From '40s Croydon to London '80s
A Biography by Ralph McTell
Transcribed from an interview with Wizz for Chris Groom's book on
Ancient tales of a beatnik and his faithful guitar, from Folk Roots
If you take the Brighton train from London, your first major stop
is likely to be at East Croydon - Wizz Jones's home town. Of course
Croydon has changed much since Wizz lived there. Many of the old
buildings have been torn down only to be replaced by towering office
blocks and ugly multi-storey car parks so that the casual visitor
could be forgiven for thinking of the town as just another suburb
of London delaying a speedy exit to the country. However Croydon
does still retain it's seperateness from the big city and can still
be a pleasant place to live.
During the middle 40's, whilst recovering from those desperate
years of the blitz, the Croydonians fed their children on government
issue cod-liver oil and orange juice. The fish and chip shop, that
great British tradition flourished in those days and "spivs"
and "wide boys" could be seen on many a street corner
offering black market ration books of food and clothing coupons.
Being close enough to London to catch the latest fashions but far
enough away to have an identity of it's own, Croydon was indeed
a very stimulating place to grow up in. The famous international
airport was still in action and there were music halls, theatres
and several cinemas. One of these was "The Davis" (the
largest cinema in Europe at that time) and it was there that Wizz
saw such famous names as Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, and Stan Kenton.
From this environment there came a generation of budding musicians
who, somehow through their appreciation of Jazz, Skiffle and Rock
and Roll were led back to the Blues - a music which up to this point
had only been played by black musicians in the U.S.A.
Of course there had been many British Jazz and Dance Bands that
featured blues-based material but I'm speaking here of the raw "Country
Blues" of the old negro acoustic guitar players and the exciting
electric sound of the "Chicago Blues". So during the late
50's it was with their imitation and exploration of this genre that
such people as Long John Baldry, Davy Graham, Cyril Davies, Alexis
Korner and yes, even Wizz Jones were to change the course of popular
music in Britain. "The Yardbirds", "The Rolling Stones"
and "The John Mayall Band" all evolved from this scene
and I know that both Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart have acknowledged
Wizz's contribution to this process.
Wizz and I both grew up in Croydon but our age gap of 5 or 6 years
was enough to give us different experiences. Wizz was already playing
the guitar and trying to look like James Dean before I struck my
first chord on the ukelele and heard of Dean's death. Wizz's first
band was "The Wranglers" and I wonder if he remembers
his first pair of Levis. In those days american jeans were only
available from the "PX" on USAAF bases and were highly
prized by those lucky enough to have a contact in the forces. I
was on my second pair of Levis when first I saw Wizz and he had
probably cut up his fifth to make patches for his sixth! It was
on Brighton beach that I encountered him for the first time. He
was playing the most battered old guitar I had ever seen and by
this time his hair was shoulder-length - outrageous in those days!
With his head bent over the fingerboard he was adjusting the tuning
pegs of the "La Foley" and then deftly pushing his glasses
up on to the bridge of his broken nose and in the meantime never
missing a beat! The year was 1961 and amongst us kids and "weekend
ravers" (not genuine beatniks!) he was already a legend.
The first time that we met to talk was at a folk and blues club
held in a coffee bar in Croydon called "Under The Olive Tree"
shortly after Wizz had returned from a period of travelling around
Europe. It was a Sunday afternoon gig and he was with his wife Sandy
and their first son Simeon. I was nervous but he was very encouraging
to me, knowing that I was a young guitarist eager to travel the
same road. Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac were our
gurus in those days and their work was revered with the same dedication
that the "hippies" were to give to the mystic writers
of The East.
By 1965 Wizz had settled into the British Folk Scene, playing with
a fine banjo-picker called Pete Stanley and living with his growing
Family in South London. His hitch-hiking days being over he was
looking for a little more security - but only a little! The summer
of 65 was to become very important to me because Pete Stanley was
away in Italy for a while and Wizz invited me to go with him to
Cornwall where he had some gigs playing for the tourists in the
pubs and hotels of the holiday towns. Attitudes were changing fast
in the middle 60's and Wizz found himself entertaining customers
in places where a year or two ago he would have been refused admission
because of the "beatnik" label. So to announce our new
act Wizz suggested that I should change my name to McTell after
Blind Willie McTell's "Statesborough Blues" which was
a favourite of us both. We played Music Hall Songs as well as Folk,
Blues and Jug-Band Music and Sandy, Simeon and new baby Danny were
with us everywhere we played
Wizz was still playing the same old guitar which by 1966 was held
together by faith alone. So one day, Sandy asked me to try to persuade
Wizz to get a new one. I eventually found a good one in a Charing
Cross Road music shop and managed to get Wizz to come with me to
see it. It was a beautiful Epiphone Texan and it suited Wizz perfectly.
After playing it for an hour he said "Yeah you're right, Ralph,
it's a great guitar but there are more important things we need
right now before a new guitar!"
We drove back to Balham where he finally decided, saying "I
really should buy that box shouldn't I?" Well he found the
money somehow and he still plays that guitar today - and he's still
Wizz and Pete split up towards the end of 1967 and Wizz embarked
upon his solo career, developing the formula that he uses today.
He nods at fashion (his hair is shorter these days) but basically
he only sings and plays what he loves - from Mance Lipscombe to
David Nichtern , from Uncle Dave Macon to Tom Lehrer to Bob Dylan
and new songs written by friends around him (especially the artist
Alan Tunbridge) and of course his own intensely personal compositions.
("When I Leave Berlin" SHOULD be a hit!)
Although he would be the last to admit it, Wizz has become one
of the men that were his motivation. He is a man of the road, a
troubador. He encourages young talent (his three sons are inevitably
musicians already) and he's an incurable romantic - as they say!
Don't be deceived by his apparent world-weariness. Oh yes, he's
an expert on split-windscreen VW buses and a DS Citroen freak! He's
also my friend.
Ralph McTell, August 1988