JOHN JAMES-THE TRANSATLANTIC RECORDS YEARS.
John James-The Transatlantic Records Years.
When twenty-one year John James first started playing in folk clubs across Britain, many musicians and music fans were struck by just how versatile a guitarist he was. Many started referred to the Welsh singer-songwriter as a virtuoso as he showcased his fingerstyle guitar technique. Seamlessly, he could switch between blues to jazz and even ragtime. Musically, John James was a man for all seasons. However, what many musicians and music fans didn’t know, was that John James was a recent convert to the guitar.
John James who was born in Lampeter, Wales in 1967, learnt the basics of music on the piano, but at the age of twelve, decided to switch to the guitar. This was a decision he certainly wouldn’t regret.
Having mastered the guitar, John James would later, start playing in various pop and R&B bands on the local live circuit. For John James, this akin ti serving a musical apprenticeship and where he learnt his trade.
After a while, John James turned his back on the local pop and R&B bands, and decided to concentrate on acoustic folk. This was no surprise, given the American folk boom of the early sixties. Across the Atlantic, many an aspiring folk musician made their way to Greenwich Village, in New York, where Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Fred Neil, Tom Rush and Gordon Lightfoot had embarked upon successful careers. Many young, musicians also became part of the British folk boom, including John James.
He was twenty-one when he made his debut on the British folk scene, where John James joined Pentangle, Gerry Rafferty, Gordon Giltrap, Ralph McTell and Al Stewart. For the next two years, John James crisscrossed Britain, playing in various folk clubs. Each night, John James’ set was a mixture of his own songs, and a selection of old ragtime piano songs which were rearranged for on the guitar. This proved a winning combination on the folk scene, as John James served what was the final part of his musical apprenticeship. It would stand him in good stead for the future, as the sixties gave way to the seventies.
In 1970, twenty-three John James was approached by Transatlantic Records, with the offer of a recording contract. The A&R people at Transatlantic Records had heard John James playing live, and realised that the music on his setlist would prove popular with record buyers. It didn’t take long for John James to accept Transatlantic Records offer, before he signed on the dotted line. This was the start of a five-year spell at Transatlantic Records, where John James released four albums between 1970 and 1975.
Morning Brings The Light.
Now that John James had signed to Transatlantic Records, they were keen for John James to begin work on what became his debut album, Morning Brings The Light. It would feature a mixture of John James and cover versions.
For Morning Brings The Light, John James chose a selection of songs that reflected one of his live sets. This included eight of his own compositions including If Only I, One Long Happy Night, Once I Lived By The Sea, Picture Rag, A Little Blues, So Long Since I Was Home, Lampeter and Morning Brings The Light. They were augmented by Pickles and Peppers which was arranged John James, plus Stan Kelly’s Liverpool Lullaby, Hogan’s Alley (Black Eyed Blues) and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Ostrich Walk. These twelve songs were produced by Chris Golbey.
Transatlantic Records contracted out the recording of John James’ debut album, which was recorded by a production company. Chris Golbey was credited as producer and Len Black executive producer. They oversaw John James as sang and played his trusty guitar on the twelve tracks became Morning Brings The Light.
Morning Brings The Light was well received by critics and amongst the folk community. Critics were won over John James, as he switched between folk, blues and ragtime. It was no surprise that when Morning Brings The Light was released, John James’ debut album found favour within the folk community. Transatlantic Records who knew their market, it sold reasonably well. However, not well enough to reach the British charts. Despite that, John James had sold well for a folk album, and the future looked bright for the Welsh troubadour.
Two years before John James returned with his eponymous sophomore album. During that period, John James concentrated on the playing live. This was much more profitable for many folk singers, who were reluctant to give up lucrative live work. However, for any artist, an album was like a calling card, and had the potential to introduce their music to a much wider audience.
For his eponymous sophomore album, John James wrote seven of the eleven tracks, including To Meet You I Hurry Down, Evening Comes Quickly, Three Through The Lanes, Tim E Whay, Song Around A Square, Rolling On Down and Daughter Of The Wind. They were joined by four cover versions including Pete Berry’s Jazzbo’s Holiday. The other three tracks Original Rags, Stoptime and Listening To That Old Rag and Ragtime Dance were Scott Joplin compositions
John James had been given piano rolls featuring some Scott Joplin’s music by Reg Turner. He suggested that John James transpose some of the Scott Joplin compositions for the guitar, as he had the necessary talent. This wasn’t going to be easy, but if anyone could, it was John James.
He managed to transpose the songs for guitar, and when he came to record John James, they were among the eleven songs he recorded with producer John Whitehead at Sound Techniques and Livingston Studios, in London. The only other person present while the recording was taking place was Jo James, who was then married to John James. Soon, the album started to take shape and before long, was completed.
After nearly two years away, the Welsh troubadour returned with his sophomore album John James. Just like Morning Brings The Light, John James received praise and plaudits upon its release. It was another album of acoustic folk, blues and ragtime. John James decision to transpose the trio of Scott Joplin songs proved to be a masterstroke, and they took on new life when played on the guitar. The album showcased one of finest purveyors of the fingerstyle guitar technique on the British folk scene, and one of its rising stars.
Later in 1972, Transatlantic Records released John James, which although it didn’t sell in huge quantities, proved popular within the folk community. Sadly, John James didn’t find an audience within the wider musical community. By 1972, music was changing, with progressive rock, hard rock and glam rock growing in popularity. Albums of acoustic folk and ragtime weren’t going to reach the British charts. As a result, John James was one of music’s best kept secrets as far as the wider record buying public were concerned.
Sky In My Pie.
