St. John's Chariot/I Wanna Be A Survivour/Teach Me How To Fly/Levon/Jailhouse Rock/Children Of The Storm
Jeff St John was named Jeffrey Leo Newton when he was born in 1946, and grew up in Sydney as the only child of his linesman dad Leo and his mum Carmel, a secretary. Jeff was diagnosed at birth with spina bifida, a congenital disability that causes malformation of the spine and resultant posture and walking difficulties. For much of his youth, Jeff walked with a caliper on his right leg, and underwent numerous painful operations. But the kind of tenacity to overcome this affliction that Jeff has maintained throughout his life, first became evident in his formative years.
Aged just 8, Jeffrey first performed in public in a kids' talent quest on Sydney's radio 2GB. By age 15 he had secured a guest spot on Channel Nine's TV teen talent showcase, Opportunity Knocks, hosted by Desmond Tester, and he appeared regularly on the show between 1961 and 1963.
A couple of years afterwards, by this time almost constantly supported by crutches because of his worsening condition, Jeff joined forces with an established Sydney blues-rock outfit called The Syndicate who he met by chance at the Sydney Musicians Club in early 1965. With members including guitarist Peter Anson (from legendary Sydney garage-R&B monsters The Missing Links) The Syndicate with Jeff on board soon evolved, via The Wild Oats, into The Id (named after the popular Johnny Hart cartoon strip The Wizard of Id), with Jeff also adopting the stage name he has used ever since.
On record, Jeff and The Id are probably best remembered for their scorching, brass-laden smash single, "Big Time Operator", which featured Aussie sax legend Bob Birtles heading the horn section. The single reached #7 in Sydney and a respectable #12 in Melbourne in January 1967, and the recording sessions at Festival in Sydney were even photographed for a special feature in Go-Set. But this was the culmination of a series of accomplished 45s which, established Jeff & the band's credentials.
Their debut 1965 single "Lindy Lou" / "Somebody To Love", was a pleasant R&B number which gave only a sight hint of the vocal prowess that Jeff would unleash on later releases. It came out on the Spin label and was followed in early '66 by "The Jerk" / "Take This Hurt Off Me". Further Spin Singles during the year mined the soul-blues vein the band had forged, such as the Leadbelly chestnut "Black Girl".
Then came their hugely successful cover of the Hayes-Porter-Jones number "Big Time Operator", and all seemed set for a successful future for The Id. They recorded a fine album in March 1967, called Big Time Operators, (together with an extremely rare EP of the same title, culled from the LP), and in April issued a final single called "You Got Me Hummin'" b/w "Watch Out". The album was a good representation of the Id's Stax/Atlantic styled stage repertoire, but was not the strong seller that was the hit single suggested it might become.
Jeff meanwhile put together an entirely new band, Yama (a Hindi word meaning 'mere mortals'). The lineup was again drawn from other successful groups of the time -- bassist Virgil East from from Python Lee Jackson, drummer Peter Figures from Throb, along with Ross East on guitar, who would continue to work with Jeff for some time thereafter. Yama folded prematurely around May 1968 after issuing just one single for the Spin label, "Nothing Comes Easy", an elaborately-produced, up-beat , progressively styled, yet surprisingly commercial tune written by St John and Figures,
Soon afterwards, St John underwent a series of complicated, make-or-break operations that unfortunately did not achieve the desired outcome, leaving him wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Undeterred, Jeff returned to live performance after a lengthy recuperation, and actually transformed his liability into his own trademark, executing 'wheelies' and pirouettes across the stage as he sang!
St John unveiled his new band, Copperwine (aka Jeff St John's Copperwine), in early 1969 with low-key dates in Perth, before returning to Sydney. Copperwine soon commanded a rabid following in that city's fast-developing 'head' scene. Around the time of the new band's formation, guitarist Ross East was also invited to join the revised Masters Apprentices line-up by Jim Keays, but he turned it down, opting to stay with Jeff.
This body of songs was captured by producer Pat Aulton in superb that remains one of the most accomplished and musically adventurous long players of the time. The punningly-titled Joint Effort won considerable critical acclaim, but failed to generate significant sales. A similar fate befell the great single lifted from the album, "Cloud Nine" / "Days To Come" (Feb. 1970). An EP, Sing A Simple Song, which featured four selections from its parent album, came out in May 1970.
In reptrospect, Joint Effort reveals at least three truths -- the album was one of Festival Record's most consistent sellers for many years, it's a fine artefact of what was musically going on with OzRock in this heady and fertile time, and it documents what a fine band Copperwine was and provided conclusive proof that Jeff is one of the best rock vocalists this country has ever produced.
The musicianship of the band, particularly that of East and Kelly illustrated the embarrassment of riches scattered among Australian groups at this time. Original band-composed collaborations on the LP include the reflective "Fanciful Flights" (compiled on Raven's 2-CD compilation Golden Miles: Australian Progressive Rock, 1969-1974), the jazz-tinged instrumental "Any Orange Night" and the ensemble piece "You Don't Have To Listen". The towering opening track, a surging, organ-driven cover of The Temptation's "Cloud Nine", showed off Jeff's commanding soul stylings, superbly backed by a power-drive performance from Copperwine that, frankly, puts the original in the shade.
