Colin H on John McLaughlin
Back in February Christopher Hjort very kindly got in touch with me, as a John McLaughlin biographer, to share a photo of something remarkable that he had stumbled upon while doing research on unrelated matters at the British Library.
There, in the Wandsworth Advertiser edition of 22 March 1963, writer uncredited, was what is almost certainly the world’s first interview with John McLaughlin – along with what are (outside of a few in Georgie Fame’s own collection, uncirculated) the only known photos of John during his time with the Blues Flames. The full text of that piece appears below, but first some scene-setting…
Photos of McLaughlin in the 50s/60s are incredibly rare. There is one publicity shot with Big Pete Deuchar’s Professors of Ragtime (circa 1958/59), reproduced in Walter Kolosky’s ‘Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra’ (http://www.walterkolosky.com/); there is a stunning set of live shots with the Graham Bond Quartet from his April-September 1963 tenure with them, taken by future psychedelic scenester John Hopkins (but sadly priced out of the market for license at the time I wrote ‘Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond’, published 2014); and there is one snap with Herbie Goins & the Night-Timers; and there are a couple of shots at a jazz cellar in Germany with Gunter Hampel in 1968. That’s more or less it until his first solo LP ‘Extrapolation’ and subsequent membership of Tony Williams’ Lifetime in 1969. There is only one known shot (onstage) with Miles Davis during his various live and studio associations with the man during 1969-70.
Prior to this Wandsworth Advertiser discovery, the earliest quotes from McLaughlin I was able to find for my book were from a Richard Williams phone interview with him in a Melody Maker piece on Lifetime in late 1969.
For a man who played with (and often recorded with) numerous great and/or interesting combos from one end of the decade to the other (Pete Deuchar, Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, the Tony Meehan Combo, the Rick Laird Trio, Brian Auger Quintet, an unrecorded quartet with Ian Carr and John Stevens, Duffy Power/Duffy’s Nucleus, Ronnie Jones & the Night-Timers, Herbie Goins & the Night-Timers, the Gordon Beck Quartet, Sandy Brown…), he left barely a trace in terms of imagery and contemporaneous commentary.
I’ve reproduced the full text of the uncredited Wandsworth Advertiser piece below. There are many fascinating aspects about it, from an historical perspective. R&B (“R and B”) was still a very new phenomenon in Britain, it needed explaining. When the writer refers to “rock” he means ‘rock’n’roll’, of the kind peddled in Britain by the Larry Parnes stable, including Billy Fury. Tenorist Mick Eve is given as “Mike”. John is still using “Johnnie” (we don’t know if that’s how he spelt it himself, though: he spells it ‘Johnny McLaughlin’ on his 1950s calling card, reproduced on the cover of the 1978 LP ‘Electric Guitarist’). This is the only interview I’m aware of in which he mentions British saxophonist Tubby Hayes (a prominent musician on British TV at that time, with his own series) as an influence. He would mention Cannonball Adderley in future interviews. All his future-named inspirational players would be Americans.
Georgie’s reference to slipping in jazz with the crowd-pleasing pop is intriguing: Tony Meehan would try the same in concert during the brief tenure of his eponymous Combo with John and others (one tour in late 1963, a few subsequent dates and a minor hit single). Graham Bond, with John on board in his Quartet with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, in the period between (April to September 1963), moved very consciously FROM jazz to R&B, trail-blazing that form of music and trail-blazing what became the British club-based touring circuit, partly to try and become popular – switching in that period from alto sax to organ/vocals, and from a jazz-based repertoire to a blues-based one. Brian Auger, with whom John worked for a few months in early 1964, would make a similar conscious shift in musical direction (and also a career-defining shift from piano to organ).
