Voltarol - related music

Friday, 18 February 2011

John McCartney – the animated bassist

Several times over the past few years I have announced my intention of writing more about the late - and many would say - great John McCartney. I finally got round to starting this task but very soon realised that this story would take more than one posting to do it any kind of justice. Here, therefore, is part one of the story of my friendship with him.

Around 1977 I was working in a music shop in Uxbridge called – unsurprisingly – Uxbridge Music. It was owned at that time by John Gummer (no, not that John Gummer but the one who had previously been a director of City Organ and Record Centres) and Richard ‘Rick’ Watts (late of Simms Watts Amplification). One morning, a tall, curly haired and well spoken chap came into the shop for some bass strings. I served him with a set of Rotosound  ‘Swing Bass’ Round wound strings and then he asked if he could try out one of the electric basses that we had in stock. I said “yes”, plugged in the second hand Burns Bison bass that had taken his fancy, excused myself and went over to answer the telephone. The next thing I heard was Charlie Parker’s ‘Donna Lee’ being executed superbly. This was only a  year after Jaco Pastorius had burst on to the scene and turned every electric bassist’s world upside down. I had heard many an aspiring bassist try to emulate Jaco’s version of this tune, but I had never heard anyone get beyond the first four bars without stumbling before, and certainly not at the speed of the original performance. This guy had it completely under control and – much to my amazement – wasn’t actually ‘show-boating’ his performance. He had his face to the wall and had turned the volume down on the amp!

That was my first introduction to John McCartney. I tried to engage him in conversation to maybe find out a bit more about him but he politely resisted my gambits and left the shop. The next time he came in I tried again, and the next. It wasn’t until about his fourth visit to the shop that his social defences went down and he accepted the offer of a cup of coffee (a courtesy extended to all regular customers) and stayed for a chat. It soon became obvious that we had quite a lot in common. He was a jazz enthusiast who also enjoyed the funkier end of the music spectrum; he was literate and much given to obscure biblical and Shakespearean quotations and he had a positively evil sense of humour. Over the next few months we became fast friends.

I discovered that John had been a professional animator for the Richard Williams studio but was currently attempting to make a living purely by playing jazz. As any one who has ever tried this knows, no matter how good you are and how much you work it is almost impossible to make a decent living without resorting to day jobs as well. At this time John was pursuing another strand of his life – a love of alcohol – by working as wine salesman during the day. This involved visiting potential clients by pre-arranged appointment and armed with a case of samples, then persuading said potential client to purchase cases of the stuff. The basic salary for this was small but the possible commission was quite good. I offered to become a  client and arranged for a couple of my friends to be present for John’s visit to my flat, thus theoretically expanding his putative earnings.

John arrived at the appointed hour and I introduced him to my friends. The wine glasses were enthusiastically produced and the first bottle was offered up for tasting. John requested a glass for himself as well, so that he could “talk us through them”. There were twelve different bottles and we tried them all over the next two hours, successfully making a very large dent in John’s samples. The fact was that we none of us had sufficient disposable income at that time to buy a whole case of wine each. Never the less, even as John assured us somewhat alcoholically that it was not a problem, our collective guilt kicked in and my friends and I scraped together enough money to buy one case (the cheapest on offer) between us. John never actually said that this was the norm for his sales ventures but soon after that his career as a peripatetic vintner faded quietly away.

To be continued...