WIZZ JONES’s extraordinary career would, and hopefully one day will, fill a couple of fat autobiographical tomes. 1994 sees him as irrepressible as ever, and, at the grand age of 54, celebrating (rather belatedly) the release of his first full collaboration with son, Simeon, on ‘Late Nights and Long Days’ (Fellside FE CD 91). When Colin Hill pressed a copy of Wizz’s ‘Live In Dublin’ cassette into my sweaty palm last summer, little did he imagine that it would set me on a voyage of rediscovery. To be honest, I hadn’t given Mr Jones much thought since the halcyon days of 1970/71....
But I could be forgiven for such a lapse. Wizz found work on the Continent especially Germany in the late 70s and early 80s far more lucrative than the UK, until finally he was forced to give it all up for a while to sell furniture in his home town of Croydon. Thank God the yuppie revolution fell apart and Wizz decided to pick up his box again! Anyone who caught Jan Lehman’s remarkable documentary ‘Acoustic Routes’ (soundtrack album featuring Wizz, Jansch, Anne Briggs, Brownie McGee etc now available on Demon Records [CD FIEND733]) on Easter Monday ’93 will know that Wizz was the original bohemian folkie but like all time pioneers, he got lost in the stampede. Fortunately he’s not been forgotten and the man the likes of Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton have both described as an early key influence, is back in the fray plying his passionate acoustic country blues, waiting for the likes of us and a whole new generation to rediscover him.
Years before he even made a record, Wizz (and I still don’t know why or how he got his nickname) had already earned a certain notoriety. By the end of the 50s Wizz was the barefoot, longhair beat that not even the seedy jazz clubs and cafes of Soho could contain. Fired by the musical vision of Woody Guthrie and undoubtedly part of that generation who grew up first-hand on Kerouac & Co, Wizz was constantly on the road. Brighton beach was only the first stop! In 1960 he made an appearance on the Tonight programme on BBC tv where he was interviewed by Alan Whicker about his unconventional lifestyle and why the citizens of Newquay, Cornwall wanted him and his fellow beatniks run out of town. (Years later he’d joke that Whicker was far hipper than he appeared and shamed his interviewees with an encyclopedic knowledge of Kerouac’s works!) But the old boho routes took him over the Channel and far away. That same year he set off for Italy but found his feet and a living on the South Bank of Paris with the likes of Clive Palmer, Mick Softley and Alex Campbell; as he observes:
“Many of the British folk scene’s top performers did
their apprenticeship in France. One would hitch to Paris and see how far
you could get from there.”
In the early 60s Wizz cut such a dash in the burgeoning British folk scene that he caught the imagination of a whole generation of young guitar pickers who would go on to bigger and better things: Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch and Roy Harper spring immediately to mind. Never a careerist, Wizz took his time to make his recorded debut - in the company of longtime pal and collaborator, banjo-player Pete Stanley. In 1965 Columbia put out ‘Sixteen Tons of Blue Grass’ (Columbia SX 6083) - a curiously unrepresentative album brimming with tunes from the Appalachians rather than from the Mississippi Delta - not even a 45, ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ captured the essence of Wizz’s hard-travelling, hard-hitting guitar playing and it was four years before another album appeared, the eponymous ‘Wizz Jones’ (UA 64809) which came about through the friendship of ex-Blackpuddlian Harper who happened to be on the same label. Not that Wizz had been idle - tapes exist of an aborted record made with Clive Palmer, complete with full orchestra for Donovan’s producer Pete Eden. The UA era was also notable for a weird collusion with the wondrous FORMERLY FAT HARRY. In September 1969, under the supervision of Pierre Tubbs, Wizz cut a great cash-in tune ‘Easy Rider’ (inspired by one of the best road movies of all time) for a possible single. This is a fabulous period piece, a rockin’12-bar with some sarcastic Jones lyrics and sterling support from Phil Greenberger on guitar, Bruce Barthol on bass, Gary Peterson on big Hammond organ and drummer Alan Marshall (later to be in Soft Machine) all of whom had trouble keeping up with Wizz’s unusual sense of time-keeping!
