The story of the blues – by Ellis Goldney Sidney
STEVE DARRINGTON: Bravery and Brilliance
courtesy of Dorset Daily Echo, 30 September 2010
IF you have to earn the right to play the blues, Steve Darrington – organiser of this weekend’s Swanage Blues & Roots Festival has paid his dues in full.
After contracting polio at the age of six – just three months before the vaccine was made universally available in the UK – he was confined to a wheelchair. For most of the following decade he was lost and alone until, at the tender age of 15, he was found by the blues, started to play the piano and slowly clawed his way towards some kind of recovery. He still needs walking sticks and sometimes a mobility scooter to get about.
“I spent a whole year in hospital when I was six, lots more time having operations to help me walk and stuff, and I’m forever grateful to my parents for not putting me in a home, which was the norm for people in those days.”
He went on to play on some 50 albums and appeared with the likes of Mark Knopfler and Marty Wilde – he even played at Wembley Arena, supported by rock royalty Queen.
“I never set out to play with the Everly Brothers, Lonnie Donegan, or any of those wonderful blues, jazz and country stars I worked with. I just wanted to play music as well as I could, and they recognised that and wanted us to play together.
“In 1974 I recorded with Chris Jagger, brother of Rolling Stone Mick, at Rockfield Studios in Wales along with Peter Frampton, Dave Edmunds, Pick Withers, Micky Waller, Andy Bown and BJ Cole. I didn’t see Chris Jagger for the next 34 years until I went to one of his gigs a couple of years ago at Lulworth Castle. He recognised me and invited me to join him and Ben Waters on stage for a couple of songs – that’s show business!”
Steve Darrington’s life is one of bravery and brilliance. Now a resident of Swanage, Steve holds fond feelings towards the seaside town: “Ah, Swanage. I came here for two days in August 2000 and was so well received that I just never went back to Buckinghamshire.”
He’s been involved with the Blues Festival since March 2001 and, as the artists it attracts have become more prestigious each year, it’s now one of the major music events on the county’s calendar.
“The first Swanage Blues Festival started off as a birthday party for a local blues fan called George Crane,” Steve recollects.
“Most of the musicians that play here in Swanage are very well known elsewhere and command much higher fees than this little town can afford to pay. But what we offer is a fantastic experience of thousands of enthusiastic fans that are right there.”
From Friday until Sunday, some forty gigs will be played in 15 venues across Swanage, many of them completely free.
Highlights include accomplished musicians such as the Back Porch Band and Blue Touch across venues including The Anchor Inn and East Bar.
This year’s festival features a daily Open Mic Night as well as further entertainment from C Sharp Blues, Johnny Sharp and many other acts.
Steve is a ready advocate of the festival’s party ethos.
“You see, admission to the pubs, restaurants and hotel bars has to be free because any attempt to make entry charges would totally destroy the party atmosphere.”
Which bodes well for the festival’s future, since Steve intends to carry on organising it “for as long as I enjoy parties!”
Steve professes that the blues is spawned by feelings of “humour, joy and excitement – as well as those of sorrow” and is intriguingly sensitive to the reasons for the blues existing for a man who has spent his life in the music industry. It’s this charm and infectious enthusiasm for the Blues that is bound to result in a spectacular weekend of music.
Steve sums up his charismatic personality when asked about his own favourites.
“My musical favourites are too many to mention”, he jokes, before quoting Buddy Rich: “There are only two types of music – good and bad!”
Full festival details at www.swanage-blues.org
Interview reproduced by kind permission
of BLUES IN BRITAIN
In March blues fans will be heading for the south coast and the Swanage Blues Festival. Artists include The Barcodes, The Incredible Blues Puppies, Robin Bibi Band, Jon Walsh Blues Band, Saiichi Sugiyama Band, Slim Lightfoot Band, Storm Warning, Hollow Bone, The Mustangs, Nigel Bagge & Eddie Armer, Sonny Black, John Crampton, Pete Smith with Chris Williams, Harris, Budden & Osborne and more.
Surprising to say, admission to all venues is free. Even more surprising, the Swanage Blues Festival is organised by one man without any payment, grants or sponsorship. So why does he do it? In this e-letter Steve Darrington explains to readers of Blues In Britain:
It all started in the 60s when I was 15 and in a wheelchair due to Polio as a child – I was in a bad way at the time. A kid at school was playing blues harmonica and I just knew I could do it brilliantly even though I’d never been particularly musical before. I persuaded Mum to buy me a mouth organ for Christmas, practised for months to a Sonny Boy Williamson LP and within six months was out of that wheelchair and playing in an acoustic duo.
