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Those Old Winter Blues

by David Soulsby

 

The Manfreds5,4,3,2,1 ā€¦ there I was counting down the days to an invigorating shot of Sixties nostalgia at the Maximum Rhythm ‘n’ Blues concert at the English coastal resort of Southend, when what should come along to spoil things but the heaviest early-winter snowfalls to hit Britain for nearly 20 years. 

 

The show promised to be good one — The Manfreds, with four members of the legendary Manfred Mann band in the line-up, joined by special guests Alan Price, ex-The Animals keyboard maestro, and Cliff Bennett, front man of the Rebel Rousers.

 

Cancellation of the gig was the bad news — but the good news is, it has been reorganised for March next year. Have no fear, I’ll be there. In the meantime I’ll have to make do with listening to some of the old songs, many of them on vinyl (yes. I still have lots of the old back stuff in my music collection); watching some wonderful black and white archive clips on You Tube, and reminiscing about the good old days back in the Sixties.

 

Which, with the weather as it is, brings me nicely to early 1963 when Britain was in the grip of what was called The Big Freeze — exceptionally heavy snow storms and horrendously Arctic-like temperatures that kept their icy grip on the country for the first three months of the year, making travelling and getting around far from easy. But life went on. And a ray of sunshine was not too far away on the horizon — a then-little-known group released their second single and the music scene was never going to be the same again. The record was Please Please Me by The Beatles, destined to be the greatest rock band in history: regarded by many as the band that changed everything.

 

At that time, I was buying as many blues records as I could — gems from the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker and, my particular favourite, Sonny Boy Williamson (the second bluesman to perform under that name, the first having died young in 1948).

 

Once the weather warmed up and things got back to normal, I was going to music clubs in London and seeing as many rock ‘n’ roll and blues acts as possible. During this time I saw The Rolling Stones, rough and raw but soon to taste the first flurry of fame; The Yardbirds, again relatively unknown but, like The Stones, just a few months away from becoming one of the best rhythm ‘n’ blues outfits around; and scores of seasoned bluesman over from America to make their mark on, and influence, the British music scene.

  

It was against this backdrop that I started to a deeper interest in the origins and history of the blues. And Sonny Boy Williamson, widely regarded as one of the best-ever blues harmonica players, played a big part in this.

 

I’d seen Sonny Boy perform live twice during the early Sixties and that’s when I became a big fan. I recall rushing out to buy a couple of his EPs (remember them?) and playing them over and over again. Eight tracks of sheer joy! His voice was gruff and epitomised the blues, but it was the hard-driving harmonica playing that did it for me. It sounded like a train engine roaring down the track.

So you can imagine what a thrill it was a couple of years later when, as a 19-year-old just starting out on his journalistic career, to meet the man himself and get the chance to hear about the blues and gain a better understanding of what the music was all about.

 

Sonny Boy strolled in to the bar at the famous The Flamingo Club in London’s Soho area and the room lit up. He was chatty, charming and laid-back about all the fuss being made of him. He just regarded himself as a working musician: there were no airs and graces. He was a real gentleman.

 

Sadly, just a few months later, he was dead. He returned to America, where he died in May 1965. It hadn’t been long since he’d hitched-up with The Animals, with Alan Price still in the line-up, performing live and recording a well-received album together, just one of the legacies he left for blues fans to enjoy.

 

And that brings me round full circle to The Manfreds again, for there is much of Sonny Boy’s influence to be found in their music, particularly in the harmonica playing of Paul Jones, the original Manfred Mann lead singer. He even recorded a number called, simply, Sonny Boy Williamson. 

Paul is no mean harmonica player himself. He is passionate about the instrument, so it’s no surprise that he’s president of the National Harmonica League, which is British-based but boasts members from all over the world. And a well-earned accolade came his way in October — the British Blues Awards honouring Paul as British Harmonica Player of 2010. I think Sonny Boy would have been proud of him!

 

I can’t wait to hear him in March — weather permitting! — and expect to enjoy all the old Manfred Mann favourites, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy (the 1964 number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic), 5-4-3-2-1 with its pounding harmonica beat, Pretty Flamingo, Bob Dylan’s The Mighty Quinn, and the superb 1965 opus Come Tomorrow, an original copy of which I still have — in fact, I had it on the turntable as I was writing this piece! 

So, let the countdown begin again — 5,4,3,2,1. 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

 Somewhere in the Distance

Purchase David's book "Somewhere in the Distance"