India’s contribution to Western popular music arcs from Sir Cliff Richards, Britain’s original teen idol, to rock and roll’s greatest voice Freddie Mercury, and from the father of Indo-jazz John Mayer to Vijay Iyer, perhaps the most lauded pianist in contemporary jazz. But there is another name, less well known but equally significant, that bridges these two worlds – rock and roll and jazz – and adds Indian colour to the history of rock and roll.
Gary Boyle, born in Patna in the waning days of the Empire, and highly regarded by peers, critics and industry giants, is possibly the greatest guitarist you’ve never heard of. Coming of age in the frenetic early years of rock and roll, Boyle’s story of a childhood spent in Bihar’s railway towns to playing with a veritable who’s who of jazz and rock such as Eddie Harris, Brian Auger, Dusty Springfield and Jimi Hendrix, is one of the most unlikely of rock and roll tales.
Now a gracefully ageing and still-working rocker, Boyle is a mix of humour and humility who ends his sentences with a friendly “man”. He recently spoke with Scroll.in from his home in Lancashire about his life, rock and roll, and the influence of India on his music. Edited excerpts:
You were born and spent the first years of your life in Patna, a city that is not, on the face of it, the breeding ground of rock and roll greatness. Tell us a bit about your family.
I am a result of the fantastic British Raj. Actually, I hate anything to do with colonialism. I’m an Anglo-Indian and my father was a railway man. It was a closed shop in those days, the railways. It was the Anglo-Indian gig. My dad was a driver but did other jobs for the railways as well. My grandfather on my mother’s side was an area boss.
How long has your family been associated with India?
The Boyles are of Irish extract. My great grandfather came to India from Ireland with the army. According to legend, he was a bit of a cowboy, and we think he was able to buy his way out of the army. And then he married an Armenian woman.
What memories do you have of your first years in India?
Dad was assigned to various places for periods and I remember some of those. Often, we lived in small villages with only a couple of other houses. Though I was too small to ride in the engines with dad, I remember trains coming in and going out. And there’s a weird memory of cows and getting milk off the train. And though I don’t really have memories of the big machines, I do recall daydreaming about cleaning the wheels when I got older.
Was yours a musical family? Did you listen to music as a child?
No, not really. Most of my parents’ life was spent in the club. Years later, I found out that my mom had a little dance band, and that she would sing in the club. She had fantastic pitch and a great ear for music. A couple of my uncles played guitar and so there was a lot of dancing in the club. When we got to England years later, though my mother wasn’t a professional singer, she auditioned for a show on the BBC. And was successful. But my dad put his foot down and wouldn’t let her do it.
What was it like to be uprooted from your home and move to a strange country?
I’ll never forget the two-night journey we took across India from Patna to Bombay to catch the ship. It was a long journey. When the ship docked at Tilbury there was a huge noise. Someone said it was the foghorn, but I thought they said frog horn and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see the frogs.
You settled in London right away?
Yeah. That first period of our stay was really difficult for my parents. They didn’t get the help they thought they would when they arrived. So, the whole family had to stay in one room. It was really expensive, and they went through their life savings pretty quickly. The landlord wouldn’t allow us to stay in the room during the day – it was crazy. My sister, who was around eight or ten months old, was sick. She had broken her arm on the ship but no one realised it. So it was agreed that she and I could stay in the room during the day. But my parents and the two other kids had to walk around Fulham all day, just biding their time. And the winter of 1947-’48 was the worst winter in history. It was so bad the tops of the telegraph poles were only just visible in the snow. We had no warm clothes. But eventually, we moved to South London and things improved. Dad got a job as an engineer at the General Post Office, where they had an underground railway and used to carry the mail around London. I never thought about it, but yeah, he stayed connected to the railways.
For Boyle too, the railways continued to play a critical role. In the mid-1950s when he was around 15 , the first youth-driven wave of popular music broke out in dreary, post-war England. Based loosely on the country blues of southern US, the skiffle music craze exploded into working class neighbourhoods with a jaunty, face-paced, guitar-driven sound that prejudiced American railway songs. Lonnie Donegan’s epic interpretation of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line set the template. Within months, thousands of teenage boys bought cheap Eastern European guitars and began singing and strumming away. By some estimates, within a couple of years, England was home to 30,000-50,000 skiffle groups.
