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John Martyn Biography

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John Martyn In-depth Biography

Scottish born singer-songwriter/guitarist John Martyn} began his innovative and expansive career at the age of 17 with a style influenced by American blues artists such as Robert Johnson} and Skip James}, the traditional music of his homeland, and the eclectic folk of Davey Graham}. With the aid of his mentor, traditional singer Hamish Imlach}, Martyn} began to make a name for himself and eventually moved to London, where he became a fixture at Cousins, the center for the local folk scene that spawned the likes of Bert Jansch}, Ralph McTell} and Al Stewart}. Soon after, he caught the attention of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell}, who made him the first solo white act to join the roster of his reggae-based label. The subsequent album, London Conversation} (Feb. 1968), only hinted at what was to come in Martyn's} career. Although it contained touches of blues along with Martyn's} rhythmic playing and distinctive voice, it was for the most part a fairly straightforward British folk record. With his follow-up later that same year, the Al Stewart}-produced The Tumbler}, Martyn} began to slowly test other waters, employing backup musicians such as jazz reedman Harold McNair}, to flesh out his sound. His voice also started to take on a jazzier quality as he began to experiment musically.

While on the road, Martyn} continued to experiment with his sound, adding various effects to his electrified acoustic. One such effect, the Echoplex, allowed him to play off of tape loops of his own guitar, enveloping himself in his own playing while continuing to play leads over the swelling sound. This would become an integral part of his recordings and stage performances in the coming years. He also met Beverley Kutner}, a singer from Coventry who later became his wife and musical partner. The duo released two records in 1970, Stormbringer} and The Road to Ruin}, the former recorded in Woodstock, N.Y. with American musicians including members of the Band}. For one track on their second album, John} and Bev} hired Pentangle} double bassist Danny Thompson}, who remained a constant in John's} career through a better part of the '70s, on stage and in the studio. John} planned his third solo album when Beverley} retired to take care of the couple's children, although there was supposedly pressure from Island for him to record on his own.

The next couple of years saw Martyn} continuing to expand on his unique blend of folk music, drawing on folk, blues, rock and jazz as well as music from the Middle East, South America and Jamaica. His voice continued to transform with each album while his playing became more aggressive, yet without losing its gentler side. Bless the Weather} (1971) and Solid Air} (1973) which helped form the foundation of Martyn's} fan base, featured some of his most mature and enduring songs -- "Solid Air," written for close friend Nick Drake}, "May You Never" (recorded by Eric Clapton}), and "Head and Heart" (recorded by America}). By the time of 1973's Inside Out}, Martyn's} use of the Echoplex had taken on a life of its own, while his vocals became more of an instrument: deeper and bluesier, with words slithering into one another, barely decipherable.

During this period, Martyn's} well-publicized bouts with alcoholism came to the forefront and began to affect his career somewhat. He became an erratic and at times self-destructive performer. He might perform an evening of electronic guitar experiments for a crowd of folkies or a set of traditional, acoustic ballads when playing to a rock audience. His shows would also range from the odd night of falling over drunk to sheer brilliance, as captured on the independently released Live at Leeds} (1975).

Following Sunday's Child} (1974), the live record and a 1977 best-of collection, Martyn}, for the most part, abandoned his acoustic guitar on record for a sort of rock, world and jazz fusion. Although his style was moving away from its folk roots, his songs retained the passion and structure of his best early work. Grace and Danger} (1980), his first release since 1977's One World}, painfully and honestly depicted the crumbling of John} and Beverley's} marriage in some of his most powerful material in years. It also seemed to gather interest in Martyn's} sagging career. With this new momentum and the help of friend Phil Collins}, Martyn} signed to WEA, where he recorded two records, Glorious Fool} (1981) and Well Kept Secret} (1982). Glorious Fool}, a superb effort, produced by Collins} and featuring Eric Clapton} on guitar and Collins} on drums, piano and vocals, looked to be his best shot at mainstream success, but failed to extend his cult status. Martyn} released his second independent live record, the magnificent Philentropy}, before returning to Island Records for two studio releases, a live album and a 12" single which featured a version of Bob Dylan's} "Tight Connection to My Heart." He was dropped by the label in 1988.

Martyn}, continuing to battle his alcoholism, resumed his career in 1990 with The Apprentice} and 1992's Cooltide}. He also released an album of his classic songs re-recorded with an all-star cast featuring Phil Collins}, David Gilmour} of Pink Floyd} and Levon Helm} of the Band}, as well as various compilations and live recordings. After a four year layoff, Martyn issued And}, an album with strong jazz, trip-hop and funk overtones, followed in 1998 by The Church with One Bell}, a collection of diverse covers. In 1999 he also released a live double album which documented a classic concert at London's Shaw Theatre in 1990 entitled Dirty Down & Live}.

Whether with his characteristic backslap acoustic guitar playing, his effects driven experimental journeys or catalog of excellent songs, John Martyn} remains an important and influential figure in both British folk and rock. ~ Brett Hartenbach, All Music Guide

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