Researched, compiled and written by Johnny Black
Legend holds that on October 22, 1962, a van set out from London, headed north. In that van were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones of fledgeling blues combo The Rolling Stones, plus aspiring guitar-slinger Jimmy Page, later of The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin.
This quartet was on a pilgrimage to Manchester's Free Trade Hall, because it was there that they would have their first chance to worship at the feet of the blues idols whose music they had only ever heard before on records.
Blues was down to the bone in America. Hip Stateside teens, both black and white, regarded it as the music of their parents, hopelessly outmoded. For them, it reeked of slavery and oppression, so they called it Jim Crow music and abandoned it for the more contemporary sounds of rock'n'roll and soul.
Ironically, the inability of blues players to get gigs in America opened a door to Europe. Legends who had never previously crossed the Atlantic, were suddenly available at prices European promoters could afford. Although well past their sell-by dates at home, they were exotic and exciting over here, especially to the jazz audience.
The success of Muddy Waters and others in the UK towards the end of the 1950s, prompted German promoters Lippman And Rau to create touring packages under the banner of The American Folk Blues Festival, starting with a 1962 offering that presented John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Terry And Brownie McGhee, Shakey Jake, and Helen Humes.
To the young blues bands springing up in Blighty, this was manna from heaven, and the Folk Blues tours became a vital element in widening the audience from a devoted cult status to mainstream public acceptance.
By the start of 1964, it has been estimated, there were 300 blues-oriented bands operating the UK but, by the end of that year, there were over 2000.
Various factors contributed to this huge expansion, including the chart success of John Lee Hooker's Dimples while he was on tour here; prominent r'n'b releases by The Spencer Davis Group, The Animals, The Yardbirds and others; and a No1 singles chart placing for The Rolling Stones' version of Willie Dixon's Little Red Rooster.
For many aficionados, however, the event of the year was an extensive tour by The American Folk, Blues And Gospel Caravan, featuring Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry And Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis and Cousin Joe Pleasants.
As well as selling out gigs across the nation, the tour generated a live Granada tv special which attracted a huge audience to enjoy its first taste of authentic American roots styles.
By the close of 1964, the blues had, unquestionably, found a huge British audience for whom it would become not just a musical preference, but a cultural phenomenon, an inspirational philosophy and a way of life.
1964, April 29 : The American Folk, Blues And Gospel Caravan, featuring Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry And Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis and Cousin Joe Pleasants, begins a UK tour at Colston Hall, Bristol.
Chris Barber : The 1964 Caravan was brought to Europe by the German promoters Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau, but they got the idea to do these kinds of tours from the shows I had been doing for many years, introducing blues musicians to British and European audiences.
By 1964, though, we'd pretty much run out of people to bring over, and my band was so busy we couldn't take the time to organise these things.
Joe Boyd (tour manager/MC) : I had been involved in promoting blues artists while I was at Harvard, and I knew Manny Greenhill, who managed Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. He recommended me to the American promoter, George Wein, who got me the job.
Blues had stopped being a music of African Americans. The blues audience among African Americans became smaller and smaller and smaller. It was already small by 1964. By the time of Tamla Motown and then Otis Redding and Soul Music and all of that, there was not very much of an audience.
My role was to get the artists from one gig to the next. It wasn't too difficult, because the British promoter, Harold Davison, had a bus waiting for us outside whichever hotel we were staying in. I expanded my role into being compere and also making musical suggestions.
In 1964, only Brownie, Sonny and Gary had played to white audiences. Muddy and Rosetta had done occasional European tours, and the attention and careful listening was exciting to them.
Paul Jones (singer, Manfred Mann) : It was a whole new thing for them to come en mass and actually stay in half way decent hotels and travel reasonably comfortably and things like that.
Joe Boyd : When the tour started, everybody was very mistrustful of everybody else, very nervous and jealous about positioning on the bill. Sister Rosetta thought that Gary Davis was disgusting, and so on.
Gary horrified Rosetta the first morning at breakfast when, with shaking hand, he seized the sunny side up fried egg, lofted it over his upturned mouth, yolk all the while dribbling down the front of his shirt, and dropped it into his mouth.
