Raised in the tough, working-class neighbourhood of Glasgow’s Kinning Park, Alex Harvey may have been an avowed pacifist, but he knew how to survive at street level. During his formative years, Harvey turned his hand to everything from carpentry to carving tombstones, but music offered him a way out just as he was about to turn 20. Like The Beatles, the young Scot was smitten by the mid-50s Skiffle craze and, after performing in short-lived local groups, won a Daily Record-sponsored talent competition intent on finding “Scotland’s Tommy Steele”, setting him on the path towards forming Alex Harvey And His Soul Band.
However, unlike the mainstream-inclined Steele (who later branched out into theatre and films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow), Alex Harvey was into rock’n’roll at its grittiest. Blessed with reserves of charisma, he was a natural performer and, from 1958-65, fronted a horn-assisted, Stax-esque soul band, working up an extensive repertoire of blues and rock’n’roll numbers and touring extensively around the UK and Germany.
Like their contemporaries The Beatles and The Searchers, Alex Harvey And His Soul Band were regulars at venues such as The Star-Club and Top Ten on Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn during the early 60s. Harvey reputedly loved the madness of life in the bustling city’s clubs and music bars, so it’s fitting that Hamburg afforded him the chance to make his first LP, originally issued by Polydor early in 1964.
As his Roaring 20s-style version of Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek To Cheek’ later proved, Harvey relished taking sonic chances, starting as he meant to continue with the Alex Harvey And His Soul Band album, which was released on 5 October 1963 and included a choppy, proto-ska remake of Oscar Hammerstein’s ‘When I Get Too Old To Dream’. Mostly, however, the record’s contents reflected what the title promised: souped-up covers of R&B standards such as Shirley & Lee’s ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, Muddy Waters’ ‘I’ve Got My Mojo Working’ and Willie Dixon’s swaggering ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You.’
Curiously, though, while the LP undeniably remains a spirited snapshot of a tight, drilled outfit apparently well-versed in treading the boards seven nights a week, the combo performing on Alex Harvey And His Soul Band weren’t actually Harvey’s regular Soul Band at all. Whether for contractual reasons or not (the definitive reason remains elusive) the musicians involved were really members of Kingsize Taylor & The Dominoes, another Merseybeat group popular in Hamburg who were briefly fronted by a young Cilla Black during 1961.
What is indisputable, though, is that the merest whiff of enigma never did any rock’n’roll record any harm, and the arcane backstory to Alex Harvey And His Soul Band only adds further mystique to his already alluring debut, which is well worthy of reappraisal.
Alex Harvey And His Soul Band is out on 180g vinyl and can be bought here.