John Gustafson remembered

John GustafsonIt was back in 2007 that I interviewed John Gustafson, and the popularity of this piece on the Internet only stressed the fact how underestimated – and how much loved – Gus was. Sadly, John passed away in September 2014 and, since then, I’ve been reaching out to as many of his friends and colleagues as I could. Most of them obliged; some, including Paul McCartney and Ian Gillan, were too busy. But, no doubt, John remains in the memory of everyone whose path ever crossed with his… 

Gloria Bristow,
manager, FENIX/AoReA Music

I first met Gus back in the early ’60s when THE MERSEYBEATS engaged him to be their new bass player. His reputation from THE BIG THREE was already legendary in Liverpool. THE MERSEYBEATS had just signed a deal with Philips/Fontana and I was European PRO for Philips Records. By the time John left THE MERSEYBEATS I had started my own company and acted as his personal manager for a while, negotiating a good deal for him with Polydor. We all knew he could and would have gone on to make a big career as a solo artist, but he never wanted to be in the spotlight, he just wanted to be recognized as a musician… So following a couple of turntable-hit singles, he went off to work with different “name” bands up and down the UK before I persuaded him back to London to play bass for my EPISODE SIX group, which had just lost Ian Gillan and their original bass player Roger Glover to DEEP PURPLE. Via the EPISODE SIX involvement John met and worked with drummer Mick Underwood. It was soon obvious they were totally compatible in their approach to music so when keyboard genius Pete Robinson appeared on the horizon we grabbed him at the speed of light and the resultant trio became QUATERMASS. I did all the ground work, then handed them over to the Harvest Records’ “management connections” – not my best business decision, but everything is simple with hindsight.

Tempus fugit. Gus rolled forward and much later, in 2006, he and I made a publishing agreement for his new compositions. He also compiled tracks for what we had hoped might form the basis of a new album. However, the latter was not to be, as his illness prevented any thoughts of “on the road” promotion, but at least it’s all on-line.

As always in these situations, many people will write many things and there are others who were close to him musically and will be sad to learn of his passing, but I shall always treasure him as a friend, as well as a brilliant bass guitarist – someone whose working lifespan has intertwined with my own across the years. Of his musical ability and contribution to the history of rock there can be no doubt, but his good humor and determination against all odds during his long battle with cancer showed him to be a remarkable human being. Although I knew the final day would come, there was no way of knowing when, and news of his death leaves me so much the sadder for his passing, but also so very much the richer for the privilege of having known and worked with him.

A friend of many years, and (sometimes) also my artist, he will always be part of the fabric of my own lifespan… may you rest in peace, John.

Mick Underwood,

So sad to hear of the passing of John Gustafson on 12th September, 2014. He was a truly amazing bass player and vocalist. We worked together in the band QUATERMASS and I can honestly say that playing with him was a pure delight and an education. The musical link with him, for me, was intangible… It was just there and always was. As a vocalist he was one of the very best: an amazing voice, power and phrasing. On top of all this, he was a brilliant and great guy who could have you rolling on the floor laughing.

You will be sadly missed, Brother John.

J. Peter Robinson,
keyboard player and composer

The earliest memory I have of John was when Mick Underwood and I went to meet him at “The Ship” pub in Wardour Street in London’s Soho. Mick found himself without a band when DEEP PURPLE spirited Ian Gillan and Roger Glover away from EPISODE SIX, a band which had Mick at the drumming helm. We had enjoyed playing together before in a band with James Royal on a Johnny Cash/Carl Perkins tour of the UK and the two of us got together in a rehearsal room in Southall, West London, and jammed for hours. It was then that it was decided that a band should be formed from this musical collaboration, but we would need a singer and a bass player – but not necessarily in that order.

Meeting John as we did that afternoon was serendipitous as luck would have it, not only could he sing but wasn’t too shabby on the bass either. So, it was back to Southall with John in tow. Both Mick and I were slack-jawed at how amazing his voice was. It reminded me of the best of Little Richard at his height, and Paul McCartney singing “I’m Down” coupled with the most innovative and unbelievably dexterous bass playing I had ever heard. All three of us agreed that this would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t take advantage of this moment, and so QUATERMASS was born.

After a few gigs in Germany and the UK, we went into Abbey Road Studios to record our first and, unfortunately, only album. It was during this recording that I really came to realize the true extent of his incredible musicianship. He could belt out hard rockin’ numbers like “One Blind Mice” or soar from the heavens as in “Postwar Saturday Echo” but in “Good Lord Knows” his voice became mysteriously gentle and both Mick and I marvelled at how he could creatively improvise around a melody but still maintain its integrity. Astonishing.

