joemeekLonnie Donnegan’s skiffle cover of Rock Island Line, recorded with the Chris Barber Jazz Band in July 1954, is often credited as the cornerstone of the boom in UK blues and rock that emerged in the 1960s. That interest was also marked by Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock reaching the UK charts in January 1955, four months before it made the charts in the US. But a year later came a third landmark, which like Rock Island Line came from the jazz world. Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues was recorded in London on April 20, 1956 at Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park. After the recording, Lyttleton promptly went on holiday and left the mixing of the record to producer Denis Preston – who in turn left the work to his engineer, Joe Meek (shown above at the Lansdowne Studio mixing desk).

Meek – who went on to become a seminal producer of pop records in the 1960s – boosted up the bottom end of the distinctive piano riff played by Johnny Parker, and also pushed Stan Greig’s brushes right up in the mix. Lyttleton says he would have stopped the recording going out if he’d heard a test pressing, but by the time he got back from his holiday it was number 19 in the charts, and stayed there for six weeks – the first British jazz record to reach the Top Twenty – so he kept his mouth shut.

The immediate thing that strikes you on listening to the piece today is the resemblance of the piano riff to Paul McCartney’s playing on Lady Madonna. McCartney always cited Fats Domino as his main influence for the song. But Bad Penny Blues came out on the Beatles’ Parlophone label, where George Martin was the A&R man at the time. And British jazzers Ronnie Scott and Harry Klein were also brought in to play saxophone on Lady Madonna.

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