Author’s Note: the longed-for compilation of Duffy’s Parlophone singles mentioned at the end of this piece did indeed (shortly after) come to pass, in the form of the stunning 2CD set Leapers & Sleepers on RPM (the singles plus many previously unreleased gems from the Parlophone era). It was followed by a second 2CD set Vampers & Champers, for which I provided the sleevenote, containing an expanded version of the Innovations material along with further ‘60s and early ‘70s gems. The album of new Duffy Power recordings which I’d flagged in this piece as imminent was, alas, not to be at that time. Happily, at the time of this bit of writing (and let’s hope I’m not jinxing it yet again) – in September 2011 – that very album, entitled True, is due before year’s end on Market Square Records. Fingers crossed…
The remarkable retrieval of the Duffy Power BBC sessions
Published: Record Collector, circa 2004
When Duffy Power sang ‘any bootlegger sure is as pal of mine’ on ‘Gin House Blues’ for, of all things, a BBC Radio 3 documentary in July 1968, he could have had no idea how true those words would become. Thirty-three years on and that unique reading of an old prohibition era blues becomes a doff of the cap to the disparate coterie of Power fans who have single-handedly made possible this month’s release, on Hux Records, of the stunning Sky Blues: Rare Radio Sessions.
Long regarded by critics and cognoscenti as one of the most compelling British singers and songwriters of his generation, and as a recording artist whose career – perpetually blighted with bad luck – never remotely equalled his talents, one could be forgiven for believing the Duffy Power story had long reached its conclusion. In a nutshell, his time at the coalface of rock’n’roll, pop, folk, blues and progressive rock – and in truth no single genre is wide enough to pigeonhole the man’s music – spanned the late fifties to the mid-seventies, after which time he seemed to fade entirely from view. During that time Duffy had served his apprenticeship with a series of pop singles on Fontana, subsequently fronted the Graham Bond Organisation on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ (only the second ever cover of a Lennon/McCartney track, and a radical one at that), fronted Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated for a few months months including the 1964 Sky High album for Spot, and recorded a string of increasingly striking, if unsuccessful, solo singles for Parlophone ending in 1967.
During the Parlophone era he had also been recording a remarkable series of R&B/jazz fusion tracks, ostensibly as publishing demos, with a pool of great musicians – Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Danny Thompson, Terry Cox and John McLaughlin among them. A bona fide group with Thompson, Cox and McLaughlin, called Duffy’s Nucleus, tragically sundered through Duffy’s momentary health problems after a couple of gigs and one single on Decca. Some of the unreleased ‘supergroup’ tracks, however, were collected together as Innovations on Transatlantic in 1971, Duffy’s first album and since reissued several times. (A 1971 album, recorded with Argent as backing group, was never released, though some tracks belatedly appeared on the 1995 RPM compilation Just Stay Blue). Another album of sorts, Duffy Power, comprising 1969 acoustic demos, slipped out on Spark Records in 1973 (reissued on CD as Blues Power on See For Miles in 1992). That same year, confusingly, his first album proper, also titled Duffy Power, came out on GSF. By 1974, as he explained to John Reed in a previous issue of Record Collector, Duffy was ‘screwed up and penniless’ and determinedly retreated from the music scene.
But, involved as that career precis may seem already, it’s not the whole story. Duffy had been a frequent session guest on BBC radio from the days of Saturday Club through to John Peel’s Sounds Of The Seventies. When he finally surfaced again on the music scene in the mid-eighties it was largely under the patronage of GLR presenter Mary Costello, for whom he would record around a dozen sessions plus a further two in the nineties for Paul Jones Radio 2 blues show. To date, though, the only commercial release from Duffy post-seventies was his amazing contribution to the Bert Jansch tribute album People On The Highway (Market Square, 2000), which I helped organise. That connection led to my involvement in helping Duffy out on a few tracks destined for a wholly new Duffy Power album, which should hopefully appear this year. I also suggested to Duffy that we might be able to pull together a BBC sessions album. Easier said than done. Neither the BBC Radio 1 tape archive nor the BBC transcription service had retained any Duffy Power recordings whatsoever. A widening of the net towards BBC TV, Granada TV, the BFI, the ABC TV archive and the National Sound Archive proved equally disappointing. Dave Shannon, producer of Paul Jones’ show, did have one session master tape, a well-recorded if not especially inspired full band performance from 1998. What hope did we have left for a whole album? As it turned out, more than we dared imagine.
Geoff Wall, co-author of the recent Ashley Hutchings biography and a known archivist of off-air folk sessions, turned out to have not only had a superb copy of the 1994 live-on-air broadcast that Duffy had made with legendary sax man Dick Heckstall-Smith on Jones’ programme, but also Duffy’s previous session swansong for the corporation: a blistering full-band, prog-rock workout for John Peel back in September 1973, featuring guitar hero Graham Quinton-Jones. Things were looking up, and Duffy himself was delighted. This was a band that had been recording a destined to be unfinished follow-up to his first album proper, on GSF earlier that year. One of the four Peel tracks, ‘Little Soldiers’, had appeared as a single b-side in March ‘73 while ‘Love Is Gonna Go’ was a radical revamp of an undeservedly obscure 1965 American-only single. The two other tracks from the session, the swaggering ‘Dusty Road’ – surely one of the great lost gems of the prog era – and the desperately beautiful ‘Glad That You’re Not Me’, had in fact just been recorded prior to the Peel opportunity for what would become the GSF ‘lost album. (The GSF take of ‘Dusty Road’ did, however, sneak out as one of two previously unissued tracks on a 1976 Buk records reissue of the Duffy Power album, entitled Powerhouse.) But, to all intents and purposes, here were a bunch of essentially new vintage Duffy Power tracks. Would there be more? Indeed there would.
