Jon Derek - Britain's Foremost Country Music Pioneer
Born March 10, 1941 - Jon Derek's musical journey first started out in his childhood years in Wiltshire where his parents moved to from their home in Harlech, North Wales. Both his mother and father's love for the early hillbilly music of Gene Autrey, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams would prove a big influence on Jon's future career.
Jon was at college during the Skiffle period of the mid-fifties and it was then that he learned to play guitar and vocalise with his friends in a group called the Kool Kats. When he left college in 1957, he took a job with a building firm as a trainee draughtsman. Now living just over the border in Newbury, Berkshire - Jon found regular semi-pro work as a singer doing guest spots in the evenings with resident bands in local clubs. It wasn't long before he met up with musicians Gerry Hogan and Gordon Huntley. Together they formed a group called The Black Stetson Boys in 1958 and after winning a Radio Luxembourg talent show, they now found themselves playing US Air Force bases in addition to broadcasting regularly for BBC Radio in such network programmes as 'Saturday Club' hosted by Brian Matthew as well as 'Folk Time' and 'Easy Beat'. It was around about this time that Jon first worked with influential guitar supremo Bert Weedon who would invariably be guesting on the same live shows.
By late 1962, the group had undergone a name change and were now known as Johnny and The Hayriders. Jon notably became the first British Country Music artist to perform in stereo for the BBC on a programme called 'Country Time' recorded at 'Camden Town Theatre Studios' and, shortly after, he made his television debut on the ITV/Southern TV show 'Home Grown'.
The popularity of this band made Jon give up any original ambitions of becoming an architect for he went on to tour with Jim Reeves in 1963 (the year before his tragic death) and then turned 'pro' the following year. Incidentally, an American newspaper covering the tour rated Jon as one of Britain's most outstanding Country Music singers. Jim was also very impressed with the band and even mistook them at first for being American because they played Country Music so well (unaware Country bands even existed in the UK)!
By 1965, Johnny and The Hayriders had become a well-known and much travelled outfit. They became involved with veteran disc jockey Jack Johnson and, after recording a demo for him at his studio run by his sons John and Malcolm, they were signed up there and then! Following another name change, they were now known as The Flintlocks. They embarked on a well-received 10-day tour of Scotland and then returned to the Johnson's studio in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire to record a single for release on a major record label. In June 1966, their Country version of a Lennon/McCartney composition entitled 'What Goes On?' was released on 'Decca Records'. The following month they took part in a 'Radio Caroline' show with US star Eddie Arnold and by the end of that year, their contract was bought out by a top impresario - infamous music mogul Don Arden (who at the time also managed 'The Small Faces' and 'The Nashville Teens'). He had plans to turn them into another 'Bachelors' and decided their current name did not appeal. After a lot of thought, they found it lay within their first names - Jamie, Jon and Gerry which became Jamie, Jon & Jerry with a silent fourth member - drummer Jed Kelly.
The band had already secured a contract in London with pub chain ‘Fullers’ playing a circuit of weekly venues consisting of ‘The Clarendon’ in Hammersmith, ‘The Nashville Rooms’ in Kensington, ‘The Red Cow’ in Brentford and ‘The Red Lion’ in Greenford. Fellow musicians Chas Hodges & Dave Peacock (who later became better known as Chas & Dave) would invariably turn up to see them and they in fact told a certain guitarist friend to “come down and see ‘em, Albert - they’re a good country band!” It wasn’t long before they acquired the talents of Albert Lee who would often sit in whenever he could. Albert was recently quoted to have said, “I had always loved Country Music from my early days but it was a revelation to discover Jamie, Jon & Jerry playing in Hammersmith in 1966. Here was Jon doing what I wanted to do.”
Under the name Jamie, Jon & Jerry, the group went on to record three more singles for Decca in 1967 (one of which was produced by the legendary record executive Dick Rowe) and furthermore, they toured with Clodagh Rodgers, Hank Locklin and Carl Perkins the same year.