Skiffle was a precursor to British rock and roll and even, some argue, the template for late ’70s punk, in that it didn’t demand musical virtuosity but insisted upon spunk, spirit and grit. And a guitar. Before skiffle, the guitar was not a popular British instrument. After Rock Island Line though, it became the weapon of choice for a whole line of English guitar legends from George Harrison and Eric Clapton, to Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. And Boyle.
When did you start playing the guitar?
My uncle Chick, who played guitar with my grandmother sometimes, gave me my first lessons. The skiffle craze was hot in those days, and after I saw Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber on television one night, I pinched my uncle Ken’s guitar and started to play in a youth club across the street.
Just like that?
My playing was rudimentary but there was a real camaraderie among those of us who played. I was studying to be a draughtsman in a civil engineering firm. But on weekends, my dad’s second cousin Errol and I would do a double act in tiny workmen’s clubs around London. We played The Inkspots and [things] like that. Around that time, my parents bought me an amp, a really nice-looking jazz guitar. To get to our gigs, I had to lug the damn amp a mile up the hill to catch the night bus.
Skiffle, as influential as it was on a whole generation of rockers, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. By 1958, British musicians were mainlining raw American blues. Bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles and The Yardbirds would, in a couple of years, begin invading America with their new sound. But in the meantime, there were dues to be paid.
In order to get more exposure and experience, Boyle and his bandmates made the move to Hamburg, the raunchy northern German sea port, celebrated for its nightlife, and the huge red-light district centred around the Reeperbahn, known to locals as the most sinful mile in Europe.
Like a lot of English groups, you worked for a while in Hamburg...
I was playing in a band and they wanted to turn professional, which was a big deal those days for working class people. Even though I still had two years of school left, my father said, “Go for it. Take a chance. We’ve kept you for this long. See what you can do.” It was incredible. Around Christmas in 1962, we were in Hamburg playing in clubs on the Reeperbahn. The Top Ten Club and Star Club, where The Beatles were playing, were just down the road.
What sort of music were you playing then?
A mix of stuff. The band had a Vox piano organ, a couple of horns and a singer. Brian Bentley was on drums and I was on guitar. We played everything from R&B style instrumentals and sax grooves to beat music. You know, early rock and roll.
Did you meet The Beatles?
Bentley hung out with them more than I did but we all played in the same clubs along the Reeperbahn and so saw each other’s shows, for sure. There was a real raw dive of a bar next to the Star Club where we’d go for a drink. The Beatles used to come in there all the time too. One evening we’re all sitting around with The Beatles, who were not famous then. Paul [McCartney] was with us but then George [Harrison] comes up and in his Liverpool drawl says, “John [Lennon] wants to go,” and McCartney jumped up, just seconds before someone took a photo. Starr, sitting right across from me, stuck around.
The English groups in Hamburg worked hard, lived in slave-like conditions and grew immensely as performers and musicians. By the time you got back to England, you were starting to be recognised, and got some great gigs like playing with Millie Small of My Boy Lollipop fame. Did you play on that recording?
By the time we left Hamburg I knew I wanted to be a full-time musician. No one thought of it as a career in those days. It was simply fun and I decided I’d keep doing it for as long as I could. As far as Small goes, no, I didn’t play on that record. It was recorded in Jamaica. The guitarist was the great Ernest Ranglin. But Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) brought her to England, and was looking for a band to tour with her. He saw us in London and hired us on the spot. He basically said, “You all do.” And the next thing we knew, we were on the road with them. One day Chris said, “Don’t be late for the gig tomorrow because you’re on the bill with a group called The Rolling Stones.” So we arrived at the hall in Bristol and went on just before the Stones. We were playing away when suddenly this massive wave of noise hit me. My trouser legs actually flapped like I was in a wind tunnel. One of the Stones had popped his head around the stage and the girls screamed so loud it caused a rush of wind. It was frightening. After that I went to work with Dusty.
As in Dusty Springfield?
At the time, sometimes, you don’t get it but in retrospect you realise how important certain experiences are. Springfield introduced me to the whole black American music scene, Motown and soul. I had been playing rock and R&B but had no real knowledge of the roots of rock and roll. As part of her backing band, The Echoes, we toured Scandinavia and all across Britain with her, and I even sang a duet with her on that tour. She was a such great singer.
