From Patna To Jimi Hendrix’s Stage: The Lesser Known Legacy Of Guitarist Gary Boyle - Homegrown

From Patna To Jimi Hendrix’s Stage: The Lesser Known Legacy Of Guitarist Gary Boyle

When one thinks of Rock and Roll or even Jazz for that matter, hardly does one think of an Anglo-Indian boy from the town of Patna strumming away the guitar on the world stage. If you were to tell me that Gary Boyle, one of the greatest guitarists to exist was born in India, even ten days ago, I wouldn’t have believed you and resorted to a Google search. But to my surprise and perhaps to the surprise of a few others, Boyle does belong to the list with others like Freddie Mercury, Sir Cliff Richards, and John Mayer, all of whom have an Indian descent. Lending the field of rock and roll and jazz his unique multicultural experience, Boyle was born in Patna during the last few years of British Raj in India, shifting from one railway town to another owing to his father’s job in the railways. His story of childhood in India to playing on the world stage next to jazz and rock legends like Eddie Harris, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Auger, and Dusty Springfield is unlike any other. Recalling some of his earliest memories of India, Boyle exclaimed, “Often, we lived in small villages with only a couple of other houses. Though I was too small to ride in the engines with dad, I remember trains coming in and going out. And there’s a weird memory of cows and getting milk off the train. And though I don’t really have memories of the big machines, I do recall daydreaming about cleaning the wheels when I got older.”

From a childhood spent in the railway towns of Bihar, Boyle spent his teenage years in London during the early years of rock and roll and skiffle music craze exploding in the working class neighborhoods of London. The trains, perhaps, continued to impact him in ways unknown – when he was about 15, the fast-paced guitar-driven jaunty sounds of skiffle music (that were heavily prejudiced towards American Railway songs) became a popular youth driven movement in post-war England.

Rock Island Line’s interpretation by Lonnie Donegan set the template for this American southern blues-inspired sound to become a rage in England. If anything, the grit, spunk and spirit of skiffle became a precursor to British rock and roll, making guitar an instrument of choice for a whole new generation of musicians including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and George Harrison among others. So iconic was Rock Island Line set by Lonnie Donegan that even Boyle couldn’t help being influenced.

My uncle Chick, who played guitar with my grandmother sometimes, gave me my first lessons. The skiffle craze was hot in those days, and after I saw Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber on television one night, I pinched my uncle Ken’s guitar and started to play in a youth club across the street. My playing was rudimentary but there was a real camaraderie among those of us who played,” says Boyle.

But the skiffle craze fizzled out soon and British musicians were back to more raw American blues sounds. To gain exposure, Boyle, a part of a small band by now, decided to trek the most sinful mile of Europe – Hamburg, a northern German sea port infamous for its red light district area and celebrated for its nighlife. “I was playing in a band and they wanted to turn professional which was a big deal those days for working class people. Even though I still had two years of school left, my father said, ‘Go for it. Take a chance. We’ve kept you for this long. See what you can do.’ It was incredible. Around Christmas in 1962, we were in Hamburg playing in clubs on the Reeperbahn. The Top Ten Club and Star Club, where The Beatles were playing, were just down the road.”

About what comprised the sounds they were playing at the time, says Boyle, “A mix of stuff. The band had a Vox piano organ, a couple of horns and a singer. Brian Bentley was on drums and I was on guitar. We played everything from R&B style instrumentals and sax grooves to beat music. You know, early rock and roll.”

It would be a while till The Beatles would make an impact on the world but recalling his meeting with the band, Boyle says “Bentley hung out with them more than I did but we all played in the same clubs along the Reeperbahn and so, saw each other’s shows, for sure. There was a real raw dive of a bar next to the Star Club where we’d go for a drink. The Beatles used to come in there all the time too. One evening we’re all sitting around with The Beatles, who were not famous then. Paul [McCartney] was with us but then George [Harrison] comes up and in his Liverpool drawl, says, “John [Lennon] wants to go,” and McCartney jumped up, just seconds before someone took a photo. Starr, sitting right across from me, stuck around.”

By the 1960s, Boyle started performing with Brian Auger, an English jazz-rock and rock music keyboardist who specialised in Hammond organ and played with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, Eric Burdon, and Tony Williams, among others. “I blame Auger for jazz-rock. I was playing rock but my record collection was full of jazz. But with Auger, I realised the two musics were connected. He never thought it was weird to mix rock with jazz. It seemed totally natural to blend them. He brought the jazz scene to the rock world. We always listened to Miles [Davis] and jazz on the tour bus, not rock and roll. Maybe Marvin Gaye. Wes Montgomery, of course, and [John] Coltrane.”

Performing with Auger also opened up doors to understanding the R&B scene for Boyle, leading up to his meeting with Jimi Hendrix, “It was my very first rehearsal after I got the gig with Auger when the drummer began telling me about this fantastic American guitar player. And he kept cropping up in conversation. We did three gigs in South Kensington in posh pubs like the Cromwellian. One night, I was playing away and saw this face staring at me through the crowd. Just focused in on me and my playing. I knew it was this new guy, Jimi Hendrix. But when the gig finished, no one bothered to introduce me. The next time at another pub, the Bag of Nails in Carnaby Street, I saw Hendrix sitting at a small table with Eric Clapton. “Bugger this,” I said to myself, “If no one is going to introduce me, I’ll do it myself.” So, Hendrix and I started chatting. He was a really normal guy. An excited fan of music. When he saw my guitar, he exclaimed, “I have a white Strat too.” It was cool. He played with us from time to time, and then we had a residency at the SpeakEasy, a real musician’s hangout. McCartney and everyone hung out there. Hendrix, who never brought his own guitar, took a shine to my white Stratocaster and played the gig,” narrates Boyle who performed with Hendrix on multiple occasions.

By 1972, after a long stint with Auger, Boyle formed his own band, Isotope. His band was considered by many critics as a fundamental piece in the history of the jazz-rock phenomenon along with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Weather Report. Their soundscape was at the flux of Boyle’s fluid and crisp guitar sounds and Brian Miller’s electric keyboard creating a musical jugalbandi of sorts. Isotope would go on to record three albums and even have Michael Jackson as their fan.

“My band Isotope was actually signed to Motown Records in America and we were in the studio with a photographer who did work with the Jackson 5. Michael Jackson had an Isotope album and said that it was a good record and he liked it because it sounded ‘un-American’. That says something about him, doesn’t it? And his openness to different types of music,remembers Boyle.

In the mid-1970s, Gary Boyle began his solo stint. His 1977 masterpiece The Dancer was awarded by the Montreux Jazz Festival as the best jazz-pop album of 1978 and also made him the third-most-popular guitarist according to the Melody Maker music polls. But soon after his critically acclaimed masterpiece, he disappeared. He recounts, “After The Dancer, I didn’t have any management to help me with the business. Unless you have all the elements – agent, management and record company – it’s very difficult to get success. I was frustrated for sure. When Isotope started to become successful, it was a bit of surprise but I was not ambitious. I just loved to play. So, when things didn’t turn out, I was disappointed but not so much for commercial or success reasons. There was no longer a chance to play with the guys I loved.”

For the next 20 years, he continued to teach music in four different colleges, sharing his gift with a new generation. Some stories seem surreal so much so that movies are made out of those, perhaps the legacy of Gary Boyle, an Anglo-Indian boy from the streets of Patna to Jimi Hendrix’s and The Rolling Stones’s stage is one such story.

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