A Rockapaedia Obituary
John Martyn died aged sixty on 29th January 2009, of acute respiratory distress syndrome in hospital in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland. He was survived by his partner, Teresa Walsh, and his children, Mhairi and Spencer.
John Martyn was born in New Malden, London, U.K. to an English mother and a Scottish father. His parents, both opera singers, divorced when he was five and he spent his childhood sometimes in Scotland and sometimes in England. Much of this was spent in the care of his grandmother, as well as on his mother's houseboat. He attended Shawlands Academy in Glasgow. At school, he was a keen rugby player. On leaving school he attended Art College in Glasgow, but left to pursue his musical aspirations.
Mentored by Hamish Imlach, John Martyn began his professional musical career when he was seventeen, playing a fusion of blues and folk resulting in a distinctive style which made him a key figure in the British folk scene during the mid 1960s. He signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1967 and released his first album, London Conversation, the following year.
This first album was soon followed by 'The Tumbler', which was moving towards jazz. By 1970 John Martyn had developed a wholly original and idiosyncratic sound. This sound was first apparent on 'Stormbringer!' in 1970, which was written and performed by John Martyn and his then-wife Beverley, who had previously recorded solo as Beverley Kutner. Her second album with John Martyn was The Road to Ruin, also released in 1970. Island Records felt that it would be more successful to market John Martyn as a solo act and this was how subsequent albums were produced, although Beverley continued to make appearances as a background singer as well as continuing as a solo artist herself.
"Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail" in 1973 was built around a traditional tune and was featured on 'Inside Out'. It typifies John Martyn's unique use of the echoplex effect, coupled with a fuzzbox and phase-shifter.
In 1973, John Martyn released one of the defining British albums of the 1970s, 'Solid Air', the title song a tribute to the singer-songwriter Nick Drake, a close friend and label-mate who died in 1974 from an overdose of antidepressants. On Solid Air, as with the one that preceded it, 'Bless the Weather', John Martyn collaborated with jazz bassist Danny Thompson, with whom he proceeded to have a musical partnership which continued until his death. He developed a new, slurred vocal style, the timbre of which resembled a tenor saxophone.
Following the commercial success of Solid Air, John Martyn quickly recorded and released the experimental 'Inside Out', an album with emphasis placed on feel and improvisation rather than song structure. In 1975, he followed this with 'Sunday's Child', a more song-based collection "My Baby Girl", "Spencer the Rover", with several references to his young family. John Martyn subsequently described this period as 'very happy'. In September 1975 he released a live album, 'Live at Leeds' as he had been unable to persuade Island to release the record, and resorted to selling individually signed copies by mail from home. Live at Leeds features Danny Thompson and drummer John Stevens. After releasing Live at Leeds, John Martyn took a sabbatical, including a visit to Jamaica, spending time with famous reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry.
In 1977, John released One World, which led some commentators to describe John Martyn as the "Father of Trip-Hop". It included tracks such as "Small Hours" and "Big Muff", a collaboration with Lee "Scratch" Perry. Small Hours was recorded outside and the microphones picked up ambient sounds such as geese from a nearby lake.
John Martyn's marriage broke down at the end of the 1970s. Out of this period, described by John Martyn as "a very dark period in my life", came the album 'Grace and Danger' released in October 1980. The album had been held up for a year by Chris Blackwell since he was a close friend of John and Beverley and found the album too openly disturbing to release. Only after intense and sustained pressure from John did Chris Blackwell agree to release the album.
In the late 1980s John Martyn cited Grace and Danger as his favourite album, and said that it was probably the most specific piece of autobiography he had written. The album has since become one of his highest-regarded, prompting a deluxe double-disc issue in 2007, containing the original album remastered.
Phil Collins played drums and sang backing vocals on Grace and Danger and subsequently played drums on and produced John Martyn's next album, Glorious Fool, in 1981. John Martyn left Island records in 1981, and recorded Glorious Fool and 'Well Kept Secret' for WEA achieving his first Top 30 album. John Martyn released a live album, Philentropy, in 1983. Returning to Island records, he recorded Sapphire in 1984, Piece by Piece in 1986 and the live 'Foundations' in 1987 before leaving the label in 1988.
John Martyn released 'The Apprentice' in 1990 and 'Cooltide' in 1991 for Permanent Records, and reunited with Phil Collins for 'No Little Boy' in 1993 which featured re-recorded versions of some of his classic tracks.
In July 2006 the documentary Johnny Too Bad was screened by the BBC. The programme documented the period surrounding the operation to amputate John Martyn's right leg below the knee, the result of a burst cyst, and the writing and recording of 'On the Cobbles' in 2004. Much of Cobbles was a revisiting of his acoustic-based sound. John Martyn's last concerts were in November 2008 reprising 'Grace and Danger'.
In collaboration with his keyboard player Spenser Cozens, John Martyn wrote and performed the score for Strangebrew winning the Fortean Times Award at the London Short Film Festival in the same year. The film concept being a strong influence of the album design of John Martyn's 'Heaven and Earth' in 2011. On 4th February 2008, John Martyn received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. The award was presented by his friend Phil Collins.
To mark John Martyn's 60th birthday, Island released a 4CD boxed set, Ain't No Saint on 1 September 2008. The set includes unreleased studio material and rare live recordings.
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