Titles these days are transitory; heroes come and go and stars rise and fall, such is the cut-throat pace of the entertainment and media industry. Over time, Alexis Korner’s celebrity may have slipped into the background, but that’s just the way he would have wanted it. For Alexis, music was everything, he lived and breathed it, and anything that came with it was merely trivial. You may not have heard of him, but in his 40-year career he was directly responsible for kick-starting a whole new musical movement AND the formation of the classic bands it spawned. It’s about time, I’d say, for a re-appraisal of the man quite rightly accorded the lasting honour: “the Godfather of British blues”.
Alexis Korner spent the first decade of his life with his family, an affluent Turkish/Greek/Austrian union, in France, before finally moving to London in 1940. “The story goes,” says Alexis’ son Damian, “that they got out of France on the last boat that was leaving from Calais to Dover. Apparently the Stukas were dive-bombing the boat as it went into Dover!” Wartime London was a bewildering place to be transplanted into as a boy, and the young loner initially found it difficult adjusting. But it was also an exciting place to be; the soldiers coming and going from the city – some American – brought to the city music from around the world and saw the beginning of the underground speakeasy clubs – all of which was soaked up by the impressionable youth.
By 1949, Alexis had joined the Chris Barber band. Barber, a lifelong proponent of trad-jazz, was one of the big band leaders of the time, even though jazz to some was still viewed as a forbidden genre. “When my father’s father caught my father playing Boogie Woogie on the piano, he shut the piano up, locked it up and said it was never to be played again,” laughs Damian, “and that’s a fact.” It was in this band that he met Cyril Davies, a similar blues enthusiast, and by 1956 the pair had combined to follow their true calling: the blues. The duo played frequently at their new venture, the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, to which they also invited seminal blues artists from across the Atlantic. “There was adoration,” says Damian of the visitors’ reception from the Brits, “because they’d heard all of these people on vinyl but never had a hope of being able to see them. Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee; they were literally like gods to the British blues fans.” Their hosts, while they would stay here, would be the Korners in their family home.
Blues Incorporated, Alexis and Cyril’s group, were the house band at their new residency at the Marquee in London from 1962, and aside from its core members, saw a revolving cast of musicians including Charlie Watts on drums and Jack Bruce on bass. The club was hugely popular and was the nucleus of the early 60’s blues explosion; queues would reach around the block and, as Damian remembers: “the only way I could get round [the club] was by crawling on the floor through people’s legs.” Among the crowd and enamoured with this Anglicised interpretation of American blues were devotees who would soon pick up the baton passed on by Korner and co, with a helping hand from the man himself. “Someone like Mick Jagger would come along to a gig, he’d come along to a few gigs, and then he’d ask if he can get up on stage and sing,” remembers Damian. “Dad would say, “With pleasure”. Anybody could have a go. If they weren’t any good of course, they wouldn’t stay very long. If they had potential, they would stay and Dad would offer them a gig and try and help them on their way.” As the like-minded bonded, so Jagger, Watts, Keith Richards and Brian Jones – who all contributed on stage at one time – went their own way as The Rolling Stones. Watts’ replacement, Ginger Baker would later leave with Jack Bruce to become Cream with Eric Clapton.
After Cyril Davies left in ’63 over the band’s direction – he wanted to remain authentic acoustic blues while Korner had turned electric – Alexis continued Blues Incorporated as the fledgling London blues bands – the Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – gathered momentum. Although neglected his own chart success, Alexis was never bitter. “He never did it for that reason,” Damian states. “He played the music he loved to play. Stardom to him was something that was irrelevant. As long as he could earn a living playing the music he loved, that was all that mattered to him.”
With regular work and thus a regular income his main priority, he jumped at the chance to become the house band – with friends Danny Thompson and Terry Cox – on kids TV show The 5 O’clock Club. An odd choice of employer, Damian explains his father’s acceptance. “Money! You have to do some things for money and it was perfect for him,” he says, adding that the impressive wages received meant that the band could sustain healthy family lives as well as afford to play more extracurricular gigs.
Expanding his media portfolio, in 1965 Alexis became a BBC radio DJ with his own show, R&B with Alexis Korner, with all his friends – including the Stones and the Spencer Davis Group – dropping by for live performances. “He had a wonderful voice, a love of music and a wealth of knowledge to impart to the audience,” Damian says fondly, “and a way of making the audience feel like he was talking to them alone. All he did was play the music he loved and talk about the music he loved. And hey, to earn a living doing that? No wonder he was a relaxed and happy individual. Through all that trouble and strife he’d come through the other side and he was starting to earn money.”
Another visitor to the studio was Jimi Hendrix, who was pushing the boundaries of blues further than anyone knew possible. The pair became firm friends – you can hear Alexis playing slide on Jimi’s ‘BBC Sessions’ album; some cuts taken from Alexis’ own show!
Although his next band, Free At Last would not last long, the name at least in part would – Alexis bequeathed the name to a young bass player friend. “Andy Fraser was the boyfriend of my sister, and it was her who was responsible for getting Free to my dad,” recalls Damian. “He got them their first BBC session – with him, of course – and we’ve got that still on tape.” Alexis mentored and managed Free until they signed to Island Records and forged their own place in history.
