The banjo/guitar player Rod Davis of Quarrymen talks about the Skiffle, Jazz, Rock n' Roll, John Lennon & the British Blues boom at early '60s

The Quarrymen: 

The Band That Became The Beatles

Rod Davis played banjo with the Quarrymen from 1956 to mid 1957, he was replaced in the band by Paul. Since 1997 he has been playing guitar for the revived Quarrymen and sharing vocals with Len Garry. The Quarrymen were a British skiffle and rock and roll group, initially formed in Liverpool in 1956, which eventually evolved into The Beatles in 1960. Originally consisting of John Lennon and several schoolfriends, The Quarrymen took their name from a line in the school song of Quarry Bank High School which Lennon and most of the other original group members attended. Lennon's mother, Julia Lennon, taught her son to play the banjo and then showed Lennon and Eric Griffiths how to tune their guitars in a similar way to the banjo, and taught them simple chords and songs. For Rod’s story see Hunter Davies’ biography of the Quarrymen.

“I lived in Woolton and first met John Lennon, Pete Shotton, Nigel Walley, Ivan Vaughan and Geoff Rhind at St. Peter's Sunday School when we were very small boys! I lived near Colin Hanton and we used to play street football together. I met Eric Griffiths when we both started at Quarry Bank School, and Len Garry when he became the Quarrymen's tea-chest bass player.
Eric invited me to join the Quarrymen in early 1956 just after I bought a banjo. He and John taught me which chords to play and I soon learnt to "busk". I never actually played with Paul as I drifted out of the Quarrymen in the summer of 1957. I stayed on at Quarry Bank into the 6th form but all the others had left, John Lennon to go to Liverpool College of Art, Pete Shotton to become a police cadet and Eric Griffiths to become an apprentice.  In 1994, with John Duff Lowe, who played piano for the Quarrymen in 1958, we formed an electric band under the name of the Quarrymen. From 1996 I was a part-time lecturer at Brunel University as well as writing, publishing and playing the guitar. I retired in 2006 and since then I have been playing music, windsurfing, Aikido and playing with the Quarrymen."

Interview by Michael Limnios

Mr. Davis, when was your first desire to become involved in the Skiffle & who were your first idols?

Towards the end of 1955 I heard the sound of Lonnie Donegan singing “Rock Island Line” coming out of the door of a record shop and from that moment on I was hooked! Donegan was a banjo player with a New Orleans style jazz band called “Chris Barber’s Band”. In the break in their performance Lonnie would take out his guitar and play some blues, accompanied by Chris Barber himself on double bass (usually he played trombone) and by the band’s singer, Beryl Bryden, on washboard. This music came to be called “Skiffle” after an American recording made in 1946 by a group called “Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys”, whose sound was fairly similar to what Donegan was making. I also very much like a couple of other groups, Cthe Chas McDevitt Skiffle group who had a big hit with a song called “Freight Train”, and Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass boys whose hit was “Last train to San Fernando”

"Skiffle was simply blues played quickly with very simple guitar arrangements and no fancy picking. It was a simplification of blues and country music and as such it is now outdated."

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

I don’t remember our first gig but it was probably the local Youth Club at St Peter’s Church in the village of Woolton, near Liverpool, where we all lived.

The song we started with were all from Donegan’s records, “Rock Island Line”, “John Henry”, “Cumberland Gap”, “Bring a little water, Sylvie”, “Alabammy Bound” etc.

What does the Skiffle mean to you & what does music offered you?

In the mid fifties in the UK skiffle gave us the opportunity to play guitars and banjos and be up on stage, trying to impress the young ladies! You did not have to study for ages just to be able to play a few chords, and it was great fun!

Do you think that Skiffle music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

Probably the heart and the soul!

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

Probably when we got back together in 1997 with all the Quarrymen who had been there 40 years before, and played in Woolton for the re-creation of the Day John met Paul.

As for bad moments, I don’t think there have been any!

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the Skiffle music?

I don’t think there are many secrets to learn, except from just playing the music and enjoying it.

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

In 1956 John Lennon and another boy from Quarry Bank School, Eric Griffiths, decided to start to learn to play skiffle. They started a group which eventually became the Quarrymen because at the time we were all pupils at Quarry Bank School in Liverpool. When I joined the group consisted of John and Eric both on guitars, Pete Shotton on washboard and a boy called Bill Smith on teachest bass.  Bill stopped coming to practices so we found Len Garry to replace him on the teachest and Colin Hanton who had a drum kit. Len was a pupil at the Liverpool Institute High School (where by coincidence Paul McCartney and George Harrison were also there) and Colin was older than the rest of us. He was working as an apprentice upholsterer and so he could just afford to buy a cheap drum kit.

