Way back in the mists of time, 1969 to be precise, Big Bear were representing a number of bands that we, and a whole bunch of folk hereabouts, believed to be on their first steps towards world domination.
But we were faced with a problem. The London-based media, and indeed seemingly the entire South of England, simply didn’t get what was happening here in Birmingham and they manifested this in their total indifference.
It wasn’t as if we had nothing to shout about. Locomotive had been on the road through UK and Europe for some five years, with such later to be celebrated members as John Bonham [Led Zeppelin], Carl Palmer [Emerson, Lake & Palmer] Dave Pegg [Jethro Tull and Fairport Connection], Dave Mason [Traffic, Cass Elliot, Paul McCartney], Poli Palmer [Family, Peter Frampton, Bakerloo] Mike Burney [Wizzard] and Bob Lamb [producer of UB40 albums].
Locomotive’s 1968 hit single was a mixed blessing for this already established band, resulting in a musical clash of identity. The band’s hard-earned reputation as a rocking, rhythm and blues seven piece was overtaken by ournew-found enthusiasm for Rock Steady, the emerging Jamaican music of the day that was the precursor of Ska. Their melodic and catchy “Rudi’s In Love” hit single alienated their existing fan base, while disappointing buyers of “Rudi” who expected to see a Jamaican band on stage in their local dance halls.
To confuse matters yet further, we followed “Rudi” with the heavy and progressive single “Mr Armageddon” which, although gathering good reviews and a lot of airplay, just didn’t sell. Inevitably, in 1969 the band split, half soldiering on as Locomotive before name-changing to The Dog That Bit People, which we believed better reflected the change in style that came with the new members, Keith Millar and John Caswell joining Mick Hincks and Bob Lamb.
I do have to hold my hand up and admit, with some embarrassment, that it was my idea to borrow the name from a James Thurber short story. The subsequent album “The Dog That Bit People” on Parlophone was enthusiastically and widely reviewed, even reissued on CD a few years ago, but did not grab the attention we felt it deserved.
The other half continued a while as Sacrifice, subsequently The Norman Haines Band, ploughing a heavily progressive furrow.
Confusing? Well yes, but the music was always good. At the same time Big Bear had Bakerloo Blues Line, later shortened to Bakerloo, with a tremendous album on EMI Harvest and the later-to-be stellar line-up of Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson [later Colosseum, Humble Pie, Uriah Heep], Terry Poole [Graham Bond, Colin Blunstone, Elkie Brooks] and John Hinch [Judas Priest]. When Hinch left the band, he was replaced by Cozy Powell, then ex-Spencer Davis Group’s Pete York, Bill Ward and Poli Palmer.
In order to give Bakerloo a weekly platform, Big Bear launched Henry’s Blueshouse in 1968 which quickly became established as an important venue with Melody Maker writing “Henry’s Blueshouse in Birmingham, the only Progressive Music Venue in the country outside of London”. This naturally led to us getting to know other bands, two of which signed to Big Bear for management and recording.
The first was the wacky, never boring, sometimes amazing nutters from Moseley, Tea & Symphony, who we placed with EMI Harvest, leading to the albums “An Asylum For The Musically Insane” and “Jo Sago” as well as the near-hit single “Boredom”. The other band were Earth, then renamed to Black Sabbath, who we took to two hit albums “Black Sabbath” and “Paranoid”, a hit single “Paranoid” and the rest is history.
So there we were, with four cracking bands and no national media coverage other than regular appearances on John Peel’s BBC show.
The logical next step was to publish our own news sheet, which we did with the first edition of Big Bear hitting the news-stands in December 1969.
The first edition carried a headline that some may have found confusing, “Sex Change Snake In Drug Probe Scandal” and continued in the same vein with the Editorial Statement:
“Big Bear, a monthly gazette of assorted Gnomes makes its debut. Backed by the relentless genius of such well-known figures as the Stoned Gnome of Aston and Large Naked himself, this journal will provide news and features on some of the more interesting bands around that are generally ignored by the media, possibly with good reason. We confidently expect that this startlingly new concept in communication will astound, amaze, confuse and delight all those who are into good sounds and want to know more about who and where.”
Among the editorial items were “Pete York Talks: Black Sabbath”, “Quotes on Tea & Symphony Album”, “The British Ignore Sabbath?”, a scurrilous gossip column “Stoned Gnome” [what was this Gnome thing about? I can’t remember, maybe that’s a good thing] and upcoming dates which included Black Sabbath on “Top Gear” with John Peel [November 29], the release of the first Black Sabbath single “Evil Woman” [December 5th] and Tea & Symphony at The Lyceum on The Strand [December 14th].
The much-missed British One Man Blues Band, Duster Bennett had become a close friend through regular, invariably sell-out, appearances at Henry’s. He quickly volunteered to contribute a regular column to Big Bear. Here is his first contribution, “The Duster Bennett Bit”.
