Hawley relives legendary bluesman's visit for radio

IT'S a question guaranteed to spark a thousand late-night pub debates...

If you could have been part of any moment in musical history, what would it be?

Sounds like heaven but where would you start? You can almost hear the arguments.

But there were no such worries for Sheffield singer-songwriter Richard Hawley, when he was asked to present a programme as part of the Radio 2 Wish You Were There? series.

"It was a complete no-brainer for me,'' says Hawley on a rare break from working on his new album at the city's Yellow Arch Studio.

"Little Walter at The Esquire in Sheffield, 1964.''

The American blues legend was supported at the Esquire (now the Leadmill) by, among others, Hawley's uncle, Frank White, so it was a combination of genuine admiration, family ties and a deep-seated love of all things Sheffield which shaped the decision.

"In the great scheme of things, Little Walter was the man who turned blues on its head,'' said Hawley. "He amplified the harmonica and made it sound like a saxaphone from outer space.

"He played here and became an amazing part of Sheffield's music folklore and my uncle was up there playing guitar with him. How fantastic is that?

"And how could I even think about some mythical concert in Memphis or the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall? This is something I grew up knowing about and it really means something to me.

"To be honest, I thought the radio people might come back and ask me to choose again but I'm delighted to say they went with it. They sent me an advance copy of the show and I have to say, it doesn't sound three bad!

"Frank played with Little Walter and then my dad (Dave Hawley), a steelworker from Darnall, also got to play with John Lee Hooker. It's incredible when you think about it.

"And you have to realise that if these people hadn't come over here and played their rhythm'n'blues, we would have had no Rolling Stones, no Animals, no Joe Cocker and no Beatles. Their influence was huge.''

Frank White was more than once described by Esquire owner Terry Thornton as "a better blues singer than Joe Cocker and a better guitarist than Eric Clapton''.

He remains a much-loved part of the music scene in his home city, with a new album close to completion and another tour to follow, and joins Richard on the programme.

He said: "I'd have to say that night was THE highlight of my time in music. Luckily, I have an excellent memory so it has stayed with me.

"This was me playing with my hero, a real blues genius, and because Walter soon found that I knew all his stuff, he would turn to me between numbers and ask, 'What shall we do next'.

Things like that are to treasure for the rest of your life.

"My grandma lived with us when I was young and she used to listen to the American Forces Network on the radio, so I grew up with blues, country, big band and the rest.

"Then there were my two favourite shops: Cox's Radiovision at Attercliffe and Wilson Peck when it was on Leopold Street.

"I'd be at Cox's day in, day out and Mr Cox would let me stay behind after the shop closed and listen to records while he did his accounts.

"Wilson Peck was just round the corner from City Grammar, where I went to school, and they would also let me have the run of the place.''

Frank – whose wife Jean is the sister of Richard's mum, Lynne, who she sang with at Richard's recent Castleton concert – added: "The agents who brought people like Walter over in those days couldn't afford to bring whole bands, so they would use local musicians. I was lucky enough to get involved because I knew so much of his music and the same went for our drummer, John Reilly, and bass player Pete Clough.''

Walter taught himself harmonica at the age of eight and went on to become a key part of the Muddy Waters band. He was instrumental in defining the sound now known as Chicago blues harp and died at the age of 38, just four years after his Sheffield appearance.

Hawley chats to some of the people who played with Walter, as well as the fans who made it their mission to see him perform in the small clubs across the UK.

And he gets to share a drink with a man who knew Walter back in his Chicago days, blues musician Charlie Musselwhite.

Wish You Were There? is on BBC Radio 2 on Monday at 11.30pm.

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