MIMO - When Music is Your Fix

Me and the Blues

I got bitten by the blues bug at the same time as many of my contemporaries. I guess I was around 12 years old when the blues first spoke to me, just before the blues boom exploded in the UK in 1962-63. I’d already been heavily into jazz since I was around 3 (long story!) and somehow recognized the blues at the root of most great jazz. So when I started playing the tenor sax at the age of 12 it was obvious that I would join a band of like minded youngsters (who included a pre Free Paul Kossoff, among others) in trying, in a North London middle class way, to emulate our heroes – Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Lowell Fulson and especially Muddy Waters. If someone had told me then that barely eight years later, our schoolboy band, re-united at my 21st birthday party, would play the same set we’d put together in 1962, but this time with a different vocalist, one Muddy Waters, I’d have called for the nearest psychiatrist. Or that all the figures from my list would become at least colleagues and in some cases good friends – how insane!

Nevertheless this progression, as I became more adept as a sax player, did take place. I went off to university with a strong ‘jam session’ mentality that was reinforced at Sussex University when I met Pete Wingfield and his band Jellybread. We started jamming with most visitors to the Brighton and London Blues Clubs, including Champion Jack Dupree, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House and others, so when my 21st birthday approached I was already a known performer on the British blues circuit – having recorded and jammed with Fleetwood Mac and other British blues tyros. My university roommate, now one of the most respected managers in the American music industry, had booked Muddy Waters and his band to play at the University that night. He suggested I go to Brighton station to meet them off the train, take them to the gig and invite them to my party to eat (and possibly jam?). That’s how I found myself waiting on the platform at Brighton station – and waiting, and waiting. No sign of anyone remotely resembling Muddy, no mobile phone to check up, and 2 hours till all my guests started arriving at my party. I finally decided to call it a night and headed back to college, where a message awaited from Alan my roommate. ‘Muddy and band arrived by car. Will bring them down after gig.’

My guests began arriving. Ric Parnell, later to be Mick Shrimpton in Spinal Tap arrived with drum kit. My original band showed up with guitars and basses. I had a piano in situ, and several fine harmonica players – but no amps and no microphones! But we did have catering – and finding food in the UK after 9pm in 1970 was well nigh impossible. So when Muddy and the band showed up I directed them to the buffet. What I hadn’t noticed was an exchange between two of the roadies and a girl at my party.

‘Don’t I know you? Didn’t you look after us at Woodstock, we were with Canned Heat?’

Of course! My friend had been a volunteer at the festival in 1969 and had indeed taken care of Canned Heat. They greeted each other effusively, then one roadie said ‘what’s with the drums etc?’

‘Oh such a shame, no one brought any amps or mics down’

Next thing I knew, the back doors had swung open and in came a load of gear marked Rolling Stones – Fragile, and Keith Richard – this way up! As soon as I realized what was happening and marshaled my friends onstage to play, Muddy emerged with band from the other room and stood listening. As we finished the first song, he walked over to me (on crutches at the time). Get off the stage was the most polite thing I could imagine him saying – instead he said ‘do you mind if we play a bit?’ I nodded in agreement and amazement, and as I left the stage, he said ‘where are you going? You play with us’. For the next 7 hours we were in blues heaven as Muddy’s band ‘mixed and matched’ with my friends. Pinetop Perkins was knocked out by Pete Wingfield’s piano playing, Carey Bell played a harmonica trio feature of Jook with my friends Will Stallibrass and the late Chris Elvin, Muddy sang a whole set backed by my childhood friends, and danced on crutches with my girlfriend while his band and Ric played some James Brown grooves. We finally got thrown out at 7am by the caretaker, but it was a night to remember. I had phone calls from Charlie Watts, Peter Green and Alexis Korner – Muddy and the band were still talking about the great party a week later as they boarded the flight home. My guitarist, now an eminent judge, still maintains Muddy’s praise of his guitar playing was the high point of his life.

As for me, I only regret having no photos or tapes of the night – and that I later discovered that the tour promoter was a crook and Muddy never got paid for the European tour! But for everyone present on the night of December 4th 1970 it remains a wonderful lasting memory.

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About the Author


John Altman is a BAFTA and Emmy award winning composer, musician and conductor and was recently made Doctor of Music at the University of Sussex, School of Media, Film and Music. John has a long and distinguished career in music, including performing with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Sting. His film credits include period music for Titanic and Shall We Dance. In addition, John has scored over 5,000 TV commercials and is cited as among the top composers in British advertising.

A brief look at who John Altman has shared the stage with or worked with since the 1950s:

  • the 50s - appeared with Judy Garland onstage at the London Palladium
  • the 60s - played with Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Muddy Waters
  • the 70s - played with Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Elton John. Wrote for Monty Python and the Rutles
  • the 80s - wrote for Simple Minds, George Michael. Played with Slim Gaillard, Chet Baker. Sting, Phil Collins, Jeff Beck
  • the 90s - wrote for Bjork, Tina Turner, Barry White, Diana Ross, James Bond, Titanic. Played with Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, Bill Wyman
  • the 00s - played with Prince, Amy Winehouse, Pharrell, Black Eye Peas, Jessie J, Joss Stone
  • the 10s - still standing!

Posted in: Music History 101