John Martyn was born Iain McGeachy, 11 September 1948, in New Malden, Surrey, England, to musically-minded parents. At the age of 17, he started his professional career under the guidance of folk artist Hamish Imlach.
The long, often bumpy journey through Martyn's career began when he arrived in London, where he was signed instantly by the astute Chris Blackwell, whose fledgling Island Records was just finding major success. Martyn became the first white solo artist on the label. His first album, the jazz/blues tinged 'London Conversation' (1968), was released amidst a growing folk scene which was beginning to shake off its traditionalist image. The jazz influence was confirmed when, only nine months later, 'The Tumbler' was released. A bold yet understated album, it broke many conventions of folk music, featuring the flute and saxophone of jazz artist Harold MacNair. The critics began the predictable Bob Dylan comparisons, especially as the young Martyn was not yet 20. Soon afterwards, Martyn married singer Beverley Kutner, and as John and Beverley Martyn, they produced two well-received albums, 'Stormbringer' and 'Road to Ruin'. The former was recorded in Woodstock, USA, with a talented group of American musicians, including Levon Helm of the Band and keyboard player Paul Harris. Both albums were relaxed in approach and echoed the simple peace and love attitudes of the day, with their gently naive sentiments.
It was the release of 'Bless the Weather' and 'Solid Air' that established him as a concert hall attraction. Martyn delivered a unique combination of beautifully slurred vocals and a breathtaking technique using his battered acoustic guitar played through an echoplex unit, together with sensitive and mature jazz arrangements. The track 'Solid Air' was written as a eulogy to his friend singer/songwriter Nick Drake who had committed suicide in 1974. Martyn was able to pour out his feelings in the opening two lines of the song: 'You've been taking your time and you've been living on solid air. You've been walking the line, you've been living on solid air.' Martyn continued to mature with subsequent albums, each time taking a step further away from folk music. 'Inside Out' and the mellow 'Sunday's Child' both confirmed his important musical standing, although commercial success still eluded him. Frustrated by the music business in general, he made and produced 'Live at Leeds' himself. The album could be purchased only by writing to John and Beverley at their home in Hastings; they personally signed every copy of the plain record sleeve upon despatch.
'One World', in 1977, with Steve Winwood guesting on most tracks, was warmly received. Martyn, however, was going through serious problems and would not produce a new work until three years later when, following the break up of his marriage, he delivered the stunning 'Grace and Danger', produced by Phil Collins1. This was the album in which Martyn bared all to his listeners, a painfully emotional work, which put the artist in a class of his own. Following this collection Martyn ended his association with Chris Blackwell. Martyn changed labels to WEA and delivered 'Glorious Fool' and 'Well Kept Secret', also touring regularly with a full-time band including the experienced Max Middleton on keyboards and the talented fretless bassist, Alan Thompson. These two albums had now moved him firmly into the rock category and, in live performance, his much-revered acoustic guitar playing was relegated to only a few numbers, such as his now-classic song 'May You Never', subsequently recorded by Eric Clapton. Martyn's gift as a lyricist, however, had never been sharper, and he injected a fierce yet honest seam into his songs.
On the title track to 'Glorious Fool' he wrote a powerful criticism of the former American president, Ronald Reagan (in just one carefully repeated line Martyn states, 'Half the lies he tells you are not true'). Then came his home-made album 'Philentropy' to which we have added three [sic] amazing tracks from 'Snoo', although a different era, it's the same talented man who joined Chris Blackwell's stable all those years ago...
Apart from the last (and faulty) sentence, these notes have been copied without credits from the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music or the introduction page to the John Martyn Connection or the Microsoft CDROM on rock music. Several paragraphs have been omitted.
Wrong, Grace and Danger was produced by Martin Levan but Phil Collins played drums on the album all right.