Mike Tobin (Mike Tobin And The Magnetts) : We had started out as a Bristol-based Shadows-copy band, but had developed a more bluesy repertoire by this time.
In 1963 we had read an article, I think it was by Norman Jopling in Record Mirror, about this new band called The Rolling Stones which was causing waves in London. So we drove all the way up to London to see them on a Sunday afternoon in Ken Colyer's old club, Studio 51, in a basement in Soho.
That was our first experience of seeing a British r'n'b band and it inspired us to think we could do something like that.
It was not long after that that we drove up to Fairfield Halls in Croydon to see this blues show, promoted by a German company called Lippman-Rau. As far as I remember, was the only British date in 1963. All the other dates were in Europe.
So then there was a gap of about a year before the show at Colston Hall in Bristol.
I think we regarded ourselves as part of the cognoscenti. There was a lot of snobbery about what you could like and should like. We were going into the mod phase around then, so we'd be into blues and r'n'b, and later on soul, Tamla, etcetera.
In 1964, there were already at least two blues clubs in Bristol where fairly big names appeared. Usually it would just be the back room of a pub, and I specifically remember seeing Champion Jack Dupree several times.
We had been performing at Colston Hall since 1959, so we often got complimentary tickets if we knew the promoters. However, for that show, I recall, we had to buy tickets.
Simon A. Napier (reviewer, Jazz Monthly) : The line-up in order of appearance was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Otis Spann, Sister Rosetta Tharpe for the first half; Cousin Joe, Blind Gary Davis and Muddy Waters for the second session. Lightnin' Hopkins was booked but fell "sick" - by all accounts the ailment was a great aversion to aeroplanes.
This roster of blues brilliance was further supplemented by Little Willie Smith who played drums for one number each with Sonny and Brownie, Cousin Joe and Rosetta, and Ransom Knowling, a surprise and terribly welcome bassist from the history books of blues recording, who played in the same groups. Both played full-time with Otis Spann and Muddy. Brownie played a number with Cousin Joe and Sonny duetted often for two or three numbers with Blind Gary, so everyone had quite a lot to do. The compere was Joe Boyd, and a very fine job he did, while doubling as tour manager along with John Hurt's manager Tom Hoskins, who'd come along for the trip.
The programme was a masterpiece of its kind with fine photographs and excellent notes by Paul Oliver
Mike Tobin : Muddy Waters was one of my all-time heroes, so it was wonderful to see him. He had an almost eerie presence, especially in the eyes of us middle-class white boys. He was like something from another planet. Sonny Terry And Brownie McGee were outstanding. We also really enjoyed Rev. Gary Davis because it was just him and an amplified acoustic guitar - just extraordinary, he just sat there and played.
It was amazing to see Sister Rosetta Tharpe because she was playing a rock'n'roll guitar, and you just didn't see women doing that in those days.
Only a few of Bristol's Beat Groups were in the audience, which was a great pity. They would have learned far more listening to these timeless artists than any of the then-current so-called R'n'B groups.
April 30, 1964 : The Guildhall, Portsmouth.
Joe Boyd : I had all these ideas. Here’s what we’ll do, we’ll get everybody to play with everybody else. So Otis Spann will play piano with Sister Rosetta, and Brownie McGhee will play guitar with Cousin Joe … you know there will be all this … mixing. I discovered to my horror that they all hated the idea. So they looked at me like I was some white idiot and basically rejected all of these ideas out of hand.
May 2, 1964 : The Town Hall, Birmingham.
Jim Simpson (local musician/journalist) : In those days, I was writing for a magazine called Midland Beat. I covered all of the jazz and folk stuff for them.
Birmingham Town Hall was a good room for blues, and the place was packed, about 1500 seats. I remember Sister Rosetta was a real showstopper, playing her electric guitar wearing a bright pink wig. She had an imperious presence. She looked like she was seven feet tall, and dominant.
Muddy's band had Otis Spann on piano and, I think, Matt Murphy on guitar, so they were stunning.
I was able to go backstage because I knew Muddy from previous tours.
In fact, I had met Muddy through Buddy Guy, who I had backed at the College Of Technology in 1962. Somebody had brought Buddy in to tour, and my jazz band, totally inappropriately, got the job of backing him. After Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy is in my opinion the greatest Chicago guitar player. So it was Buddy who introduced me to Muddy.
