Research into rock music history -

Rock 'n ' roll and roots - books and CDs about country, blues, R&B and the like.

At left, Warren Smith holding one of the first LPs Colin and I compiled.

At right, my hairier young self in a record warehouse in Mississippi in 1975, with the late record dealer Johnny Dickens leaning on my shoulder.

If you've got any of my books or other writings, I suppose there's a possibility you'd be interested in my background and how I came to the knowledge and views I've expressed - if only to help you reinforce your own views on the subjects.

I'm not a musician - just one of those people who took a liking to some particular music as a kid and wound up writing about the lives of the people who made that music. In my case, the music I like has to be capable of being played live by a handful of people without resort to artificial and electronic intervention. It has to be real. But I'm interested, too, in the people who recorded the music as well as the people who sang and played - the business side as well as the performers.

I started listening to music, as far as I recall, on an old wind-up record player that took 78 rpm discs. This was in the early 1950s, so it was an old machine even then. Someone must have given it to my parents. My dad played the few discs we had, mainly military marches and big band swing, some classical, nothing exciting to me as a four or five year old growing up in southern England. BUT, there was one record that really took my attention even then. It was different in many ways; it was a calypso, a song from another country, it was by a man with a strange name, Lord Beginner, and it was about a cricket match, The Victory Test Match, celebrating the first time a team from the West Indies had ever won a game in England. My dad was a cricket fanatic so you can imagine dad's annoyance when I sat on that calypso record and broke it. Years later, I bought another copy and I have it still as Exhibit A in my record collection.

The collecting of records started when I was about 8 or 9 years old, in 1958/59. My older cousin Sylvia had some records she no longer played, so she gave them to me. They were rock 'n' roll and New Orleans-style jazz, what in Britain was called trad jazz at that time. So I had Elvis Presley on 78s, Lonnie Donegan on 45s and EPs, an LP by Tommy Steele, and access to even older and weirder music through the British jazz groups of Chris Barber and Mick Mulligan playing songs and styles that went back to New Orleans in the 1920s and before. Being a kid still, I particularly liked George Melly singing Ice Cream - I scream, you scream, etc - and enjoyed the unfettered attack of the early Presley. Within a few years I had figured out which of his songs had a country or blues history, and I also started to form an understanding that the country and blues roots of rock contained some seriously deep and interesting themes as well as fun stuff. Those were the days when people pored over the few clues as to origin given on LPs by Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and the folk-blues revivalists. 

After a while I started to buy LP records for myself. I found that the covers of discs I didn't want, like classical and serious modern jazz, all provided a lot of information about the music and the people who made it - yet the sleeves of the discs I wanted, didn't. Rock 'n' roll albums just had glossy photos for the girls, and the sleeves of country or blues discs mainly had ridiculously stylised illustrations and sparse details, if any. There were exceptions, like the R&B albums issued by Atlantic Records, who told you the what, when and where of recordings by the likes of Big Joe Turner and LaVern Baker.

So, my mission became one of helping to uncover the what, when, where and why of singers and musicians whose music and lives were being forgotten. 

As a mid-teenager at grammar school in Ashford, Kent, I was aware that most kids were into current music while I was already progressing into the past with mine. Then I came across a class-mate who had both volumes of Fats Domino's million selling hits, and he connected me with a guy in the year above, Colin Escott, who, I learned, had a similar collection of music to myself - records by jazz singer Bessie Smith, blues by Lightnin' Hopkins, country by Hank Williams, and, particularly, all those LPs on the London American label that bore the legend 'Recorded by Sun, Memphis.' By the time we were leaving University in 1971, we had ramped up our interest in Sun Records to the point where we started on the book that was published in 1975 as Catalyst, and later as Sun Records, and finally as Good Rockin' Tonight.

On the back of a contract to write a book about Sun, we started to persuade English companies like Phonogram and Charly that they needed to take at least a half-way serious approach to their reissues of Sun label recordings, not least because we were able to unveil a large number of unissued and, we thought, highly important recordings Sun's boss, Sam Phillips, had made with bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf, Rosco Gordon, Joe Hill Louis, and Dr. Ross, and country singers like Warren Smith and Charlie Feathers as well as the country rock 'n' rollers, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Billy Riley and many others. On our reissue productions, the music of these people was accompanied by real information, for the first time.

In 1970, I'd started writing columns for music papers like Record Mirror, and then Melody Maker, Country Music People, Blues Unlimited, and others who would take the results of my annual month-long research trips, collecting records and interviewing musicians across America, mainly in the South. Down the years, I've been pleased to write some in-depth pieces about a diverse number of real favourite performers - including songwriter and producer Jack Clement, country harmonica wizard Onie Wheeler, songwriter and distinctive singer John Prine, blues singers Billy 'The Kid' Emerson and Little Sonny, country rockers Mack Allen Smith and Sleepy LaBeef, country gospel singer supreme Howard Seratt, and Memphis R&B pioneer Billy 'Red' Love. The research trips also fed a range of LP reissues including a first-ever LP drawn from the unissued early session by the reluctant Texan supergroup The Flatlanders.

In the 1980s came the first in-depth boxed sets of LPs of Sun recordings, followed in the '90s and beyond by CD boxes, Nashville Jumps and Tennessee Jive, the Sun Country Box, the Sun Rock Box, and the Sun Blues Box. When reissued in 2014, the latter won the American Blues Foundation's CD of the year award, a statue usually known as 'a Handy' in honour of the man who first wrote down the blues, W. C. Handy. Two years later, my boxed set of Louisiana swamp blues by Slim Harpo won the same national American award.

In between work on these boxed sets, many individual or double CDs with large information booklets were released, and among the ones I think most worthwhile are the two double CDs on Ace Records (UK), of the Complete Meteor Rockabilly and Hillbilly Recordings, and the Complete Meteor Blues, R&B and Gospel Recordings, and my Bear Family CDs by Nashville hillbilly pioneer Big Jeff Bess, Nashville blues singer Christine Kittrell, the hillbilly duo George and Earl, the influential Memphis R&B singer Billy Love, the incomparable Rufus Thomas, the engaging Billy Emerson, and the surprising Billy Adams and Bill Yates.

Until 2007, all this music writing was undertaken as a spare time activity. I'd started a day job with Kent County Council in 1972, coordinating school building projects, followed by various planning jobs in the National Health Service. Eventually I wound up with a serious job as Assistant Chief Executive of the health authority in my region and decided that this had to stop if the music research was to be given the time I wanted to take. Giving up the day job, some years as a management consultant with my friends in a London company named Verita helped fund my more recent music research. None of what you may have read by me has ever made any serious money, you'll probably be glad to know, and I can always say that I took on a project because I wanted to do it. You may not agree with what I've written or researched, but you can be confident that I took the time that was required to do it, without fund-based deadlines. 

This may read as though work of one kind or another has taken up all my time, and my wife Jenny and our children Simon and Anna may well feel this has been so - though I have photos of days out to prove it wasn't always the case. Anyway, it's probable that my views about musicians' lives and the way I write about music has been shaped in some way by my family life. And then there are the leisure hours - the ones that enable me to switch off from the music - when I worry only about whether Kent or England will win the next cricket match and, particularly, why the Arsenal don't win every single football match they play, since they plainly deserve to. You see how balanced my music writing probably is.