When I was 17 John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers played at our school dance. I shared a bottle of Chianti with Eric Clapton, played his Les Paul and chatted with the band. The heady mix of alcohol, music and groupies left me highly motivated for months. I thought: “If these guys can do it, why can’t I?”
I went off to Sussex Uni for a while but it wasn’t for me. While I was there and supposed to be studying languages, I did learn a lot of piano from two other students: Ben Sidran, who was doing the UK’s first-ever PhD in Jazz, and Pete Wingfield – you might have seen him with the Everly Brothers or Albert Lee, and his Number One Hit was "18 with a Bullet"..
Back in High Wycombe I played with a local blues band and we got a recording deal with the American label Epic under the name Mahogany. Tony Clark, who was producing The Moody Blues and King Crimson at the time, produced the album and it still stands up today. Unfortunately there was a licensing cock-up and it was released in the USA but not in the UK so that was the end of that.
We carried on for a while as Marty Wilde’s backing band, which was great fun and we learnt a lot doing live TV and radio, two shows a night, in nightclubs and working men’s clubs.
I knew Ron Watts, the promoter at my local pub, the Nag’s Head in High Wycombe pretty well by then. I could go to see acts of the calibre of Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack every week down the end of my road, and he quite often put on blues legends like Howling Wolf. Ron liked to sing himself and had this idea of forming an entertaining blues band with Cajun influences, and so Brewers Droop was formed.
We had a crazy time for years doing the college circuit, blues clubs, festivals, abroad, you name it. We even did a residency at London’s 100 Club for nearly 40 nights. We were playing in our own right and backing visiting Americans like Arthur Big Boy Crudup. At a festival one day we preceded Spencer Davis, Incredible String Band, Lindisfarne, Average White Band, Slade, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Beach Boys – can you imagine the artists’ beer tent!
By 1974 the climate for a self-financing touring band became unfavourable due to high petrol prices. I left Brewers Droop the same time as our rhythm guitarist, Mark Knopfler, though some of the other guys carried on for a while. I joined a western swing outfit called Shucks and we played the pub rock circuit for a few years.
In the early 1980s I was part of The Roxon Roadshow, a country rock ensemble that sometimes had fourteen members or more! We had a recording studio, record label and regularly backed visiting artists at Wembley for the Easter country extravaganzas.
That was where I met Lonnie Donegan and he persuaded me to join his band. So there I was yet again, working with a childhood hero. I also had a band called ‘Steve Darrington’s MAGIC” – I think it stood for Middle Aged Gents In Concert.
It was in 1993 that I formed The Boogie Band doing the sort of stuff Jools Holland is doing now, except we could only afford to have four musicians in the band. Still, we used the same act for jazz, blues, rock, folk and world music festivals. We even did weddings at stately homes – just more expensive rent parties, I guess!
Over the years I’d carried on with my session work and made over fifty albums. In 1999, after an accident put paid to my touring days, I came to Swanage as resident pianist in a hotel. I started off organising the blues festival as a big birthday party and it’s just grown every year since.
But then Swanage is a lovely seaside town with excellent pubs and restaurants, and accommodation is available at reasonable prices. There’s a great line-up again this year and since it’s free admission, the price has to be right!
Nowadays I can’t do all the touring I used to, so it’s a great way to get everybody to come to me, and of thanking Swanage for making me feel so welcome.
By the way, if you do turn up, make sure you say “Hello”; and if you need help or advice putting on something similar in your area, let me know. It will be a pleasure.
Contact Steve Darrington via the websites www.swanage-blues.org www.stevedarrington.com or c/o TIC, The White House, Shore Road, Swanage, Dorset BH19 1LB.
The British Polio Fellowship Bulletin
This interview appeared on the back page of the Polio Fellowship Bulletin in January 2007 in the series My Way, prefaced with “This issue, Steve Darrington recalls his extra-ordinary life”.
In 1955, on my sixth birthday and just a few months before the vaccine became available, I caught Polio. The ambulance rear doors had a large gap through which I could see the road racing away behind me.
At the hospital, I remember being laid naked on a cold examining table and a roomful of people in gowns and masks being admitted. An ‘adult’ voice boomed out: “This is Stephen Darrington. He contracted Poliomyelitis on his sixth birthday and is not expected to live.”
