How did you first get into blues?

My big brother was into New Orleans jazz in the 50s and used to bring home 78s of the classic blues singers. I used to enjoy Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Ottilie Patterson – Chris Barber’s singer - especially. In those days my voice hadn’t broken so I could sing bits of her songs. It’s just as well I couldn’t understand much of the lyrics.

Then one day my bro brought home Elvis Presley’s first LP and that just exploded inside me. I’d had the usual uptight 50’s upbringing and I suppose the emotion and physicality were a revelation. I adored the Arthur Crudup R n’ B covers: funky, wild music. The Country and Western material I was less struck by.

When did you get into harmonica playing?

My brother gave me my first harmonica when I was about 9 and I taught myself to play the more diatonic of the New Orleans tunes – things like Whistling Rufus. In those days I didn’t understand how to play a diatonic harp ‘crossed’ to get the blues notes. It’s funny how things stick with you – there are still faint echoes of Armstrong in my harp playing. Most harp players phrase more like clarinettists – I phrase like a cornet.

My parents let me play on long car journeys, and I always had a harmonica in my jacket pocket at school.

What was your first experience of playing blues?

Back in the sixties my interests in country and city blues were running in parallel. The big breakthrough was when a schoolfriend, Oliver Whitehead, explained how you play crossed harp. We used to play together; he was a brilliant ragtime and country blues guitarist; he’d picked up some really good technique from Julian Bream, who was a friend of his mother’s. I often wonder what happened to him – he got better and better at the guitar and eventually, I think, just got bored with it. He went to live in the States and I lost touch but the last time I heard him play – must have been in the late sixties – he was doing the most extraordinary stuff on classical guitar: simultaneously improvising three or four lines contrapuntally, so that any one note was doing two or three jobs. It sounded like jazz Vivaldi, or like a really good African Kora player.

The band I had at school played the easier songs by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, the second Sonny Boy Williamson. We had trouble practising because the school discriminated: pop bands - Mersey sound bands – were acceptable but blues bands were not allowed to practice on the school premises. We had to hire a hall and seldom had the necessary cash.

Jimmy Walker, my lead guitarist, made a pre-amp, years before they were standard. He got a dirty sound by running the guitar into an amp and then just putting the output, turned right down, into an old bow-fronted Watkins amp. One day someone came along and turned up the first amp: the poor Watkins just dissolved in smoke.

We played second on the bill to Marianne Faithfull once. She was really nice to me when I was almost dead from nerves: she left all the people who were making a fuss of her and came over to cheer me up. (For the first ten years or so I was so nervous I couldn’t eat lunch if I was playing that evening. It’s better now, but I still get keyed up; if I didn’t something would be wrong).

I played a lot of chromatic harp at that stage as another friend, Mike Runge, played good jazz piano and we used to try to play jazz together. I’ve never had a musical education so not a lot came of it, but he was really important in two ways: he was good for my ears – he made me to make the effort to really listen to music, in a focused way.

And Mike took me to Scott’s to hear Jimmy Witherspoon, when I was about 16.

That first experience of live blues was a revelation. Spoon is, without the least theatricality, one of the most emotionally naked singers. I had the feeling "why is this guy telling me such intimate truths when I don’t even know him?" To me, your average, uptight Brit, it was embarassing but liberating. Over twenty years later, when I formed Really the Blues and had a jazz arranger in the band – Bob Morgan - most of the songs I had heard that night went straight into our repertoire.

What got you into bottleneck playing?

When I was in my twenties I got fed up with the bane of every blues harmonica-player or vocalist’s life: finding a guitarist to play with. My parents gave me a Harmony Sovereign for my twenty-first birthday; in those days that was the guitar to have if you couldn’t afford a Gibson. It needed heavy strings and a good clouting, but if you did that it sang like a bird.

At the time I was playing harp with a guitarist who was into Sleepy John Estes – little known in the mid-sixties – and the delta players like Son House, Bukka White and of course Robert Johnson. He taught me lot. The funny thing was he had a complete mental block about bar lines – he moved through the blues sequence pretty much at random. Thirty years later I met him again and he was just the same. Oddly, the only other person I’ve heard who did that was Juke Boy Bonner. I played support to him in the seventies. He was brilliant, but you never knew when he was going to make his changes.