John and I were also lovers of the “Goon Show,” a BBC radio comedy series that ran from the Fifties until the early Sixties. We would often keep each other in fits of laughter reminiscing about some of the episodes, and would often mimic the characters’ voices that came from the geniuses that were Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. “Ting Tong Billy Bong.”

For a while John and I and a few friends from the Royal Academy of Music formed an improvisational group called THE SPHINCTER ENSEMBLE and we would jam for hours and hours at the “Harrodian Club” in Barnes, southwest London. No matter where the music took us during these flights of fancy, John’s bass playing was a master class in musical innovation. Never once resorting to clichés. We always recorded these events and I was happy to broker a recent CD release of our first “Harrodian Event” John’s playing stood out as a key element in these improvisations: never intrusive but always supporting the music with solidity. He undoubtedly was the musical backbone of this ensemble.

Although we lost touch for a few years when I moved to Los Angeles, John was never far from my thoughts, and last year I undertook to remix the QUATERMASS album as all three of us felt that the original mixes didn’t do justice to the music. It was sad to see him so unwell at the time, but he took his illness in the usual JG fashion: with humour and barely a grumble, although one could tell it was a huge struggle for him. But that was John: “There’s always somebody worse off, mate,” he would say. I’m so glad that he got to hear the remix and give it a thumbs-up. The album is dedicated to his memory.

At John’s passing we lost an unsung hero, an incredible musician and a Top Chap.

Steve Hackett,

I’m sorry to hear about Gus. I didn’t really know John, but he played bass well on the track “Star Of Sirius” on my album "Voyage Of The Acolyte". He was very friendly and I could tell he was a really nice guy as well as a great bass player.

Steve Swindells,

John was a gentleman and a great bass player. It was a privilege to have him playing on my first album "Messages" which came out on RCA in 1974. It’s all a long time ago, but I recall his lovely nature – which was an intrinsic part of his lyrical prowess on the bass.

Tony Newman,

Johnny Gus and I were kindred spirits for fifty years: we played music together on stage and in the studio, we would have long dicussions on John Mclaughlin’s music, working out time signatures etcetera. Johnny was a great musician, writer, friend, always a bright light. The world will miss his presence.

Gordon Giltrap,

My memories of this charismatic unbelievably handsome bass player could fill many pages,but here are just a few memories. I still don’t know how he came to join the GORDON GILTRAP BAND, who recommended him or indeed the circumstances of how it all came about, but suffice to say I’m glad he did!

When John joined the GG BAND, he completed the rhythm section with the then new drummer Ian Mosely. What a dream team this turned out to be! Both John and Ian contributed to the “Peacock Party” album, the "Fear Of The Dark" album and, of course, the “Live At Oxford” album, regarded by many as one of my best live albums. Let us not forget also the wonderful 12-inch colour picture disc of the “Fear Of The Dark” single. We did “Top of the Pops” together along with “Whistle Test” appearances and major tours.

Prior to joining me, John had been in many stellar line-ups including ROXY MUSIC and the IAN GILLAN BAND. If truth be told, my music really wasn’t John’s thing, John being an out-and-out powerhouse bass player, but my God he did fit in and brought a very direct approach to my music and live shows at that time, as many I’m sure will testify who witnessed those late ’70s concerts.

He was a great devotee of Wal basses and certainly knew how to extract some great sounds from these legendary instruments created by the late John Waller. John G. Perry, my other bass playing partner and session man supreme, was also a lover of Wal basses.

Because of his background from a tough area of Liverpool, John was definitely no-nonsense old school in his approach to life and music. He was a true Liverpool legend who was there from the very beginning of Mersey Mania, and started out playing at “The Cavern” with THE BEATLES, and was even managed as a solo artist by Brian Epstein! On the face of it, John had it all: great looks, great voice, great musicianship, charisma, the lot. My feeling is that if he wanted to he could have been far bigger than he was, but John marched to the beat of his own drum, and therefore did exactly what he wanted. He was the original wild child!

He told me he got a call one day from Tim Rice asking him if he wanted to do a vocal session for a concept album based of the life of Christ. Tim offered him a session fee or points from the sale of the album, but John being John thought, “No one is going to buy an album about the life of Christ!” so he just went for the session fee! Big mistake – I’m sure you will agree!