Actually, there was a better show going on backstage than out front. They were constantly sending each other up, pulling each other's legs, joshing each other in a non-malicious way.
Gary Davis didn't join in any of the chatter, he just sat there and never stopped playing his guitar. He had his dark glasses on, because he was supposedly blind, but that didn't stop him patting the bottoms of passing girls.
It was the first time I'd met Cousin Joe, whose real name was Pleasant Joseph. He also did gospel recordings under the name Brother Joshua, and we became great pals. He's been a great influence on my life.
Cousin Joe was the king of the wisecracks. He had these sayings like, "Man, I ain't so foolish as I'm badly-dressed." I still don't know what that means. Another one was, "Man, I'm so sharp, I'm bleedin'."
He was a real fancy dresser, with his shoes always matching the colour of his suit.
I remember Muddy being very generous onstage, sort of like a father figure to the others, like they were his family.
May 3, 1964 : The Caravan plays its first London engagement at The Odeon, Hammersmith.
Paul Jones : It was extraordinary to think about it because we got these people in ones and twos and little bands and now we were getting all those people, all on one bill. It was absolutely unbelievable. To see those people live in front of you … to be sitting there only a matter of feet away from these people who were legends. One of the things that was extraordinary is that I thought they were all older than they were, so when I saw them live I thought, ‘He’s not that old’.
May 7, 1964 : Granada Television in Manchester, UK, records Blues and Gospel Train, a programme directed by Johnnie Hamp featuring the Caravan artists. For filming, the company transforms the disused Wilbraham Road railway station in the suburb of Chorlton into "Chorltonville", giving it the supposed appearance of a southern U.S.-style station.
Johnnie Hamp (director, Blues And Gospel Train) : I was always interested in the blues. In fact, Blues And Gospel Train wasn't my first show of that kind. I'd done one the year previous, called I Hear The Blues (December 18, 1963), with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lonnie Johnson. It was a fully-networked studio-based show and it got a terrific reaction, particularly from musicians in the business.
In 1964, the promoter Harold Davison was putting them out on tour, so I told him I thought it sounded interesting, and I went over to Hamburg, to see the show, because they were very big in Europe.
Top Topham (guitarist, The Yardbirds) : I think the BBC was a bit slow about catching on to the blues. When those blues tours were out in Europe, everything was being filmed, but the BBC missed it, which gave Granada an opportunity to do blues tv specials. The BBC seemed a bit slow about catching on to the blues. They were more interested in doing The Black And White Minstrels at peak time on Saturday nights.
Johnnie Hamp : I wanted to do something a bit different for the American Folk Blues And Gospel Caravan and, when Little Eva had done Locomotion, we'd made a couple of videos in co-operation with British Railways, so we knew the people there. They got us this train and we decked it out, and filmed the show at Wilbraham Road. We did it up, got some goats, bales of hay and so on, a bit camp I suppose, but it looked great.
Although the station was disused, the line was still active so, during rehearsals we had to be aware of when the the trains were coming through because we had camera dollies on the track and it could have been a disaster.
We blew the whole budget and had over seventy of the stage and maintenance staff from Granada Studios building our set. At one point, Sidney Bernstein, my boss, wanted a picture hung in his office, but no-one was there to do it.
There was a huge interest growing in the blues at that time but there was hardly a black face in the audience. It was all the white kids, mostly university students. I think the black kids had moved on to Motown.
Half of them got tickets to "Chorltonville", and we told the others to go to Manchester's Central Station, where they boarded a train with all the artists on it and travelled the five miles or so to Chorlton. They loved it, a real treat for them, because they were all fans.
Muddy Waters was more or less the guv'nor. He was the one I talked to about the rest of them, but they were all really easy, really great to work with. They thought the station thing was a lot of fun.
The artists were fine, as long as we kept them supplied with plenty of bourbon. There’s one shot, if you look carefully, you can see a bottle being raised at a window in the old ticket office, which was being used as their dressing room.
Rev. Gary Davis didn't appear on my show because, when we sent our production assistant up to get him out to rehearse, I'm afraid he'd he'd drunk too much. He just stayed in the coach at the top of the hill the whole time.
