"My career did not start, it happened."
Interview with John C. Marshall
When the singer didn't show up everyone pointed at me
John C. Marshall,(John: There are a lot of John Marshall's on this planet, that's the reason for the C.) is rather well known in the English, Dutch and German Jazz and Blues scenes. Besides being a gifted guitar and banjo-player he is also a singer since a couple of years. John was born and raised in 1941 in London in a musically well educated family. Not only his father, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 93, was a well-known banjo player, but also his mother. When John reached the age of twelve, he got a banjo for his birthday.
Your first musical impressions?
My first musical steps were inspired by Louis Armstrong and this master did want to play the trumpet, but for financial reasons it was impossible for me to get that glittering instrument. With my financial sources I could just reach for a guitar. That was a lucky pick, because on that time 'Skiffle'-music became rather popular in London and because of the fact that there were not that much electric guitar players in those days, they knew how to find me for a couple of gigs.
And than you met Lonnie Donnegan?
Indeed. The 'numero uno' in 'Skiffle'-music in those days was Lonnie Donnegan who, when I had the chance to chat with him, told me that he had listened to an American blues singer and guitar player Robert Johnson. As a matter of fact, many of the today great blues artists name Robert Johnson as their most important well of inspiration. I bought some records of Robert Johnson, there is not much recorded, and discovered at the same time Eddie Lang. Incredible beautifully music those two have made. I also bought a Ray Charles record 'Live in Atlanta' and was really upside down by the solo's of trumpet player Blue Mitchell and Ray Charles himself on the alto-sax. On that album they play also the famous Ray Charles song 'Tell me what I say' and that song inspired me to the thought that one day it should be possible for me to make music with Ray Charles, and when I had achieved to reach that height, to quit guitar playing.
How did you start your professional career?
My career didn't start, it happened. In the sixties, I turned from one gig into another and played in a lot of pop-groups at that time. I shall have been nineteen years old when I listened for the first time to an album of Wes Montgomery. I was totally confused. His music struck me as lightning but which direction did I have to go now? The music of Wes had nothing in common with the music I was playing at that moment. At the same time I also discovered Charlie Christian and that trial led again to Robert Johnson and Eddie Lang. But now I approached their music from a completely different corner. As a result of all this I quitted the pop-scene and tried to play on every jazz-gig that came on my road. This urge brought me in contact with Phil Seaman, the ultimate English jazz drummer, who was always surrounded by known and unknown jazz musicians. He introduced me to the world of jazz with all the good but unluckily also bad habits. During that period I did also a three-week tour with Dinah Washington, without having the knowledge that she was that famous. Halfway the sixties I quitted the London scene and went to Paris, because the jazz thing was happening there. One of the interesting options was that you could play for the American G.I.'s, and that's what I did and so I toured through France and Germany with trumpet player Art Farmer and singer O.C. Smith.
But after that jazz episode you returned to the pop-scene?
There is an end to everything and thus to do gigs for the American troops. I had the opportunity to join the band that accompanied the French rock idol Johnny Haliday. Off course there were financial reasons, but he had a great band at that time with very qualified musicians.And suddenly your dream came through?My good and mourned friend Jeff Reynolds, a great trumpet player, and I heard at a certain moment the rumor that Ray Charles needed musicians for his band to do a European tour. We applied for the job and had to do an audition. I was quite nervous, that's for sure. Jeff got a contract and then it was my turn. I played some licks and then Ray Charles said, and I won't forget his words as long as I live: 'That cat is cool. I hear he's black'.
Quite an astonishing remark when you are so pale as you are.
I agree, so they told Ray that I am a real honky, but that was no objection. By the way, I had a different experience in Holland once. Advanced Warning was invited to play on an international Blues festival and for promotional reasons we were asked to do a performance for a tv-show. No problem till the producers of that tv-program discovered that we were a complete white band. They producers skipped the performance because a blues band could only be black, in their narrow-minded view.
Was it a great experience to join the Ray Charles band?
What do you think? Because I had developed myself not only as a guitar player but also in the theoretical direction I was contracted as a guitar player and band leader. Can you imagine? I was writing all the arrangements for the Ray Charles band? I had a marvelous time and learned a lot, what helped me' when later on in my career I did the same job for people as Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King and Arthur Conley. I tell you one nice anecdote about the Ray Charles band. When you are on the road for a couple of months the attention is slacking and when you have a band that mainly is consisting of jazz-musicians than sometimes notes are played who aren't in the arrangement. We were in Lyon with the band and doing a rehearsal for the coming performance and Ray was immediately aware of the fact that no one was really paying attention. "Listen guys", Ray said, "I got the feeling that you want to play jazz. Well let's do it!" And Ray started to play 'Giant Steps' in a really murdering tempo, than follows 'Scrapple from the apple' and it went on that way for more than one hour and a half. The whole band was steaming, really cookin' and at the moment that everyone was raising the roof Ray stands up and says: "Well gentlemen so far for the jazz, let's now do the job."
What happened after the Ray Charles' episode?
I toured through the world with 'Steppin Out' a blues-rock band that was rather successful. At a certain moment, it was 1983, we were touring in Egypt. I visited the pyramids and that visit became almost fatal to me. A virus hit me and I was hospitalized for almost two and a half year, balancing on the edge between live and death. Via wheelchairs and re validation I became able to play the guitar again. But I started also to think, what do I really want? And what did you really want? To start an organ-trio. In Germany, where I live at the moment you will find a couple of good organ players, but they don't swing. So I asked musicians if they knew a really swinging organ-player and one day Herbert Noord was mentioned to me. We did a couple of gig's and we decided to go along. I invented the name 'Advanced Warning' for the group that later on was joined by Rinus Groeneveld and Pierre van der Linden.
How did the cooperation work?
Very fruitful. Till now we made four cd's together and we are busy with number five.
Some of the songs have odd titles, any reason why?
Because they are based on thing's that have really happened to us. 'Watch out for the Jazzpolice' for instance is based on an event that happened one day during a tour when we were playing at 'Doctor Jazz' a club in Düsseldorf As you probably know, a Hammond organ is not well known for his soft sound, so at a certain moment we were warned by the owner of the club that the music should be less loud because the 'jazz polizei' was listening. It turned out to be police officers walking around with decibel-meters to check if the music was not too loud!
You are singing in a couple of songs, when did you start singing?
I did not start. I was forced to sing.
How on earth can you be forced to sing?
Years ago I played in a commercial band with a singer but for one gig the singer didn't show up. Causing a big problem that had to be solved. The solution with which the other members of the band came up, was to point in my direction and say: 'You have to sing'. And because I literally was the smallest guy in that band I was forced that way to sing. Nowadays it's more common for me. By the way did you know that George Benson and I learnt to sing unison with the guitar through listening to 'T Bone' Walker the blues singer and Slam Stewart the double bass player? That was during a guitar exhibition where we did both demonstrations for Ibanez.
You just returned from Canada.
Yes, one of my songs that I recorded with the Canadian sax player Bobby Ganyair is used in the pilot for a tv-program and is developing to a little hit. Plans for the future? Very simple. To play with good musicians and to go on with making good music as long as possible.
Interview by Robert Rhoden
Düsseldorf, May 2001