John led his life by the rules of the rock ‘n’ roll jungle. For example,the band were doing a concert at the Colston Hall in Bristol. We checked into the local hotel and went off for the soundcheck. On returning to my room, I found that it had been burgled and my case with all my belongings had been stolen. When I reported this to the hotel reception, the manager just quietly pointed to a disclaimer notice on the wall stating that the hotel took no responsibility for anything stolen from the rooms. I was stunned and, of course, had no legs to stand on. When I told Gus,he told me what to do to redress the situation, and that was to go back to the room, throw the TV out the window, destroy the sink and loo and generally wreck the room. Obviously this was not my way, but believe me John was deadly serious, and I know full well he would had done it if that had happened to him. Law of the rock ‘n’ roll jungle again!

John Gustafson

The morning that the world woke to hear of the murder of John Lennon,I was due to go to London for a band rehearsal at Redan Studios. On arriving, I was met by John, and, of course, we shared in the sadness of this news. For John, he had lost an old friend, and well remembered the night he was down “The Cavern” where he bumped into Lennon, who was admiring a new leather jacket that Gus had bought. Lennon liked it so much that Gus sold it to him for a fiver. How privileged was I to share this little bit of history with a man who was there from the very beginning.

When John moved house to the part of South East London very close to where I was living, I offered to help him move in. On the night I arrived there had been a burst pipe and pretty much all the decoration had been ruined, but John just took it in his stride, and I think we just went down the pub!

John paid me one of the best compliments ever, referring to me me as a “gentleman,” bless him. But when you were with him, there was always an element of danger about him, as you never quite knew what he would do next. John truly lived life to the full and lived for the day, an attitude which I sort of admired but could never adopt, me being me with my fairly moderate approach to life.

I was sharing an on-stage memory with Rod Edwards recently about John. We used to open the show with a piece entitle “Awakening” from the "Visionary" album, which started with a droning guitar riff and then a powerful B-chord which the entire band played. On one particular night everyone except Gus played the B, John I think played a mighty B flat! Once the wrong note had been played, John just glared at the rest of us wide-eyed in an accusing way suggesting that the entire band had got it wrong! That’s what you call a good recovery and truly thinking on your feet. What a true pro he was! There are many more stories I could tell about Gus and stories he related to me, but in truth they aren’t suitable for these pages but are truly interesting in the retelling.

No one messed with John, and you really knew where you stood with him. The music world will never see his likes again nor should it. He came from a time and place in musical history that truly was a golden age for popular music.

I often thought about him down the years and wondered how he was doing. I know his partner Annie from my old record company became the love of his life. Annie was a true beauty and their union produced stunning looking children, who I’m sure inherited their father’s musical gifts.

Rest in peace, John, it was a privilege to share part of your musical journey.

Shawn Phillips,

When we had the band together of Pete Robinson on keys, Barry De Souza on drums, Paul Buckmaster on cello, and Jon Gus on bass, we used to have nicknames for each other. I was “Short Fittings,” Pete was “Pilfered Rottingsocks,” Barry was “Balancing Your Forkhueser,” Paul was “Foul Blackmonster” and Jon was “Gone Just After.” John Gustafson was an extraordinary bass guitarist. Although he played with minimalism on one of the songs we did together, it made the piece absolutely timeless. The song was “Springwind” on the “Collaboration” album.

John Gus would come into a session and put an entire case of Guiness under his chair. By the time the session was over, the case was empty. He never missed a beat, though. He would also show up at my house in Positano, Italy, unannounced. The doorbell would ring, I would buzz the gate and John would come up the terrace stairs with a mischievous glint in his eye and say, “Ya got a room for a few days, mate?” I will miss him very much, but the music he played for so many people will live on.

Joe Jammer,

I had the privilege of working with Johnny G on the “Jerry Lee Lewis – London Sessions” double LP around 1973, and then on my second solo album called “Headway”, which, in fact, will finally be released worldwide on February 5th, 2015 on Angel Air Records, 40 years after we recorded it! I paired him with Mitch Mitchell, and the magic was palpable. I am deeply saddened that Johnny will not be around to finally hear the music we made ever so long ago. God bless you, John… You were a main contributor to the fact that those sessions are truly timeless. They don’t make music like that any more, because they don’t make musicians like YOU any more.

Tony Klinger,

John Gustafson died recently. I heard it, but didn’t initially believe it. When I worked with John we were young men, full of spit and vinegar, or whatever substances he found to pass his lips. He was featured in my film, “The Butterfly Ball,” with Roger Glover and many others. He stood out for me because of how he looked, very handsome, how he played the bass guitar, brilliantly, and how he sang, with great individuality and style. I also remember a straight talking man with an attractive personality. Above all, he could really play with great authority and was one of the best bass guitarists of his generation, and I worked with the best. John will be missed but his music will be with us forever.