When bass player Jamie Gunn said that he was going to leave the group to persue a solo career, sadly that spelt the end for Jamie, Jon & Jerry. So as not to let agents and promoters down, The Jon Derek Band was put together for a short while in the early part of 1968, mainly to work as backing musicians for Clodagh Rodgers on television appearances and radio broadcasts. Gerry Hogan then decided to take a break from full-time gigging to return to university and it was then that Jon Derek and Albert Lee went on to form a new band - Country Fever - the original line-up consisiting of Jon Derek, Albert Lee, Pat Donaldson and Jed Kelly. Gerry would continue to perform with the band on major shows and tours only. Pat Donaldson quit before the year was out to fulfil other commitments and was replaced by Pete Oakman (ex Joe Brown and Lonnie Donegan).
In November 1968, Jon married his most ardent fan, Sandy who had first met Jon at one of his London gigs the previous year. The wedding was held in Ealing, west London which also became Jon's new hometown.
Jon was the driving force behind Country Fever as he had the contacts and therefore secured the work. In 1969, they were invited to join the 'RCA Stars In Concert' tour with Chet Atkins, George Hamilton IV, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith, Nat Stuckey and Bobby Bare which comprised of two UK dates - the 'Walthamstow Granada' and the 'Royal Albert Hall' + two weeks in Europe taking in Germany, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. As well as having their own spot on the show, Country Fever also backed Connie Smith and Nat Stuckey throughout the tour. Connie Smith was so impressed with the band that she was quoted to have said that if she could have afforded them, she would have liked to have taken them back with her to the US as her backing group! Nat Stuckey was equally impressed and announced on stage one night that he would like to record with them in the UK. Unfortunately that never materialised but he did return to the US and name his next album after them - 'Country Fever'.
The same year Country Fever also embarked on tours with Rose Maddox, Jody Miller, Hank Locklin and Guy Mitchell and they recorded two back-to-back albums 'Mountain Music Jamboree' and the highly acclaimed 'Listen To The Country Fever' both of which were released the following year.
In 1970, they made their first of many ‘Wembley Festival’ appearances which also included backing Don Gibson and Charlie Walker on the same show and, later that year, they supported Slim Whitman on a nationwide tour.
Another album release 'A New Dimension' came just months after Albert Lee left the band to concentrate on ever-increasing demands for studio session work. He was replaced by Roger Dean who became one of a never-ending change of talented musicians to pass through Country Fever over the next few years (others included, Adrian Legg, Graham Walker, Malcolm Hamerston, Rod Clark and Brian Golbey). They won top UK Country Music group awards two years running and they were touted as as one of the most polished groups in their field. Their busy schedule continued, backing a string of star names in the years which followed such as Charley Pride, Anne Murray, Del Reeves, Carl Belew, Melba Montgomery, Charlie Walker, Jeanne Pruett, Billie Jo Spears and Wanda Jackson plus extensive tours with Jerry Lee Lewis, George Hamilton IV (with special guests Sammi Smith and The Stoneman Family) plus a European tour with Marvin Rainwater (with whom they recorded an album in 1972 entitled 'Marvin Rainwater Gets Country Fever' which was released on the Phillips label - an exciting collaboration of both US artist and UK band). Not since his 1958 chart topping hit 'Whole Lotta Woman' had Marvin been back to the UK. This tour proved to be the first of many he would make to Europe in the next 20 years and the start of a long friendship between him and Jon Derek.
Country Fever soon became the most sought after group on the British Country Music scene. They recorded many sessions for BBC Radio and were often heard on such programmes as ‘Country Meets Folk’, 'The Terry Wogan Show', ‘The Sam Costa Show’, 'The Dave Cash Show' and 'The Jimmy Young Show'. Television appearances included 'Walk Right In', 'Colour Me Pop', 'Late Night Line-Up', 'Sing Country' and 'The George Hamilton IV Show'.
Then, in 1974, Jon decided the time was right for him to go solo. This proved to be the right decision as he began to get the recognition he so richly deserved. Occasionally ‘Country Fever’ would reassemble if the money was right or if a major show or tour was involved. Jon Derek & Country Fever, as they would now be known, backed US star Bill Anderson at the 'London Palladium' in the early part of 1975 and the same year, appeared once again in their own right at the 'Wembley Country Music Festival' in addition to backing Miki & Griff and, US stars Vernon Oxford and Marvin Rainwater on the same show. A couple of months later, Jon and the band recorded a live album at the notorius 'Broadmoor Hospital' along with US singer/songwriter Jimmy Payne and the since disgraced Sir Jimmy Saville, who compered the show.