Albums for CBS (produced by John Renbourne) and Village Thing followed. By the early mid-70s despite some high profile gigging, a slot on Pentangle’s farewell tour and support on some John Martyn dates (with Paul Kossoff), Wizz’s future seem to lay firmly in Germany. It was there that the great Lazy Farmer line-up came together which united Wizz with wife Sandy on banjo, Jake Walton (dulcimer, gtr), Don Cogin (banjo) and ex-COB member, John Bidwell on flute. Their one self-titled record (Songbird G062-31 130) is perhaps Wizz’s most consistently pleasing album to date and bears your investigation. Selections crop up on ‘The Village Thing Tapes’ [Wunder Tute CD TUT 72.157] which also features material recorded in 1976 by Conny Plank better known for his work with Can! Particularly worthy are the self-penned ‘The Man With The Banjo’ and the ignored Jones classic ‘When I Leave Berlin’, ‘City of Angels’ by Alan Tunbridge whose songwriting relationship with Wizz has endured from the early 60s to the present, and an armchair boogie rendition of the John/Taupin ‘Country Comforts’ that really hammers home the tongue-in-cheek lyrics).
That lay-off in the mid-80s may have been crucial! Wizz’s music in the 90s is as soulful and fresh as ever. The ‘Live In Dublin’ cassette is as great as introduction to this lonesome picker as anything currently available. Whilst it shows that Wizz is still content to interpret, rather than write, his own songs, his guitar playing is alive - driving, pounding, flat picking. The scope of the material is quite breathtaking in its diversity - Dan Hicks, J J Cale, Robin Williamson, Dylan with the awards going to the haunting take on McTell’s (Ralph rather than Blind Willie) ‘Bentley and Craig’ (still so fucking relevant!) and the melancholic beauty of Steve Tilston’s ‘Sometimes In This Life Are Beautiful’... oh, and my money’s on Ewan McColl’s paen to travelling folk ‘Moving On Song’ which, live, gets downright and righteously angry.
The aforementioned lp with Simeon Jones (more at home playing with the likes of Geno Washington and Take That!) was originally recorded for the Run River label but company politics delayed its release for a couple of years and its now readily available on Fellside. There are some old Wizz chestnuts (‘Nathaniel’, for instance, which Simeon’s tenor sax renders into a late night jazzy groove reminiscent of ‘Bryter Later’), whilst one of Jones’s favourite songwriters, Jesse Winchester, provides the bleak opening track, ‘Black Dog’ which elderly Terrascope readers might remember as the stand-out number on Babe Ruth’s 1972 Harvest debut. ‘Night Ferry’ is quintessential Wizz, another old song which conveys the essential heartache of travelling and return with some exquisite frills from John Renbourne. As Time Out recently put it, the whole album is ‘a bit of a treat’, so grab any opportunity to see this duo in action.
Be it the Forge in Denmark Street, Clive Palmer’s local in Newlin (tent pitched on the beach!) or an all-day blues festival in Tunbridge Wells, Wizz and his art are still very much with us - and thank the stars they are! Whenever I think of him, I can’t help but bastardize the title of that old 60s tv western series – “have guitar, will travel.” It somehow seems to sum him all up.
Nigel Cross © Ptolemaic Terrascope (issue 16, 1994)
Interview with Wizz Jones in at the Lagerhalle, Osnabrück, 23. 03. 1999
(© Ptolemaic Terrascope issue 28, 2000)
PT: How did you start to make music?
WJ: By accident. I was a jazz fan, a New Orleans traditional jazz fan in London. And what happened in the late Fifties, there was the beginning of a kind of a movement, called Skiffle music, which was based on black American music, made amateurishly, with washboards and kazoos and stuff, and it became fashionable in London after some people started to play in the intervals of the jazz clubs. This led to Lonnie Donnegan getting some hit records in the Fifties, which meant that us young kids wondered where all of this muisic came from and investigated it and discovered ist roots. And when people like Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee would come over to England, there was nowhere to play other than in Jazz clubs in the interval. So I became interested in that music that way, and I just played the guitar for fun, because I wanted to play that music. I left school early and didn’t have any profession, so I just drifted into busking on the streets. That’s how I began.
PT: Was there any instrument you picked up before the guitar?
WJ: I started on the five-string-banjo, because I saw Jack Elliott and Derroll Adams. I got a chance to get a banjo, so I started that, and I went on to the guitar afterwards.
PT: Can you still remember the first record you bought yourself, with your own money?
WJ: The first record I bought would have been a 78rpm single, that I bought in my home town. It was an instrumental by John Lee Hooker called ‘Hoogie Boogie’. And I just liked the sound of it. I mean I was into Les Paul and Mary Ford and stuff like that. And Rock’n’Roll, of course, when it happened. But that was probably the first record I bought, in about 1956 or something.
