John McLaughlin was born on January 4, 1942 in Yorkshire, England. Although his mother was a violinist, he started learning piano at the age of 9. Two years later, he inherited his first quitar from an older brother and changed his mind to pursue learning the guitar which he learnt autodidactly. McLaughlin claims that the gramophone record was his greatest teacher and he learnt most of his early guitar playing by listening to the records of the great blues artists of America like Big Bill and Muddy Waters.
Approximately about the time when John was about 13 or 14 years of age, he heard Django Rheinhart. John was completely taken aback with Django’s style of playing. Not only was his playing brilliant and revolutionary, but it also had emotion, technique and elegance. These aspects perhaps stuck in John’s mind and to his day are very prevalent in his playing style. At around 15 years of age, John was exposed to the music of Miles Davis, an event that changed his life forever in more ways than one.
Despite these profound musical influences, by the end of the 50’s John was performing in Ragtime bans like the band Pete Deuchar and his Professors of Ragtime. John decided to leave for London and try his luck as a professional musician in rock and blues groups. This was a very fertile period for musicians in London at that time and it was a logical move for John.
While in London in the early 60’s, John played with bands such as Georgie Fame and Blue Flames, Alexis Kroners band, the Graham Bond Organization and Trinity, the group of organ player Brian Auger. After this stint in London, John spent six months playing with Gunter Hampel’s band in Germany, which was his first foray into avant-garde jazz.
In 1968, at the age of 26 John initiated his first personal project and formed his own group with John Surman, Tony Okley and bassist Brian Odges. That following year, the group recorded a studio album titled “Extrapolation” thereby starting John’s recording career.
It was sometime in 1968 that Dave Holland shared a tape of John with Tony Williams that caused Tony to invite John to come to the US and play with him. This lead to John coming to the United States in early February 1969. As fate would have it, John got to meet Miles Davis the very next day of his arrival in the United States. Miles was also impressed with John’s playing and immediately invited John to play on his then recorded album “In a Silent Way”.
Tony Williams formed his band, the Tony Williams Lifetime with Jack Bruce and Larry Young. John joined Lifetime and also played with Miles on some of his projects during this period, however, declined to join Miles fulltime as he had a different vision of his musical journey. This musical vision led John to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra and eventually to Shakti. During this period, John was also following his spiritual quest and became a disciple of an Indian guru named Sri. Chinmoy Kumar Ghosh. It was Sri Chinmoy who gave John the name “Mahavishnu”, which he subsequently used to name his band.
During this Chinmoy period, aside from his work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, John recorded a wonderfully spiritual and acoustic album called “My Goals Beyond”, which he dedicated to his guru, Sri Chinmoy. John also collaborated with fellow Chinmoy disciple and guitar player Carlos Santana in the critically acclaimed “Love Devotion Surrender” in 1972 followed by a short two month tour with the band that included John, Carlos Santana, Billy Cobham, Doug Rauch, Larry Young, Don Alias, Jan Hammer and Mike Shrieve.
Meanwhile, with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John broke through to a more popular audience of rock and jazz/rock. The Mahavishnu Orchestra enjoyed fame that reached dizzying heights and they were an act during their prime that could fill arenas and stadiums. However, due to internal conflicts between band members, the group went through several changes over time and finally disbanded officially end of 1975, by which time, there was no original member of the band left aside from John. Each version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was dynamic and had a character uniquely different than the previous version. The Mahavishnu Orchestra during its short life had included phenomenal musicians such as Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Rick Laird, Jerry Goodman, Jean Luc Ponty, Narada Michael Walden to name a few. The band recorded phenomenal albums with music that is still baffling musicians worldwide. Albums recorded were “The Inner Mounting Flame”, “Birds of Fire”, “Visions Of the Emerald Beyond”, “Apocalypse” and “Inner Worlds”.
However, due to the conflicts between the band members and John’s own interest in exploring his musical interests in Indian classical music and its spiritual links, he finally decided to disband the Mahavishnu Orchestra and spend all of his time with the members of what was eventually to become the formal Shakti group.
Following the breakup of Shakti, John returned to his electric roots and formed the One Truth Band that also recorded the album “Electric Dreams, Electric Sighs”. L. Shankar joined John on this musical journey, which lasted two years and ended in late 1979. During this period, John also recorded a solo album with a host of guests consisting of jazz and rock royalty that John had played with over the years including Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Carlos Santana, Billy Cobham, Jerry Goodman, Michael Walden, Jack Bruce, Stanley Clarke and Jack DeJohnette to name a few.
This period of 1979 also led to the formation of very short lived jazz/fusion supergroup of sorts with John, Billy Cobham, Jack Bruce and Stu Goldberg. This band did a short five-week tour of Europe during October. However, for reasons unknown, the group disbanded and there was no recording released of this group in action. It is a pity since this group was dynamite on stage!
Around late 1979 or 1980, John decided to move from the United States to France where he went on to work with Katia Labeque and form the Translators (or what many call the Belo Horizonte Band). During this period, John also explored his acoustic side and formed a trio with Paco De Lucia and Al Dimeola. In reality, the first acoustic guitar trio to tour consisted of John, Paco and Larry Coryell and they did a short tour in 1979, but for reasons unknown that trio mutated into the trio we all know well consisting of Al Dimeola in place of Larry Coryell.
The Guitar Trio was immensely popular and resulted in the critically acclaimed and commercially successful “Friday Night in San Francisco”, followed by “Passion Grace and Fire” in 1983.
During early 1980, John also did a very small tour as a duo of Europe and the United States with guitar player Christian Escoude. It was during this tour that on a rare evening on May 27th in Los Angeles, that Zakir and Shankar jammed with John on stage and played a few Shakti tunes including “Get Down And Sruti”.
