John Jenkins, better known to Macjammers as woofer3, is a newer member at Macjams but caught my ear because he sounded so much like Randy Newman, and I’m a big RN fan. His music slips easily back into a tin pan alley/honky tonk feel, as if that’s his natural musical home. A great mixture of saloon piano blues, wry wisdom, simple story telling, and an underlying sense of humor.
John was born in 1944 in South Wales. He plays music for a living, or used to before he retired. Now he gigs intermittently and concentrates on writing and enjoying life. His credits include backing Tom Jones, Joan Baez, Donovan, Billy Lee Riley and many others…
Where did your screen name “woofer3″ come from?
“The name Woofer3 – I got it from an old Sparks album –A Woofer in Tweeters Clothing. (I absolutely love Sparks.) I tried the name Woofer at first and was told as I remember that the name was already taken and so I just moved down the line a couple of times ’til I arrived at three.”
You have a distinctive sound – slight graininess on the vocals, a simple honky tonk ambience – that gives your tracks an authentic feel. Is this something you strive for or is it an accident?
“I wasn’t aware I had a particular sound, it certainly isn’t intentional. I don’t really know much about recording techniques only what I’ve picked up as I’ve gone along. I do try to improve the quality of my recordings but it’s very much hit and miss I’m afraid! It’s the writing that is most important to me, I love making up songs. The recordings are just a way to preserve my work in a listenable form. So I suppose if I have a particular sound then it is arrived at by accident.”
You also often have a cabaret piano bar vibe going on. As a professional musician, have you played in such venues often?
“Yes I have played in bars lots of times over the years on some of the worst pianos God ever put strings into, you know beer soaked dampers and sticky notes, real steam pianos.”
Do you try for that Randy Newman style, did you learn it on purpose, or did it come naturally?
“Several people have likened my style to Randy Newman but to be truthful I have heard very little by him, in fact the only track I can bring to mind is Short People. I do have a fondness for old novelty records though – Ada Jones, Frank Crumit, that sort of thing, also the hokum music of the thirties… One of the first records like this I heard was Jim Jackson‘s Jamboree which was recorded in Memphis in 1929 with Speckled Red, Tampa Red and Georgia Tom. I have so many of these old records, and all of these people and many more have no doubt influenced me in some way. I was twenty when I got into hokum.”
You mention in the comments on Wining Boy Blues that it was recorded at “Druid’s Bunion.” Is that a studio or music hall?
“Most of my stuff is written and recorded at my home in Wales except for some live reel to reel things at gigs with various bands. Some of these were even recorded in open fields. I always try to write something when I’m away from home as well, in fact I’ve just returned from Jersey where I wrote a song called – Santa Claus is bringing me a Stukka – it needs a bit of trimming here and there, but I’m generally quite pleased with it.
“Druid’s Bunion is just a joke name , a sort of fantasy studio if you like -When I was a kid I used to look at the record labels and see things like – Recorded at Sun Memphis and so forth so I thought – why not Druid’s Bunion? – ‘Wining Boy’ was actually recorded in my room one Sunday afternoon after several glasses of wine – my room is the nerve centre of Druid’s Bunion!!!”
When did you develop you piano bar honky tonk feel?
“When I was about seventeen or eighteen, I first heard the record of Honky Tonk Train Blues by Meade Lux Lewis. I couldn’t get it out of my head as it was something completely new to me. I bought several books on this new (to me anyway) style and just practiced the left hand figures over and over. My mother (though not my father) did her best to encourage me by helping me in any way she could. She was always there whenever I needed her, and not just with music either. From there on my scope opened wide and I shut my mind to nothing ‘ I started to listen to Fat’s Waller, Art Tatum, Jelly Roll Morton, Lil Johnson, Mary Lou Williams, etc etc etc.”
So, your father didn’t support your choice in music…
“My father didn’t like the music I used to play and he hated rock and roll, he was a classical musician like my mother, though she was far superior. She played the piano and was just wonderful. Once she realized that I really didn’t want to play Wagner she did her best to encourage and help me with what I did want to play. She is missed every day.”
