Robert Nicholls is one of the originals, a true face of the London Mod scene. He has never forgotten his time as a London Mod in the 60's and wishes to share those memories with mods of today. The first part of his story can be found here. Rob has also been sharing his memories of Rhythm & Blues scene in 60's London; the bands and events he witnessed. The first of these articles can be found here.R&B Covers in the Early Sixties
In London in the early 1960s, fashion-conscious modernists were discovering and buying Black American R&B. Witnessing this interest, British pop groups started making cover versions of these records. For e.g., the Rolling Stones’ debut single in the U.K. (1963) was a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” released by Berry in 1961. The Stones’ second single was their version of “Not Fade Away” (1964), the Buddy Holly song (1957). In 1964 they covered “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander (1962). Similarly, on their first LP album the Beatles covered “You've Really Got a Hold on Me” which was recorded The Miracles in 1962. The list of British covers of American R&B records in the early sixties is virtually endless, and in an attempt to follow the Beatles into the Charts, in 1963, the Searchers remade the Drifters’ hit, “Sweets for My Sweet” (1961) and also The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9” (1959); in July 1964 Manfred Mann released “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” which had been recorded in 1963 by The Exciters, and in April 1965 released “Oh No, Not My Baby,” formerly recorded by Maxine Brown (1964); Freddie and the Dreamers’ released “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” (1963) which is a cover of James Ray's 1961 release by the same name; in 1963, the Merseybeats covered “Fortune Teller” by Benny Spellman (1962), it was also later recorded by the Hollies and The Who; in November 1963, the Hollies recorded “Stay,” originally recorded by Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs (1960) and in February 1964, released “Just One Look” which Doris Troy had recorded in 1963; in 1963, the Big Three covered “Some Other Guy” by Richie Barrett (1962); in 1964 the Moody Blues covered “Go Now” which had been recorded by Bessie Banks earlier the same year; in 1964, the Swinging Blue Jeans covered “You're No Good,” recorded by Betty Everett in 1963; in 1963 Brian Poole and the Tremeloes released the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” (1962), which the Beatles and every other group were performing anyway; moreover the Glaswegian Lulu had a hit in 1966 with “Shout,” the 1959 Isley Brothers song—and the list goes on. I am surprised that at that time there was no British cover of “New Orleans” by Gary U.S. Bonds (recorded 1960), it had all the ingredients, raunchy R&B riff, catchy refrain, danceable beat. Maybe U.S. Bonds sound was too unique to rival. At least the Kinks “You Really Got Me” (1964), the Pretty Things “Rosalyn” (1964), and Dave Clark’s “Glad All Over” (1964) were originals; though I didn’t like “Glad All Over” much. “You Really Got Me” became a dance club favorite equal in popularity to “Louie Louie” and “Green Onions.”
That we Mods preferred the originals to the cover versions goes without saying. We were purists and we may have seemed snobbish to some. In fact I had most of the above-named originals in my collection of vinyl 45s. Guy Stevens and Chris Blackwell had initiated the British Sue label in 1963 but because at that time American R&B wasn’t played on British radio they suffered from a lack of air-play. In an interview published in Beat Instrumental in November 1965, Stevens comments on this, “Virtually all our artists are Negroes. Consequently, we get very few plays and little exposure except by hip record producers and in the London clubs, where they go down a bomb because of the profound dancing beat featured on most of them” (Rob Finnis 2004, p. 18). The air-play problem was solved by Easter 1964, when Ronan O’Rahilly, proprietor of The Scene Club unveiled the pirate Radio Caroline from an ex-ferry moored outside British territorial waters, a godsend for the R&B/soul underground. Radio Caroline played such rare numbers as Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q.” and Don and Bob’s version of “Hello Little Schoolgirl,” as well as more familiar Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Animals’ records, and they signed off with Jimmy McGriff’’s version of “Round Midnight” from McGriff’s 1962 album I’ve Got a Woman (Sue ILP 907). Radio Caroline was followed by another pirate radio, Radio Atlanta. Eventually in September 1967, BBC responded by initiating a new pop-oriented station, Radio One, and by March 1968 had forced the pirate radios off the air. Recently, the movie Pirate Radio: The Boat that Rocked produced by Richard Curtis recalls this era in farcical terms but without acknowledging that Mods were the primary movers behind this venture.
In the early sixties, Chris Blackwell wanted to do more than simply import records; as founder of both Island Records and the British Sue label, he wanted to produce British R&B that was on a par with the American records because he realized it would be more lucrative. Blackwell felt a song that Jamaican Jackie Edwards had written, “Keep on Running,” had potential, and he persuaded Jackie Edwards to relocate to the U.K. in 1962. Chris Blackwell fielded a demo of Jackie Edwards singing “Keep on Running” but it went nowhere. Previously, the Spencer Davis Group had released covers of several Sue records including, in 1964, the Soul Sisters' "I Can't Stand It" (1963; backed by an unbelievably soulful version of “Blueberry Hill”). When sung by Stevie Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group, “Keep on Running” went to the top of the British charts in December 1965. Edwards also wrote The Spencer Davis Group's follow-up single, "Somebody Help Me” which also reached number one in March 1966.
Thus in the early-mid sixties, striving for a “black sound” was a preoccupation of many London-based musicians and producers, and singers with black-sounding voices attracted a lot of interest, including Rod Stewart and Chris Farlowe as well as Stevie Winwood. Without necessarily sounding black, Paul McCartney has a soulful voice, which was apparent on the Beatles first single “Love Me Do,” a new sound at the time. The same is true of Van Morrison as heard in “Gloria” when he was with the group Them, while Eric Burdon could scream and holler with the best of them. Although a hardcore American R&B fan, I was ready to support original home-grown R&B. I had dutifully bought “I’m the Face” by the High Numbers in 1964 and in 1965 I bought “Incense” by the Anglos on the Sue label. With “Incense” Chris Blackwell had partially realized his goal of producing British R&B. Although there was no attribution at the time, probably because Blackwell wanted buyers to think the singer was black, the lead singer was in fact, Stevie Winwood.
When all is said and done, whether the Mods approved of the white cover versions of black R&B or not, they were widely heard and made an impact. They publicized soul music and awakened British, Europeans and white Americans to good sounds that refused to remain hidden and by so doing launched the careers of some young British musicians. Furthermore, there was a ripple effect and for their part the originators could bask in an uneasy and reflected glow. No matter what, it did provide them with some recognition, and as a result a few American bluesmen and women enjoyed a rebirth of their careers in their twilight years. Even so, it is ironic that in a relatively short space of time a switch in musical heroes occurred from black R&B artists to their white imitators. Whereas groups like the Stones, Pretty Things, and Yardbirds looked to bluesmen like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker as their musical heroes (Robert Johnson in the case of Eric Clapton), within a few years these groups themselves plus the Kinks, Animals, The Who, and the Spencer Davis Group, became the models for younger groups to emulate, and emerging musicians looked instead to Peter Green, Stevie Winwood, Jimmy Page, and Pete Townshend, et al. For example, lead vocalist and guitarist Phil Lynott of the Thin Lizzie rock group told me that he most admired guitarist Jeff Beck and was not particularly interested in the earlier generation of American bluesmen.
This work is the copyright of Robert Nicholls, Ph.D. The views expressed are purely those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or institution.
I know Rob would love to hear any feedback on this article. You can discuss it with him in the forum here or I will pass on any messages to him using the contact address.
Rob is also interested in publishing his memoirs and would like to hear from anyone with any advice or with an interest in publishing them.