Friday, February 6, 2009

Alex Harvey - Roman Wall Blues

Alex Harvey was born February 5, 1935, in Glasgow, growing up in the hardscrabble projects of that industrial Scottish city.After leaving school at 15, as the story goes, he tackled as many as 36 different professions, including lion tamer, before turning to music. In 1954, Alex Harvey made his professional debut playing trumpet at a Glaswegian wedding celebration. HarveyFamily.gif

boyalex.gifIn the early '50s in Great Britain there was a resurgence of '20s-style jazz, soon to be eclipsed by the imports of rural southern American music. By 1955, Alex had played with a number of different Dixieland and jazz ensembles, particularly honing his musical skills in two bands with saxophonist Bill Patrick. (The Clyde River Jazz Band played "trad" jazz, while the Kansas City Skiffle Group banged out the country/folk-flavored "youth music" of the time.) By 1956, when Memphis trucker skiffle.gif Elvis Presley's interpretation of "race music" had become firmly entrenched in British culture, Harvey had won a newspaper competition as Scotland's answer to British teen idol Tommy Steele. He covered Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmie Rodgers tunes until the skiffle craze petered out; then, transformed into the Kansas City Counts, Alex Harvey's band played pop covers.

skiffle.gifBy 1959 Harvey was fronting the Alex Harvey Soul Band, also known as Alex Harvey's Big Soul Band. With this incarnation Harvey gained regional fame, playing regular gigs in Edinburgh as well as Glasgow. The Big Soul Band also backed such American stars as Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and John Lee Hooker on their local tours. Like many other British blues-based groups of the time, Harvey's local popularity led to a contract at the famous Top Ten Club in Hamburg, Germany. Residency there garnered the band a recording contract with Polydor Records and the release of Alex Harvey and His Soul Band, a live album, in March, 1964. (Interestingly enough, the Soul Band was replaced on the German recording by Liverpudlian rockers "Kingsize" Taylor & the Dominos). Several singles culled from those sessions, including covers of Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love To You" and Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Workin'", were released in both Britain & the US.

soulband.gifAfter returning to Britain, Harvey retained his modestly successful position in the burgeoning rock and blues club scene, although failing to gain the bigger breaks of such contemporaries as the Yardbirds or the Bluesbreakers. In 1965 he'd teamed up with his brother Les to record The Blues, fulfilling his obligations to Polydor.

alex1.gifThe Blues was a spartan effort, just the Harvey brothers with sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment. A commercial failure, the album consisted of such varied (but un-Soul Band-like) numbers as "Strange Fruit" and the Aussie novelty tune "Waltzing Matilda". Alex released another Polydor single under the "Soul Band" moniker, "Ain't That Just Too Bad", then disolved the band, now declaring himself a folksinger.

Harvey's folkie career was shortlived, however, as evidenced by his next single release -- a rollicking cover of Edwin Starr's "Agent Double-O Soul". (The B side, "Go Away Baby" would gain recognition with its inclusion on the compilation disc British Blue-Eyed Soul, released in 1968.) Another single, "The Work Song" was released during this time, but basically a disillusioned Alex Harvey considered giving up the music business (perhaps for another stab at lion taming).

sadalex.gifReturning to Glasgow in 1966, the Harvey brothers teamed with local musicians (including Alex's crony Bill Patrick and singer Isobel Bond) to form the short-lived Blues Council, an attempt at cashing in on the Big Soul Band's (and therefore, Alex's) R&B reputation.Alex2.gif After that group disintegrated, Alex briefly fell in with the psychedelic band Giant Moth, a gig that landed him a solo deal with Decca Records. (Neither of the Decca singles, "Sunday Song" or "Maybe Someday", both backed by Giant Moth bandmates, made any real chart progress.) By 1967, Alex had found steadier work in the backup band for the London production of Hair.

sahb.gifHis next solo release, Roman Wall Blues (1969), was a heavy-handed "concept" album. Despite backing by brother Les & the jazz-tinged group Rock Workshop, Roman Wall Blues failed to gain Alex the recognition he sought. With his career rapidly declining, Harvey lucked into a fortuitous discovery -- Glasgow prog rockers Tear Gas, fronted by guitarist Zal Cleminson and featuring Hugh and Ted McKenna with bassist Chris Glen. Together, they morphed into the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in 1972. That same year, Alex's brother Les, now guitarist with vocalist Maggie Bell's Stone the Crows, was freakishly electrocuted onstage at a gig in Swansea, Wales.

sahb.gifLeslie's death prompted Harvey to work his new band hard on the college/club circuit, where they developed the theatrical rock style that fueled the band's cult status. A pair of U.K. hit singles, 1975's Delilah (a quirky remake of Tom Jones' 1968 hit) and 1976's Boston Tea Party,helped propel the Sensational Alex Harvey Band into one of the most sought-after international headline acts.

Recurring back problems exacerbated by his physically demanding stage antics forced Harvey to announce, in October 1977, imagehis retirement from full-time rock 'n' roll.Following a rare European tour, Harvey was stricken in Zeebrugge, Belgium, with a fatal heart attack. Rock lost one of its most enigmatic and original proponents on February 4, 1982, the day before Alex Harvey would have turned 47.


Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a vetran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W.H. Auden

1. "Midnight Moses" (Harvey)
2. "Hello L.A. Bye Bye Birmingham"
3. "Broken Hearted Fairytale"
4. "Donna" (Rado/Ragni/MacDermot)
5. "Roman Wall Blues" (W. H. Auden/Harvey)
6. "Jumping Jack Flash" (Jagger/Richards)
7. "Hammer Song" (Harvey)
8. "Let My Bluebird Sing"
9. "Maxine"
10. "Down At Bart's Place"
11. "Candy"


* Alex Harvey - Guitar
* Leslie Harvey - Guitar
* Mickey Keene - Guitar
* Bud Parks - Trumpet
* Derek Watkins - Trumpet
* Derek Wadsworth - Trombone, brass arrangements
* Frank Ricotti - Alto sax, percussion, brass arrangements
* Ashton Tootle - Baritone sax, flute
* Laurie Baker - Bass guitar, electronics
* Maurice Cockerill - Keyboard
* Pete Wolfe - Drums
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