You’ve posted tracks of a jazz band, 20’s style. Was that style something you’ve done all your career?
At the Jazz Band Ball: Recorded on tape over ten years ago [ 5th.Feb98 ] at the Canal Boat, Cardiff – just for fun by Midnight Special. No rehearsal or proper sound check, just a quick goosey at the last second and off to go. All real instruments – five pieces I’m almost certain – trumpet/clarinet/stick bass/ piano and drums. This was a regular Thursday night at the Canal Boat and on this occasion there were seven tracks recorded in all. I have been with Midnight Special off and on since about 1990. This was my first taste of playing with a jazz group, but I have always messed about with stride and boogie which fitted in well with what this band did. Unfortunately, we have a lot of musical differences.”
– At the Jazz Band Ball
– St. Philip’s Street Breakdown
When did you start making music?
“My mother gave me my first musical instruction from a very young age when I studied the piano. I don’t ever remember not being able to play. When I was about nine I was sent to a private teacher in Cardiff where I was taught to play classical. At the time I remember not being particularly interested in music that much and didn’t like having to practice. I was made to practice an hour each day. I eventually gave up and it was decided much to my mother’s disappointment that my lessons would be terminated… which they were, to my great relief!
“Although I stopped having lessons, I still used to dabble on the piano, probably most days, though it was not until the late 1950s that I started listening to music properly. Rock and roll was developing and I was getting increasingly interested in people like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. I could relate to them as we were starting to live in a world of guitars and suddenly here were two artists who had chosen the piano. I used to buy their records and try and work out what they were doing. Others followed: Huey Smith and Big Al Downing. I suppose I started playing rock and roll piano when I was thirteen.”
– Watson’s Wizards #3 by woofer3
Were you ever in a band?
“Several. Joined my first band, The Zodiacs, in late 1964 (I’d just turned 20). I played electric piano – a Hohner pianet. Second band: The Outcasts in Jan 1965. I played the organ – a Vox Continental. We used to do covers mainly by The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Beatles. This I felt was the first really good band I joined.
“Third band: Tom Jones and The Squires about Sept 1965 – working from London. At this period I did work with Joan Baez and Donovan, though folk music, to be honest, is about my least favourite type of music. Joan and Donovan were both friendly. I was part of the backing band.
“In The Squires I travelled up and down England all the time, which was very tiring as we only had one motorway which was the M1. Often in our travels we used to see two other well known bands, usually at petrol stations, they were the Nashville Teens and The Zombies. They always used to wave at us Welshies… Such memories.”
What was it like traveling with Tom Jones?
“Life on the road with Tom Jones was hard work as we were always on the move. The first night in Bolton Lancashire was a bit of an ordeal as up until then I had only played little clubs and this place was just huge and boasted the biggest PA system in England at the time. There were four of us in the band and we had to do about twenty minutes before Tom came on. I was particularly nervous as I had to do all the singing. When we walked out on stage it was like that scene in Close Encounters – all white lights everywhere, really bright, and although you couldn’t see anyone in this black mass you could feel them out there. The first song we did was I’ll Go Crazy and to my relief it went down well. After that I can’t remember much else except I was glad when it was all over.
“Most of the good times though were with my second band – The Outcasts. I loved this group. We all got on well and the music was great. We were very popular locally and there was no shortage of work. We even travelled quite far afield, sleeping and eating in the van. I can remember sleeping in Epping Forest one night in February 1965, on our way to Great Yarmouth where we played the Floral Hall. I can remember one of the women there being very kind to us and providing us with food and tea. I could see the pity in her eyes as she looked at us all worn out and hungry. I suppose we were only kids when I look back. Then after the gig we travelled back to Wales, and the joke of it being we never got paid for it… ripped off. Still, we did get to play in the famous Flamingo Club in Soho during this mini tour and we did get paid for that. The van I mention was an old wreck of a Bedford in green and rust (real rust) and must have been on its last legs; it had a column gear change, the lever of which was missing so, Eddie our guitarist had clamped a set of mole grips on there instead and it worked perfectly.”