Brian Griffiths,

Myself and Gus, we go back to 1959-1960, when all the bands were just starting in Liverpool. Even before I joined THE BIG THREE, I thought he was a fantastic singer and a great bass player who I’d never crossed paths with. When I did join the band, in 1962, we’d become best friends; we stayed that way until he passed away. But as far as his talent was concerned, he was amazing, he was such a great guy to play with, just to be in the same band with him, he was so just phenomenal. He was also a funny guy but we always treated each other with respect. When we were young, we were a kind of foolish, foolhardy young kids, teenagers in Liverpool and Hamburg, but I don’t remember ever having an arguments with Gus. Everyone liked him, he was an easy guy to get on with, but he had his own sense of humor and a very, very disctinct personality, and I think it contributed to his being a great musician and entertainer.

The best hour I’ve ever played in my life – and I played for fifty years – was when we played in Hamburg, and at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning we just did a solid hour of rock ‘n’ roll, just one solid hour without taking a break. Gus sang one Little Richard song after another, and the crowd just went crazy, and that has stuck in my mind. That was the best hour I’ve ever played, and he used to say the same. He had this amazing stamina to pull something like that off, he could sing four, five hours a night – that were the hours you had to do in Hamburg. He sang in his own style and never tried to sound like anyone else – even his early stuff had a very, very unique sound.

I saw Johnny Gus in August, twice, just before he died: I was in England making a documentary about THE BIG THREE. We did some interviews with Gus, he wanted to do them, and that was fine, even though he wasn’t feeling very well. I phoned him and said, “I want to come down and see you but not to do the interviews,” and he got a little bit riled and said, “No, I’ve been waiting for that!” Before we put this in the documentary, we view it quite cautiously, because Gus was this young handsome guy before, but even now he was still the same. He’d gone through some terrible times but kept positive and never lost his sense of humor. Gus was Gus, he never tried to be anyone else.

Paul Buckmaster,
arranger and cellist

John Gustafson was a man of many creative facets, among which were his amazing bass-guitar playing, his singing and songwriting. I did not have the pleasure of playing with him often; the few times that that occurred were the incredible jam sessions conducted at the “Harrodian Club,” the group of musicians for which was subsequently named THE SPHINCTER ENSEMBLE. His inventiveness, and, more extraordinary – in the context of a very free-form collective improvisation – his anchoring time-precision, frankly, on listening to playback, blow me away.

But, perhaps the most excellent aspect of his character that I vividly recall was his hilarious sense of humour.

Dzal Martin,

I can’t remember exactly when I met John but I’m guessing early ’80s when my session “career” started. He worked a lot for the production team that I also played for. Their artists included Gordon Giltrap who John worked with. My main connection was a brief group called THE ROCK BAND formed by guitarist Jackie McCauley and consisted of him and myself, drummer Les Binks of JUDAS PRIEST fame and John on bass. We played a mixture of covers and originals in a residency at London’s “Red Lion,” a popular circuit gig.

John had a very dry scouse humour, and coming with a serious reputation from Liverpool’s BIG THREE – contemporaries of THE BEATLES – I was a little in awe of him but having cut my playing teeth at “The Cavern” and other clubs there a few years later, we had common ground. Not only a great bass player but a fine voice I still remember him showing me a great third vocal harmony for THE EVERLYS’ “When Will I Be Loved.” And I still know it!

Last seen at his wedding reception some time ago, he was a real character from a generation that formed the backbone of contemporary rock and pop music in Britain and really WILL be missed. Certainly by me.

BJ Cole,
steel guitarist

Sorry to hear about Johnny’s passing. I only new him in a musical context. We worked together on many recording sessions during the ’70s. He was always very friendly and above all a first-rate musician. One of the best bass players on the recording scene at that time.

Annie Gustafson,
John’s widow

Being a huge ROXY MUSIC fan, I think I would have been about 17 when I became aware of John. I loved music and in the age of vinyl I would study the record sleeve and credits of records I had brought and it seemed that John’s name kept cropping up. I do remember meeting him in the pub round the corner from Air London recording studios when I was 18. I remember he had hair down his back but I don’t remember much about this meeting except that he chatted me up and was cheeky. But when our paths crossed four years later and I was asked by my boss to get down to “Our Price” records in Kensington High Street as THE GORDON GILTRAP BAND were doing a record signing/promotion and by the way they had a new bass player – John Gustafson, I remember smiling and thinking “I remember that cheeky bugger”!