PT And did you play in a skiffle band?
WJ: Yeah, I had my own skiffle group to begin with. And then when I started to busk and leave town and travel, I just played on my own. I sometimes played with other people, but mostly on my own.
PT: I assume that ‘Wizz’ is only your nickname.
WJ: That comes from school days, when I did conjuring card tricks, magic tricks, and people called me ‘Wizzy’. And once you get a nickname you can’t lose it, you know, everybody knows you for that name. My real name is Raymond, but I haven’t used it since I was ten years old.
PT: And then you began to travel and busk.
WJ: Yeah. It was something that people had done before, you heard about other people doing it and think ‘Well, that sounds good’. So you’d get a cheap boat across the channel to France and then hitchhike to Paris. And busk and just travel, that’s what a whole generation of musicians did, really.
PT: And you stayed in Paris with, amongst others, Clive Palmer.
WJ: I spent time with Clive, Mick Softley and all sorts of people. I then hitchhiked to the south and to North Africa, the same as everybody else, we all did the same thing. People are still doing it now, it’s a standard procedure, to get out there and play on the streets. So that’s what I did.
PT: In those times you were very much influenced by the writings of the Beat Generation, I guess...
WJ: It was romantic. You read Jack Kerouac and thought ‘Yeah, that’s great, I wanna do that’. And possibly for all the wrong reasons. I mean I used to think that I was very politically motivated and idealistic and everything, but to be honest, most of the time I was probably just doing it for the fun of it.
PT: But then I guess Kerouac also did it for the fun. And what did you do in Africa?
WJ: I lived in Morocco with my girlfriend for a while, with some friends and we were busking there as well, you know. And then we came back to Paris and then we went back to England, and then there was this folk club-thing beginning, so, just by chance, people began to ask me if I would do a gig in a folk club. And I met my old friend, the banjo-player Pete Stanley, and we were playing bluegrass music then for some time. And then when I finished playing with Pete after four years, I just went back to playing solo again, playing mostly blues and other people’s songs. And maybe one or two of my own. But I’m not a big songwriter. I mean, I write a few songs, but not many.
PT: And these folk clubs you mentioned were mostly in Soho?
WJ: Well, they began, I guess, in Soho. They began in London and in the other big towns: Liverpool, Edinburgh in Scotland, and Bradford and Leeds, that’s where they began, I guess. It became well-known and fashionable amongst young people as an alternative kind of music, each town would get a folk-club. And it grew into a big network of clubs all over the British Isles for about 20 or 30 years. And they’re still there, but nowhere as near as many. It’s a skeleton folk club-circuit now.
PT: Who do you remember sharing the bill with you at those folk clubs?
WJ: Well, from Britain, I guess there were people like Alex Campbell, Gerry Lockran, the traditional singers, Ewan MacColl, and Louis Killen and hundreds of people. Visiting Americans would come over, very few European people would come across, maybe some French musicians... but I don’t remember any German people coming over, not in those days.
PT: Do you have a favourite performer from that era?
WJ: I guess I have to say Davey Graham was the most important musician for most of us, for that time, because he was an innovative guitar player, he was the first man to explore those tunings and adapt the blues style and mix it with a jazz-style, acoustically, and everyone was influenced by Davey, I guess Davey influenced me more that anybody. And then when the younger people came down from Scotland like Bert Jansch, I felt I was a great admirer of him. He wrote a lot of original material himself, his own songs, and took the style of Davey Graham and turned it into something completely new, really. Which of course grew into Pentangle in the end.
PT: You played support on the last Pentangle tour in 1973.
WJ: That’s right. And Clive Palmer was on that tour with his band at that time. I mean Clive had so many different bands, none of them lasted very long. He started the Incredible String Band, and it was Clive’s Incredible String Band and by the time they got to make the record, it was almost without Clive. And he just made it onto the album and then he went off. Yeah, it was with a band he had, I think they were called C.O.B. (Clive’s Own Band) on that tour, on the Pentangle tour.
PT: What do you remember about that tour, because the band was breaking up at that time.