The band were real tight, on top of their sound and we were using radio mics for the very first time so it had the feel of a true live recording, Muddy Waters wasn’t much for a sound check anyway.
Cousin Joe Pleasants was wonderful. He was the comedian of the show. We had this tremendous downpour, I've never seen so much rain before or since, and it was right in the middle of Cousin Joe's number. You can actually hear the rain battering down the piano. There were all these electric guitars plugged in so we were worried sick.
We had to stop recording, which was difficult because we were recording the show 'as live' and by the time it stopped, Sister Rosetta was due on. Earlier in the day, she had rehearsed a number to sing but, after the rain, she asked me, 'Can I switch it to Didn't It Rain?' which was perfect of course.
We had her come onto the platform in a horse-drawn surrey with a fringe on top. She was met by Cousin Joe who then walked her along the platform.
She was a fabulous character, sensational, and what a guitar player! She really surprised everybody, because nobody had ever seen a woman playing an electric guitar, and playing it so well. For me, she was the highlight of the show.
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were the only artists who got to do two numbers, because we had to fill the gap that should have been Gary Davis.
Joe Boyd : I think everyone enjoyed it although, in retrospect, asking Brownie and Sonny to sit on cotton bales was a bit weird.
Johnnie Hamp : After the filming, we all went back to our favourite little club in Manchester, and they were all jamming together, so it was like our own private concert. I think it was called The Tropicana, one of those exotic little run-down places.
They loved being here, and in Europe. As far as I know, they didn't face any racial problems here. Back in America, things were bad, but it wasn't like that here.
So, we recorded it in May, and then it went out on the 19th of August. Over 3,000 people wrote in asking for it to be shown again. I've never had as much reaction as that on any show I've done.
I remember, around this time, Granada sent round a circular asking all the producers how many black artists we had used over the last year. I think they wanted to be sure we were using enough, but I had to think quite hard about it because in the music scene, we never even noticed. An artist is an artist. The question of colour didn't arise.
May 8, 1964 : When the Caravan plays at The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, UK, A recording is made of Gary Davis' performance which will re-surface in 2008 via a Document Records CD. The live tape includes a duet with Sonny Terry on The Sun Is Going Down, and an extended harmonica solo on Coon Hunt.
May 9, 1964 : The New Victoria Theatre, London, UK.
Simon A. Napier : Muddy seemed resolved to give 'em the straight text-book stuff they seemed to want, especially at the first New Vic show where his bottleneck rang out reminiscent of early records. Ransom Knowling played the sort of bass that showed just why Bluebird employed him for something over two thousand titles.
Blind Gary could be pretty erratic, as at the New Victoria second house when he played two instrumentals under great strain, then had to be led off stage by Sonny Terry in a state of near collapse, apparently quite overcome by his reception.
Anyone who saw that show probably thought they had a bad deal, but to expect a genuine street singer to turn out any sort of professional performance is to destroy all the things that are good in the blues and gospel idioms.
May 10, 1964 : Fairfield Halls, Croydon, UK.
Top Topham (guitarist, The Yardbirds) : I was there that night, because I'd stopped playing with The Yardbirds, so I was free. I really looked up to those black players. They were my heroes. They gave me a lot in my life.
Paul Jones : Nobody I knew re-interpreted the music. We slavishly imitated it, to the best of our abilities. The re-interpretation came about because we couldn’t do it.
Simon A. Napier : Sonny and Brownie were probably picked to open the proceedings on the strength of their long experience, and uncanny ability to get the confidence of the spectators. Their act had the slickness that has lost a lot of their appeal on record but which never fails to enthrall live. The splendid Key To The Highway given out at Croydon only emphasized what we already knew - that these two have overcome and triumphed, but can still sing their blues with feeling and a load of talent. Certainly there will never be another pair like this, and if ever I hear another play harmonica so completely, it'll be a great day for the blues.
Otis Spann and the rhythm joined Sonny and Brownie for their last number and stayed on for Otis's spot, which usually consisted of a very jazz-flavoured instrumental and the rather unsuitable T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do, both played with great aplomb and a wonderful left hand. Otis with better material would certainly be as big a draw as his great leader, and no doubt one day he will get to be a very popular artist indeed.