Boyle the jazz-rocker
In those early days of rock and roll it was all about experimenting and getting experience. Reputations were being built, and whole new styles of playing were being invented. Boyle’s reputation as one of the most accomplished and versatile players, equally agile in rock, jazz and acoustic, can be traced to the amazing and frenetic work pace he kept up in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
You were around in London right at the moment when rock and roll was taking off. You were gigging, playing with and guesting with so many bands and people who went on to great things: Springfield and Brian Auger in particular but also East Wind, Eberhard Weber, Eddie Harris, Soft Machine and lots of minor bands that were nonetheless significant in the growth of the rock-jazz fusion scene. What was that like?
My friend Vic Briggs got a gig with The Animals for a bit and since I had done a bit of weekend work with Steampacket, the blues group he played in with Auger, Julie Driscoll, Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart, Briggs recommended me to stay on. But I became more aware of the bigger scene when I joined Auger and the Trinity. That involved touring a lot of smaller clubs, so I saw a lot more of the early rock and rollers then.
Everyone was everywhere it seems. Giorgio Gomelsky who discovered the Stones and managed the Yardbirds also managed Steampacket.
Yeah. We were in that period when the whole world was becoming.
Obviously working with Auger was an important part of your development.
I blame Auger for jazz-rock. I was playing rock but my record collection was full of jazz. But with Auger, I realised the two musics were connected. He never thought it was weird to mix rock with jazz. It seemed totally natural to blend them. He brought the jazz scene to the rock world. We always listened to Miles [Davis] and jazz on the tour bus, not rock and roll. Maybe Marvin Gaye. Wes Montgomery, of course, and [John] Coltrane.
So you were always a jazz fan...
Yes. I saw Montgomery at Ronnie Scott’s, one of the first [performances] I saw there. And then I saw Coltrane in a quartet with Eric Dolphy. I was totally flummoxed. I didn’t get it, at all. But within six months I got it and would have died to experience that again. It was just a bit too early for me. But I listened to lots of records in between and then I got it. I never really thought I could make a living playing jazz. Simply not good enough. Even now I don’t consider myself a jazz musician.
During the Trinity years, a new guitar sensation from America appeared on the scene: Jimi Hendrix. As I understand it, Auger was approached to include Hendrix in the newly-formed Trinity which he resisted. But he agreed to let Hendrix play at the same venues and used his cache with the upscale London pubs where you were playing to give him some exposure...
It was my very first rehearsal after I got the gig with Auger when the drummer began telling me about this fantastic American guitar player. And he kept cropping up in conversation. We did three gigs in South Kensington in posh pubs like the Cromwellian. One night I was playing away and saw this face staring at me through the crowd. Just focused in on me and my playing. I knew it was this new guy, Jimi Hendrix. But when the gig finished no one bothered to introduce me. The next time at another pub, the Bag of Nails in Carnaby Street, I saw Hendrix sitting at a small table with Eric Clapton. “Bugger this,” I said to myself, “If no one is going to introduce me, I’ll do it myself.” So Hendrix and I started chatting. He was a really normal guy. An excited fan of music. When he saw my guitar, he exclaimed, “I have a white Strat too.” It was cool. He played with us from time to time, and then we had a residency at the Speak Easy, a real musician’s hangout. McCartney and everyone hung out there. Hendrix, who never brought his own guitar, took a shine to my white Stratocaster and played the gig.
Then suddenly you decide to go off and study music.
In those days there was very little real information on music available. There was a guy I knew who was taking private lessons from a guy who had studied at Julliard. I started taking lessons with him, and this was my first hint that this mysterious music could be learned. There were only classical schools in England then. Later, I took private lessons with Peter Ind, a bass player who was a student of Lennie Tristano, the blind jazz pianist. I did a little tour with Auger in Italy, and when I came back I phoned up Ind’s wife who told me he was teaching a jazz course in Leeds. So, I immediately decided to join the course. I quit Auger which was a pity because we had just released an album called Open but felt I wanted to study.
Given your birth in India, and the interest in India, Hinduism, meditation and sitar in the rock world, were those ever of interest to you? Were you aware of and have any associations (personal or musical) with people such as John Mayer and Amancio D’Silva?
I knew of them but didn’t know any of them personally. That Indo-jazz thing does appeal to me. I’ve always had an interest in South Asian music. I remember seeing Ravi Shankar before The Beatles made him famous, at an afternoon concert, and also Nikhil Banerjee. I listen to a lot of it but don’t play it at all. I remember at some arts centre in London, listening to a sitar player doing his exercises and thinking it was similar to the things I did on guitar. But he was bending the notes.
