Graham Bond was one of the most important, most influential and thoroughly under-appreciated figures of early British R&B. Along with John Mayall and Alexis Korner, Graham Bond was one of the great catalytic figures of the British music and arguably more gifted than either but is almost completely unknown 45 years after his mysterious death.
He was a phenomenally gifted musician, quite ahead of his time. He fused jazz with R&B and classical music years before those who came later who tend to bag all the the credit. You know, Miles Davis, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, people like that. Even Earth Wind & Fire.
Originally a tenor sax player, he played with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, a seminal band of British jazz and R&B nuts which at various times included the likes of Jack Bruce, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry and depending on how you look at it Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. His own Graham Bond Organisation attracted musicians like Bruce and Baker, who were to become key players in the development of British rock music in the 60s and 70s.
However, after years of avoiding the worst of the heroin-fueled London jazz scene, his life sank from powerful bandleader with some of our greatest ever musicians to chaotic drug-addicted derelict who died under the wheels of a Piccadilly line train.
He was born in Romford on 28 October 1937 and abandoned at birth by his mother. He spent his first five months in a Barnardo’s Home before being adopted by a civil servant and his wife. A Grammar School boy, he was teased for being overweight and bad at sport, but even at aged 6 he was a musical prodigy. He heard Charlie Parker as a teen and decided to teach himself to play the saxophone as a way of curing his asthma, thinking it would improve his breathing, which it did.
No great academic, he left school at 18 and got a job selling firstly encyclopaedias and then fridges door to door and playing sax in the evenings with a local band. He was a natural. If he wasn’t selling fridges, he was up West watching jazz and hassling people to let him sit in but he wasn’t popular and didn’t get anywhere at first. By 1958 though, he was an alto sax player to be reckoned with. He had the ability, the patter and looked the part with a sharp suit and a pencil moustache. Someone described him as a white Cannonball Adderley.
You might think only the American jazzers were on the hard stuff. Certainly many legends – Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker – all had habits. But the London jazz scene of the late 50s was no less a smack infested demi-monde. Graham refused to get involved with the hard stuff although there was a lot of it about. Many great careers came to an end because they were so unreliable and ultimately sloppy.
His playing had improved MM’s Brightest Star of 1960. His first regular gig was with the Don Rendell Quintet in 1961, Rendall a noted tenor sax player. Rendall was quiet, sensitive player whilst Bond on alto sax was all energy and the free spirit. He appears on Roarin’’ the quintet’s debut record which was described as the greatest breakthrough ever made by jazz musicians outside the USA. He’d never been in a recording studio before was ordered to take his shoes off because the mikes picked up the sound of Graham’s stomping.
After Rendell, he jumped to the Johnny Burch Octet which included Ginger Baker, already a drummer with a reputation for trouble, and Jack Bruce, an 18-year-old double bass player from Glasgow. What a band! But whilst jazz had been the hip music for most of the last ten years, by 1962, the Blues was taking over. The best British blues band of the time was Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which had a fairly revolving door approach to band membership. At this point though, Blues Inc had Charlie Watts on drums but he jumped ship to a little band called the Rolling Stones in January 1963, so was replaced by jobbing jazz drummer Ginger Baker. A short time later Jack Bruce cam on board. The central musical phenomenon however was Korner’s harmonica player Cyril Davies, an extraordinary player for a guy who was a p[anel beater in Wembley by day, but he fell out with Korner over a Korner’s plan to add a brass section so he split.
Korner knew he could only replace a genius like Cyril with another genius, so he snapped up Graham Bond, primarily as saxophone player but Graham had just acquired a Hammond organ so all of a sudden he was a double threat (triple if you count his gruff, bluesy singing voice). The Hammond had a huge range of pedals, switches and drawbars that gave you a huge range of sounds, especially if you used it with a special rotating speaker called a Leslie which gives a swelling, surging sound. It was a unique sound not only in R&B but in any popular music at the time. In rock and roll the soloing instrument is usually the guitar; in jazz it’s usually a trumpet or sax; in R&B it was the more often than not the harmonica. No one had soloed on the keyboard before but the magical sound of the Hammond organ made that possible.
Bond took a jazz approach to the Blues. The Blues has a basic framework, the famous 12 bar and you either play the song in that format for 2-3 minutes verse, verse chorus verse. But in jazz, there’s a basic structure and then you each take a bow as a soloist and extend and improvise the song, which is possible when you have players of the quality of Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and guitarist John McLaughlin, whose career took a turn towards Miles Davis and jazz fusion only a couple of years later. Yes, that calibre of player.
Alexis Korner though preferred Bond to play sax and only allowed him to play the organ when most of the band went off for a fag and Bond, Baker and Bruce would play. It worked so well, they thought they’d make more money as a trio, so all three quit to form the Graham Bond Combo in April 1963. They toured the country relentlessly in a converted ambulance and established themselves as an explosive live act. In 480 days they played 340 gigs, all over the UK through the provinces where R&B had caught on. Bond, by now married with a child, was still selling fridges and ovens by day.