“I returned back to Wales in 1966 and got married. I took on any day job I could get, usually driving, and continued playing in bands in the evenings. Night Clubs, Social Clubs, Functions, Cabaret Bands, Dance Bands, anything that paid. That was my playing life then for about the next twenty years. My son, Steve, was born in 1973 and my daughter, Helen, in 1975.”
When did you meet your wife? Is she musical? Are you still married?
“I met my wife Yvonne on one of my driving jobs in the sixties and, yes, we are still married. She doesn’t really share my enthusiasm for music. My writing is taken as a bit of a joke by most members of the family. However, Jade, my five year old granddaughter, does like what I write and often sings my tunes. We have written a little song between us called ‘Down by the River in Africa’. I also have a fourteen year old gifted step-grandson, Morgan, who is a promising player and an excellent artist. I give him piano lessons every week and although he is not a blood relative he is more like me than anyone else in the family, isn’t that funny. Danielle, my other granddaughter, has also appeared on several of my recordings, she has helped me with the chorus vocals and sung the odd line. My own children have never followed a musical path, though my daughter has an excellent voice and did take piano lessons many years ago.”
You mentioned working with another legend…
“In the early eighties there was a renewed interest in 50’s rock ‘n roll and that’s when I worked with Billy Lee Riley playing piano. There was a shortage of rock ‘n roll piano players and the job just fell in my lap. Billy was a proper gentleman – one of the world’s true gents – who I warmed to straight away. He was kind and friendly. Billy was only doing a couple of shows in England in a place called Caister. Really enjoyed that weekend, even managed to get an original copy of Silhouettes by The Rays (1957). I always wanted to ask Billy about the old days at Sun Records but never did.
How great to play with one of your idols.
“That gig was a highlight.
“The following year I lost my mother (4th of April, 1984). The lady who had helped me so often and also given me my first piano lessons. (My father had died in November 1963.) Much of my life since then has been just playing with local bands. There are so many, but since about 1977 it has nearly always been trios. This has proved to be very successful, though I have been lucky with drummers and bass players as I’ve always had good ones.”
Do you recall the first song you ever wrote?
“First took an interest in writing about 1976 when I wrote my first song which is called – Seems Like a Million Years. I like writing more than anything else and have been influenced by everything from Bach to Frank Zappa. I love Elvis Costello‘s writing. I don’t like pretentious writing and always try to write music that I hope everyone can understand because as I see it that’s the whole point. I think that the use of nebulous lyrics is often a cop out, as you can bend them to mean almost anything. I feel you have to have some boundaries when writing a piece.”
You were 32 when you started writing your own material?
“My first song writing attempt got me interested in writing and I wrote about half a dozen others around this time. Then there was a longish break during which I would just write one now and again. There was never any sort of schedule for want of a better word. I would write as I felt it. However in December 2001, I was taken into hospital with pneumonia and nearly didn’t make it out, but while I was laying there that first night I made up my mind that if I did get out then I would make writing my priority and that is what I have done. I suppose that I have written just over six hours of music in total. I have even written a concept work and some Baroque style pieces as well.
“I like writing because when you have written something it’s yours and yours only, it’s a very personal thing.”
Have you ever sold any of your songs, or do you just write for yourself?
“I have never sold any of my music, and I wouldn’t know how to go about doing it. I have copyrighted nearly all of my work though. I suppose, as you say, I write for myself. My writing output varies greatly, I think the most songs I wrote in a year was in 2003 when I put together just over thirty and the concept work which consisted of about eight other songs.”
I’ve noticed you have several politically themed songs. Care to share why you are drawn to this?