The next 36 years, as they say, is history. He wooed me with his wonderful cooking and all things garlic, and when he wasn’t cooking for me he was taking me to lovely restaurants. He brought with him his love of Liverpool Football Club, astronomy, quantum physics (which were somewhat lost on me), Bonnie Raitt and Little Richard. Within five months we were living together and he had taken me to Positano where he had spent three months recording an album with Shawn Phillips. I fell in love with Positano too and we visited many times and ironically it was where we spent our last holiday last year.

Although he took me to Positano and Inverness, in the first few months holidays did not have the appeal that they have to most people as John spent a lot of time travelling the world and this is where my art of persuasion came in. John soon got used to the notion of going away on holiday. We had many lovely holidays initially as a couple, then a family. For many years we would hire a huge villa somewhere and go as two families – these holidays were full fun, good food and wine. And John would throw himself wholeheartedly into cooking for everyone. I have a memory of a holiday in Spain with our friends. John and our friend sat in the kitchen for ages chopping a mountain of garlic whilst consuming several bottles of rioja – I think we ate very late that night! Obviously, when you have children your social life changes but it didn’t stop us packing up the car on a Friday night and spending weekend with friends and their children. These were very happy times. Several years ago, John made another good friend who shared his interest in real ale, football, Dave Edmunds, westerns and Jack Reacher novels. I have never heard two Northern lads vocalize so much their disgust that Tom Cruise was going to play Jack Reacher – what were these film people thinking! The past seven years we fell in love with South Goa in India and visited many times, and he would eat his body weight in curry washed down with Kingfisher beer. Our house has always been an open house and John was never happier when friends and family came round and would fire up the barbecue. I think it said something about us as a family as our children’s friends would often be in our home – not a lot of young people would want to do that. The district nurses had been visiting recently and they said that despite John’s illness it was a lovely home to come into – full of life, the dogs going mental, nice food smells coming from the kitchen, music, Joe playing guitar and the odd builder or two.

John Gustafson with his family

John was a private person and not always comfortable when people wanted to talk to him about his work. He would irritate me sometimes at a party when someone had made a beeline for him wanting to talk about music he has performed on and would think of the worse thing he had played on which often stopped the conversation dead. Only in the past two months, since moving home, has John allowed his gold discs to be placed where they could be seen by others – he just didn’t want any fuss. The accolades were well received but the fame not so. He would much rather travel on the tour bus with the roadies than be in a limousine. He just did it because he loved playing. John could not understand why people wanted to interview him about stuff that was so well-documented and usually refused these requests. Let’s not forget where this all started – John’s older brother Tony bought John his first guitar for ten shillings and taught him chord sequences on a piano. Tony remembers: “He was an eager and quick learner, and played in small groups with friends as a teenager – I called it ‘three-chord rubbish’ – how wrong was I!”

John was such a stoic person. He endured so many operations and treatments but he faced it head on and his attitude was “What’s the point in worrying when you can’t change anything.” The day before his first major operation he finished building a conservatory and cooked us spaghetti bolognaise for dinner although I don’t think he was allowed to eat it due to his operation being first thing the next morning. He was driven in his determination to not let his illness stop him from living his life. I don’t think many people could have tolerated spending a day having chemotherapy and then get on a plane to India the next day – but he did. Many times when he was out, he could be seen with a pint of Guinness in his hand enjoying watching some band – you wouldn’t notice the chemotherapy pump in his shirt pocket that he was hooked up to – he didn’t do it to get attention he just didn’t want this treatment to stop him doing some of the things he loved I suppose John was quite a traditionalist. I was reminded by Gordon Giltrap who remembers the first time John and I met he was smitten and rushed out to buy me flowers. That reminded me of one Christmas at my parents when John asked my dad for a Scotch and then another which he never drank and I thought “What’s going on?” My dad loved John and was not a formidable man but John wanted to ask him if it was alright if we got married – and at that time we had been living together for over five years! It took me ages to realize that the five or ten pound notes I frequently found in my purse had been put there by him to pay for my lunch.

His legacy lives on in Alice, Lucy and Joe of whom he was so proud – they have become just the best intelligent self-aware amazing young adults. John and I have always been doers and if anything this experience reinforces our philosophy to get busy living, spend time with the people you care about and to seize the moment. Of course, our marriage wasn’t perfect – no one’s is – but we were strong characters and were a very good team, we just worked well together. He was my best friend and confidant and without a doubt the love of my life. We just loved each other so much. John was generous in every way to our children and me, and I honestly believe that there is nothing he would not have done for us. I could not have been loved more and as a family we have all been truly loved. I was so lucky to have met him.

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