Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Iain David McGeachy, 28 June 1948, near London, England; d 29 January 2009, Kilkenny, Ireland, of complications of pneumonia) Guitarist, singer, songwriter; a musicians' musician with a life-long cult following. His parents were light opera singers who soon split up; he grew up in Glasgow. He learned guitar from Scottish folksinger Hamish Imlach (d 1 June 1996, Glasgow, aged 55) and from Bukka White and Robert Johnson records; he was a sensation on the UK folk circuit while still in his teens, his debut solo acoustic album London Conversation '68 reflecting roots while The Tumbler same year included flautist Harold McNair, who had earlier worked with Donovan, as well as a second guitar and a bass.

He met his wife, Beverly Kutner, when he was hired to play on an album of hers. Stormbringer! '70 was made in Woodstock NY with her and members of the Band; Road To Ruin with Beverley was his first collaboration with Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson. Bless The Weather '71 included the touching title track asnd an impressive six-minute instrumental 'Glistening Glyndebourne'; He had begun using the Echoplex and similar devices to make the guitar pulse hypnotically. Solid Air '73 found him involved with electric guitar and vocal phrasing influenced by veteran bluesmen, with Skip James's 'I'd Rather Be The Devil', the title track written about his friend Nick Drake, his best-known song 'May You Never' and the exuberant 'Over The Hill'. Inside Out '73 and Sunday's Child '75 continued to display eclecticism, the latter including a version of the traditional 'Spencer The Rover'. He struggled with alcoholism, spending some time in Jamaica for his hearth; One World '77 was made there with reggae dubmaster Lee Perry. So Far So Good '77 was a useful compilation of his '70s work.

Grace And Danger '80 marked his divorce, so harrowing that Island held it back a year; Chris Blackwell reportedly takes a CD of it with him wherever he goes, and Martyn thought it was his best work. It marked a collaboration with Phil Collins which continued on Glorious Fool '81, which also included Clapton; Well Kept Secret '82, live Philentropy '83, Sapphire '84 carried on with unique musical fusions, and Piece By Piece '86 celebrated 20 years as a performer, including long-time fan Robert Palmer, followed by Foundations '88, marking 20 years of albums. Sweet Little Mysteries was a substantial Island anthology.

Like Roy Harper, Martyn had many fans among folk, rock and pop stars, but never achieved the wider fame they thought he deserved. A deal with the Permanent label was not successful (some CDs later on Hypertension): The Apprentice '90 had its good points (saxophonists Colin Tulley and Andy Sheppard) but its overall cocktail-bar feeling was not where Martyn should have been, while Cooltide '91 (with Sheppard again) was a bright album including 'Father Time', a defiant treatment of mid-life crisis, and 'Jack The Lad', slide guitar showing the influence of Bukka White, but still left him feeling discarded. Couldn't Love You More '92 was a best-of and No Little Boy '93 was reworkings of good old songs. A deal with Go! Discs seemed to be an improvement, the album And '96 being enthusiastically reviewed. Other compilations were The Electric John Martyn '82 on Island and BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert '92 on Windsong.

He once opened for Charles Mingus and Weather Report at a Philadelphia club; nobody was listening, so he lost his temper and smashed his guitar. Mingus said, 'Listen son, I'm 56 and I'm still wallpaper. Who the hell do you think you are?' Clapton covered 'May You Never' on Slowhand and made Martyn more money than all his own albums put together. The Church With One Bell '98 on Independiente was an album of covers, made so that Martyn could buy a disused church. On the Cobbles came out in 2004, and the posthumous Heaven And Earth on Absolute in 2011.

Following an accident in 2003 he lost his right leg below the knee, which made touring difficult. In February 2008 he received a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards; in October he played at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan with Danny Thompson; and in December he rece ived an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire).
He was excited about making an album with Pharoah Sanders, one of his heroes.