Jeff onstage with Bo Didderly
Another single, issued on Spin in November 1970, fared extremely well. The smoothly confident, organ-led cover of Rotary Connection's "Teach Me How To Fly" (featuring a berserk guitar solo from East, and some very tasty bass-drums interplay) propelled the band to #12 in Melbourne and a very encouraging #3 Sydney chart placement. St John's dazzling vocal performance on this record is probably the main reason why.
An 'insane” (as Jeff puts it) schedule of touring, concentrated in the eastern states, sustained Copperwine throughout 1970-71. Noted soul-blues singer Wendy Saddington (formerly of James Taylor Move and Chain) joined as co-lead vocalist in May 1970 and made her recording debut with the band (without St John though) on the intriguingly laid-back, bluesy album Wendy Saddington and Copperwine Live, recorded at the Wallacia Rock Festival in January 1971. By this time, too, former Amazons and Dave Miller Set member Harry Brus had replaced Alan Ingram on bass. The Copperwine/Saddington live album was scheduled for re-release on CD as part of Festival's reissue program, but the entire reissue project was scrapped after the acquistion of Mushroom Records. Festival's rapid financial decline after 2002 led to its closure in late 2005, and the entire Festival-Mushroom archive was sold to the American-owned Warner Music group soon after.
Hummingbird" (backed by Derek & The Dominos' Keep On Growing) became the next Copperwine single, which was released in August on Festival's new progressive subsidiary, Infinity and it was a moderate chart success. Early in the year they recruited Glyn Mason (ex-Chain, Larry's Rebels) and this lineup performed at the Mulwala Festival near Albury in NSW in April 1972. Soon after, Jeff split from Copperwine, but the band continued on for some time, with Mason taking over as lead vocalist.
Seeking what he saw as a more sympathetic vehicle for his singing and songwriting, Jeff formed a touring outfit, The Jeff St John Band, featuring favoured sticksman Peter Figures, and the keyboard talents of the late, great Tony Ansell who, sadly, died in November 2000. Tony was a renowned composer, teacher and session player with many well-known TV themes to his credit, and he was also a member of the all-star studio session band that played on Peter Dawkin's concept LP Star Suite in 1974, and on Richard Clapton's breakthrough single Girls On the Avenue in 1975.
In October 1972, Jeff issued his first solo single, "Yesterday's Music". Jeff and band toured extensively during '72, supporting acts as diverse as Gary Glitter, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Capping an extraordinary year, which also saw the release of a Spin compilation album, The Best Of Jeff St John, Jeff was awarded the accolade of 'Most Outstanding Vocalist of the Year'.
On his return, Jeff formed a new backing band, Red Cloud, and his new single "Mr Jones" / "Acapulco Lady" was released in May 1975. Produced by Martin Erdman and arranged by ex-Blackfeatherguitar-wiz John Robinson, the single was a minor sales success. It was followed up in October by another 45, utilising the same production/arranging team, "Blood Brother" (b/w "Reach Out And Touch Me"). Jeff and Red Cloud maintained a heavy touring schedule during 1975-76, and the singer continued as a popular live draw.
Jeff was the first Oz artist to sign with US imprint Asylum (whose roster included The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt) and he released a clutch of impressive singles for the label, capped by his welcome return to the national Top 10 during early 1977 with his scorching version of the Frankie Miller-Andy Fraser track "Fool In Love", a recording which must surely rate as one of the greatest soul records made anywhere, anytime, and must surely rank as one of Jeff's very finest vocal performances. A fresh (and typically thorough) Glenn A. Baker retrospective compilation, Survivor 1965-1975 was released in late 1977.
Jeff continued to record and perform live through the late 70s and into the early 80s, producing some quality rock performances, but in 1983, at the age of 37, he announced his retirement. He made a memorable farewell appearance on Donnie Sutherland's late night chat show, After Dark, which made it clear that he was having problems at the time. Following this, Jeff stepped away from the limelight for many years as he struggled to overcome his personal demons. Having survived the ups and downs of an illustrious but often tempestuous career, Jeff was philosophical when in 2000 he told Who Weekly:
In the late 1990s Jeff relocated to Perth and in 1999 an old friend, drummer Ace Follington coaxed Jeff up onstage at Clancy's Fish Pub, Fremantle. The singer relished the chance to wield a mic again:
"I'd been divorced from singing for so long, I'd lost sight of the fun involved."
That one-off performance led to a regular solo spot at Clancy's, the creation of an all-star backing group, Jeffrey St John & The Embers, and a brand new, album, self-deprecatingly titled Will The Real Jeff St John Please Stand Up?. Released in 2001. It is not a re-hash of Jeff's old style ('I'd feel was a parody of myself'); instead, Jeff has delved into the music of the '30s and '40s, performing swing standards with a rock treatment: