The History Men
With friends in high places and numerous awards to their name, Vintage Rock discovers how the hot-rockin’ Bluejays are the real rock ‘n’ roll deal.
Words by Michael Leonard
“Youngsters, huh? What do they know about proper rock ‘n’ roll? In the case of Ollie Seymour-Marsh, Dan Graham and Chris Reid – aka The Bluejays – quite a lot, actually. The eldest may only be 35 years of age – they weren’t even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when Elvis departed for the celestial 7-11 in the sky – but The Bluejays are rock ‘n’ roll scholars to a man and have been playing this music for years. And they’re a brilliant band to boot.
The trio – plus an extended band for live shows – are currently taking a new show, Rock and Roll Revolution, across the UK in a mix of vintage rocker rave-ups and multimedia ‘edutainment’ that aims to equally excite and inform. More than “just” a gig, a lot less starchy than a history lesson, Rock and Roll Revolution is a show that’s grown from the trio’s shared background in some of musical theatre’s toughest shows. By way of introduction, frontman Ollie Seymour-Marsh, 30, explains; “Dan, Chris and I met doing Buddy (the musical) about eight years ago. We did it in the West End, a UK tour and then Europe as well. I was playing Buddy Holly, Chris was playing (bassist) Joe B Mauldin, and Dan was playing (drummer) Jerry Allison, who is one of his absolute heroes: he’s been studying those paradiddles on Peggy Sue since.
He was about three. Later, I did the Million Dollar Quartet show – I was Carl Perkins – and then I went on to do the skiffle show, One Man Two Guvnors. Through all that, I just learned more and more about Rock ‘n’ Roll, all the pieces came together. We then formed The Bluejays, just to do corporate events and festivals really, but we always had it in the back of our minds to do our own unique theatre show.”
“The authenticity of the sound is paramount to what we try and do”
As a retro covers group, The Bluejays have already earned plenty of attention. They’ve won the National Vintage Award for Best Entertainment, the London Vintage Award for Best Band and the likes of Duane Eddy and Queen’s Brian May are fulsome in their praise and Ollie notes, “Musical theatre drills eight shows a week into you, and that’s not something a lot of gigging bands understand.” But for their Rock and Roll Revolution show, The Bluejays aim to move beyond just a well-oiled revival band.
"It's not a tribute to a particular artist, it's a bigger show about how all the pieces came together; folk music, country music, gospel, R&B this huge melting pot... even down to the early days of TV, the importance of radio, all coming together for this thing that had just never been heard before."
"We try and present the story in a new, fresh way. For example, the country ballad, Blue Moon Of Kentucky by Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, we play the waltzing 3/4 version like the original, and merge it into the Elvis version which just leaps out at the audience. There's lots of little moments in the show that help join the dots for people, that show how the sound was created. The songs we do go from 1952 up to 1961, and we hone in on certain moments - like when Chuck Berry first played Maybellene at Chess Records; when Elvis first did Arthur Crudup's That's All Right. All these different artists have their own stamp and their own special circumstances. One of the things we look at in the show is Bo Diddley and his African inspired beats. They'd never been here in popular music, and suddenly he was adding that to guitars, amplification, maracas, it was really unique. Some of the outtakes you hear of Bo Diddley, he's wailing away, it's almost tribal, he's got this incredible yell that he lets out. It really doesn't sound like anything else. "
"So the show tries to explore the DNA of the songs, show how the sound was created, and how it changed the world." It sounds like Vintage Rock, but in audio and visual form? "There you go!" he laughs. "Easy sell!"
Past Masters: The Bluejays may be relatively youthful, but they're genuine in their love of all things vintage. Ollie Seymour-Marsh says his first love remains blues and rhythm and blues: "Growing up, it was Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters for breakfast, Fats Domino and BB King for lunch, while my parents were into Pink Floyd and disco. So I guess there was a huge chunk of my musical education missing." But getting the Buddy gig quickly filled that in and he adds: "The more I really listened to early Rock 'n' Roll I realised: this is really where it all came together. You can trace back from 50s Rock 'n' Roll, and you can travel forward. You soon realise this was the point where everything exploded."
"Recapturing that original sound is where everything begins for us," insists Ollie. "The authenticity of the sound is absolutely paramount to what we try and do, and that manifests itself in the gear that we use, the choice of musicians that we use, the way we record the records - which is analogue, all tape, and all live. The only thing we do separately is my vocals, to deal with bleed. It costs more for us to record at Soup Studios (London) which has an old Amek analogue desk, and it's harder work. But it's worth it. "It's this rawness, the simplicity of sound... and when I say simplicity, I don't mean it's easy to recreate. It takes a huge amount of effort and work. You have to understand why a [Fender] Telecaster with flatwound strings sounds so different to another guitar with .009 gauge strings on it. But all those little touches are so important to the sound."
Away from the Rock And Roll Revolution shows, The Bluejays still plan to be out on the road as a straight-up rockin' band. Weirdest booking they've yet had was last year, for a private party hosted by one President Donald J Trump - "30 or 40 emails and plans exchanged, but it was probably the best outcome that it didn't actually happen in the end" - and they love playing the Classic TT bike show on the Isle Of Man: "There's always fabulous 50s and 60s bikes, of course, and even the Isle of Man has this sort mystical feel. Just looking across this sea of bikers when we play is... I wouldn't say it's intimidating as such, but we just make sure we wear as much leather as they do."
So far, so good. Only question is: when they're five years on from now, will they have morphed into a Beat-era group trying to play-out the influence of Eastern mysticism on rock history? "Maybe, maybe," he laughs. "But, if anything, I would actually go backwards, I would love to go back and look more at the roots and the R&B music that I just love." Unfortunately, notes the fresh-faced 30-year-old from Surrey, "we maybe not the right artists to do that!" For now, The Bluejays are stuck in the 50s. And quite happy being there.
MIchael Leonard, June 2018.
BLUEJAYS AT BUDDY'S BIRTHDAY
"We have quite a close affiliation with the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation and the Buddy Holly Center out in Lubbock in Texas," explains Ollie Seymour-Marsh.
"I'm very good friends with Eddy Weir, Buddy's nephew. Last year, 2011, was amazing. We went out to Texas and performed at Buddy's birthday party at the Buddy Holly Center, but we weren't expecting to see Larry Holley, Maria Elena Buddy's wife, and Duane Eddy there. We were only booked to play 10 minutes but everyone was having such a good time we ended up playing for half an hour, and Maria Elena got up on stage dancing and started doing the backing vocals on Not Fade Away. It was quite surreal. By the end, I was talking vintage Fenders and Gretsch guitars with Duane Eddy. Larry Holley pulled me aside and said: You do the best Buddy I've ever seen! Whether or not he says that to every guy who's played Buddy, I don't know... but take it anyway! It was an amazing day."
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