Over a 40-year career, he released 22 studio albums, and received frequent critical acclaim. Martyn was born in Beechcroft Avenue, New Malden, London, England to an English mother and a Scottish father. His parents, both opera singers, divorced drawing for children Perm he was five and he spent his childhood alternating between Scotland and England.
Much of this was spent in the care of his grandmother, as well as on his mother’s houseboat. Mentored by Hamish Imlach, Martyn began his professional musical career when he was 17, playing a fusion of blues and folk resulting in a distinctive style which made him a key figure in the British folk scene during the mid-1960s. This first album was soon followed by The Tumbler, which was moving towards jazz. By 1970 Martyn had developed a wholly original and idiosyncratic sound: acoustic guitar run through a fuzzbox, phase shifter and Echoplex. It typifies Martyn’s unique use of the echoplex effect, coupled with a fuzzbox and phase-shifter. In 1973, Martyn released one of the defining British albums of the 1970s, Solid Air, the title song a tribute to the singer-songwriter Nick Drake, a close friend and label-mate who died in 1974 from an overdose of antidepressants.
Following the commercial success of Solid Air, Martyn quickly recorded and released the experimental Inside Out, an album with emphasis placed on feel and improvisation rather than song structure. In 1977, he released One World, which led some commentators to describe Martyn as the “Father of Trip-Hop”. It included tracks such as “Small Hours” and “Big Muff”, a collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. In her autobiography, Beverley also alleges protracted domestic violence. In the late 1980s Martyn cited Grace and Danger as his favourite album, and said that it was “probably the most specific piece of autobiography I’ve written. Some people keep diaries, I make records.
The album has since become one of his highest-regarded, prompting a deluxe double-disc issue in 2007, containing the original album remastered. Phil Collins played drums and sang backing vocals on Grace and Danger and subsequently played drums on and produced Martyn’s next album, Glorious Fool, in 1981. John Martyn performs at the Barbican Centre, London 2008. In July 2006 the documentary Johnny Too Bad was screened by the BBC. Fortean Times Award at the London Short Film Festival in the same year.
On 4 February 2008, Martyn received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. To mark Martyn’s 60th birthday, Island released a 4CD boxed set, Ain’t No Saint on 1 September 2008. The set includes unreleased studio material and rare live recordings. Martyn was appointed OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours. Martyn abused drugs and alcohol throughout his life. On the brink of major success he was derailed by his passion for musical exploration and by an appetite for excess that bordered on self-destruction.
Martyn slid into alcoholism, his live performances punctuated by moments of incoherent drunkenness. Martyn died on 29 January 2009, in hospital in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, due to acute respiratory distress syndrome. Following Martyn’s death, Rolling Stone lauded his “progressive-folk invention and improvising sorcery. Phil Collins paid tribute to him. John Martyn was a true original, one of the giants of the folk scene. He could write and sing classics like ‘May You Never’ and ‘Fairy Tale Lullaby’ like nobody else, and he could sing traditional songs like ‘Spencer The Rover’ in a way that made them seem new minted. Harding introduced an hour-long tribute to Martyn in his Radio 2 programme on 25 February 2009.
A tribute album, Johnny Boy Would Love This, was released on 15 August 2011, comprising cover versions of his songs by various artists. Obituary: “John Martyn: guitarist and singer”, The Times, 30 January 2009, pg. His obituary in The Times states that “The record’s dubby, echoing soundscapes have been claimed as the forerunner of the ‘trip-hop’ style that emerged in the 1990s. John’s Diary 1980s” — Martyn’s biography on his website”. Singer-songwriter who played with and influenced a generation of musicians”. John Martyn’s last appearance in Kytelers”.