Perhaps Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil at the crossroads was to blame for all the blues artists, here and in America, who could not escape the hell hounds on their trail.
So many were gone too soon and in tragic circumstances: Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, Mike Bloomfield, Rory Gallagher, Paul Kossoff, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jo Ann Kelly spring to mind.
To that list, all noted for their virtuosity on guitar, we should add Duster Bennett, who died in a car crash in 1976, aged only 29, having apparently fallen asleep at the wheel when driving home from a gig supporting Memphis Slim.
Guitar did feature in Bennett’s armoury – his mate Peter Green, another bluesman dogged by ill fortune, once gifted him a 1952 Les Paul – but he will be warmly remembered as a one-man band by all who caught his live set during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
With a harmonica on a rack, bass drum and hi-hat cymbal which he played with his feet, and Green’s vintage guitar, Bennett had a unique selling point in British blues. This was a time, remember, when the letters page of the Melody Maker brimmed with arguments about which axeman played best, or even the fastest.
Bennett, who was also unusual in eschewing the wild-haired look of his contemporaries, has nine of the 96 tracks, by 15 acts, on an excellent new 4-CD set from Wienerworld, Something Inside Of Me: Unreleased Masters & Demos from the British Blues Years 1963-76.
The compilation takes its title from a heart-rending lament by Elmore James -- which is nailed here by Boilerhouse, featuring Danny Kirwan -- and serves as a brilliantly authentic evocation of the British scene, its atmosphere and origins.
Among the Bennett cuts, the breakneck, harp-driven Worried Mind leapt out at me as a reminder of the excitement he generated live. A version appeared on his debut album, Smiling Like I’m Happy (1968), and the one featured here is described in the accompanying 150-page booklet as being ‘in a condition not really good enough to be released… its inclusion is for its rarity… an early milestone for Duster becoming a Blue Horizon recording artist’.
He played it when I saw him at (I think) the George Hotel in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, half a century ago. The lyric may be limited (the first four lines each consist of the song title repeated plaintively – not unlike, say, I’m Going Home by Ten Years After), while the rest is standard my-baby-left-me fare and the vocal unremarkable.
Yet somehow the skiffle-like simplicity of Worried Mind epitomises the intensity, integrity and spit-and-sawdust spirit of his approach. The words are the antithesis of the cellophane-flowers-of-yellow-and-green imagery psychedelia had fostered, while the instrumentation contrasts sharply with the self-indulgent noodling of the many bands moving towards prog-rock. (Incidentally, some of Bennett’s material was beautifully crafted – check out Jumping At Shadows which Green, Kirwan et al covered memorably.)
The booklet explains that ‘Duster’ was a moniker he concocted with Mike Vernon, founder of his label, Blue Horizon, which brought Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack out of the student unions, pubs, clubs, town halls and ballrooms and into the pop charts half a century ago.
Bennett, born in Mid-Wales, was christened Anthony and was known to friends at the Epsom School of Art as Tony. There was, of course, already a Tony Bennett in the music world. Having rejected City Boy Bennett, he settled on Duster.
With Vernon he made four albums and a clutch of singles, the final 45 being Act Nice And Gentle, a Kinks cover. None achieved a commercial breakthrough – Bennett suffered a chronic lack of airplay – and his last new music was released via an independent.
Some of those with whom he rubs shoulders here will be familiar to anyone who ever shook their teenaged barnet to a raucous 12-bar in a sweaty, smoky room, as we did watching Climax Chicago Blues Band in Longton, Doggo ‘up Anley’ and Milk Train at Keele University.
The biggest name is Kirwan (also hunted down by those hell hounds). Other well-known acts include Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts (picked by Eric Clapton to support Derek & the Dominoes on a 1970 tour); Dave Kelly (later of The Blues Band); and Dynaflow Blues (who looked set to make it when John Mayall championed them only to fall out with one another).
Then there’s Bob Hall (piano blues and boogie woogie exponent who later joined The Groundhogs and Savoy Brown); Simon Prager & Steve Rye (whose metier was country blues à la Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee); Dave Peabody (from the jug-band wing of the blues); Al Jones (folk-blues singer/guitarist); DJ Blues Band (echoes of Zoot Money and Graham Bond with organ, bass, sax and trombone); Graham Hine (aka Brett Marvin); Jeff Curtis & The Flames (R&B sextet); and Shakey Vick’s Big City Blues Band (Chicago-style blues-rock outfit which launched members of Savoy Brown and Foghat).
Finally, and most enjoyably for me along with the rediscovery of Duster Bennett, there’s The Nighthawks, a quartet also devoted to the Windy City’s electric blues. They contribute 17 numbers – many from an unreleased album produced by much-respected Peter Eden – with their own songs alongside homages to Elmore James, Willie Dixon and JB Lenoir.
Drummer Mel Wright writes in the booklet about The Nighthawks backing touring American artists at the 100 Club in London. Playing with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Cruddup they joked that doing That’s Alright Mama and My Baby Left Me was ‘the nearest we’ll ever get to Elvis’.
But he adds poignantly: ‘It was a shame Arthur was poor, wearing a threadbare suit, and had not received any royalties from the massive hits Presley had with his songs.’
The tale is an important reminder that the blueprint for the British boom, chronicled so lovingly in this boxset, was black American music. Of course white men could sing the blues (another Melody Maker postbag theme), but the progenitors deserved better in terms of kudos and cash than they received.