Continuing with the solo work, Jon found himself busier than ever over the next few years making countless personal appearances at venues up and down the British Isles. He also recorded a further three albums 'Songs I Have Written…With A Little Help From My Friends', 'The Country Music Trail' and a live album for Decca Records. Furthermore, he toured once again with Marvin Rainwater and, in 1976 with Slim Whitman on a gruelling 32-date UK tour which included both matinee and evening performances at major theatres and civic centres - concluding at the 'London Palladium' where Jon (who was also compere for the entire tour) introduced Alan 'Fluff' Freeman on to the stage to present Slim with a gold disc for sales of his current album.
1977 was a real turning point for Jon. He collaborated with Decca Records once again and recorded five tracks for them, two of which were released as a double A-sided single – 'Till The Rivers All Run Dry' and 'Makin’ Believe'. Jon put together a new outfit called The Jon Derek Trio with musicians Chris Dunn and Dave Waite and together they toured the length and breadth of the British Isles promoting the single with Jon doing countless radio station interviews on their travels. The popularity of this single throughout the UK also brought Jon some much deserved overseas success too – both songs reached No.1 on the Mediterranean island of Malta some months later. Even the quiet man himself Don Williams apparently told Jon what a great job he had made of his song 'Rivers' when they were sat together on a flight bound for Stockholm, Sweden following that year's ‘Wembley Country Music Festival’!
Jon made his first promotional trip to Malta in 1978. Both sides of the single were by this time receiving regular plays on the Maltese radio stations and the BBC's British Overseas Network programmes. Jon made several cabaret appearances throughout the visit and also performed Makin' Believe on Maltese television. Furthermore, the entire 2-week trip received tremendous press coverage. Back home, the press wrote - "Jon Derek has recently returned from Malta where he is in the superstar category!"
Jon augmented from a three to a four-piece band and subsequently reformed 'Country Fever'. They backed US singer Jimmy Lawton on a tour of England and Northern Ireland in April 1978 and then shortly after - BBC Radio 2's 'Country Club' included Jon and the band on the bill for a live show at the 'Golders Green Hippodrome' presented by David Allan and which also featured US star Boxcar Willie. Later that year, they also backed and supported American steel guitarist 'Little' Roy Wiggins (former member of both Eddy Arnold and George Morgan's bands) on a UK tour that also included a date at the 'City Hall' in Hull with Patsy Montana (I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart).
In 1979, Jon won three top club awards in quick succession. Furthermore, he worked with US artist Tommy Collins in September of the same year, was featured on the very first Pontin's Country Music Festival that autumn and, in November, embarked on another tour with Marvin Rainwater.
In 1980, due to popular demand, Jon returned to Malta for a series of cabaret shows. His hit songs 'Till The Rivers All Run Dry' and 'Makin' Believe' were still regular plays on Maltese radio. Unable to take his own band this time, he was backed by Malta's very own Joe Portelli Quintet. On his return to the UK, Jon was back at Wembley for the '12th International Festival of Country Music' that Easter. He met up with good friend and former Country Fever member Albert Lee who was also appearing at the event and together they were caught on camera having a 'jam session' backstage with Don Everly! Before the year was out, Jon did a show with multi-award winning US fiddle player Billy Armstrong and, furthermore, he performed at all the top British Country Music festivals of the time including; Peterborough, Harlow, Caister, Essex and Portsmouth.
Marvin Rainwater returned for another tour with Jon in 1981, which included a date at the '13th International Festival of Country Music' at Wembley Arena. Jon also compered the 'Best of British Country Talent Contest' held next door at the 'Conference Centre'. Just days before, at the pre-festival dinner/dance held at the 'Royal Garden Hotel' in Kensington, London, Jon had been photographed by top photographer of the time Graham Barker. His iconic photos captured the moment Jon joined Country Music greats Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Marty Robbins, Vern Gosdin and record producer/manager George Richey at the hotel's lounge piano for an impromptu performance that was labelled 'The Million Dollar Line-up'!
