‘Wizz Jones was a watched man.’ So writes Keith Richards in his memoir Life. Richards remembers him as a ‘Great folk picker, great guitar picker…’ The soon-to-be Rolling Stone learned ‘Cocaine’ from Wizz and recalled that ‘Nobody, but nobody, played that South Carolina style. He got “Cocaine” from Jack Elliott, but a long time before anyone else… Wizz Jones was a watched man, watched by Clapton and Jimmy Page…’
Ralph McTell, whose ‘Streets of London’ is sadly as topical today as when it was written almost fifty years ago, remembers Wizz in 1961, ‘already a legend’. It was Wizz who suggested the younger man change his name to McTell, in honour of Blind Willie McTell. It was Ralph who persuaded Wizz to splash out on the Epiphone dreadnought-style guitar he plays to this day.
As a would-be bluesman, Rod Stewart ‘watched him from a distance and admired his guitar playing.’ And in 2012, Bruce Springsteen opened a show at Berlin’s Olympiastadion with ‘When I Leave Berlin’ , written by Wizz in the early Seventies, when the city was still divided. Sadly, the Boss neglected to publicly credit the composer, who heard about the performance only several weeks after the show.
Wizz learned from the masters. He was taught banjo by Peggy Seeger and Ralph Rinzler , and grew up playing guitar with Davey Graham and Long John Baldry. In the great tradition of blues and folk, he shared what he’d learned with guys many of whom went on to be more famous and much richer than he.
Like many of his contemporaries, Wizz developed his first callouses playing in a country and skiffle band named the Wranglers, formed in his home town of Croydon in 1957. He’d been inspired to pick up a guitar having heard Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters playing in Soho clubs as the folk revival crossed the Atlantic. Soon he too was playing those same clubs.
Just as hip New Yorkers headed to the bars and coffee houses of Greenwich Village, so their British counterparts gravitated to the folk clubs that sprang up in pubs across the country, replacing the skiffle old clubs. Peggy Seeger (who by 1960 had settled in Britain) was at the heart of the movement with Ewan MacColl – his Ballads and Blues Club, established in Soho in 1953, laid the foundations for the British folk revival. Pete Seeger, Peggy’s half-brother, visited from the US where he was blacklisted, to tour and a stream of now revered musicians followed in his wake: Carolyn Hester and Richard Fariña, the Reverend Gary Davis, and of course a callow Bob Dylan, whose performance at the fiercely traditional Pindar of Wakefield drew the ire of Peggy and Ewan. (The pub is now the Water Rats – a blue plaque commemorates the occasion. Dylan went down better at the King and Queen, over which Martin Carthy presided, and at the Troubadour.)
Wizz and his confrères – among them Carthy, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn – were part of a rich and vibrant scene, a golden age of acoustic folk and blues, and their influence can be heard in the work of countless of today’s young musicians. Carthy joined the Watersons. Jansch and Renbourn found fame and commercial success with Pentangle. Wizz continued to do his own thing, touring widely in Britain and abroad, along the way recording a score of albums.
‘People like Davey Graham and Bert Jansch took it way beyond the stars,’ he told journalist and broadcaster Peter Paphides. ‘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.’
A handful of clichéd licks. That’s typical Wizz: always self-deprecating, always happy to stand back and let others take the credit. Jansch thought him ‘the most under-rated guitarist ever’. Many would agree with that judgment.
In an interview with Acoustic for the 2015 tour with Renbourn, Wizz confided: ‘I’m lazy about everything which is why I don’t practise guitar. I’m just not a dedicated musician. People like Bert Jansch got up in the morning and played all day, but I’ve never been like that. When you’re young and starting out, you chase fame, but if it doesn’t happen you have to get over all that, get into middle age and think, “Well, that’s alright, I’ve hardly written any songs but it works.” You get star struck at the beginning, and you really want to do it, but the people you admired had just as many problems as you. I used to sit at the feet of people like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and long to play the way he did, but years later when I could and was hooked doing it for a living, I met people like Jack, got to know them and record with them, and realised that they were just the same as me.’
Ralph McTell for one disagrees: Wizz, he told J P Bean in Singing from the Floor, was ‘the real article. He plays blues like those old black guys do. He misses bars out and he plays riffs as long as he wants to. He’s almost impossible to play with, he just does his own thing.’
In 1960, a BBC TV Tonight report on the troublesome new phenomenon of ‘the beatniks’ in Cornwall caught Wizz on a beach singing ‘Hard Times in Newquay if You’ve Got Long Hair’. He told Alan Whicker: ‘I’m only interested in playing the guitar and travelling.’
With a career spanning 60 years and counting, Wizz has fulfilled his ambitions. He remains a stalwart of the folk and blues circuit, offering up his unique style and eclectic repertoire to audiences across Britain and lending a hand at summer schools at the John Renbourn Memorial Workshops. These days, the man with ‘a right hand worthy of Broonzy’ often works with son Simeon on sax and blues harmonica.
‘Survival, just trucking on in the same old way, Wizz explained in a Radio 4 interview while on the road for what would be Renbourn’s final tour. ‘I keep doing it… I’m a songster, a troubadour… It’s a personality thing. You do what you do.’
Just like all the great old bluesmen.