WJ: Yeah, it was. It was the end of the line and it was just a final sort of thing really. Everybody was about to go off their own direction. I think they’d been doing it for so long that it had gotten a bit stale. But Jacqui still works with John Renbourn sometimes, and with Bert, and Danny sometimes works with Bert, so they still come together sometimes. But I mean a band has a life, doesn’t it and the less it changes... some bands can go on forever, like Fairport Convention or the Stones... but on the acoustic scene you do have to kind of change around really. You can’t survive indefinitely.
PT: Let’s go back to the year 1962 (or ‘63). You recorded an album then which never saw the light of day, ‘Music for moonshiners’.
WJ: Yeah, that was for a record-club, one of these record-mailorder-clubs, and that was mainly bluegrass and old-timey music with another guy, a fiddle-player called Dave Wiseman. So that group was actually Stanley, Wiseman and Jones. And the tape was around for a long time and it never ever did get released. But I mean I’m not too worried about that by today’s standards, it wasn’t particularly good. It is just historically interesting, maybe...
PT: Are there any plans to release it some day?
WJ: No, not that I know of. I don’t know who has the tape. However the album I made after that with Pete Stanley, which they called ‘Sixteen Tons Of Bluegrass’, much to my annoyance - and we made a single as well - that is coming out on CD soon plus a lot of bonus tracks, because at that time we did a lot more tracks. It’s going to be released on the same label as the Davey Graham one that came out recently, that album ‘Afterhours’, which was recorded in a student’s bedroom in ‘67 (Roller Coaster Records are reissuing ‘16 Tons’).
PT: When I tried to get some more detailed information about your career, I found there was nowhere I could get a good discography. So your first officially released solo-album was...?
WJ: Ah, the first solo-album. It was the one for United Artists. That was as a result of Roy Harper who was recording for Liberty and United Artists at that time. And he suggested recording Clive Palmer and myself, so they recorded Clive’s band (at that time), which was I think called ‘The Famous Jug Band’ and did my solo-album on UA.
PT: What about your collaboration with the notorious ‘Formerly Fat Harry’ for the same label?
WJ: All we did together was a single. That was my bid for commercial success, because the movie ‘Easy Rider’ was gonna come out, and I had read about it, I knew it was coming out, so I re-wrote some lyrics for the old blues ‘Easy Rider’ to fit the kind of feel of the movie. I went into the studio with Formerly Fat Harry, all of the line-up at the time, and we recorded it. And of course it was never released. It was like a demo really, we never finished it. But that demo, as you know, that guy who writes for the Terrascope, he pressed up some of them on a picture disc, so you can get that now. But it’s pretty dated, although it’s interesting, you know, quite interesting. That was my attempt at doing something commercial. Because it’s all very well, people often say ‘Well, like a lot of your contemporaries you didn’t make it big, you didn’t compromise, you stayed true to your music’, but I have to shatter that image, because I mean if I’d had the opportunity to make a lot of money, I would have done it. It’s just the way it is, you know? I mean I was in the right place at the right time, I was around in the early years when people like Eric Clapton used to come and watch me play when they were just beginning. I mean I had all the opportunities, so I can only blame myself for not doing all the right things, you know, maybe writing a bunch of songs.
PT: But then you’ve always been regarded as the great interpreter of other people’s songs.
WJ: Yeah, I prefer to do that. I mean I do write some songs, but I prefer to select other material and try and give it new life and do it in a different way, ‘cause I think that’s probably where my strength is mostly, in projecting and interpreting, especially in the case of Allen Turnbridge, a friend of mine who wrote songs over the years, but was not a performer. And they’re very good songs, I still do them. I write maybe one song every year or two, and most of the time I am looking for other material.
PT: And was the ‘Lazy Farmer’-LP that you recorded together with your wife a try at recording something more commercial?
WJ: No, that just came out of the fact that when I did the second album for Village Thing, ‘When I Leave Berlin’, I used the beginnings of what became Lazy Farmer to play with on that record. And the German promoter Carsten Linder heard it and said ‘Why don’t you do a whole album in this way?’, ‘cause we were starting to sort of get the group together. So we did the album and then we did a tour to promote the album, and it was an interesting direction, because it was quite traditional in some ways. For our time we were quite sort of good, really, but it was very difficult to keep the band together, personality problems and everything. And after the German tour, we just split and that was the end of it. But that’s another album which I’d love to see out on CD. The company Songbird keep telling me they’re thinking of putting it out, but they haven’t yet. It still sounds OK now. It’s worth listening to if you’re particularly interested in old-timey banjo, because apart from my wife playing banjo, it had Don Cogin playing banjo. He stayed in Germany at the end of the tour and he’s still here now, he lives in Ausgburg, but he doesn’t seem to play anymore, and he plays a very very fine banjo in that kind of style, that clawhammer-old-timey flailing. So, as a student of the banjo and old-timey music, it’s a very good album, there’s a lot of good material on there and some good playing. But it’s quite specialized, really.