That was a great shame, given how talented John James was. He was one of the finest guitarists on the British folk scene. So was Pete Berryman, who was another familiar face on the British folk scene. The two virtuoso guitarists, who had been attempting to popularise the ragtime guitar style, and the music found a small, appreciative audience. However, it was still to be heard by the wider record buying public. John James and Pete Berryman wanted to change this, and hit on the idea of collaborating on an album together, which became Sky In My Pie.
For Sky In My Pie, fifteen songs were chosen, with John James writing And Sam Came Too, Kicking Up The Dust and Be Mine Or Run. John James also wrote Sailor’s Farewell, Easy Street and Blap Bam Boom with Pete Berryman, who contributed Sky In My Pie, Conquistador, Quiet Days and Turn Your Face. Other songs included Mammy O’Mine and the traditional song Out On The Rolling Sea which Pete Berryman arranged. They were joined by Alec Templeton’s Bach Goes To Town, Felix Arndt’s Nola and Scot Joplin’s Weeping Willow. These fifteen tracks became John James’ third album Sky In My Pie.
Recording of Sky In My Pie took place at Sound Techniques, London, with Stefan Grossman taking charge of production. He was a friend of John James, and the two men had much in much in common.
Stefan Grossman was a Brooklyn born, acoustic fingerstyle guitarist and singer, who had moved from New York to London in 1967. This was the same time that John James had arrived in London. Not long after this, the two men met and became friends. By 1972, Stefan Grossman had already released eight albums, and had embarked upon a career as a producer. Sky In My Pie was his latest production, and he proved the perfect person to record an album featuring two guitarists.
Sky In My Pie was released later in 1972 and received praise and plaudits within the folk community. The album featured a masterclass from two of the finest exponents acoustic fingerstyle guitar playing. They showcase their considerable skills from the opening bars of And Sam Came Too, and proceed to work their way through fifteen songs where they flit between folk, blues and ragtime on one of the hidden gems in the history of British acoustic folk.
Sadly, it was a familiar story when Sky In My Pie was released. While Sky In My Pie was popular within the folk community, it failed to find an audience further afield. This was disappointing as John James, Pete Berryman and producer Stefan Grossman had hoped that it would introduce the music to the wider record buying public. Alas, it wasn’t to be as Sky In My Pie slipped under the musical radar.
Head In The Clouds.
Nearly three years passed before John James began work on his fourth album for Transatlantic Records, Head In The Clouds, in 1975. Just like his previous album Sky In My Pie, John James was joined on Head In The Clouds by a very special guest artist, John Renbourn.
By 1975, John Renbourn was one of the leading lights of the British folk scene, John Renbourn. He was another English fingerstyle guitarist, singer and songwriter, and had been a member of Pentangle. However, John Renbourn had just left Pentangle and moved to Devon to form a new band. That was where John James and John Renbourn met, when they became neighbours. When John James’ thoughts turned his fourth album, Head In The Clouds, John Renbourn agreed to collaborate on the album.
Before recording began John James penned Georgemas Junction, Head In The Clouds, Stranger In The World, Secrets In The Sky and Stretching Of A Young Girl’s Heart. They were joined by covers of George Botsford’s Black And White Rag, Rev. Gary Davis’ Slow Drag, John Renbourn’s Wormwood Tangle, Charlie Byrd’s Blues For Felix, Scott Joplin’s Heliotrope Bouquet and the Griffiths’ composition Rags To Riches. These eleven tracks which became Head In The Clouds, were recorded at two studios.
This included Sound Techniques, in London, which was where John James first met Ritchie Gold who had just embarked upon a career as a producer. Neither John James nor John Renbourn had ever met Ritchie Gold, which made him a strange choice for producer. However, he produced the sessions for Head In The Clouds at Sound Techniques, and at Chipping Norton Recording Studios, in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.
That was where one of British acoustic folk’s finest fingerstyle guitarists recorded made his return on Head In The Clouds. As an added bonus, John James was joined by guitarist John Renbourn on Georgemas Junction, Wormwood Tangle and Stranger In The World. These three tracks on Head In The Clouds marked a meeting of great musical minds. When Head In The Clouds was complete, it was scheduled for release later in 1975.
After nearly three years away, John James returned with Head In The Clouds. Just like his previous albums, critics within the folk community lavished praise on Head In The Clouds. Other critics were won over by Head In The Clouds, and realised that they had heard a musical masterclass where John James switched between folk, ragtime and blues.
For John James, Head In The Clouds was a familiar story. The album found a niche within the folk community, but never found a wider audience. It was particularly disappointing, as Head In The Clouds was his best solo album.
Head In The Clouds was the last album John James released for Transatlantic Records. When he returned with Descriptive Guitar Instrumentals in 1976, John James had signed to Kicking Mule Records, which Stefan Grossman cofounded. This was a new chapter in John James’ career, which began at Transatlantic Records. They’re the perfect introduction to the first two chapters in the John James story.
He started out as a singer-singer songwriter on Morning Brings The Light and John James, before he decided to concentrate on his guitar playing on Sky In My Pie and Head In The Clouds. However, each of this quartet of albums feature John James, who between 1970 and 1975, was without doubt, one of British acoustic folk’s finest fingerstyle guitarists. However, talent doesn’t necessary equate to commercial success.
While John James’ quartet of albums proved popular within folk circles, they never found the wider audience they deserved. That only came much later. It wasn’t until the internet age when a new generation of music fans discovered John James’ music. By then, he was one of the elder statesmen of British folk. However, the four albums that started off his long and illustrious career, Morning Brings The Light, John James, Sky In My Pie and Head In The Clouds are a reminder of one of British acoustic folk’s finest fingerstyle guitarists at the peak of his powers.
John James-The Transatlantic Records Years.