by Ara Jansen of 'The West Magazine'
I WAS AT A COLLEGE in West London and I came round the corner one day and there outside the Notting Hill Tube Station was Eric Clapton. I had been going to John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers gigs which was Eric and he was becoming the first proper guitar hero. In the mid-60s he was THE man. We were completely in awe.
Anyway, I rounded the corner and there he was, leaning on the rail. My knees went all wobbly. 'Bloody 'ell, you're Eric.' I said hello, and went and told the rest of the band. He was often just standing there, watching the traffic.
He was an underground legend at the time. Our drummer was much more brash than me and started talking to him. He got him down to play with the band. We played and he was very complimentary to me. I was really chuffed. 'You're not a great blues player but you're a great guitarist,' he said. He was really knocked out. My style was more a jazz blues thing. I don't know how to describe it, but it was early jazz fusion.
A couple of weeks later we were at a gig in London. Jimi Hendrix was there. This drummer was a fearless bragger. He went up to Hendrix and said the band on stage was crap and ours was brilliant. Hendrix arranged us a gig. After the gig, I was sitting alone and he came up and said it was great.
They both (Hendrix and Clapton) really encouraged me. Because of that I formed this determination in my youthful brain to play music. I went to university a bit later, although while I was there I was determined to do this music thing.
My interest in music started when I got given a ukelele for my 12th birthday. That didn't last long, but my dad was very helpful and got me a nice electric guitar, made in Russia, that cost three pounds.
I played the blues and I was very into Django Reinhardt. That was quite unusual - you couldn't get the records. Now you can get music from any historical period but in those days you couldn't buy them. I was only 12 and listening to Hank Marvin and Django. My main thing in the 60s was R&B and blues.
In jazz there's no money, so you don't get too many sharks. They swim by the pool, they stick their noses in the lagoon, but there's nothing to eat. There's not enough money in it. It's very pleasant because there's no major league treachery.
Later, there were some very defining moments for me playing with Stephane Grappelli. I left his band in 1982 and since then have juggled the different areas of my background as coherently as possible.
His early records were very important and it was a strange bit of coincidence I got to play with him. I was about 27 and I was in Soft Machine, which was a top English jazz rock fusion band at the time. Someone came to see me and said they were looking for a guitar player and they asked me to come and do a TV show with Stephane Grappelli. After some interesting little moments with him, he decided he liked me.
Stephane Grappelli was an improviser but the same things came up each night because you are the same person. He was totally relaxed, completely at home playing the music he played on stage with his violin. There was a total lack of conflict. In a band like Soft Machine there was a lot of angst and tension, very neurotic. Then there was this guy who was completely relaxed and just did it. The spiritual content was very up, positive and optimistic and that's what people like about it.
It was a positive, reinforcing experience. There was a feeling you could play music and it could be a relaxing and enjoyable experience rather than some creative struggle. That was his personality. He was very existential and never talked about music afterwards. He did a couple of hours rehearsal in five years. It's a very simple type of music making. Everything you do over the top is elaborating on the simplicity.
Steph would play simple things every night but they could go off in different directions. And he used to pull tricks and all that sort of stuff to keep us on our toes. He was important to me in an inspirational sense. It was the inspiration of his personality and his approach to music-making. That was the real legacy from him and that's something I have tried to maintain. It was so infectious. When I get intense about things I always try and think about him. He was very serious about playing but he didn't dwell on it.
People would be elated by the music rather than impressed by the virtuosity. I often think about him. He's one of those people - when I think about him I smile and laugh because he was such an unselfconscious character.
The John Etheridge Quartet were part of the Festival of Perth.
back to top