The Blues was a dying form of music in its heartlands in the early 60s, but when some British kids discovered the music and used it to talk to new generations, it came back to America re-invigorated. Bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles sold Blues and R&B back to its American roots, and dozens of others poured through the breach, with Clapton, Mayall, Fleetwood Mac and others going on to huge fame. Less well known are some of the side-men who recorded and toured with the star bands, and Keef Hartley was one of the few who stepped into the spotlight himself, a drummer and bandleader who played Woodstock and sold loads of albums with his own band.
Keith Hartley was born in Preston, England in 1944, and left his home-town around 1960 to relocate to Liverpool and play drums in a band. When Ringo Starr joined The Beatles, Keef took over his drum-stool with Rory Storm’s Hurricanes, and he played in several bands around the city as The Mersey Sound swamped the pop charts. When he moved to London in the mid-60s he was recruited, along with keyboard player John Lord, later of Deep Purple, into The Artwoods. Art Wood was Ronnie Wood’s big brother and had a crucial rôle in starting The Ealing Club
, the birthplace of The British Blues Boom
, and his band would gig all over town, earning a little extra cash by backing visiting American Blues players. They played with Howlin’ Wolf
and Little Walter
at places like The Marquee and Kooks Kleek, as they learned their chops. The Artwoods were signed to Decca records, and their producer Mike Vernon
had Keef play on Champion Jack Dupree
‘s 1996 album ‘New Orleans to Chicago’, along with Eric Clapton, Tony McPhee
and Peter Green. John Mayall played on those sessions and asked Keef to join The Bluesbreakers, touring the world, appearing on three Bluesbreakers albums and gaining an insight into running a band.
The atmospheric ‘Born to Die’ from ‘Halfbreed’;
In 1968, Keef formed his own band to play straight ahead Chicago Blues and their first album ‘Halfbreed’ sold well, especially in The States where it went higher in the Blues Album Charts than Keef could have dreamed of. A tour was arranged and was so successful the band were invited to play at the Woodstock Festival. The Keef Hartley band went on after Santana, but didn’t appear in the film because their manager ripped up the ‘release’ when he found there was no cash on offer! A further album and tours with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple came the following year, and in 1971, Keef formed his Big Band, with various ex-Bluesbreakers and associates. When not leading his own band, Keef was drumming for Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks’ band Vinegar Joe and doing session work. He also recorded ‘Back to the Roots’ with John Mayall, and toured with The Bluesbreakers again, then issued a solo album ‘Lancashire Hustler’ in 1973.
Keef, John Mayall & ‘Sugarcane’ Harris on ‘Full Speed Ahead’;
With smokin’ guitars, big horns and that fat Hammond B3 sound, Keef’s band puts down some of the best British Blues of the day.
Given a big advance cheque, Keef formed Dog Soldier in 1974, but when it came to recording an album, United Artists made them focus on AOR/soft-rock material, and when they toured the album in The States the next year, the schedule was barely half finished when Keef walked out of the band. It was to be his last real throw of the dice in the music business: he played some small gigs with a new band called Big Chief, but refused all efforts of re-form any of his better-known bands, preferring to work as a carpenter. His autobiography ‘Halfbreed- A Rock and Roll Journey That Happened Against All the Odds’ was published in 2007, and he passed away in his home town in 2011, aged 67.