John Locke

Keyboard player with Spirit

Tuesday 15 August 2006 00:00

John Tilden Locke, keyboard player and songwriter: born Los Angeles 25 September 1943; (one son); died Ojai, California 4 August 2006.

Coming out of a Los Angeles scene which had already produced the Byrds, Love and the Doors, Spirit were one of the most original groups of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Mixing rock, pop, Latin, jazz and classical influences, they came to embody a certain freedom and attitude typical of the hippie era.

Their eponymous début made the US album charts in 1968 and the following year, "I Got a Line On You", a catchy, harmony-heavy rock song composed by their guitarist and vocalist Randy California and featuring trademark piano flourishes by John Locke, became a Top Thirty hit for the five-piece group, which also comprised the singer Jay Ferguson, the bassist Mark Andes and the drummer Ed Cassidy.

But the title of their landmark album The Family That Plays Together, also issued in 1969, proved a misnomer since the group couldn't accommodate the creativity of all its members. Indeed, following the release of Clear (1969) and The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus (1970), their fourth album which eventually went on to sell half a million copies and has become something of a cult classic, with songs like "Animal Zoo", "Mr Skin" and the prescient "Nature's Way", the original line-up split. "Of all of us, John Locke was best at being the diplomat and peacemaker," Ferguson recalled.

California went solo, Ferguson and Andes formed Jo Jo Gunne, and Cassidy and Locke briefly led a new Spirit, recording the album Feedback (1972) with Al and Chris Staehely (on bass and guitar respectively). When Cassidy and Locke in turn left, the Staehely brothers then fronted an incarnation of Spirit which did not feature a single founder member. California subsequently took on the Spirit mantle, in partnership with Cassidy, and Locke contributed to the album Farther Along in 1976.

In August that year, the original personnel reunited at the Santa Monica Civic for a concert at which an inebriated Neil Young put in a guest appearance for a version of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" but was nearly thrown off stage by California. "We all walked off one by one," said Ferguson. "I'd been thinking that it might all come back together but, nope, the craziness was all back as well. Poor John was heartbroken."

Locke vowed never to work with California again. In the early Eighties, he toured and recorded with the Scottish rock band Nazareth. However, in 1984, he rejoined the other founder members of Spirit to record The Thirteenth Dream. He subsequently guested on California's solo album Euro-American (1982) and also played on the Spirit album Rapture in the Chambers (1989), as well as occasionally touring with the group.

Born in Los Angeles in 1943, John Locke was classically trained as a pianist by his mother. As a teenager, he briefly played in a group with Robbie Krieger, the guitarist who subsequently joined the Doors. Through his involvement with the New Jazz Trio led by Ed Cassidy, a tall, shaven-headed, 35-year-old drummer who cut a distinctive figure on the Los Angeles scene, Locke discovered the underground scene of the Ash Grove and the Whisky A Go Go. By April 1967, Cassidy was concentrating on the band the Red Roosters with the guitarist Randy California, his 16-year-old stepson, who had met and played with Jimi Hendrix in New York the previous year.

The new outfit evolved into Spirits Rebellious, a name inspired by the 1948 book written by Khalil Gibran, a favourite of the flower-power generation. They auditioned for the record producer Lou Adler who shortened their name to Spirit and signed the group to a four-album deal with Ode, his new record label. Adler produced their début, Spirit, which included "Elijah", a 10-minute piece by Locke.

Locke's piano playing and compositional skills came into their own when Spirit were asked to score and appear in The Model Shop (1969), a film directed by the French director Jacques Demy. Demy wanted to capture the aftermath of the Summer of Love on film but didn't speak any English, while the group's French was non-existent. The film, starring Anouk Aimée, had a fraught production and much of Spirit's soundtrack remained unused.

Following the inclusion of several unreleased tracks from the film on Time Circle (1968-1972), the double-CD anthology issued in 1991, Spirit fans began asking for the full soundtrack album. The Model Shop eventually appeared last year on the Sundazed label, enabling fans to enjoy Locke's ethereal, jazzy piano playing and atmospheric contributions to the score.

In 1997, Randy California was drowned while swimming off Hawaii. In recent years, Locke had been leading a quiet life in Ojai, a small town in California, where he ran a recording studio.

Pierre Perrone

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