BLUES SPECIAL – JEFF ST. JOHN

 

 

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Big Time Operator (T Colton/R Smith) – The Id featuring Jeff St. John 1967 and Teach Me How to Fly (S Barnes) – Jeff St. John and the Copperwine 1970 and Fool in Love (F Miller/A Fraser) – Jeff St. John and Red Cloud 1977 

 

Big Time Operator was a national top 20 debut hit for Jeff St. John (real name Jeff Newton)  who was born with spina bifida which caused deformation of his spine and ultimately confined him to a wheelchair; but he rose above his physical disability to become one of the most respected blue-eyed soul/rock/blues singers in the country, he could also surprise fans with the spins and wheelstands he performed in his wheelchair.

Jeff had started out as a youngster with appearances on Channel 9’s Opportunity Knocks between 1961-63 and his powerful, soulful vocals confirmed he was destined for future success.

 

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The Id were a talented band who had segued from being The Syndicate, to the Wild Oats, to the Id whose name was inspired by either the Johnny Hart comic strip The Wizard of Id, or Sigmund Freud’s theories of psycho-sexual behavior and the influence of the human ego or Id.

The Id with the newly-minted Jeff St. John stage name, became a powerhouse attraction, appearing regularly at the Here Disco (Syd) and the famous Thumpin’ Tum (Melb), the band’s driving, brassy sound and Jeff’s soulful vocals made them a unique attraction in the mid-60’s, and they toured nationally with the Yardbirds, Roy Orbison and the Walker Brothers.

When Big Time Operator was recorded at Festival records in Sydney with producer Pat Aulton, the Id comprised Peter Anson (guitar), Bruce Johnstone (tenor/baritone sax, flute), John Helman (bass), Derek Brooks (drums), Ian Walsh (organ), Dieter Voight (trumpet/bass) and Jeff St. John the featured lead singer.

The band’s scorching, brassy, percussion-laden reworking of Big Time Operator was as surprising as it was effective, a mature and assured record featuring the soulful and bluesy vocals of St John, a riveting Bruce Johnstone tenor sax solo all underscored by Derek Brooks driving percussion, which combined to produce a timeless reworking of the song that had Atlantic/Stax/Volt credibility stamped all over it, in January ’67 it climbed to #11 nationally.

 

Big Time Operator trades on a clever lyrical structure of rhyming job titles – estimator, administrator, commentator, crime investigator, builder and decorator, etc – no less than eleven are included, which amply illustrated the versatility of the individual, but didn’t really demonstrate a capacity for long-term employment, but it was catchy, quirky, and very soulful in a Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding kind of way.

The song was written by British jazz/rhythm and blues stalwarts Tony Colton and Ray Smith who frequently performed at Rik Gunnell’s Flamingo Club (London) with Zoot Money and the Big Roll Band along with Georgie Fame, Chris Farlow, Geno Washington and Cliff Bennett. Colton also wrote songs for the Merseybeats and Elvis Costello and with guitarist Ray Smith wrote several other songs for Zoot Money including Let’s Run for Cover, The Star of the Show and Train Train.

Big Time Operator had been a UK #25 hit for Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band in 1966 after Money and Andy Somers (future member of Police) left Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc. to strike out with their own group. George “Zoot” Money was a charismatic performer who had been part of the London jazz/ rhythm and blues scene for some time and he would later join the New Animals.

In 1967 Jeff St. John was performing with the unsuccessful Yama (a Hindu word meaning “first mortals”) and in 1969, he returned to the scene via Perth (WA) as leader of Copperwine, a tight unit which comprised Phil Wooding (guitar) Peter Figures (drums), Alan Ingham (bass) and Barry Kelly (keyboards), but they relocated to Sydney in 1969 and got regular work at Caesars, Whitty’s Wine Bar as well as the RSL and Leagues clubs.

Teach Me How To Fly was written by Syd Barnes, a vocalist and songwriter with Chess Records (US) who with several other Chess employees, Minnie Riperton the Chess receptionist and Judy Hauff, and three members of an existing group The Proper Strangers – Bobby Simms (guitar), Mitch Aliotta (bass) and Ken Venegas (drums) – were recruited by Marshall Chess, son of the Chess founder Leonard Chess, to become the Rotary Connection, a psychedelic/soul group, from which the ethereal solo vocals of Minnie Riperton would emerge in the future with her stunning, octave-spanning 1975 hit Lovin’ You.

The band had signed a one single contract with Chart Records and went into the United Artists’ Studio in Haymarket (Syd) to record Teach Me How to Fly which was released in November 1970.This track was a production tour de force of electronic novelty, Jeff St. John recalled this in his memoirs The Inside Outsider (2015) “ keyboardist Barry Kelly struck a single chord on a grand piano, we transferred it to a single track tape and then played it backwards with the addition of reverb, so swelling the chords to a crescendo which came to an abrupt stop, it was a dramatic, pivotal moment in the recording”

St John’s dazzling vocals contributed to a smooth, confident, organ-drenched cover version of the song, Phil Wooding delivered a defining guitar solo and Peter Figures (drums) and Alan Ingham (bass) laid down a powerful rhythmic foundation for the keyboards of Barry Kelly.

 

St John’s version competed with another local version by the Sydney group Flake, but the latter failed to chart, and Copperwine took their version to #11 in January 1970, by which time Wendy Sadington, who had briefly performed with the band had split, a year later Jeff did the same thing.

St. John’s last major hit was in 1977, when he was signed to Asylum records and his backing band was Red Cloud, who were Steve Hopes (drums), Bob Birtles (saxophone), James Stewart-Rattray (bass), Rex Bullen (keyboards), and Kerrie Miles (backing vocals), they went into the Trafalgar recording studio in Annandale (Syd) in August with producer John L Sayers, and put down an incendiary version of the Frankie Miller/Andy Fraser song, Fool in Love, which climbed to #10 for an impressive hit.

 

Jeff relocated to Perth in the 1990’s and retired but was coaxed back to performing with his band The Embers, he recorded an album of rocked-up 30’s and 40’s swing standards in 2001, entitled Will the Real Jeff St. John Please Stand Up, the irony of the album title was typical of the gutsy attitude that the wheelchair-bound Jeff had to life which was summed up in his oft-quoted mantra “…take a bite out of life and chew like hell…”.

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Jeff St. John would perform to his biggest audience in 2000 when he sang at the opening ceremony for the Sydney Paralympic Games in front of 110,000 people and a global television audience of over three billion people, he was warmly received.

In March 2018 Jeff St. John succumbed to the ravages of spina bifida, he was 71 years old and had been a revered rock and roll road warrior for over fifty years.       

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