The British Invasion of the early-to-mid-‘60s – and therefore rock ‘n’ roll as we know it – would not have been possible without Alexis Korner. The man known as the “Founder of British Blues” died of lung cancer on Jan. 1, 1984.
Born in Paris in 1928, Korner’s family moved to London in 1940 and became turned on to the blues shortly thereafter. He started playing piano and guitar, eventually meeting harmonica player Cyril Davies. The duo opened up the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club in the mid-50s, where they booked American bluesmen, and cut a few sides together.
In 1961, they formed Blues Incorporated, which wasn’t so much a group as Korner and Davies backed by an ever-rotating cast of similarly minded musicians from London’s growing blues scene. After establishing themselves at Soho’s Marquee Club, they began a weekly “Rhythm & Blues Night” at the Ealing Jazz Club on March 17, 1962.
“It was where the whole blues network could go,” Keith Richards wrote in his autobiography Life. “People who read the ad came down from Manchester and Scotland just to meet the faithful and hear Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which also had the young Charlie Watts on drums and sometimes Ian Stewart on piano. That’s where I fell in love with the men! .. It’s where we all met to swap ideas and seal records and hang.”
Three weeks into the residency, on April 7, Richards and Mick Jagger – who had already formed a partnership – walked into find someone called Elmo Lewis playing Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” After talking to Lewis, they discovered that his real name was Brian Jones. The foundation of the Rolling Stones had been laid. Other bands formed as a result of those nights at the Ealing Club because of Korner include the Yardbirds, the Small Faces, Cream, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin.
As so many of the players he mentored went on to greater success, his profile increased, leading to work writing about the blues and as a media personality when Blues Incorporated broke up. Throughout the ‘70s until his death, he continued to work both as a broadcaster and musician, often in supergroups with his old friends looking to jam on some blues standards.
Richards added that Korner wasn’t “a great player himself, but a generous man and a real promoter of talent. Also something of an intellectual in the musical world. … He knew his stuff backwards; he knew every player who was worth his salt.”
Music broadcaster, “whispering” Bob Harris, looks back at the life story of Alexis Korner