The London Gigs of Sam Mitchell

I was tidying up when I found a Gibson USA guitar pick, of the type I used to play my bass guitar with back in the day. I always carried a pick in my rear trouser pocket wherever I went. Here was the familiar black, hard plastic with gold lettering. A small flat triangle with two equally rounded corners and one less so. It took me right back to the London of the early 1980s.

But I’m on my way to see someone else’s gig. I’m walking south across Putney bridge in West London, on an early summer evening in 1982, to the White Lion in Putney High Street.

Ah, the pub gig! Where the publican gets the extra income from the bar, the artist gets the money charged for admission (with no beer expenses to worry about), and the audience gets an evening of excellent music for a very reasonable price. At its best, the pub gig is a win-win-win scenario.

Here it is, more or less on my immediate right after crossing the bridge. Upstairs Sam Mitchell is fronting his eponymous blues trio. The invitation came from two friends who, since the last time I saw them a few months ago, have discovered Sammy and his music. Although I’d heard plenty of blues music in various forms while growing up, experiencing it live was new to me. Sammy took centre stage with great assuredness.

Whatever you may think of the blues as a genre, whether you listen to it every day or occasionally, only someone being wilfully contrary could have denied the talent which went into his creative slide guitar playing and the obvious 100% effort he put in. I hadn’t seen a Dobro before (an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator built into its body). The large, metallic silver instrument was his speciality, and at first sight I genuinely wondered if it was playable at all.

But don’t take my word for his ability. Youtube contains 4 songs from his 1985 gig at the Alexandra Culture Club in Copenhagen, while on Rod Stewart’s 1971 album Every Picture Tells a Story, you should head straight for the version of Amazing Grace. It consists of just Rod Stewart’s vocal and Sam Mitchell’s Dobro guitar.

Sammy lived in West Hampstead at the time and I attended many of his other London gigs, which he played with both his own band and as the guitarist for Dana Gillespie and Chris Jagger. He never slackened in the energy and craft he put into the music. You could see him keep an experienced eye on the mood of the audience too.

That he was a seasoned performer was clear from the White Lion. That his career included contributions to music by many other artists, including some household names, soon became clear as I chatted with him and our mutual friends, both at gigs and elsewhere. For Sammy was very much part of the London social scene of the time.

But here’s the thing. Sam Mitchell died in 2006 aged 56.When I found out, I was keen to read an obituary, to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge about those with whom he’d worked and performed, being keenly aware that what I knew of his varied career was merely a fascinating fragment. The trouble was, even in the dedicated blues magazines, I couldn’t find a mention. Surely a man of such great talent and application, called upon by so many of his peers when their musical style turned in his direction, couldn’t be allowed to fade into obscurity?

Surely at least a website could be put together by someone who’d seen him play live, perhaps who had known him socially, and who was able to shape the contributions which his associates would be willing to make? I very soon realized that the person qualified to put that website together was me, and the result goes by the title of “The Blues Slide Guitar Maestro Remembered”.

It’s weird, the way that some people are remembered when others aren’t, and the degree to which people are remembered never seems to be based on relative levels of ability.

Well, here’s one member of many London audiences who did his level best to make sure that the memory of the ability I witnessed does not pass from the limelight. When the gig is over, what memories will the audience take away? It’s the one aspect of the performance over which the artist has no control.

I return the Gibson USA guitar pick to the old glass jar. The music it reminded me of is still resonating.