What has been your relationship with India over the years?
I never studied Indian music properly, just informally. When I was at Leeds College, I got a phone call from an American who turned out to be Richard Boch. He was an important producer of West Coast jazz and had a label called World Pacific, which had recorded Ravi Shankar. He was in London on tour with Buddy Rich (one of jazz’s great drummers). He said, “I want to talk with you.” I was playing Wednesday nights in a tiny pub in those days. We arranged to meet at a hotel near the railway station. I discovered he had hurt his back and was in bed. But when I got there he asked me where I was from. I told him I was from India and he said, “This is amazing. I spend two or three months a year in India and I love Indian music. I’m looking for a guitar player to promote and I heard something Indian in your playing on a Brian Auger record.” I was stunned and so humbled. That he could hear this, and that he had come across the ocean to seek me out. I didn’t take him up because I didn’t feel confident enough, and he went back to America. It happened again a few years later when I was touring with a Junshi Yamagishi, a Japanese jazz and R&B guitarist. When people asked him why he was playing with me he said, “I didn’t know Gary was born in India but I heard something non-European in his playing.” Don’t ask me why or what, but it is amazing don’t you think, man.
I hear Michael Jackson was a Gary Boyle fan too...
Yeah. My band Isotope was actually signed to Motown Records in America and we were in the studio with a photographer who did work with the Jackson 5. Michael Jackson had an Isotope album and said that it was a good record and he liked it because it sounded “un-American”. That says something about him, doesn’t it? And his openness to different types of music.
Musician and teacher
In 1972, after yet another longish stint with Auger, Gary formed his own band, Isotope. Critics regard Isotope as a critical and fundamental piece, along with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever, in the emergence of the jazz-rock phenomenon. Isotope’s dazzling sound which was built around the interplay between Boyle’s stunningly crisp yet fluid guitar and Brian Miller’s electric keyboards. A jazz rock jugalbandi of sorts. Isotope released three albums but Boyle’s peak of fame, if not fortune, came when he started recording under his own name in the mid 1970s.
With the release of The Dancer, your 1977 masterpiece, you were the third-most popular guitarist in the Melody Maker music polls, and the album itself was awarded the best jazz pop album of 1978 by the Montreux Jazz Festival. Then you sort of disappeared...
Yes, everything went down the plug hole. I’m not a business person. Billy Cobham (ex Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer) wanted to organise an Isotope tour in the USA around 1973-’74. Gull Records and British Lion got Ed Bicknell in as manager. The record company asked Cobham to produce, and we had a meeting and fixed it up, but we could never get our schedules to sync and it never happened. I tried to get Isotope signed to Virgin but there was no real interest. But then British Lion Films asked me to stay on and so I made The Dancer. Bicknell became our manager, and though he tried his best he couldn’t generate much interest. Bicknell was a great manager, and is now a multi-millionaire, after he discovered a small rock and roll band called Dire Straits.
You had some great contributors on The Dancer and its follow-up Electric Glide: Rod Argent, Simon Phillips and Gary Moore. You were clearly very well regarded by your peers.
After The Dancer I didn’t have any management to help me with the business. Unless you have all the elements – agent, management and record company – it’s very difficult to get success. I was frustrated for sure. When Isotope started to become successful it was a bit of surprise but I was not ambitious. I just loved to play. So when things didn’t turn out, I was disappointed, but not so much for commercial or success reasons. There was no longer a chance to play with the guys I loved.
Since then you’ve been involved in teaching I understand. Do you still play?
I taught for about 20 years in four different colleges. For six years or so, I taught at the so-called Paul McCartney School, which is really known as the Liverpool School of Performing. These days I have a band. I play gigs with others but not as much as I would like. You don’t ever really stop growing or learning. I love music and playing but don’t find it easy to do the business. I really enjoy my recent gigs but I do feel guilty I don’t work harder.
Ever been back to India?
In the ’80s I spent a month in Japan touring. Something went wrong with the plane in India so we had 48 hours to spend in Bombay. I remember driving around town in a taxi and shouting out of the window “I’ve come back for my inheritance.” People thought I was mad. So the total time [I’ve spent] in India since I left in 1948 is four days. My feelings these days are tinged with a bit of sadness. I see India chasing after money just like the West and that’s not good. But I definitely want to go back.
One of the few songs to directly reference India is from The Dancer and is called Almond Burfi? Did you like burfi?
Did? Still do.