The group sometimes stayed on for Sister Rosetta's act which I must confess shattered my eardrums to the extent that I could only manage one whole act. Complete with pink wig, beautiful gowns and shining new solid Gibson, reputedly setting her back 750 dollars, Rosetta was even louder than previously and no less wonderful to see. The audience sat stupefied by this woman until she decided they should join in and clap, shout or stamp to her music. Songs like Up Above My Head and This Train did things to these staid audiences that makes one suddenly see why such amazing things happen during similar shows at "red-hot meeting places" in Harlem and all over the States.
The second half began with Cousin Joe ... who was something one could not possibly have expected. Off-stage he is a very charming, quick-witted, disarming figure, with a good line in stories and a great hand at coon-can. He is pretty adept with a whiskey bottle also, but however one meets him, he has always a merry eye and a certain quiet dignity.
The funniest thing I heard from him was an attempt to describe the great (jazz saxophonist) Pete Brown, whose proportions rather overawed Joe: "Man he was somp'n, well . . . he made that thing round his neck look like a kazoo ! Yeah he was a big guy." With suitable arm movements and a rubber face, almost anything Joe said came over in three-dimensions.
I've never thought too much of Cousin Joe on the many records I've heard, except to admire his sly, devious or downright bawdy songs. Which just shows how wrong one can be.
Onstage he was somethin' else. Every song he chose was one of his old famous numbers, but he never made any visual impact on record.
Singing verses such as "Wouldn't give a blind sow an acorn, wouldn't give a crippled crab a crutch" and emphasizing his claim by changing the second four to "No . . . blind sow an acorn, Weeell, whoo, paralysed crab a crutch", he would further state thoughtfully, "Yeah, I'm a hard man". Such antics as a stuck-out tongue, rolling eyes, and a terrible chuckle brought the house down almost literally on every occasion.
Showmen such as Cousin Joe are not made - he is a "natural", and though his hoarse voice and thunderous but unmusical piano-playing seem on reflection very little, he was undoubtedly, with Blind Gary, the surprise, delight and undisputed success of the show.
Perhaps Muddy's best display was the Croydon concert where, as last year, the audience knew how to react and, having got past Mojo, were really settling in for some great blues when (God Save) The Queen rang out leaving Muddy and Co. standing around looking pretty embarrassed and not a little annoyed. Such mismanagement spoiled one of the highlights of the tour.
May ??, 1964 : The Caravan concludes the UK leg of its European tour with a show at The Dome, Brighton.
Joe Boyd : By the end, there was this incredible family feeling, everybody playing with everybody else, and Sister Rosetta had decided that Reverend Gary was the deepest Christian she had ever met, and would stand in the wings and watch his performance every night.
On the last night, in Brighton, Sister Rosetta asked for a microphone off-stage and, when he sang Precious Lord, she did this unearthly back-country moan thing over it. It was a fantastic performance.
Simon A. Napier : If you were lucky, and apparently you had an 80% or better chance, and saw Gary at his very fine best, as I did for 35 minutes at Brighton, then I'm sure you'd agree that Gary Davis on stage can produce the most wonderful country gospel music any concert stage is ever likely to see. His moving and beautiful rendering of Pure Religion was one of the most wonderful things I have ever witnessed; and Muddy Waters, following on, broke his usual silence to pay sincere tribute to "the great Reverend".
Joe Boyd : By the time Muddy hit the stage, The Dome was levitating.
Simon A. Napier : Muddy announced every number at Brighton and produced one of his best performances, including My Home Is In The Delta, a hard version of Got My Mojo Working and a mean rendering of Nineteen Years Old.
Joe Boyd : Mojo Working got the audience dancing in the aisles and propelled them out into the night.
Top Topham : I'm proud that because we championed their music, and because they had been so well received here, it helped get them back some respect in their home country.
Joe Boyd : It took the English, and their enthusiasm for this music, feeding back into America via Clapton and Jimmy Page and Manfred Mann and all these groups to reconnect America to the roots of that music that America had first discovered in the mid 50’s.
By the end of the 60s, most artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, BB King, were playing to white halls. There wasn’t a basis within their own communities for them to make a living from.