Warming to the thrill of the chase, and the prospect that if one session survived from those days there may yet be more, Duffy himself was daring to hope that somebody might have taped and kept copies of what he felt were perhaps his best performances for the BBC: three 1971 sessions for Mike Raven’s R&B programme (two more, incidentally, than are listed in Ken Garner’s monumental yet not entirely definitive book In Session Tonight: The Complete Radio 1 Recordings, BBC Books, 1993). Tantalisingly, Duffy recalled that Raven’s producer, the late Malcolm Brown, had certainly cut discreet acetates of Duffy’s recordings for the show, for his own enjoyment, but could these be tracked down? Sadly not, although contact was made with Raven’s widow Mandy. Alas, her cupboards were bare. Nevertheless, suspecting, given the close-knit nature of British blues buffs then and now and the scarcity of specialist programmes in those days, that there was a reasonable possibility that Raven’s shows were routinely taped off-air by blues fans and, if so, that those individuals may yet be traceable, we put the word out amongst blues writers. David Harrison came up trumps: his internet blues newsgroup revealed a radio enthusiast in Bristol, Dave Moore, who had one solo guitar/vocal track from the ’71 Raven sessions but more remarkably two full band performances, of ‘Gin House Blues’ and an otherwise unknown Duffy original, ‘Say Goodbye To Loneliness’, from a long-forgotten Radio 3 documentary on the story of the blues presented by Alexis Korner titled The Blues Roll On.
Featuring apparently exclusive performances from many of the great names of British blues in the sixties – Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Long John Baldry, Chris Farlowe, Jo Ann Kelly and others – it would be wonderful to believe that this extraordinary and little-documented two-hour sonic time capsule could yet be made available commercially. At the very least, Duffy’s sterling performance of ‘Gin House Blues’ – with a one-off version of Blues Incorporated featuring Alexis Korner, Danny Thompson, Terry Cox and an unremembered pianist – is appearing on Sky Blues (Duffy not being entirely comfortable with the second, work-in-progress track).
A number of people in the research loop had mentioned Mark Troster, a secretive former associate of the Korner family, known to have a stash of BBC session master tapes, of seemingly contested provenance, including Duffy Power material. Contact was made and it transpired that Troster possessed two sessions: an entirely solo one for Mike Raven in August 1970 (although, intriguingly, as Ken Garner’s research attests, this would have been commissioned and first aired by Alexis Korner’s World Service show) and, surely the holy grail of Power-iana, a previously undreamed-of January 1967 session, presumably also for Korner’s show, by Duffy’s Nucleus – the legendary and short-lived quartet of Power, Thompson, Cox and McLaughlin. Alas, in a nutshell, the Troster negotiations could not be concluded. The grail must remain, for the moment, elusive.
But there were two more surprises to come. Out of the blue came a letter from one Martin Peel in North Wales, enquiring about my book on Bert Jansch. Martin’s letter mentioned, in passing, his own small role in Britain’s sixties folk and blues scene as a promoter, listing a few names including… Duffy Power. Did he, by any chance, have any Duffy Power radio sessions up his sleeve? Of course he did. This time it was the complete five song September ’71 Raven session, including three tracks with pianist/organist Mike Hall – allowing Duffy to feature harmonica – and a fabulous guitar/vocal re-interpretation of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Better still, Mike Hall, a friend of Peel’s, still had his original off-air reel – duly delivered to Hux Records. The album was already looking good but the cake icing was about to arrive, in the form of an enigmatic note from a preferring-to-remain-anonymous benefactor, whom we’ll call ‘Bob’. Bob – who had got in touch after seeing an appeal we’d made via the news pages of Blueprint magazine – had access to four of the five songs recorded for the Korner/Raven August 1970 broadcast, including an otherwise unrecorded, and typically adventurous, cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’, a blistering solo crack at his then current single ‘Hellhound’ and two captivating originals, ‘Halfway’ and ‘Swansong’. Short of advertising on Gardener’s Question Time, to see if anyone had further Power sessions buried in their back garden – and by this stage even pots of gold at the end of rainbows were entering the realms of possibility – the album was surely now as complete as it was going to be. So complete, indeed, that Duffy felt we could now ignore the entire 1998 Paul Jones material.
So, does this near-miraculous collection add to our knowledge and appreciation of Duffy Power? Well, in purely factual terms it adds two entirely new Power originals, ‘Sky Blues’ (a left-over from the ’64 Spot album) and ‘Halfway Blues’, several otherwise unreleased covers, several musical partnerships not otherwise represented on record and several radically different versions of those Power recordings that are available elsewhere. In terms of performance, every time Duffy opened his mouth to sing or to play harmonica in those days, magic happened. If anything, his atmospheric, unique approach to the guitar is the real revelation here – a revelation that will be only be enhanced when his forthcoming new album is heard. For the moment, we must be profoundly grateful to those presenters who opened the doors of Broadcasting House to Duffy over the years and to those listeners who kept the faith and, more remarkably, kept the tapes. All we need now is a compilation of those Parlophone singles.