By now Alexis was touring as Duo with a young singer from Birmingham he’d encountered by the name of Robert Plant. “I would love to come up with some glorious story that they met at so and so’s and intended to take over the world, but they didn’t,” Damian laughs. “They met and they liked each other.” It was witnessing those two on stage when Jimmy Page (having jammed with Korner on-stage himself) knew he’d found his musical soul mate. Led Zeppelin would further extol the blues across the globe well into the Seventies and beyond.
Alexis in the early Seventies had been embraced further afield himself, and found his band touring extensively in Europe; his fluent French and German endearing him with the blues enthusiasts in those countries. “Did you know he was tax exempt in Germany?” Damian asks. “Because they loved him so much and wanted him to tour they said that he could keep all of his earnings. That’s amazing, but also – don’t laugh – later in life he went to Texas and he came back, the Senator for Texas had made him an Honorary Rear Admiral of the Texas Navy. Now, no offence, but Texas is land-locked!” He laughs. “But it was a lovely gesture!”
These and other jobs (including playing with ex-Small Face Steve Marriott on a BB King album) fulfilled Alexis’ passion, but his next endeavour, although his heart wasn’t 100% in it, was ironically his most commercially successful. Music producers Mickie Most and John Cameron had approached Alexis with a proposal to lead a big band. Alexis, having paid his dues, happily formed CCS content in the knowledge that all he had to do was front the outfit. “Dad had been bandleader for bands ad infinitum with all of the hassle that goes with it,” Damian says, “and the chance of doing a big band for the hell of it and not having to do anything but sing was so attractive to Dad he said, ‘Why not?’ He had no problems with doing it. He enjoyed it immensely while it lasted and was happy when it finished.” The band’s recording of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was the theme tune to Top of the Pops for many years after.
Stardom to him was something that was irrelevant
The ill-fated Snape, formed with members of King Crimson, followed next, but as Damian explains, disbanded because of nightly drinking competitions which saw each member neck two bottles of Jack Daniels before performing. It was on these tours that Alexis chose to bring along young Damian. “I arrived back home at the age of 12 with the DT’s [Delirium tremens – alcohol withdrawal] and as you can imagine my mother wasn’t too happy,” he recalls. “I really enjoyed it, but I could see why the band had to stop. It was even getting too much for me and Dad of course, by that time, was in such a state that there was no way he could look after me. He just had to hope that I looked after myself.” An intriguing relationship; Damian goes on to further detail his rapport with his father. “His method of fatherhood was friendship,” he says. “We were allowed to have spliffs in the house; we were allowed to smoke dope in the house but we weren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes. All that Dad said was, “You’ve got to learn to roll your own because I’m not rolling them for you.” Dad was VERY free, very easy, very liberal, and my mother was left to pick up the pieces,” he chuckles.
Damian’s own interest in music developed as he ditched his football aspirations to be a studio engineer. His first job? Alexis’ 1974 album ‘Get Off My Cloud’. Appearing on the album was old friends Steve Marriott and Keith Richards, whose band had just lost second guitarist Mick Taylor. Rumours abound that Keith had asked his old mentor to replace him. “Total truth to the rumour,” confirms Damian. “They asked if he’d take over and he refused because it would have been too big. Dad had been Mick’s bandleader. There were various reasons for which also career-wise it wouldn’t have been a good move for Dad to join the Stones at that point in time. Financially it would have been, but not career-wise. It would have stopped everything else, he would have been a tool of the Rolling Stones and Dad was never anybody’s tool. So that in itself made it impossible, but Dad was extraordinarily complimented that they asked him.”
It was in the early Eighties that Alexis was diagnosed with lung cancer. Fresh from his latest supergroup with Charlie Watts and Jack Bruce, Rocket 88, he’d had problems with severe headaches and he’d lost the feeling in the last two fingers of his left hand. Checking into hospital he received the dreadful news. He remained in hospital before and after the operation until his health declined. “I would go by with rough mixes every night on my way home, sit and play them to him and we’d sit out on the balcony and have a spliff and a chat and try keep things as normal as possible,” Damian says. Alexis eventually died in January 1984.
On the eve of the release of ‘Kornerstoned’, an exhaustive anthology of familiar and unreleased material, Damian reveals that this is just the beginning of a planned batch of releases, officially sanctioned by the Korner family for the very first time. The renewed interest in Alexis has uncovered affections again and raised awareness in Alexis’ inestimable contributions to music and his irreplaceable character. “He stands for the growth of music,” says Damian, reviewing his father’s lasting legacy. “Everybody that met him felt rewarded by meeting him; they either learnt something about themselves or about him, but they always left with a good feeling. Also, when he died I lost one of my best friends. It’s a great hole in my life that is never fillable. So to be able to say that he was important to his family, he was important to the people that knew him and was important to a whole movement of music, I’m honoured. What can I say? Talk about a lucky draw. To say anything else I think would be puerile.”