Are there any memories from Quarrymen, which you’d like to share with us?

I think every story we can remember has been told a hundred times or more! So there are no new memories!

Photo taken by James Davis, Rod's father on 6 July 1957, the day John met Paul, showing the Quarrymen going round Woolton Village on the back of a lorry at the end of the St Peter's Church Rose Queen Procession, before playing in the field behind the church. John cane be seen in the check shirt, singing with his eyes closed.left to right:Pete Shotton (washboard), Eric Griffiths (guitar) Len Garry,(back to camera - tea chest bass), John Lennon (guitar), Colin Hanton (drums), Rod Davis (banjo - standing). This photograph was undiscovered for 52 years and was only found in 2009!

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs (and recording) with the Quarrymen?

The story I remember best was this. We had a band uniform of black jeans and white shirts but my parents would not buy me some new jeans, so a friend sold me an old pair for a few shillings. One day we were playing a gig at Lee Park Golf Club and just before we went on stage the zip split. I spent the entire set hiding behind my banjo in a sort of “Chuck Berry” crouch!

How did you first meet John Lennon? What kind of a guy is the young Lennon?

I first met John when I was five or six years old. When he came to live with his aunt Mimi she sent him to St Peter’s Sunday School in Woolton and he was in the same class as Pete Shotton, Ivan Vaughan, Nigel Wally, Geoff Rhind and myself, plus about 20 other kids. John was a ”bad influence”, instead of putting his collection pennies in the collection plate he spent them on chewing gum! Also at Quarry Bank School he was what we would call today a “disruptive pupil”. He did not want to learn and his antics prevented other boys from learning. Again, a bad influence. I always got on well with him, maybe because we had know each other since we were very young.

"In the mid fifties in the UK skiffle gave us the opportunity to play guitars and banjos and be up on stage, trying to impress the young ladies! You did not have to study for ages just to be able to play a few chords, and it was great fun!"

What are some of the most memorable tales with John Lennon?

I think Pete Shotton has the funniest story about John. At Quarry Bank each week we had a class called “Religious Knowledge” and John said to Pete that he didn’t think the teacher would be happy until all the boys in the class became priests. So John and Pete found some white cardboard and made a priest’s collar for each of the 32 boys in their class and just before the lesson started they gave one to each boy and they all put them on.   When the teacher came into the class at first he didn’t notice them, he was looking down taking the register, then he looked up and burst out laughing finding he had a class of 32 priests.

Make an account for current realities of the case of the Quarrymen

We got back together in 1997 just to help celebrate the 6 July 1957 in Woolton, someone asked us if we had a cd, so we went and made a cd, and everything happened from there. Pete Shotton decided to stop playing with us in 2000, he had not been very well and he said he didn’t really like playing the washboard anyway. Eric Griffiths died of cancer in 2005 and after this we asked John Duff Lowe, who had played the piano for the Quarrymen in 1958, to join us. John does not okay all of our gigs, but most of them as his business commitments allow. So now from 1956 there is myself, who only played with John, Len Garry, who played with John & Paul, and Colin Hanton and John Duff Lowe who played with John, Paul and George.

The Quarrymen play skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll from our 1950s repertoire and tell stories about the early days in Liverpool.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with the Armadillos.

I really enjoyed playing with the Armadilloes, we played an interesting mix of Bluegrass and Tex-Mex and also in the band were my sister Rosie, an old friend from Liverpool, Alan Ward and another old bluegrass mate, Rick Townend. Tony Engle of Topic Records and Peta Webb (plus my sister) did most of the singing, so I was able to concentrate on rhythm guitar. We even played The Cavern in Liverpool on one occasion, with my brother Bernie sitting in on double bass! I think this is the only time that all three of us (myself, brother & sister) have been on stage together.

Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?

The closest friends I have in music – apart from the Quarrymen – are my sister, mandolin player Alan Ward and a guitar playing friend called Pete Clarke. 

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again?

I was once asked to travel round Ireland with a friend, him on tin whistle and myself on guitar and fiddle - I never did this and I think it would have been great fun and improved my fiddle playing!.

Who are your favorite Blues Jazz artists, both old and new, what was the last record you bought?

My favourite blues artist is called Guy Davis, his manager is the man who has arranged most of the Quarrymen’s tours in the US. In 2009 Guy asked me to travel with him on a three week tour of Canada and open each gig for him, which I did. It was a great privilege and a lot of fun. Guy is a wonderful performer, an all round nice guy, and a great guitar player and a phenomenal harmonica player.

