An interview with Wizz Jones by Grahame Hood
If ever a Wizz there was...
It has to be said that Wizz Jones looks bloody good for 68, still gigging as often as he can, often with his son Simeon, who plays sax, flute and harmonica. He’s happy to admit that having his bus pass has its uses when you have a booking in the West End and you fancy a drink. I met him at the guitar shop in Battersea where he is the residential guitar tutor. He sat on a stool surrounded by classic Gibsons, Martins and Fenders cradling the Epiphone Texan guitar he has used almost exclusively since 1967.
“I nearly lost it recently. It was on a jet going to Milan, coming from Scotland, supposed to be changing planes to go to Germany, they cancelled the flight and my baggage went missing. I lost it for ten days, so I borrowed a guitar from the shop. Whenever I borrow a guitar I realise just how good this one is. As far as the teaching goes, some people just see the advert in the shop and have no idea who I am, but I get other people who have been playing for years and know my material, they just want to learn some of my tricks. They come for two or three lessons and go away quite happy.
“While he’s not run off his feet, he is playing regularly in the UK, and sometimes in Europe.“I don’t have an agent, so any work I get I promote myself or chase up myself; I’ve had a lot of work this year, but next year, nothing much yet, just the odd sprinkle! I did the guitar week at a nice summer school in Scotland with Eddie Walker and Steve Tilston. It was all very relaxed, with song workshops and a concert each evening. I’m enjoying playing, and it always goes down OK. This club I’ve set up (The Selkirk SW17, every Monday see www.wizzjones.com) means I get to play every week just down the road from my house, I’d always bemoaned the fact I didn’t have anywhere to play, locally, regularly.”
I was surprised to see that Wizz had not played in the USA more often.
“The only way you could go to the states in the sixties and seventies was to pay for yourself, and hang out, but I could never afford to do that. It came about through some of my fans who ran Scenescoff records, who arranged for me to go over. I discovered all these people who knew my music and there were fans coming up with piles of my first album on UA for me to sign. They only pressed about a thousand, so that’s where they all went! The second time was when Rambling Jack Elliot’s daughter invited me to be interviewed for a film about him. They rang me up to ask for an interview, and I said, great, shall we do it at my house or the guitar shop? No, they said, in New York! I arranged a couple of gigs there with Thurston Moore, from Sonic Youth. The third time I was supposed to be supporting Sonic Youth in Boston and New York. But I flew out on 9/11...We got halfway across the Atlantic and had to turn back.”
Wizz is pleased with the current resurgence of interest in acoustic music. “It’s good at the moment with all the young traditional people coming in along and the singer songwriter boom as well. Thanks to Bert Jansch hanging around with pop stars a whole generation of young people get to hear people like Bert and it takes them back to the roots, there’s a whole new audience out there, especially at festivals like The Green Man. With the advent of YouTube and MySpace I’m picking up contacts from all over the world from people who have discovered my music, and really like it, which wouldn't’t happen otherwise. It’s very healthy. YouTube is an absolute treasure trove, I’ve got a load of stuff I’ve put on myself, and lots of other people have put stuff on as well. Good for the ego. The other good thing is all the back catalogue is coming out on CD, with Sunbeam putting out the Village Thing albums (The titleary Me and When I Leave Berlin) and the Lazy Farmer album, and Hux putting out the American Lucky the Man with extra tracks. And I did a DVD”.
One of the most famous pieces of film featuring Wizz was recorded in 1960, when he was interviewed by Alan Whicker as part of a programme about the Newquay councillors clamping down on the beatniks invading their town. Wizz, with what must have been jaw-droppingly long hair by 1960s standards, talked about his life style and sang two songs, including an obviously censored version of ‘Babe It Ain’t No Lie’.
“When I had my 64th Birthday tour in 2004, we played Newquay and in the interval we showed lots of film clips including that one, the audience were in hysterics, it was like a Monty Python sketch. Actually Alan Whicker was very sympathetic; the councillors took us aside and tried to bribe us into not saying too much, which we turned down. I was a stupid kid, well I was 21, but I wasn't very mature, and I thought I was the bee’s knees. I was talking to Alan Whicker about: ‘Yeah man, Jack Kerouac, On the Road’, which I’d read..... And Alan said: ‘Yes, On the Road, and there are some wonderful passages in Dharma Bums.’ I hadn't read that, but he had! Recently there was the TV series about his wartime experiences, and I thought, after what he went through, what must he have thought about some stupid kid complaining about not being able to get a cup of tea or served in a pub? It was very hard in the beginning, and I wasn't particularly gifted, I just learned by ear in an imitative way. I did a lot of busking and tried to survive, there weren't’t any benefits. That gave you the power to surmount any situation. When I started I was very timid, but you learn, and when you play that gives you power and confidence. My style is very limited, but I’ve spent the rest of my life doing it, and possibly getting a little better. People like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch took it way beyond the stars. Bert was in Edinburgh listening to Davy and Big Bill Broonzy and I was in London listening to Davy and Big Bill Broonzy. When Bert and I met I could see we had the same roots, but he had added this extra thing... he was a genius. Davy was way ahead, I used to follow him around, and to this day the handful of clichéd licks I do are from watching and listening to him, coupled with the Alan Tunbridge (Wizz’s long time song-writing collaborator) stuff, which has been a wonderful source of material, and which is one of the reasons I haven’t written many songs myself. I always get joy out of interpreting other people’s material. The few songs I have written are pop songs in a way, they’ve got a nice melody and they’re usually very personal. I did actually get to see Big Bill Broonzy at Alexis Korner’s club and he was a great influence with that bass/Times New Romantonic swinging style. But it was limiting. It took Ralph McTell to help me with my fingerpicking. I learnt some basic ‘Freight Train’ kind of fingerpicking stuff but I couldn’t get that alternating thumb going properly. Ralph used to show me ragtime feel, but I couldn’t get away from the solid thump of the thumb. But it served me well, because it’s such a full style, you fill up all the holes. When I play with Simeon now I’ve learnt to leave more holes. He understands where I’m at; we’ve been playing together for more than twenty years, though we never rehearse".
Being in at the very start of the folk scene Wizz has often been cited as an influence and an inspiration to the likes of Rod Stewart, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. Sometimes the stories get a little distorted.
“I found out Eric used to come to a little club in Croydon and watch me play, but I didn’t know him. In a recent book about the Rolling Stones Keith Richards said I used to teach him guitar in the toilets at Art College! Complete fabrication. In a way it does me a bit of harm sometimes because, in other countries particularly, I’m billed as the guy who taught Eric Clapton! It was Alexis Korner that turned me on to it all, but he was the first guy I saw doing the Broonzy stuff. He’d say: ‘This is a Blind Boy Fuller song.’ I’d think, Blind Boy Fuller, who’s he? That sounds so exotic! And at the same time Ewan McColl was turning me on to traditional music. I love traditional music, and I always thought I’d like to do it, but I never considered I had the right kind of voice for it. But at that time, to us teenagers in Croydon, anything American was still desirable. When Rock and Roll, skiffle and traditional jazz burst on the scene it shook the older generation up. I feel quite sorry for them now in retrospect! I’m just waffling now; let’s go to the pub”.
2013 Written by Grahame Hood for Nonsuch Dulcimer Club magazine.