BBC Sessions –
The recordings made by British blues and rock performers for the broadcast on various BBC outlets in the mid-to-late sixties are almost an alternate history of the bands and the era.
Most of the songs were recorded live, straight through, although some sessions allowed for limited overdubbing. All the sessions however came with certain restraints in terms of the volume that the musicians could play at, and the length that the numbers could run, restraints that had long been thrown off in the studio and in concert.
These restraints, and the fact that the shows were considered “one-offs”, similar to a live performance heard at a club or concert; living on only in the memories of those who heard the original broadcast, encouraged them to experiment with arrangements and to choose songs that they normally wouldn’t perform or record for release, provide a different perspective on their tastes and influences.
Depending on the popularity of the artists, some or all of the songs from a session may have been provided to the BBC’s Overseas Transcription Service and sold to overseas broadcasters licensed to broadcast the material for a designated time, usually two to three years, after which the discs were supposed be destroyed.
Thankfully, many of those broadcasters ignored the last part.
During Eric Clapton’s eleven-month tenure as a Bluesbreaker, Mayall taped five sessions for BBC radio; two of them without Clapton, as he was AWOL in Greece at the time*.
Clapton’s “permanent” replacement in the Bluesbreakers, Peter Green, also had an eleven-month run, from July 1966 to June of 1967, but Mayall only booked two sessions (one of which was only first documented in 2007) for the BBC during that time.
Green’s first BBC performance as a Bluesbreaker was on January 23, 1967. The “official” record, the Programme Logs from the BBC Archives, list five songs as having been recorded that day: ‘Leaping Christine’, ‘Sitting in the Rain’, ‘Curly’, ‘Ridin’ on the L & N’ and ‘Dust My Blues’.
As one of, if not the first, R.J. Greaves’ sessionography in Martin Celmins’ Peter Green biography remains the primary source for those that followed, also listed five songs, but replaced ‘Leaping Christine’ with ‘Top of the Hill’.
In his indispensable “Strange Brew Eric Clapton & the British Blues Boom 1965 – 1970”, Christopher Hjort lists all six songs and then goes on to say that four of them, the exceptions being ‘Dust My Blues’ and ‘Top of the Hill’, were given to the BBC Overseas Transcription Service for duplication.
The majority of the “officially” released BBC performances, as well as those on bootleg, come to us from those Overseas Transcription Service discs, the original tapes having been reused or discarded over the years.
That would explain the wider availability of four of the songs.
In the Greaves sessionography, the label names and matrix numbers of the records the songs were first released on appear in parentheses after the song titles. The entry for this session though is unique in that while showing that ‘Sitting in the Rain’ and ‘Ridin’ on the L & N’ first appeared on an Invasion Unlimited collection, the other three titles bear the designation “on bootleg”.
No other performances listed in the sessionography bear this distinction, seeming to distinguish these three tracks from all of the other listings.
My understanding is that for Greaves, a “bootleg” recording was one traded amongst collectors but not “commercially” available. Those that appeared on labels such as Koine, Moby Dick and Early Years, labels who had no legal right to reproduce and profit from their sale, were nonetheless treated as “official” releases.
Peter Green fans should be allowed a pass if they were not aware of the original release of ‘Sitting in the Rain’ and ‘Ridin’ on the L & N’ in 1993 as they were included on a Cream bootleg ( ! ), “Steppin’ Out – Radio Sessions 1966 – 68” as “bonus tracks” (yeah, makes no sense to me either)
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers
John Mayall: vocal, harmonica, piano & 9-string guitar /
Peter Green: lead guitar, backing vocal / John McVie: bass / Aynsley Dunbar: drums
BBC session, “Saturday Club”
Recorded January 23, 1967 – Playhouse Theatre, London — broadcast January 28, 1967
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Sitting in the Rain – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzwf_GjSr7o
The A-side of a single released ten days before this taping, while they wouldn’t play this live at a show, it seems custom made for a BBC broadcast.
They remain faithful to the original recording with the exception of Aynsley Dunbar who steps out front with showboating paradiddles and turnarounds. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it pushes Mayall to sing with greater volume to compete with the fancy stick work; Mayall’s voice was a wounded whisper on the studio recording, illustrative of the lovelorn figure standing steadfast in the rain; the listener’s attention is now pulled away from the lyrics and focused instead to the rhythmic interplay of the instruments and Mayall’s voice.
Note how he rides the new rhythm patterns that Dunbar taps out during the last verse.
Green too displays an instinctive adaptability, anchoring the number with his guitar and following Mayall’s lead, never giving in to the impulse to over emphasize his part to compete with Dunbar, which could have turned the number into skiffle.
A number from the also recently released EP that Mayall and his Bluesbreakers did with Paul Butterfield, one might expect Mayall to take Butterfield’s place on harmonica, handing off the guitar duties to Green.
Instead, Mayall takes the opportunity to turn the piece into a showcase for his 5-string guitar (heard on ‘Dust My Blues’ on “A Hard Road”)
Dunbar and McVie have picked up the tempo and the reverberating shimmer of Mayall’s guitar adds to the sense of exhilaration. Green joins Mayall vocally on the choruses and his somewhat shaky timing adds to the sense that maybe this train is taking the turns at an unsafe speed.
Mayall careens through the break and doubles down after the last verse, leaving just enough room for Green to get in a few last bars before they all bring the number to a finish.
Those two performances, along with ‘Leaping Christine’ (the third track Hjort mentions as having been sent to the BBC Overseas Transcription Service, next appeared on the bootleg, “John Mayall The First Five Years” on Pontiac Records in 2000.
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – Leaping Christine – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXa7TnkwxcA
The studio original ran a quick 2:22 – Mayall shaves thirty seconds off that here, turning and idea for a song into an afterthought.
The sound quality is also not as sharp on this track as on the other two. Green could barely be heard on the original recording and he is dropped further back in the mix beneath McVie’s bass here.
Mayall’s harmonica work was also more expressive on the studio recording and these was a nice little organ break. Here, we get literally a few seconds of overdubbed piano before the one-minute mark, and that’s it.
Too short to satisfy.
The “John Mayall The First Five Years” compilation was also the first (to my knowledge) to have the recording of ‘Curly’ from the January 23, 1967 session.
There is also a second BBC performance of ‘Curly’ in circulation and we’ll take a look at both of those, the remaining titles from this broadcast and the information that we have concerning the session that the second performance of ‘Curly’ came from in a future blog post.
*Geoff Krivit was the guitarist on the October 25, 1965 session for “Saturday Club”; Jack Bruce was on bass and Hughie Flint on drums. The band also recorded a set for “Ready-Steady-Radio” for broadcast on Radio Luxembourg the following day, but no information survives as to what songs were performed.