The legendary rock band Uriah Heep had undergone many lineup changes since its beginning. However, in 1976, the band was about to undergo it’s most difficult lineup change—replacing lead singer David Byron. As anyone familiar with rock history knows, replacing a lead singer is the hardest thing a band can do, and very few bands can continue to thrive after a singer is replaced. John Lawton came from singing for two German bands: Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers. With the exception of Lucifer’s Friend’s first album, the music was not as hard rock as Uriah Heep. Yet, despite coming from a mostly non-heavy background, John passed the difficult role of becoming Uriah Heep’s lead singer with flying colors. He was accepted by the fans. John was the singer for Heep from 1976–1979. His fans and the band look back on those years very fondly. To this day, one of the songs he co-wrote with guitarist Mick Box, “Free ’n’ Easy,” is still played at encores at Uriah Heep concerts.
Yet, those who only focus on John’s Heep years are missing out on some good music as well. His previous history with Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers not only shows why Uriah Heep picked John as their lead singer, but also shows John’s vocal variety with different musical styles. Although Lucifer’s Friend’s debut album is similar to Uriah Heep, the band showcased different types of music genres, such as progressive rock and jazz. In fact, Lucifer’s Friend was known for changing the musical direction with each album, and John was able to sing a variety of genres. Likewise, Les Humphries Singers was comprised of a group of singers with Abba-like harmonies that sang gospel, dance pop, and covered famous pop tunes of the 1970s.
While John continued to sing, perform, and make albums after leaving Heep, over the last ten years he found a new occupation as a filmmaker. He has made travel documentaries on Bulgaria.
In this candid conversation, we focus on John’s early years with Lucifer’s Friend and Les Humphries Singers. We also discuss the legendary Uriah Heep years. In addition, we look at John’s years after Heep and his new occupation as a filmmaker. I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview. But most of all, I want to thank John.
Jeff Cramer: All right. So, what encouraged you to start signing?
Mahalia Jackson was a big influence when I was growing up. She used to be on British TV. They used to show her late at night on black-and-white screens, and she was a big influence in my later days of singing, so yeah, that's where it basically started . . . from my childhood.
Lucifer’s Friend performing live (John far left)
It was just a case of how the writing came. We went in and we did When the Groupies Kill the Blues, which turned out to be something totally different from Lucifer's Friend’s [debut album]. But that was just the way we were writing and every album turned out to be like that. It was, “Oh, I got this track. What do you think of this? Oh, that would sound good if we did it like this,” or, “It would sound good if we didn't play it like that.”
Les Humphries Singers in a print ad (John in center)
Lawton with Heep (From L to R: John 4th)
John Lawton’s solo album Heartbeat
JL: I did a lot of session work after Zar for various other people, but then the session work was getting to me and I didn't particularly like the session work. It was a bit boring. But I got together some local guys I knew around the London area and we put together a band called GunHill. We went off and just did some gigs just for the sheer hell of it. They weren’t the best musicians in the world, but we had good fun and we played a lot of stuff. We played some Heep songs and some Whitesnake, and all kinds of things just to get out there and get an audience reaction to it, and it just really went from there. We started playing in Europe and it got better and better and better.
John Lawton & Steve Dunning
JL: Yeah. So, that's where we are at the present day.
JC: Okay. Let’s go back into filmmaking. How did you get into it?
JL: I was approached by a Bulgarian guy called Valeri Simeonov. He has a TV station out there called Skat TV. It's a Bulgarian TV station. He saw these little short movie clips on my John Lawton website that we would make when we were on tour somewhere.
John Lawton today