I made a choice then that really shaped things to come: although I’m left-handed, I decided to play right-handed. It was the age of the ‘guitar hero’ and the acoustic guitarists, Renbourn and Co., were very deft and clean. I thought I needed an advantage on the fretboard, but what I did’nt realise was that all the expression and feeling comes off your right hand. I saw I’d never be as fast or delicate as the greats, acoustic or electric, but the delta bottleneck style was rhythmically complex and exciting and the emotion comes from how you use the slide – ie from the left hand. I got hooked.

Shortly after, I bought an old Dobro guitar for £75.00 and that became my babyI I found out later it was one of the first 75 the Dopyera brothers made – you can tell by a little heart inlaid into the heel of the neck. It sounded wonderful: I used really heavy strings, a zither-player’s spring steel thumbpick which hurt a lot but sounded nice, and the bottleneck, from a cider bottle, that I still use today.

In the early eighties when I was seriously broke and no-one wanted to hear blues I sold that and two other Dobros, a Gibson Kalamazoo, and lots of other instruments. I don’t miss the others too much but that first Dobro still really haunts me.

At first I played Mississippi Fred McDowell tunes like "Write me a Few Short Lines". In fact, it was very embarrassing in 1970 when I played support to him and had to churn out second-rate versions of his repertoire. Luckily I don’t think he recognised them! He said "that was not bad, kid" when I came off stage. I still feel proud. He struck me as a very quiet, gentle man. For some reason he was obliged to play a semi-acoustic guitar: I remember he handed it to his manager to set the controls.

My proudest moment was supporting Son House during what must have been his last tour, in’71 or so. I remember feeling really angry on his behalf when he came onstage, he looked old and shaky and I thought: ‘this man taught Robert Johnson, for Christ’s sake! If he were a white musician of comparable stature he’d be comfortably retired by now, not schlepping round Europe". But he played with such fire and delight that I realised he was still glad to be before an audience. He told a long story about his wife making him go and get his hair dyed when news of the European tour came through: "those kids in Europe aren’t going to want to see a white-haired old man!"

He changed my style for good, because the thing about the delta style is you have to see it played. It’s a bit like flamenco: you don’t get all the percussive cross-rhythms by ultra-precise picking: your right hand must be incredibly relaxed and slap about - it all springs from your thumb.

What have you recorded?

1.) In the early 70s I was playing in Holland a lot – sleeping on floors and playing a bar one night and a concert the next. I remember one bar where I played 20 minutes on, 20 off, from 8.30 until 4.30 am. This was good training. I used to eat breakfast at dawn, in a seedy café full of twitchy Vietnam draft-dodgers and dope dealers, and walk home over the canals. Great times.

I recorded some songs for VPRO Radio, which was a sort of semi-‘underground’ radio station that played all sorts of weird music. They made quite a decent LP out of my stuff, which included things like two Dobros overdubbed – bottleneck and lap steel - and my first song using two harps, a bass C Marine Band and a normal C (although I was not yet playing the treble one with my nose). The album was called something like Zeltsaam und Zonderling; I never found out what this means. The album sold out, I believe, and was reissued, but I never saw anything from it because when you record for radio they have the rights to the material.

Years later I was on a train to the New Forest, chatting to two Dutch campers, when it turned out one of them had the album – the only purchaser I’ve ever met!

2.) In the early 80s, I had no sooner sold my guitars in despair and decided to grow up than I was asked to put a band together. I formed Really the Blues with Bob Morgan, an old friend who is a very original composer and multi-instrumentalist: among many other things a pioneer reggae arranger, but with very little blues background. I liked the idea of putting his strengths opposite my ‘roots’ approach and seeing what happened. He introduced me to Clive McKenzie-Joseph, a drummer with a soul/r’nb background, who stayed with us until he quit gigging. I found a bass player working on a farm in a nearby village: fifteen years later Richard Sadler is now a post-acid-jazz arranger, musician and engineer with Internal Bass records. His CDs top Jazz polls, but I’m happy to say that he still plays with me!