I was kept in isolation for weeks – no TV, no radio, no company – and eventually taken to that room again, this time to hear the same words, followed by: “As you can see, he is alive but will never live a normal life.”
That was what did it really. At that young and tender age I resolved not to have a “normal” life, but to have an abnormal, extra-ordinary life. I spent a whole year in hospital at age six, and many months more in later years for tendon transplants on my feet. When I was 13 there was a complicated operation to shore up my back with a spinal fusion – without that I would have been bent over double for the rest of my life.
My worst and best year in a way was at age 15. The usual teenage frustrations and torments were compounded by being disabled, and resulted in an incredible transference of pent-up energy into music. I had never been serious about it before but when I heard the blues of Sonny Boy Williamson, my spirit was released from the physical confines of my body. Mum bought me a harmonica, I practised for six months… and got worse!
Undaunted and spurred on by musical desire (and the girls who were now beginning to take an interest in me!) I was soon out of my wheelchair and at age 16 was leading a Rhythm ‘n’ Blues band. I taught myself organ and piano, and by the time I was 20, Marty Wilde had recruited me into his backing band as a professional Wild Cat!
This led onto years in music with artists such as Lonnie Donegan, Don Everly and Rose-Marie, playing at Wembley, Abba’s castle in Sweden, the London Palladium and rock, jazz and world music festivals all over. I made over 50 albums.
When not able to work as a full-time musician, I was in publishing, a director of advertising, marketing and manufacturing companies, and presented cases at local Appeals Tribunals.
By the time I was in my mid-40s parts of me were beginning to wear out, and I managed to retire at age 50 to Swanage in Dorset. I keep busy here thanks to the tax credits system, designing posters and greeting cards, organising events and festivals, and campaigning for improvements in everyday life for disabled people via broadcasting and websites. See www.mobility-scooters.info and www.stevedarrington.com
Looking back, my parents were told to forget about me and put me in a home - thank God they didn't do it, but gave me an unbelievable amount of help and support at great cost to their own lives. My sincere love, gratitude and respect go out to them.
I’ve had many jobs and relationships too – looking back I believe that quite a few failures were due to my determination not to let anything get me down, until everything just got too much for me. I’m more careful nowadays. I certainly have realised that six-year-old child’s determined goal, formulated in despair so many years ago, and led a most extra-ordinary life. And, to a great extent, a happy one!
Just Steve Talking
In 1968 there was a guitar, bass, drums trio of keen teenagers playing Blues in the styles of BB King, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy etc operating around the Amersham, Chesham area of Buckinghamshire and I sat in on harmonica a couple of times. Taking a year off from Sussex University in 1969, I joined the band – called Mahogany Guinness – and we wowed them at youth clubs, parties and pubs. The personnel: John Mackay, guitar and lead vocals; Joe Southall, bass; Paul Hobbs, drums; and me on harmonica and vocals. I remember putting a Shure microphone through a Vox bass amp and a 15” speaker – it sounded like an express train at times! John and I developed unison lead lines and swapping phrases – sounded great with his SG3, and the rhythm section was both superb and creative.
We were fed by our own enthusiasm and all the American and British acts playing at my local, the Nags Head in High Wycombe. Ron Watts was promoting all sorts of top bluesmen and we were witness, on a weekly basis, to many Blues Legends. People like Howling Wolf, Otis Spann, Lightning Hopkins, Freddie King, Albert King, Lightning Slim and Whispering Smith, Juke Boy Bonner, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and scores more. Fleetwood Mac, Status Quo and most famous bands also appeared there, and a relatively unknown Paul Simon once did the interval spot.
John and Paul were working at a company called Spa Brushes in Amersham, and the owner, Rodney Harnett, became our manager. Fair play to him, he tried to put business heads on young musicians’ shoulders – always a thankless task. Anyway, he arranged for us to do a demo at Jack Jackson’s son Malcolm’s studios, pushed the tape to a promotions company in London, paid them £30 a week for 13 weeks in advance to get us a record deal. They came back with seven offers, including CBS England and Epic (CBS America). The best deal was the Epic one, so we took it.