PT: And then in the eighties, you stopped making music for a time.
WJ: I never really stopped. I stopped touring, because in the early eighties, I didn’t seem to get anymore work in Germany, the fashions changed, and it was now no longer ‘alternative’ or youth culture to play folk and blues, and punk had arrived and shook everyone up. And I carried on playing in London, around the wine bars with my son playing saxophone and stuff, but I didn’t travel or tour so much. And I did some agency-driving, I’ve been driving a truck for five years, that would have been from 1985 to 1990, I guess. And then in 1990 I just carried on playing fulltime again, started travelling more again, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last nine years. So I never really stopped.
PT: I read that you were selling furniture in Croydon.
WJ: No, that’s not true. I was working for a company that delivered furniture, which was based in the north of England actually, in Preston. But they had a warehouse in London. And it was good, because the guy running the company was pretty liberal and was interested in the fact that I was a musician, and consequently we wound up doing gigs for his various sales meetings and stuff and he said ‘I’ll get you and your son Simeon to play some blues’ and we’ll turn it into a gig. So that was fun, really.
PT: Your son is also a professional musician.
WJ: He was for a long, long time, but he’s not anymore. At the moment he’s working for the BBC in electronics and designing websites, ‘cause he’s got a couple of kids now. But he has played with lots and lots of different bands over the years, R’n’ B-bands. One of the bands he was involved with was a band called ‘Arkatia’ (?), which were involved with Neneh Cherry’s company, and they’re playing a strage kind of jazz-funk sort of music, I don’t know what you call it, and he plays with them sometimes. And we still play together sometimes. He’s on the last CD and when I get around to do more recordings, he’ll be on it. I did a video recently, not really a tuition video, just playing and talking about the music, but you could still learn from it and I plan to do another one , because I’ve been working with John Renbourn a lot, so we’re gonna do one together. And when I get around to recording again, I’ll be doing it with John and my son as well, I expect. It takes time.
PT: I heard your son was playing at one time with ‘Take That’.
WJ: Yeah, he was, when they got famous and needed to travel, their saxophone player didn’t want to travel, so they quickly had to find someone else. And so Simeon joined them and played their first concerts when they had their first hit. But it didn’t last long, I think they got an older sax player after that. He was possibly too good-looking, detracting from the main singers, maybe. He was in a band before called ‘Roman Holiday’ (?), they were very big at one time, very big in Japan and America and England.
PT: And what are you doing at the moment, is this a tour?
WJ: It’s just this special birthday-tour with Werner (Lämmerhirt), it was an idea that somebody came up with, let’s have a big party in Berlin for Werner’s birthday and invite Colin and Wizz over, Colin up from the south and me from England. Because I once played with Werner, we made an album together called ‘Roll On River’ and we worked together before, and so that was just an idea and it grew into a tour, sort of a twelve, thirteen day-tour of us playing together, and then we heard Klaus Weiland was coming back from the States to Germany for a bit, so it was great he could come on the tour as well, it’s a good mixture, it’s good fun. I haven’t been to Germany much for a long long time, and it’s different now, ‘cause... times have changed.
PT: Did you ever live in Germany?
WJ: No, I never lived here, but I worked here a lot, in the seventies I came over two or three times a year and worked here a lot.
PT: And what’s your most recent release?
WJ: Well, that would be the American CD, the one called ‘Dazzling Stranger’, which is on an American label called Scenescof, so it’s not that easy to get. I mean you can get it in England from the distributors of specialists’ labels, but the easiest way to get it is off the Internet. That’s the latest thing. There’s nothing newer that that, I just haven’t got around to doing it.
PT: The song ‘Dazzling Stranger’ was first recorded for ‘The Legendary Me’-LP.
WJ: That’s right. This was the second album I made for Village Thing. It was done extremely cheaply in a church hall with just a Revox tape recorder and two microphones... and that’s about it, really. In Japan that’s worth 200 Pounds, if it’s in good condition. I was in Japan three weeks ago and people were telling me how much the old albums are worth. But it’s a silly game, it doesn’t mean anything.