Throughout the 1980s - Jon Derek & Country Fever remained one of the most professional and hardest working bands on the British Country Music circuit. They continued to be billed in their own right or alongside a plethora of star names. They appeared at all the top events including five consecutive appearances at Jed Ford's 'Peterborough Country Music Festival' (1980-84). Tours with good friend Marvin Rainwater remained a common occurence and they also backed Hank Locklin on another visit to the UK in addition to Barbara Fairchild and Tommy Cash (younger brother of Johnny). Furthermore, Jon's 1981 single release 'Hey Duke, You Got True Grit' (written as a tribute to his hero John Wayne) was very well received as was his 1984 release 'Goin' Back' (celebrating 21 years as a professional artist) which became the fastest selling British Country Music album of it's time and included the five tracks recorded some years earlier for 'Decca Records'.
In 1991 and, after more than 30 years on the road, Jon dropped a bombshell when he announced that he was going to semi-retire from live performing at the end of the year. Although making a promise to his fans that he would still be available for selected dates - this really did come as a huge shock to many. Jon had his reasons for making this decision though. He was quoted to have said that the rigours of life on the road and the hardships of perpetual travelling had taken their toll on his physical and mental capacity to face more of the same. Also, as a traditionalist, he had become somewhat disillusioned with the direction in which the British Country Music scene was going - with an ever-increasing number of clubs turning towards the latest craze - line-dancing. Jon was not prepared to alter his repertoire at this late stage in his career.
Keeping to his word, Jon did continue to make countless appearances in the years which followed ably backed by a string of well-established Country bands - notably 'Barbary Coast' and 'West Virginia'. He also returned to Malta one last time for a series of farewell gigs. His penultimate show though was in 2005 when he gave a tremendous cameo performance at the memorial concert arranged by George Hamilton IV for the British artist Pete Sayers. Broadcaster and journalist David Allan writing for the long-running monthly publication 'Country Music People' wrote, "A surprise that evening came from veteran Jon Derek, mainstay of the British Country scene in the 70s and 80s, who is sounding better than ever - not just in my opinion but that of much of the audience. The familiar voice has a slightly rougher edge and it's now the voice of experience perfectly suited to his material. Is it too much to hope we will be seeing and hearing a lot more of him?" Unfortunately it was - Jon called it a day after that and went out on a high. However, in November 2006, he was persuaded by his good friend Diane Richards - who stages her annual Country Music festival 'Sunny Hunny' at Hunstanton, Norfolk - to come out of retirement for one last show! Diane was quoted to have said, "As a special favour, Jon did a guest spot for me and he brought the house down!"
A keen gardener, railway enthusiast and history buff - Jon turned his attention to his hobbies and interests in those later years. Enormously proud of his North Welsh heritage, he wrote a book all about the history of Welsh Kings and Queens and also a book based on his memories of those early years he spent on the railways in North Wales. He was also very creative and was particularly passionate about building model railway trains. Furthermore, he was known throughout his life for his love of Draught Guinness and still found the time for a pint or three!
Diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 2011, Jon sadly passed away a few months later on October 13th, following an operation to remove a tumour on one of his lungs. Although Jon had not performed for some years, he carried with him right up until his death so many wonderful memories of the artists, promoters, musicians and most of all the public who had so generously supported him throughout his entire career in the music business.
In a career that spanned almost 50 years - Jon Derek was one of the most outstanding and highly respected artists in an extremely competitive field and his pedigree was second to none. In addition to a string of major single and album releases, Jon toured the British Isles and Europe on several occasions and played just about every theatre in the UK including two appearances at the 'Royal Albert Hall' and five at the 'London Palladium'. Furthermore, he was the most featured British artist at the long-running 'International Festivals of Country Music' held each year at Wembley Arena sharing the stage with a plethora of superstars. With so many awards to his credit, whether for top band, soloist or personality - Jon Derek is probably the hottest singing property Britain has ever produced in the realms of Country Music.