Epic employed Tony Clark to produce the album. What a strange thing to do! Tony was having huge success with the Moody Blues’ theme albums and was about to record King Crimson’s first album, yet suddenly here he was looking at a bunch of raw amateurs in Chartridge village hall in Buckinghamshire. He agreed to take us on, we went into Wessex Studios 18 hours a day for a week, and recorded the album. Most of the tracks were our own, and I became the band’s keyboard player as well because I could play a little piano. It was well produced with a huge sound at times, but our gutsiness and raw feeling still came through. Boy, were we young!
We dropped the Guinness from the name for obvious reasons, and became Mahogany. Epic released the album in the USA, but there was some hitch with CBS UK who wouldn’t release it here, so that was that. We were a British blues band playing in Britain, with an album out in America, where we couldn’t afford to go to promote it. Never mind, we became the backing band for Marty Wilde and learnt a lot about the music business playing live radio, live TV, working men’s clubs, nightclubs, festivals and recording an album with him.
After that year, John and I were approached by Ron Watts in 1970 and we formed a band called Brewers Droop, with Bob Walker on drums and Malcolm Barratt on bass and violin. I was introduced to the accordion, played a Hohner Pianet and harmonica, John was on guitar, Ron assembled a variety of props, musical and otherwise, and we hit the clubs and the festivals. We were a bawdy, Cajun R&B band that was unaware of boundaries.
We had about four years of craziness, backing all sorts of top blues men including The Mighty Flea, Big Boy Arthur Crudup, Mickey Baker… oh, so many I can’t even begin to remember them all. It’s one of those situations where I see a name nowadays and go “I played with him!”, then remember it was Belfast, or Germany or somewhere.
Put it this way, it’s difficult for people who weren’t around at the time to realise how well known and part of the scene Brewers Droop was. At the Great Western Festival in 1973 Brewers Droop was on the same stage as Alexis Korner, Doctor Ross, Buddy Miles, Rory Gallagher, Nazareth, Locomotive GT, Roxy Music, Heads, Hands and Feet, Wishbone Ash, Helen Reddy, The Strawbs, Stone The Crows, Rod Stewart & The Faces, Natural Acoustic Band, Spencer Davis Band, Incredible String Band, Lindisfarne, Average White Band, Persuasions, Slade, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Beach Boys, Jackson Heights, Atomic Rooster, Vinegar Joe (with Elkie Brooks and Robert Plant), Sutherland Brothers, Genesis (with Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel), Status Quo, Don McLean, Humble Pie, Sha Na Na, and Joe Cocker.
It was a four day party and we spent much of it with the other performers in the artists' beer tent!
Apart from the first album ‘Opening Time’ - which was produced by Tom McGuinness, formerly of Manfred Mann, soon to be McGuinness Flint and now in The Blues Band - we recorded a second one at Rockfield Studios towards the end of the band’s life. That got released as ‘The Booze Brothers’ and contained contributions from Dave Edmunds, Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers.
Like every touring band member in the 1970s, the memories I have are quite incredible: standing alone on the top of a snow-capped mountain in the Lake District playing blues clarinet to an echoed chorus across the valley, champagne receptions at RCA in Curzon Street, wild nights playing to celebs at the Marquee and the Speakeasy, gigs at Liverpool’s original Cavern, trips on boats and planes, breakdowns on the autobahn in Germany (I was the only one with a little German), friendships formed with revered American Bluesmen over three times my age, being repatriated in the cargo hold of a plane when things went wrong somewhere, near-the-knuckle radio broadcasts from Pebble Mill, encounters with exotic women, camaraderie with rock legends, a whole evening in a private bar with Muddy Waters and his entire band, and stories so outrageous even people who were there find it difficult to believe them!
Not bad for the boy who was in a wheelchair, the result of Polio at age six, until he was fifteen and heard the harmonica playing of Sonny Boy Williamson. Thank you, Mr Rice Miller.
The climate for a self-financing touring band became too unfavourable for us in 1974. Petrol prices went through the roof and new legislation requiring fire prevention measures caused the demise of the cheap B&Bs we relied on, living on the road and travelling from gig to gig. More money was going out than coming in. So we split. I then went on to spend two years with a Western Swing band called Shucks, playing the same pub rock scene as AC/DC, Brinsley Schwarz, Dire Straits and the like, but also playing social clubs and country and western clubs! We always said that the right music knew no barriers.
I carried on doing session work (overall I have made over 50 albums) and in the 1980s became part of the Roxon Roadshow, a country rock ensemble – at times 12 piece – that had its own recording studio, record label, and regularly backed visiting artists at Wembley. Carrying on playing with different bands I formed The Boogie Band in 1993 and we became a firm favourite at jazz, blues, rock and world music festivals, also playing many stately homes and functions – all with the same act, would you believe!
