Theo Johnson

A little info on Big Theo

pictureLittle is known about Theo Johnson, the man who introduced John Martyn to Chris Blackwell. This is what I managed to find apart from what is already written in various John Martyn related articles.

Theo used to sing in folk clubs and he can be heard on the 1965 album Hootenanny At The Barge (in Weavers style). He also made one (not-so-good) record in 1968 for Surprise Records under the name of Big Theo: Bawdy British Ballads – a collection of choice songs (ILP 1011; 'cover design and production C. Blackwell'). The liner notes by D. Betteridge provide some biographical information:

Theo Johnson first saw the light of Folk Music in a small fishing village called Culowercoats in Northumberland [Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear, ed]. Born there in 1930 he soon grew into a big bouncing boy with a booming voice of much depth, which he attributed to his mother, a well-known opera singer, and mullet stew three times a day. Venturing from this seclusion he joined the Merchant Navy in 1944 travelling to the four corners of the globe, collecting folk songs from many nations.
Finally leaving the Navy in 1953 he took up residency in London and began to sing at BUNGIES [sic] that well known folk club and coffee house in Soho; he still as a matter of fact sings there today. Perhaps his favourite venue is THE BARGE at Kingston on Thames, this picturesque Dutch sailing barge echoes with ribaldry and mirth three times a week, whether the tide's in or out. Ably assisting in the proceedings in fine style are the three gents who go by the names of Dave Waite (Banjo), Dave Shelley (twelve string guitar) and Roger Evans (six string guitar).

So we know Theo was born in 1930 in Cullercoats, and at age 14, in the middle of World War II, he is supposed to have joined the Merchant Navy. In 1953 he picked up a career in the music business. Apart from that, he was still being called a naval engineer in 1965. So probably music was not immediately a full time occupation.
Chris Blackwell remembers Theo as a 'huge guy who rode a tiny little motor scooter'. They must have met around 1965.
According to Eddie Reader, in the early eighties he managed Mick Linnard and Dave Hughes. He had a company called Folkland Records and produced several albums in the late seventies (and a few on the Jazzland sublabel). He also let the young Eddie make a demo tape.

Theo had two brothers: Stan (a ski teacher) and Van Johnson (born 1940). The latter says that together with Leo Hart, Theo ran one of the first folk clubs in the cellar of Bunjies, a coffee shop at 27 Litchfield street (off Leicester Square). "He sang with a small group comprising of Dave Waite (banjo & guitar) and Roger Evans (guitar) who later went on the form the highly successful folk group The Countrymen."
Van confirms Theo also ran the Kingston Folk Barge, where the residents were Theo's group called The Whalers or The Barge Crew. "Many of the early folk artists either started or were helped along the way by Theo, including Jackson C Frank, Paul Simon, John Martyn, Maddy Prior, Al Stewart just to name a few…"

The Richmond Folk Club, which was held at the community halls in Richmond, was led by Alex Campbell aided by 'Big Theo' Johnson. And apparently he also ran the Cabbage Patch in Twickenham and had something to do with The Crown as well.

In the comments of a 2012 blog post by Van Johnson, he claims "Theo ran his own record label and was a great influence and help to a lot of struggling musicians including Jackson C Frank. I have a copy of his record with a personal dedication hand written on the back."

We also learn that Theo once lived in Milan. And that he was married four times. His last wife was called Svetlana Vasiljeva. At one point he became ill and passed away not long after 1994.

Sandy Denny
Theo also knew Sandy Denny. In her biography I've Always Kept A Unicorn, he gets a few lines on the production of early folk records.

"Theo was a big fella, with a booming bass baritone voice," says Dave Waite. "He fronted the resident group at the Barge, variously called the Whalers or the Barge Crew. Sandy sat in with them from time to time. He was a marine engineer by trade, a lot of chutzpah, more than his talent justified."
Johnson's influence even spread to New York, as Tom Paxton recalls: "One night at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village in 1965 I met a London folk singer named Theo Johnson. Theo was in New York for reasons connected to his day job as a naval engineer and over coffee he assured me he could put together some folk clubs if we ever came over to England." […]

Tom Paxton told the same story to JP Bean for his book Singing From The Floor | A History Of British Folk Clubs.

"We'd met a guy, Theo Johnson, in New York. He was over there and he came to the Gaslight and I got talking to him. He said 'If you'd like to come over, just drop me a line and I'll set up a few folk club dates'." [Matt McGinn got Tom seven folk club gigs in Scotland and Theo about five in England, the first being at Bunjies, ed.]

Back to the Unicorn:

Between them, Sandy Glennon and Theo Johnson persuaded Saga Records' boss Marcel Rodd to divert some funds into folk music, although it was never going to be a major investment. Retail laws had lately changed so that records were no longer sold solely in record shops. Now, as Dave Waite recalls, "you could buy them for ten bob at W.H. Smith's, major newsagents, or at railway stations – and all the budget labels came crashing in and cheap was the name of the game. If you couldn't knock out an album in one session they didn't want to know. We all made records for them, and Alex Campbell made more than most. It was money in your pocket. The standard of production was simply switching on the tapes and you played live, but just to be recording was a feather in your cap. It was a step up the ladder and you might get a session fee of £5 per song, or a nominal flat fee of fifty quid. If it was a traditional song, the producer would claim the arrangement credit." In Sandy's case it was Theo Johnson who claimed the arranger's royalty for the traditional material that was already part of her set.

The method of recording described here fits London Conversation pretty well.

Theo also got a short chapter in Philip Ward's book Sandy Denny | Reflections On Her Music, titled 'Theo The Sailor'. This is because in her song Next Time Around, he is referred to as 'Theo the sailor who sings in his lair'.