McLaughlin couldn’t handle the travel so he was fired to be replaced by sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith, who had also been a member of Blues Inc. At this point they became the Graham Bond Organisation, usually written – on account of the Hammond organ – the ORGANisation. Their live reputation was extraordinary but as is the case, it was difficult to capture it on record. Their debut LP The Sound of 65 has some great tunes, including a stunning version of Wade in the Water, but wasn’t a hit, despite touring constantly. Their second album There’s A Bond Between Us fared no better, despite being rather innovative and being the first record to use a new keyboard called a Mellotron
But they never were going to make it. They didn’t look the part, as amazing as the music was. Graham Bond was a huge fat guy, Dick Heckstall-Smith was balding with glasses, Ginger, as someone put it, looked like he would eat your loved ones. Only Jack Bruce was a half decent looking guy and if your competition is someone like the Moody Blues, five good looking chaps from Birmingham in fashionable smart suits, you’re going to struggle. The whole of the British Invasion passed them by. What an opportunity lost!
There was though always tension between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. They each knew they had never played with a better musician, but Bruce was too good a musician to be told what to do by the older Baker and Baker resented that the much younger Bruce wouldn’t do what he said. They were like brothers who loved each other but didn’t get on. And they had to spend 6 out of 7 days in the same van/ambulance. If that weren’t enough, Ginger Baker was four or five years into a pretty heavy drug habit. The rivalry came to a head one night at a gig in Golders Green when Baker fired Bruce. Bruce refused to recognise his authority and still turned up for gigs. Eventually Ginger threatened him with a knife saying that if you come back again this will go in you. So he left. As did Baker, when Eric Clapton asked him to form a band with himself – and Jack Bruce.
Up to this point, though no angel, Graham Bond had managed to swerve the worst of the lifestyle. However, in 1966 his wife divorced him, his adopted father died and his band left him in fairly short order, so he turned to heroin. He had 8 years left and it was all downhill from here
The Graham Bond ORGANisation limped on for another 18 months or so but when that finally fell apart, he moved to America for 2 years in which time he made a couple of ignored albums and worked on his drug habit. Oh, and he also got involved in the occult, what he called Magick. He was convinced he was the illegitimate son of arch Satanist Aleister Crowley, who he had discovered had had an illegitimate child in Essex around the same time Bond was born close by. It must be me, he thought and let’s face it drugs will not help you keep perspective and logic on these kind of things.
He was declared bankrupt in 1967, with debts of £2,500 (£45,000 today), mainly maintenance payments which he had not made since early 1966. He was however very aware that his ex-band mates Bruce and Baker were doing extremely well and making lots and lots of money as his career stalled.
He came back to the UK in late 1969 and formed a band called Initiation, but was arrested at their first gig at the Hampstead Country Club in Belsize Park for non-payment of maintenance under the terms of his bankruptcy and whisked off to Pentonville for days until Jack Bruce, now rather minted, paid his arrears. Initiation was an impressive band but the lyrics were all doom-laden occult stuff. He would routinely put spells on people who crossed him
Ginger Baker bailed him out when he recruited him to Ginger Baker’s Airforce – airforce was the nickname of Duke Ellington’s band because they really used to fly – a 10-piece rock band meets big jazz band which only lasted as long as Ginger Baker had any money. Which was about 8 months. IT did get Bond noticed again so he made a couple of weird occult albums Holy Magick and I’ll Put Our Magick on You which were received with puzzlement or vitriol. In the studio he had arranged the band in a circle around a huge pentagram drawn on the floor and the musicians had to stand in order of their birth signs. And no one bought them.
From then on, he was virtually unemployable. When he did work, he was invariably fired for unreliability. He was off drugs because he was penniless and couldn’t afford them but managed to replace them with alcohol and an opioid cough linctus called Collis Browne, downing up to 20 bottles a day. He couldn’t get gigs and answered ads in the MM for sideman organ player and when he turned up, people would say what’s the Graham Bond doing here? He had a few gigs here and there, mainly for £5, totally beneath his status but he needed the money. His wife left him and accused him of molesting her daughter.
By early 1974, he was in very poor spirits. His financial affairs were in a state of total confusion. He had no business acumen himself and was basically penniless. He was beaten up by drug dealers and terrified, deliberately walked into Ladbroke Grove police station with a bag of marijuana worth 35p in his pocket, thinking he’d be sent to prison where he’d be safe. Instead he was sectioned and sent to a mental hospital. On his release he went to stay with friends in Holloway. At lunchtime on Wednesday 8 May 1974, he said he was going for walk to clear his head but planned to come home and work on some songs.
He walked as far as Finsbury Park Underground Station, where he purchased a ticket, walked to the northbound platform of the Piccadilly Line and apparently dived in front of a tube train as it entered the station. The driver applied the brakes but it took 250 feet to stop, even though the train had slowed as it entered the station and was doing about 30 mph. He died instantly.
His body lay unclaimed at the Great Northern Hospital on the Holloway Road for two days, till police were finally able to identify the body from the fingerprints taken when he was imprisoned in 1969 for failing to pay maintenance. The inquest at St Pancras Coroners Court however recorded an Open verdict. There were no witnesses, no evidence of foul play and no note. The fact that he appears to have taken his own life mystified his friends, who say that he was healthier, off drugs and other substances and had enthusiastically made plans for the future. The papers though focused on his interest in the occult and printed lurid conspiracy theories bout the occult and drug deals gone wrong, which persist to this day.
Even the funeral was a shambles. He had asked for no religious trappings given his occult leanings, neither his current wife or his ex-wife turned up and no one knew what to do so a very stoned – and grief-stricken – Jack Bruce just got up and played the church organ at his funeral at the South London Crematorium in Streatham. His ashes were scattered in Cornwall, near Tintagel, a place he loved