist Curtis Jones. I recall that he seemed pretty stoned when we were introduced to him only  fifteen minutes before we were all due to play . And I still had to set up my drum kit! He was a very laid back character or was it the weed? I positioned myself with a good view of the piano and Curtis. Ron Skinner on bass guitar hovered over my shoulder with the same idea.  All you can hope for at this stage is a look, a gesture or some signal what the number was. No set list or idea of what he was about to play – just feel it. Unprofessional? I don’t think so. It keeps you on your toes and can give the music an edge – a lot of trust is needed between you. Curtis rolled the piano keys, Unlike Jack Dupree he didn’t hammer his foot down to give you the beat – his was more lilting style. Some lovely slow blues Lonesome Bedroom Blues. The student crowd loved it. Cheap beer, a legendary blues player from Texas and Dynaflow just making it by the skin of their teeth. It seemed a short set but maybe it was because of the relief of getting to the gig and the long journey – it was suddenly all over. Curtis came over shook our hands and complimenting us on our playing he saw from the corner of his eye the promoter with a glass of brandy heading his way. His firm handshake loosened as he quickly took off into the crowd of fans whilst we got busy packing up our gear for the uncertain journey back to London.  Another gig date was set at The Blues Loft, High Wycombe with Curtis the following week and I hoped they’d have got their piano tuned.

Photo: Son House

Another meeting was with the great Son House in 1970 and The Nighthawks (UK band) were booked to support him alongside Shaking Stevens & The Sunsets at Swindon Methodist Church. We arrived to do the gig on a Sunday evening – after church service. We had to kick our heels while we waited around town on a summer afternoon. All the shops were closed and not a café in sight. Eventually we got in the church and set up our equipment to play in this towering gothic church. Hurriedly lining up our amps and drum kit by the pulpit we quickly headed back into town just as the pubs were opening and ran into Ron Watts who was escorting Son House on his gigs. “Want to meet him?” he asked. We nodded enthusiastically and Ron took us to an old pub in a Swindon backstreet and sitting in the corner – probably the only black man at the time in town was Son House, sipping a pint of Guinness. We shook his hand and Wolfie our harp player reminded us afterwards that this was the man that had met and encouraged Robert Johnson in his playing. We chatted for a little while but had to get off as we were the first group to play. By this time the place was packed. A week or so later we met Son House again at 100 Club supporting him there with John Peel compering the gig.
On the day Arthur Big Boy Crudup arrived for the first time in UK we played with him at Goldsmiths College Student Union. He was a tall man and wore a trilby hat. Backstage we talked to him about what he would be playing.  Our bass player, Ron knew a lot of his songs which we already did in our set and when we began playing with him it felt electric. Arthur sat on a chair at the front and the band stood behind him – he had a magic presence. The students were in awe of the man who had written Elvis Presley’s first hit That’s All Right Mama. Unfortunately Arthur at that time had still not received any money from royalties from these hits and was pretty broke. He had a large family back home.  The following week with Ron on bass and me on drums we recorded a television programme accompanying Arthur for BBC 2 – Late Night Line Up.
Also during this period The Nighthawks supported Howlin Wolf at 100 Club –meeting him on stage just before the gig and shaking his large hand before the man’s spellbound performance. Also at 100 club we played with Louisiana bluesman Lightnin’ Slim and harp player Whispering Smith – a very rhythmic set playing some of Lightnin’s well known songs like Bad Luck. At about the same time    At The Marquee I was booked to accompany Eddie Guitar Burns the Detroit guitarist who had also played with John Lee Hooker. This really was an ad lib gig with Bob Hall on piano  – no introductions at all and we were on. Midway through the set Rory Gallagher joined us on guitar and things really got cooking. After the gig I had to chase the promoter for the £5 expenses that he had promised. Also around that time I played drums on folk blues player Ian A Anderson’s album on Liberty Book of Changes. The tracks have recently been re-released on Ian’s reissue of his Stereo Death Breakdown album.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
I suppose because blues is the basis of such a lot of popular music and also as it’s so accessible to play and opportunities to develop styles. As well as a good way of expressing yourself – it’ll be around for a good while longer.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
I don’t think that I would consider myself a bluesman. Perhaps more someone who likes the blues and jazz.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
Apart from in my teens when I played full time for a while I have mostly I have played music alongside my different day job –social worker and community worker. So, I’ve never been too caught up in the music business and therefore it’s hard for me to comment. All I can say is that from my experience during sixties and early seventies music agents were pretty hard to attract – as I imagine they are today. We latched on to a few who were promoting and managing on the jazz and blues scene. The money was awful but then we were   prepared to play for almost nothing. Yes, of course we got ripped off! Sometimes travelling hundreds of miles for a club date that contracted us to play for a percentage of the door take against a low flat fee.. And some promoters – after a bad nights takings would say – “cheque in the post lads.”   But it never turned up and they did a runner.  Chuck Berry is right get your money before the gig!   

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
You have to have passion and commitment for playing but as to making a career – get some professional advice

Tell me a few things about your writing projects, how that came about?
I’ve always enjoyed writing and for some years I did pieces about performers and groups. No just blues but all sorts of genres: The Kinks, The Stones, The Clash, David Bowie. I like to write about music and place – so I did pieces that had a local angle. Different areas of London and who came from there. During the past ten years or so I have written fiction and had a few novels published. See if you are interested  

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?
I became more aware of blues during the sixties. Blues piano probably as it seeped into some hit records. Bad Penny Blues by Humphrey Littleton with Johnny Parker on piano – still a classic record.

When it all began for the blues in London? Who is considered the "godfather" of the blues in London?
Alexis Korner but Chris Barber played his part too

Why did you think that “Brit Blues”, continued to generate such a devoted following?
I guess that the blues got the UK teens by the throat – something stirred everyone in the Fifties that continued and produced something very special. UK players like Cyril Davies, The Stones and John Mayall for example took it and transformed it  - It’s been a great legacy.

Mel Wright's official website

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