“My political songs and my royal family songs all go together. I hate it when people try to tell me things which I know are not true or distorted in some way and I hate the implication that some people are more special than others simply because they are born into an over privileged and overpaid family. I will never accept this, it’s nonsense. These songs are just my little protest about it all. I remember being made to wait in a crowd for hours in the freezing cold when I was about ten just to see the Queen who I didn’t want to see in the first place!! I remember thinking, What the hell am I doing here? Still my school knew best, they knew that deep down I really did want to see her!”
– The Man who would be King
– Harry Keeps His Records in a Rack
– Gordon’s Little Zero Carbon Homes
– Atom Bomb Blues
– Burning Hitler
– No Man’s Land
– Duchess of Pork
– Shoot the Viceroy
– I Don’t Believe It
Does being a native of Wales influence your music?
“Wales or being Welsh has not influenced my music in any way at all as far as I’m aware, though I am very proud of the Welsh composer Ivor Novello who I think wrote some of the most beautiful melodies. Mind that was in an era when there were a lot of very clever tunesmiths around like Harry Warren and Herman Hupfield, etc. I love the music from this time.”
Do you have a weakness, musically?
“My weaknesses as I see it are probably sight reading. I can read music but not as quickly as I’d like. I also don’t know much about recording techniques though I am trying to learn more. The whole thing is very much a fun outing to me which I enjoy enormously but nevertheless I feel there are little rules that should be acknowledged.”
How do you compensate for not being great at sight reading, especially in a jazz band with little rehearsal time?
“Actually, I’m not a terrible reader. I’d just like to be better at it. When I was doing cabaret I had to read for about four different artists a week, and this got my reading much better. Regarding rehearsals, I think that all bands should rehearse, as it always shows. This was always my problem with some of the jazz players I worked with, they just didn’t want to practice.”
Exactly. That’s what I meant.
“I used to have a very well rehearsed trio a few years ago that used to play music by Steely Dan, Little Feat, Sting, Jethro Tull and so on and that just had to be well rehearsed as most of the music was so structured.”
By the way, I was wondering if that was you playing the guitar on Slow down #1?
“No, I can’t remember who it was, in fact I can’t even remember the exact year. Most of this old stuff nearly got thrown out but my son stopped me. All I can remember about this record is that it was recorded on tape, that it was pitched far too low for my voice, that a real piano was used, that I wrote it myself and that it was inspired by Flat Tyre by the Del Vikings, one of my favourite groups.”
Did you ever play guitar in a band?
“Yes, I have played guitar with a band but I just don’t feel at home with the instrument at all. I wish I did. I haven’t played guitar on stage for must be twenty years. I mostly use the guitar for writing. I just sit in front of the television with the guitar and a piece of manuscript and it’s surprising how many ideas I get. Now this is where being able to write music really comes in useful.”
What are you future plans with regard to music?
“My future plans? Well, I don’t really know. I would like to ask your advice if that’s not stepping out of line. Is my music worth trying to sell and if so which is the best way to go about it? You are more knowledgeable the I am with this. I feel I would like to try and do something with it as there is so much of it.”
Try and get an agent? Consider how Randy Newman sells his music: to film, as comic satire, in the new jazz blues standards category. Go with that. Put your music together by genre/theme and send it out there. Use your old connections. Do you still gig?
“I am retired now and only do the odd gig for fun, if I do play it’s as a piano trio doing all sorts, usually a mixture of jazz and rock. We even do Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull songs using this format. One unusual piece we do is a medley of Lady Madonna/The Unsquare Dance in 7/4.”
How did you find MacJams?
“I found out about MacJams from a friend of my daughter’s, before that I had posted stuff on iCompositions. I still go onto iCompositions now and then but not very much these days as I prefer MacJams. I have thinned a lot of my stuff out on iCompositions recently. I find I talk to people a lot more on MacJams.”
I’m very happy with that choice, John. Thanks for coming over to the dark side.
“Thank you – on everybody’s behalf (I’m sure) – for all the hard work you are doing here, it is much appreciated.”
Thank you, too. We piano players have to stick together!