The Elevators’ John Whippy – Interview

September 3, 2008 in Uncategorized

Back in Issue 39 we did an interview with the Elevators frontman, the late John Whippy. Here it is online, by way of tribute..

BiB: When did the 'new' Elevators start to play?

JW: 1999. Prior to that, for 10 years we were ‘Otis Lift & The Elevators’, with Alan ‘Otis’ Dodds as harp player and frontman, playing jump blues and swing at that time. When Otis left in Jan 1999, we basically took stock of where we were, and we found that everyone except Otis was frustrated by the feeling that we'd drifted too far away from the roots of the blues. I'd sung occasional backing vocals up to that point, but suddenly found myself in the role of singer and frontman. It coincided with some events in my personal life which made me think ‘we can either just pack it in, or we can grab the opportunity and make this a great band’. We honoured our dates, singing material I wasn’t comfortable with, and spent most of 1999 building a new set and fan base.

BiB: The band always had great guitar players, and still does...

JW: Phil (Greaves) auditioned for the band in 1988, having played for The Blues Corporation and I went to the same audition. I'd pretty much given up playing for 10 years, and put my guitar under the bed. I was standing waiting for a train at London Bridge and decided to buy a music mag. I spotted the ad asking for a 'competent guitarist to join gigging R&B band'. I thought, I’ll go along and see if they’re any good. As it happens, Phil was just leaving the audition as I turned up. We both played I Can’t Quit You, both had Black Les Pauls, and were both much better than the others who had showed up. The band at the time were only looking for one guitarist, but they couldn’t decide which of us fitted best, so we both got the gig, on the condition one of us got a Telecaster! Phil is a couple of years older than me, and was very much a Bluesbreakers Clapton period stylist. I was more influenced by BB King, whom I discovered quite quickly through Peter Green’s period with Mayall.

Here's my Peter Green anecdote: I met him backstage at my school when I was 15 (I think May 1970). He'd been my guitar hero since 'A Hard Road' came out. He'd just left Fleetwood Mac, and was in a scratch band with Alex Dmchowski from Ainsley Dunbar's band. Somehow or other he'd been booked to play at our school (!) dance. We also had Quiver (later became Sutherland Brothers) on the same bill. I think we must have had someone in-the-know on the social committee! Anyway, I was totally in awe of him, and had smuggled myself backstage, and managed to get next to him. He propped his famous Les Paul up against me whilst he took off his jacket! I met him again a couple of months later at a John Mayall concert at Brighton Dome. I was pretty determined to get backstage, and it was a bit easier in those days. He, Mayall and Duster Bennett autographed the poster I'd nicked! I've still got it somewhere.

I guess like hundreds of other wannabe guitarists in the sixties, Phil and I sat in our bedrooms and worked out Clapton's or Green's solos note for note, and through them in turn, discovered influences like Freddy and Albert King, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. We were both dedicated to really getting inside the technique and structure of blues guitar, and it is a marvellous twist of fate that we got to meet, let alone play together for so long. I have never met or seen another guitarist who can get the perfect Gibson plus Marshall tasteful blues tone that Greavsey produces. Phil is a resolute straight-down-the-line unpretentious guy, who stands pretty still when he is playing, which is where he got the nickname ‘Ironman’, but he plays like a furnace about to boil over!

Our great strength is, between us we can nail the definitive styles of our formative period, and compliment each other perfectly, because the heritage on which we draw is shared. The other crucial ingredient to this is that Martin (Robinson) has exactly the same pedigree on bass, and is a real blues bass player, rather than a ‘bassist playing blues’. A key element that separates us from the rest.

The rhythm section pays a lot of attention to how the bass and drums work together. Mick (Hill) isn't a showy drummer, in fact his rock-solid approach works really well for us, as it more accurately reflects the style of drumming that was common on early blues recordings, and it adds to our overall sound. He has some very nice vintage kits too!

We’ve virtually never had a duff gig. We always give it 100%, and have always paid proper attention to the quality of our sound. More than anything, we are true fans still. We love playing, and though we may look a bit too straight, we play our hearts out, and audiences pick up on it.

BiB: You recently added a brass section, which we can hear on the 'Relatively Blue' CD.

JW: This was initially for just a couple of gigs in 2001, but has now gestated into a more recognisable Biggish-Band, with regular players doing a few selected dates per year. In the Biggish-Band format we have two sax players, trumpet and trombone. This means we can do great arrangements of classic BB King numbers.

BiB: There's a healthy number of great covers in the set..

JW: I have written songs over the years, but unless you're an outstanding writer, why inflict mediocre originals on an audience, when you can cherry pick great songs from the best people? There will always be purists who say ‘well they’re just a good covers band’ and yes we are, but we’ve been doing it so well for so long now, that I genuinely think we have broken through that ceiling, and can claim to be interpreting songs rather than simply ‘covering’ them.

BiB: Tell me a little about the CD.

JW: Relatively Blue was basically intended as a snapshot of the band as it was in 2003. We went for a very straight production style, and consciously avoided overprocessing the resultant recording. We still play most of the numbers live, but the next album will inevitably have a different feel, as all our techniques have subtly altered over the past couple of years, along with bringing more diverse songs into our set. My singing has improved too!

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Comments (5)

 

  1. Richard Taylor says:

    RIP John. You will forever be grinning at us across the stage at Brighton’s Komedia.

    Hugs

    Wandering Wilf x

  2. Rick Aldous says:

    i’d never seen this band before and a drummer friend of mine took me to see them at a pub gig somewhere in sussex i think it was ? John invited me to sit in on harp for a couple of numbers.. Otis was supposed to be re joining them for the session but was a no show . this was his loss and my gain the boys were the easyest band ive played with very together with john giving his guest ME! space and oppertunity to do my thing ! He was i fine guitarist vocalist and a gent. Never did meet otis but envy his chances and time sharing a stage with john and the band R.I.P blues buddy!

  3. Clive Shelley says:

    Recall the Peter Green School gig (it would be 1970 give or take a year). People just don’t believe me, now. We had a guy lived at Newhaven who said, “you having a dance? – I could probably get Peter Green for you, man”. Pals all said yeah, yeah, yeah, and in disbelief, up turns the young maestro to play to a load of 17 year olds!!

    RIP JW

  4. Andy Funnell says:

    Had the privelege of being Whippy’s next door neighbour and friend for ten years or so and can honestly say that a more modest ,self deprecating guy would be hard to find. he encouraged my awful three chord strumming and somehow always managed to convince me that I had taught HIM something
    I still play Relatively Blue regularly partly because it’s so bloody good and partly to kid myself that he’s still around.If only.
    Miss you man.

  5. Mike Whippy says:

    John, is/was my cousin a few years younger than me and he joined a band I was the drummer with in Lewes called Oakenlode, when he was 17/18yrs old. We persuaded my father to loan him the money to buy a Fender Telecaster, because he was that good. he replaced a brilliant guitarist from Seaford Simon Lilley and was even better. I mustn’t forget to mention our bassist Grahame Frost and between Graham & I we persuaded John to cover a lot of Rory Gallagher material, again because he was that good.

    I grew up a little, got married, sold my drumkit and lost track of John until many years later I caught him at the Komedia – he was awesome and so he should have been after all those years, a very talented Whippy!

    I don’t think my father ever got his money, it was one of those loans that get paid back out of royalties, just as my Ludwig kit was (not)!!!

    MikeW

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