Following the stint with the Guitar Trio, John reverted back to his French band and went on to record the excellent work “Music Spoke Here”. It was during this period of 1982 when John was scheduled to tour India with Shakti for the Jazz Yatra Festival in 1982. Unfortunately, John injured his finger (rumour has it, while playing tennis) and could not join the group in India and at the last minute Larry Coryell was asked to take his place. It was a last minute replacement for John and Larry had not had a chance to practice with the band, but he improvised very well and gave the shows a new sound and character.
In 1984, John decided to form a new electric band and christened it “Mahavishnu” (with the missing “Orchestra”), the band consisted of the then very young Jonas Hellborg, Bill Evans(the sax player), Billy Cobham, Mitch Foreman and Danny Gottlieb. The group recorded an album in mid 1984 titled “Mahavishnu”.
It was right before the recording sessions of the “Mahavishnu” album that John finally managed to make it to India on a tour with Shakti. The original four members of the group got together in April, 1984 and did a short tour of India. This was perhaps the finest sounding Shakti ever, the members had matured in their own way and Shankar was playing his double bow stereo violin, which added a character to Shakti that cannot be described in words. It was a deadly combination. Sadly for some unknown reasons, this reunion was short lived and lasted for a month. There was however indication from the shows that the tour was perhaps intended to go beyond India, but it never did materialize. Right after this tour, John returned to France and started work on the recording of the “Mahavishnu” album and one track, “When Blue Turns Gold”, featured Zakir Hussain on tabla and most unusual of all, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia on flute. This partnership with Hari Prasad Chaurasia would not blossom further until 1997 with the formation of “Remember Shakti”.
In 1985, John joined Miles in the studio to record “You’re Under Arrest” and also played a small role in the film “Round Midnight”. John also did a small tour with Jonas Hellborg as a duo and also continued to tour with the Mahavishnu band. In late 1986, John played on the outstanding Zakir Hussain solo album “Making Music”, which also featured Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Jan Garbarek. The Mahavishnu band came to an end by late 1986 and John did two short tours as a duo, the first was with Paco De Lucia and the other was with Jonas Hellborg (similar to the one back in 1985).
It was not until 1988 that John came back with a proper band, which was called the John McLaughlin Trio featuring Trilok Gurtu on percussion and various bass players over the lifetime of this band including Jonas Hellborg, Jeff Berlin, Kai Eckhart, and Dominque Di Piazza. This Trio recorded two albums "Live At The Royal Festival Hall" (1990) and "Que Alegria" (1992), the former was a live album while the latter was a studio recording. During this period, John also explored his love for classical music and recorded the classically influenced “The Mediterranean" in 1990. The JM Trio finally disbanded in 1992 and John was ready to explore new frontiers.
In 1993, John came back with yet another Trio, but this time with a more jazzier sound comprising of a Hammond organ, drums and his guitar. This trio was called the Free Spirits and consisted of drummer Dennis Chambers and keyboard/organ player Joey De Francesco. This trio marked a turning point in terms of John’s playing style. He started using the Gibson guitars that gave a more “jazz guitar” sound to his playing, it’s a more subdued sound rather than the more raw rock guitar sound. This style has persisted to this day and John used a modified Gibson guitar for his Remember Shakti performances as well. Free Spirits recorded two successful albums “Tokyo Live” and “After the Rain”(1995).
On the side, in 1995, John also recorded his album “Time Remembered” which was a tribute to pianist Bill Evans and John rewrote Bill Evans compositions from the perspective of being rendered via the medium of the guitar. John also composed some of the music for the film “MOLOM” which he performed with Trilok Gurtu.
In 1996, John released his solo effort entitled “The Promise” which featured a host of well-known rock and jazz performers including Jeff Beck, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Sting. There was also an Indian raga based composition called “The Wish” which featured Zakir Hussain on tabla and Nishat Khan on sitar. This composition was played during the 1997 tour of Remember Shakti.
Around late summer and fall 1996, John reformed the guitar trio with Paco DeLucia and Al DiMeola, a reunion after 15 years. This Trio did a very successful tour of Europe and the United States. However, John was working on yet another endeavor in his quest for musical expression and he formed a band called the “Heart of Things” band, which reunited John with drummer Dennis Chambers and keyboard player Jim Beard. Other players included percussionist Victor Williams, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and the young Matthew Garrison on electric bass. This band recorded one studio album in 1997, “Heart of Things”, followed a live album “Live in Paris” that was recorded in 1998, but released in 2000.
Around autumn 1997, India was going to celebrate its 50th year of Independence from the British. In honor of this momentous occasion, it was decided that a Shakti reunion should take place and play at the shows organized in England. This reunion opened a brand new chapter in John’s musical journey that is still not closed after seven years. Shankar, as per official quotes, was unavailable, and Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia was invited to join the group. The rest of the group consisted of the original members Zakir Hussain, Vikku Vinayakram and John McLaughlin. The group played four memorable concerts in England and also played a solo show in Oslo, Norway on Septemer 23rd, which also included the saxophonist Bendik Hofseth. The group also traveled to India in December 1997 and play a solo show in Mumbai, India on December 8th, 1997. The Indian show also featured Bendik Hoffseth on saxophone.
This tour was followed by a brief hiatus where the group went through some changes that included the addition of U.Srinivas on mandolin and V. Selvaganesh on kanjira and ghatam. Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Vikku Vinyakram bowed out due to perhaps personal commitments. This second version of Remember Shakti continues to tour till today.
What followed in John’s Shakti related journey can be picked up in more detail from the group history section reincarnation .