She could take a hack pop tune and turn it into a jazz classic. Nobody since Bessie Smith had sung like her, and no woman has since. This lady sang the blues – Billie Holiday. I’m not writing to sing the praises of “Lady Day”, others have done it so much better than I can, but I am simply selecting her to ask a question with.
In the days of giants like Holiday, Ma Rainey, Beiderbecke, Parker, Reinhardt and others, mass media were very much muffled by their newness, and not every house was dominated by the Victrola and the radio, and perhaps most important of all, the TV.
Leroy Carr, for instance, changed the course of the blues over a long period of time with his straight vocal style and thoughtful piano on scratchy 78s which gradually penetrated – rather than “bursting on the scene.” I think I am right in saying Billie Holiday didn’t gain success by having her name on hoardings or in magazines, but by growing alongside her music.
The point is this – today a musician is only as successful as the guy selling him – if he wants to “make it”, that is. Well, of course, that is life today in so many things, but my question is this: Does the instant latest product and the “big sell” mean the end of the feel of real music? In 50 years time will our big names look just like little dollars?
Underground music has had its go, and will I hope continue to foster great talent. The quality of musicians today is, I feel, as good as ever, but I can’t help feeling that the world of commerce will roll on and crush things. I’m gonna try to be wrong…
Duster Bennett, January 1970
Big Bear number 2 [January 1970] carried the front page headline:
MAYALL/DUSTER SENSATION The first sensational news story of 1970 was released exclusively to “Big Bear” by Duster Bennett early this decade. The article continued:
John Mayall approached Duster during a recent tour of Ireland, and asked him to consider forming a new band. It was impossible at the time, as Duster had strong management, agency and recording tie-ups, and the Mayall deal demanded contractual freedom.
However, Clifford Davis, who with Peter Green was co-managing Duster, was exceptionally understanding when approached, and finally agreed to a go-ahead. The deal will now involve splitting from Blue Horizon – a situation that Duster was unable to comment upon. This may well cause problems, as Duster has always been very kindly disposed towards Blue Horizon in general, and to the Vernons in particular.
The link-up will start in the first week of February with an 11-week U.S. and Canadian tour that kicks off in Vancouver. This will be followed in May with a tour of Britain and Europe. The band will be very fluid; some numbers will be done without Duster, some will feature Duster solo, and at other times Mayall and Duster will be backed by bass, or what ever might be necessary for the number. Although he will become part of the band, Duster will retain his own solo identity.
When asked about his intentions, John Mayall said that he wanted to have a band on the road for just one year and then concentrate on writing and recording. “I would like to do something really good – and if I can help to establish a deserving artist to be seen by the audience he warrants then I’ll be pleased.” By cashing in on the John Mayall legend, Duster will be guaranteed the recognition he deserves.
Duster looks ahead to a time when he and Mayall will cease touring and says: “I still would eventually like to form my own 5 or 6 piece blues band. This association will make it possible, although I’m obviously going to lose the uniqueness of being a one-man band! I intend to play all my favourite clubs on my own during January as a sort of nostalgic tour before joining John. These will include Henry’s Blueshouse in Birmingham and of course The Angel, Godalming where I made my first public appearance in February, 1968.”
Duster will now be managed by the Gunnell office, who also manage Mayall. Duster Bennett, already having an established name, set a precedent in joining Mayall as John usually works with unknowns who rapidly become “names”, e.g., Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Keef Hartley, Jon Hiseman, Mike Taylor, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Aynsley Dunbar, John McVie and company.
[Editor’s Note: Duster Bennett’s regular exclusive column in “Big Bear” will keep readers up to date with the Mayall/Bennett situation in future.]
Anthony ‘Duster’ Bennett was born in Welshpool, Powys in September 1946. He came to notice in the early 1960s art school underground music scene, standing out from the crowd as a one man band singing the blues and playing his 1952 Les Paul Goldtop guitar, harmonica on a chest rack and bass drum. His inspiration was Joe Hill Louis and Duster quickly became one of the most popular draws at Henry’s.
He was based, as I remember, in Lichfield or maybe Burton-On-Trent and his mother would drive him to Birmingham in her Morris Minor Traveller. We spent a lot of down-time together, talking blues and playing records, but after Henry’s closed he seemed to distance himself, though I never knew why. I would continue to book him whenever I could, but we were never again to be close.
Duster’s 1970 U.S. tour was a milestone for him, though he subsequently drifted off into more mainstream material with the soul, R&B and funk influences apparent in his last album, “Fingertips” . His “Jumpin’ At Shadows” was covered by Fleetwood Mac and in 1992 by Gary Moore, though the attempts by Mickie Most to help Duster gain wider appeal were not successful. I still find his four albums for Blue Horizon in the period 1968 to 1970 really well worth listening to.
The last time we met was on March 25 1976 at my Birmingham Town Hall promotion featuring the Tennessee bluesman Memphis Slim with Duster opening the show. Duster died late the following night after another performance with Memphis Slim [Burslem, Stoke-On-Trent]. He was driving home through Warwickshire when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel of his Ford Transit van, collided with a truck and was killed.
Duster Bennett was 29 years old.