The final paragraph reference to dancing and genders is also telling. It was often said at this time in the British papers that ‘folk music is for listening, pop is for dancing’. Outside of a few specialist jazz/R&B clubs, jazz-based music still fell into the functional/social music pot – for dancing, with listening coming second. Practitioners played it at US Air Force/Army bases in the Home Counties and at pubs like this one, the King’s Arms in Peckham (not even a well-known music pub of the era – just one that we are fortunate to be able to glimpse here because there was clearly a writer on the local paper who cared). Georgie’s Blue Flames made their name at the Flamingo in central London, but played anywhere within reach of London they could – sometimes managing 10 gigs a week.
There are few if any contemporaneous written accounts of the Blue Flames at the Flamingo during the McLaughlin era (mid 1962 – March 1963), but trumpeter (and future Nucleus leader/Miles Davis biographer) Ian Carr, who had moved to London from Newcastle in 1962, recalled the scene vividly in Alyn Shipton’s excellent Carr biography ‘Out Of The Long Dark’:
“[It] was full of American servicemen in big coats and Homburg hats. There were black and white, pimps and prostitutes, dope pushers, all of human life in those audiences. The music at the Flamingo went from midnight to five in the morning, and there were some tremendous bands that played there. The one I most remember was Georgie Fame… John McLaughlin was in the band on guitar, they had a great drummer called Red Reece, and… Mick Eve who was a fine saxophonist. Georgie was really under the influence of Mose Allison at that time, and he was a lovely singer with great time. But for me the star was McLaughlin. He was at the top of his form, and playing fantastically. He was steeped in the blues, but he had also absorbed all sorts of other kinds of jazz. He was truly phenomenal, and I used to go down there sometimes, just to hear him. As he played, there’d be all these Homburg hats, silhouetted by the lights, jiving away.”
Perhaps most remarkable about this Wandsworth Advertiser piece from March 1963 – catching John probably only a week or two before he left for the Graham Bond Quartet – is the opening paragraph. Take away the first sentence and the writer could be describing the same musician at a 10,000-seater American arena 10 years later. Whoever that writer was, he was good.
WANDSWORTH ADVERTISTER, 22 MARCH 1963
‘South London’s With-It Page’
‘Friday night in an upstairs room at the King’s Arms, Peckham Rye. A guitarist lifts high his instrument and a hand greedily slides over the strings. His eyes close, hands and strings fuse together and for one musician on a cold wet night comes ecstasy.
‘The pianist hits the keys and snarls into the mike… his eyes are closed too. The drummer drums and the bass guitarist emphasises the off-beat. The tenor man takes a break and listens.
‘Georgie Fame and his Blues Flames, a rhythm and blues group, have taken up the end of the week residency at the pub.
‘They play ‘R and B’ but like the other groups that play the same music they can’t define it. Sometimes it’s merely polished ‘rock’, sometimes the music takes up a modern phrasing and then it’s far more than just a noise to twist to. Rhythm and blues music with soul punched in it. Soul is rhythm and blues… it’s synonymous.
‘Georgie Fame, leader, singer, pianist, and organist and his drummer, Red Reece, once played with Billy Fury. “While we were under Larry Parnes we played with most of the pop stars,” said Georgie, “but we quit and formed this group. The others joined us, Mike Eve on tenor, “Boots” Slade bass guitar, and Johnnie McLaughlin guitar.”
‘Come the interval and Johnnie McLaughlin told me of his career. First, although he had to decide what name to use. He plays with many groups and changes it constantly. For this occasion it stayed as Johnnie.
“I don’t listen to other guitarists. I don’t want to sound like them. Cannonball Adderley and Tubby Hayes have influenced my playing the most.”
‘He smiled ruefully when I asked him if he liked pop music. “We play it,” he confessed, “you have to eat.”
‘Georgie continued on the same theme. “We play jazz but mix it with pop numbers. You can’t churn out jazz all the time, audiences won’t take it.”
‘The audience were down one end of the room. There’s a bar down there. There are plenty of girls, unattached girls, but the boys seem too self-conscious to jive. Only the brave ones dance.’