The last record I bought was a cd called “Learn to fiddle Country Style”, by Tracey Schwarz. This is a cd of an Lp I used to own many years ago and I decided to buy it so I can brush up on my country and Old-Timey fiddle technique as I haven’t played fiddle seriously for some years.

Any of Blues, Rock n’ roll & Jazz standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?

I especially like Sidney Bechet’s clarinet piece ”Petite Fleur”, which was on an LP by Chris Barber’s band which I bought in 1958 and was my first ever LP. I still have this.  I played in a New Orleans style jazz band at university and also when I lived in Germany from 1963-63, so I have a strong feeling for this style of music.

I very much enjoy Doc Watson’s singing and guitar picking, although this is acoustic country rather than blues. And of course I am very keen on bluegrass music, especially fiddle music such as “Orange Blossom Special”.

I also enjoy fingerpicking the guitar, I play stuff like “ Chattanooga Choo-Choo”,  “Georgia on my mind”, “Sunny side of the street”, “Happy days and lonely nights” etc etc.

"I don’t think there are many secrets to learn, except from just playing the music and enjoying it."

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between US Blues & SKIFFLE?

Skiffle was simply blues played quickly with very simple guitar arrangements and no fancy picking. It was a simplification of blues and country music and as such it is now outdated. However its usefulness was to provide the incentive and the opportunity for thousands of youngsters in the UK to start learning the guitar. This meant that when rock ‘n’ roll arrived we discovered that the same three chords worked for this new music and that was the start of the UK rock ‘n’ roll scene, without skiffle, it wouldn’t have happened.

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

We had no electric instruments, no amplifiers, no microphone, no decent guitars  -  you could not buy American instruments in the UK in the mid-fifties.  Nowadays I can record and produce a cd on my kitchen table! (And I have done this!) The power has left the big record companies and is in the hands of the musicians themselves, with all the possibilities of Internet etc.

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues Jazz is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the SKIFFLE.

I think the honesty and sincerity of the music is what provides the continuing appeal of blues. It is not manufactured music.

Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet?

Bill Monroe – (who wrote “Blue Moon of Kentucky”). Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs - all Bluegrass musicians. Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grapelli.

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

Maybe now – because I’m over 70 and still having a great time, my first grandchild was born a few days ago, I’m still fit and healthy, I enjoy windsurfing and Aikido and performing with the Quarrymen and visiting interesting places!

Why are Europeans so enamored with the blues & jazz?

I think that part of the attraction is because it is American, and we have been watching American films for years in Europe – and especially after the war everything from the USA was very attractive.  But as I mentioned above I think the honesty, sincerity and the simplicity of the music. For me the scope for individual interpretation and improvisation which has been lost from almost all European music is a very important factor. I really enjoy listening to someone who is not just “reading the music” but is putting something of himself or herself into the music, it is a genuine privilege for the listener.

What do you think were the reasons for the Skiffle & Blues boom at the fifties in UK?

Someone had just invented the “teenager” and all the music our parents enjoyed was so boring….. the music industry realised that there was a growing youth market with money to spend and decided eventually to cater for it.

Who are your favorite bands from ‘60s & of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

I’ve met Lonnie Donegan and Chas McDevitt, and played with Chas several times. He is a really nice guy and a great musician.  I have shared a few beers with Tony Sheridan and Pete Best;  folk singers Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton sat in and played with the Quarrymen in New York in 2010.

"I think the honesty and sincerity of the music is what provides the continuing appeal of blues. It is not manufactured music."

How was your relationship with the other British Skiffle & Blues musicians in UK from of ‘50s -‘60s?

The skiffle scene in Liverpool was very local, but the Quarrymen were often regarded as being rather “posh” because we came from Woolton and not from a tough part of the city.  As a result of playing American folk and blues music with the Quarrymen, I became interested in British and American folk music in 1958 and so I was not a part of the rock ‘n’ roll scene in the 1960s. I met a few Blues people like Davy Graham and Alexis Korner when I was a student at Cambridge and we had them come and play at the University Folk-song Society. I went to Cambridge Folk Festival in I think 1965(??) and saw the Rev. Gary Davis who was fantastic.

What is the “thing” you miss most of the ‘50s?

I was young then……. And Liverpool was a great place to grow up!

What turns you on? Happiness is……

A good picking session with a couple of friends, a banjo, some guitars, a mandolin and a fiddle maybe, perhaps a dobro  …. And of course a few bottles of wine!

My message is – KEEP ON PICKIN’

The Quarrymen's Official Website

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