Clive left, the great Sam Kelly joined on drums and we recorded a CD, Aviator, in France, where I have musician and sound engineer friends. It was a manic business: Bob and Richard wrote the brass arrangements on the ferry going over; half the horn section spoke only English and the other half only French; I had to record the solo tracks in a goods lift because my sound engineer had fallen in love with its acoustics. We slept in corners of the studio and finished the whole job in ten days.

The CD ranged from Jimmy Witherspoon-style jazz arrangements to country blues, with unexpected combinations like clarinet and lap steel and harmonica and brass. It was well received, with Paul Jones in particular giving it good airtime.

3). By the mid 90s Really the Blues had become The Aviators. Bob had to quit with incipient tinnitus and though I had planned to replace him I became increasingly excited by the kind of loose, rhythmically adventurous, roots blues that Sam, Richard and I played as a trio, and left things as they were. A decision that our subsequent career confirmed as wise!

But I was also still playing a lot of country blues, with a weekly residency at blues bar Ain’t Nothin’ But in London.

I wanted to put out a CD that covered all the early, acoustic blues that I had been playing, in some cases, for thirty years. No Lizards was the result. I simply recorded, with the best of engineers, every acoustic blues song I knew. The result was over five hours of material, and an agonising 11 months while I dithered about which were the best tracks. The sound is uncannily good and the feel is immediate and exciting, so I’m chuffed with it. It sold out fast. Unfortunately the company that pressed it for me has disappeared off the face of the earth with the artwork and the master, so I’m rather stuck for getting out a second pressing.

So what are you up to now?

Two years ago I returned to full-time work in DfEE, so now I pick and choose the gigs a lot more. We still play the Station Tavern, "Home of British Blues" in North Kensington, regularly, as we have done for thirteen years. Blues festivals and clubs here and in France, the odd private party (including a couple of dances for Jeremy Irons, at one of which I was impressed by the exceptional skill and enthusiasm of Neil and Glenys Kinnock’s jiving… I can tell you, they are seriously good). The odd bit of session work, including harmonica on Wishbone Ash’s latest CD, and an interview on Paul Jones’s weekly Radio Two blues programme.

Increasingly, too, I’m playing with my eldest son on drums. Peter is thirteen and we’ve been playing the occasional festival and club together since he was six. We headlined at the Wallingford Blues Festival this year and he played straight from 10.00 to 11.30 pm, plus encores – not bad!

The Aviators have just recorded a live CD, currently being mixed, which I’m really excited about. It features guitarist Christophe Pélissié, who plays with us in France. He’s one of the most exciting blues guitar players I have ever heard because he doesn’t just have bags of technique – thousands of guitarists have that, these days - but he responds first and foremost to the feeling of the song and he takes huge musical risks.

The Aviators?

If I had to sum up what The Aviators are about it would be that: bags of feeling and huge musical risks. Because our songs are rooted in Delta blues, rather than boogie, shuffle or rock, they are rhythmically more complex – closer to funk, Jamaican and African music. This is helped by the fact that Richard’s other work – Down to the Bone; From Staten to Manhattan - is rhythmically innovative, and Sam’s other work with Errol Lynton’s Blues Vibe (Paul Jones’s CD of the year last year, incidentally) and his own band Station House, with Root Jackson, has similar influences. There is an interesting blues/Jamaican crossover thing going on at the moment in the UK and, with Taj Mahal and Eric Bibb, in the US. The Aviators have always operated instinctively in that sort of territory.

The future?

My aim now is not to disappear entirely from the blues scene, so that when I hit sixty and retire in eight years’ time, I can go back on the road if I want to. Of course the fashion for blues comes and goes – believe me, after the desert of the early 80s every gig I do feels like a bonus! - but as long as there are people who want to hear blues I’ll keep playing. I’ve seen Muddy Waters in his sixties; Mississippi Fred McDowell in his seventies and Son House well into his eighties: I believe this music keeps you young.

(Sent to us by Giles Hedley, Aug. 25 1999)
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Giles Hedley's own introduction to himself and his current band (Aug. 25 1999)