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Alexis Korner (19 April 1928 ó 1 January 1984) was a pioneering blues musician and broadcaster who has sometimes been referred to as "the Founding Father of British Blues". A major influence on the sound of the British music scene in the 1960s, Korner was instrumental in bringing together various English blues musicians.
Alexis Andrew Nicholas Koerner was born in Paris to an Austrian father and Greek mother, and spent his childhood in France, Switzerland, and North Africa. He arrived in London in 1940 at the start of the Second World War. One memory of his youth was listening to a record by black pianist Jimmy Yancey during a German air raid. He said, "From then on all I wanted to do was play the blues."
After the war, he played piano and guitar, and in 1949 joined Chris Barber's Jazz Band where he met blues harmonica player Cyril Davies. They started playing together as a duo, formed the influential London Blues and Barrelhouse Club in 1955, and made their first record together in 1957. Korner brought many American blues artists, previously unknown in England, to perform.
In 1961, Korner and Davies formed Blues Incorporated, initially a loose-knit group of musicians with a shared love of electric blues and R&B music. The group included, at various times, such influential musicians as Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry, Graham Bond, Danny Thompson and Dick Heckstall-Smith. It also attracted a wider crowd of mostly younger fans, some of whom occasionally performed with the group, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Rod Stewart, John Mayall and Jimmy Page.
One story is that The Rolling Stones went to stay at Korner's house late one night, in the early 1960s, after a performance. They entered in the accepted way, by climbing in through the kitchen window, to find Muddy Waters' band sleeping on the kitchen floor.
Although Cyril Davies left the group in 1963, Blues Incorporated continued to record, with Korner at the helm, until 1966. However, by that time its originally stellar line-up and crowd of followers had mostly left to start their own bands. "While his one-time acolytes The Rolling Stones and Cream made the front pages of music magazines all over the world, Korner was relegated to the role of 'elder statesman'."
Although he himself was a blues purist, Korner criticized better-known British Blues musicians during the blues boom of the late '60s for their blind adherence to Chicago Blues, as if the music came in no other form. He liked to surround himself with jazz musicians and often performed with a horn section drawn from a pool which included, among others, saxophone players Art Themen, Mel Collins, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Dick Morrissey, John Surman and trombonist Mike Zwerin.
In the 1960s Korner began a media career, initially as a show business interviewer and then on ITV's Five O'Clock Club, a children's TV show. He also wrote about blues for the music papers, and continued his performing career especially in Europe. Apart from discovering various English musicians Korner also introduced foreign artists, such as German Wolfgang Michels, to a larger audience. Korner also wrote the liner notes for Michels' group Percewood's Onagram first album in 1969.
While touring Scandinavia he first joined forces with singer Peter Thorup, together forming the band New Church, who were one of the support bands at the Rolling Stones Free Concert at Hyde Park on 5 July 1969. Jimmy Page reportedly found out about a new singer, Robert Plant, who had been jamming with Korner, who wondered why Plant had not yet been discovered. Plant and Korner were in the process of recording a full album with Plant on vocals until Page had asked him to join "the New Yardbirds", aka Led Zeppelin. Only two songs are in circulation from these recordings: "Steal Away" and "Operator".
The 1970s and 1980s
In 1970 Korner and Thorup formed a big band ensemble, C.C.S. - short for The Collective Consciousness Society - which had several hit singles produced by Mickie Most, including a version of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" which was used as the theme for BBC's Top Of The Pops between 1971 and 1981. Another instrumental called Brother was used as the theme to the Radio 1 Top 20/40 when Tom Browne/Simon Bates presented the program in the 1970s. This was the period of Korner's greatest commercial success in the UK.
In 1973, he formed another group, Snape, with Boz Burrell, Mel Collins, and Ian Wallace, who were previously together in King Crimson. Korner also played on B. B. King's Supersession album, and cut his own, similar album, Get Off My Cloud, with Keith Richards, Peter Frampton, Nicky Hopkins, and members of Joe Cocker's Grease Band. In the mid 1970s, while touring Germany, he established an intensive working relationship with bassist Colin Hodgkinson who played for the support act Back Door. They would continue to collaborate until the end.
In the 1970s Korner's main career was in broadcasting. In 1973 he presented a unique 6-part documentary on BBC Radio 1, The Rolling Stones Story, and in 1977 he established a weekly blues and soul show on Radio 1, which ran until 1981. He also used his gravelly voice to great effect as an advertising voice-over artist. In 1978, for Korner's 50th birthday, an all-star concert was held featuring many of his friends mentioned above, as well as Eric Clapton, Paul Jones, Chris Farlowe, Zoot Money and other friends, which was later released as The Party Album, and as a video.
In 1981, he joined another "supergroup", Rocket 88, a project led by Ian Stewart based on Boogie-woogie keyboard players, which featured a rhythm section comprising Jack Bruce and Charlie Watts, among others, as well as a horn section. They toured Europe and released an album on Atlantic Records.
Korner, a lifelong chain smoker, died of lung cancer in London on 1 January 1984, aged 55. He left behind a daughter, the musician Sappho Gillett Korner, and two sons, guitarist Nicholas (Nico) Korner and the sound engineer Damian Korner.