An accident caused me to give up touring in 2000, so I’m now having fun in Swanage, Dorset, organising weekends celebrating blues and other types of music, and playing when I get a chance. I’ve lost touch with a lot of my musical friends over the years, but welcome contact from anybody interested.
BLUES IN THE SOUTH
- interviewed byIan McKenzie, Editor
What first turned you on to the blues and how old were you?
It was 1965 and I was 15 years old at school in a wheelchair (due to Polio as a child) when I heard a kid playing blues harmonica for the first time. It was like being smacked round the face! Suddenly I knew that I could do it, and I could do it better. He advised me to get Sonny Boy Williamson's single 'Help Me', flipside 'Bye Bye Bird'. I asked my mum for a harp and the single for Christmas and took it from there.
The next 'big experience' was aged 17 at the end-of-term school dance at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where the band was John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, John McVie and Hughie Flint. I shared a bottle of Chianti with Eric and played his Les Paul. For some time afterwards I was motivated by the thought that "if these guys at our school dance can be professional musicians, why can't I?" Not realising exactly whose company I had been in...
Later on I played accordion on a McGuinness-Flint album, supported Fleetwood Mac a few times when I was in 'Brewers Droop', played in a band with Mayall's first guitarist Roger Dean, but have as yet not met up with Eric again.
Of course, I was house pianist and harp player at the legendary Nags Head in High Wycombe during the 1960s and 1970s, so from the age of 16 I was constantly influenced by the many blues legends that played at my local pub. We even had Freddie King and his American band twice in one week!
What instruments do you play?
Keyboards, harp, a little guitar.
What is your preferred instrument, make, type and so on, and why?
Piano for the vast range of music possible, harp for the feel. Any keyboard will do, but I use a Roland piano and Hohner Blues Harps.
Which blues men and women have influenced you most?
Not bragging, but the ones I either met or worked with! Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Lightnin' Slim and Whispering Smith, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Billy Boy Arnold, The Mighty Flea, Jo-Ann Kelly and many more.
Who is your current/contemporary favourite artist?
My CD player is currently stacked with albums by artists I've been introduced to by London agency Small Planet Music: Tim Royce, Pete Saunders' New Originals, Fatjacket, The Barcodes, The Incredible Blues Puppies, Ray Stubbs, Sonny Black and Robin Bibi. I really like what they're doing and - as someone who gets sent loads of albums from artists home and abroad for promotional purposes - I reckon that their playing and the mood they create compares favourably with a lot of the major label albums. The blues has always been about 'Now' and these guys are out there gigging and working, playing live music and giving it life. Check 'em out.
Which musician, now departed, would you most like to have seen and why?
Since I was inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson - he was the one who really got me out of that wheelchair, into bands and a career in music - it must be him. He played at the Town Hall just down the road from where I lived but I was ill that night and never saw him play.
What is your view of the 'state of the blues in the UK'?
Given the huge amount of entertainment available for home consumption nowadays, pretty damn good. There is nothing like real music being played live, and that's where UK blues is at. I can't say for the whole of the country, but down here in Dorset the blues is thriving. There are more blues gigs in Weymouth and Portland, for example, than there are in many cities! Not forgetting the Swanage Blues Festival, admission free - see www.swanage-blues.org
What makes a good audience (eg listeners, dancers, drunks)?
What makes a good audience? Good entertainers! I come from the days when it was the artists' job to capture the audiences' attention and lift their spirits, and was taught by people like Lonnie Donegan and Arthur Crudup.
What is your favourite record/CD in your collection and why?
My favourite LP is a Sonny Boy Williamson studio album with Memphis Slim, Matt Murphy and Billy Stepney on drums (strangely, no bass player). I went to look up the title for you but it's missing, so I've now got withdrawal symptoms pretty big time! If anybody can help me locate a CD copy of this, let me know please. It's absolutely classic, and features great solo work by Sonny Boy, brilliant piano, exquisite guitar and that old 'Windy City' drumming with brushes, that works so well. Totally classic and should be in every blues fan's collection - maybe that's why I can't find mine!
What do you think of Brownie McGhee's comment that "Blues is Truth"?
Whenever any of those old blues men talked, I listened... I learnt a lot that way. And I sure ain't gonna argue with Brownie McGhee!