2. The Tragic Talent of Miss Joy Marshall

<h1 itemprop="headline">2. The Tragic Talent of Miss Joy Marshall</h1>

Part Two: ‘At least I’m professional...’

The roots of Joy Marshall’s subsequent misaligning as ‘a jazz singer’ perhaps stem from the first few months she spent in London, the city she’d arrived in as a complete unknown in summer 1962. Britain’s capital wasn’t exactly awash with female jazz vocal talent and as an American (and a black American, to boot) Marshall had the double-advantage of playing right into a music press still obsessed with instant Stateside obeisance.

‘Melody Maker’’s review of her début London performance – a single set at The Flamingo in the company of drummer Tony Kinsey’s trio – drips with enthusiasm, the singers’ ‘carefree and clever style’ leading the club’s boss Sam Kruger to praise her as ‘one of the greatest we’ve ever had’.

The article also outlined the background on how she’d found herself in the UK. Plucked from San Francisco’s Purple Onion Club by a New Zealand businessman named Royston Marker (who thought ‘she had to be brought to London for a fresh start’) Marshall told the paper ‘all I want in life is a personal satisfaction from my work.’

She was described as having ‘packed a lot into her three-year professional career.’

There was no mention of any pretension to be a great jazz diva.

What she was to pack into the remainder of her short life was to be even more significant, but before we look at the impact she was to have on the London music scene, it may be worth adding what biographical facts there are about Marshall, most of which remain somewhat sketchy. (Even her birth date was initially fudged by publicists, who insisted that she was just 23 years of age when she arrived in the UK. She was, in fact, 25).

Allegedly of part-Cuban stock, she had been born in New York to church-going parents Horace and Bea, and, like so many Afro-American musicians during the 20th century had her first experience of performing in sacred surroundings, singing in various Baptist choirs as a child.

During the late 1950s, she had spent time in the US Navy, wherein she sang with a services big band. Early publicity material for her London appearances also asserted that she held, variously, a degree in either the arts or dental technology, again a claim that has gone unsubstantiated. However, it was the more informal and secular learning curve afforded by club work (‘with many names on the American scene’. Allegedly including George Shearing, Buddy Greco and Mort Sahl) that was to put the final polish on her style.

And there was something else too, something that placed her in even better stead when she arrived in the UK jazz circuit – she had a certain strut to her, a hipness that stood out a mile among the many would-be pretenders who claimed to be part of the jazz cognoscenti of London. If not exactly classically pretty, she had cat-like brand of sex appeal and accordingly didn’t go short on romantic offers. In November 1962, she wedded saxophonist Peter King, a marriage King was to describe in his autobiography ‘Flying High’ (Northway Publications, 2011) as ‘[a] challenge that would either “make a man of me” or destroy me completely...it nearly did both in the end.’

Fire and Ice

King was fascinated by the fantasy of being with a black jazz singer, but for Marshall the marriage was as much about legal convenience as at was about making dreams come true. Her new manager – the shark-like Bee Bram – saw it as a convenient way to circumvent the formalities of renewing Marshall’s work permit. On a practical level, the relationship worked, especially when the vocalist joined her husband on stage on his regular gigs with the Tony Kinsey Quintet. Off-the stand it was a living hell.

From the off, Marshall’s streetwise attitude rubbed up against King’s suburban English reserve. He was insecure, rail-thin and nervous; she was voluptuous and naturally sensual. It was folly to think it could last

‘Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater, had a wife and he couldn’t keep her’, she’d tease him to the point of physical violence. She also made no secret of her frequent infidelities and, in 1964, she began a fire and ice affair with King’s sometime boss, saxophone legend Tubby Hayes.

Fist-fights, abortions, scuffles with the police and even a flit abroad to avoid the Sunday press would all follow, with Hayes unable to control his desire for a woman who took him to the edge in every way possible.

Within weeks of this fling beginning, Marshall had left King for good – an injury with insult added; when the Hayes’ big band recorded an episode of the BBC TV series ‘Jazz 625’ in early 1965, less than a month since the jilt, Marshall duly arrived to take her place in the audience and dig her new man. King had chosen to remain in the band, but his face said it all. Even now, some fifty-five odd years later, it makes from highly uncomfortable viewing, Marshall beaming away, Hayes seeming made-up and King looking for all the world like a rabbit pinned in the headlights.

But this was no simple, serene story of undeniable attraction. Behind the scenes at the Putney Hill flat the saxophonist and singer shared life was anything but serene, veering from nightmarish to comic and back with alarming rapidity, a glut of pills, pot, coke and booze fuelling the volatility. In fits of anger, Hayes would tear up Marshall’s arrangements or flush her stage wig down the toilet. The next minute, he’d be in tears declaring his love.

Private papers recently unearthed within his own archive reveal that there were also several suicide attempts made during periods in which he and Marshall were at loggerheads. In the end, it was too much, even for a man of Hayes’s cast-iron constitution and by the autumn of 1968, soon after the saxophonist had been convicted of possession of heroin (Marshall attended the hearing at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court and can be seen in surviving BBC news footage) he and Marshall had split permanently, leaving her to teeter ever closer to disaster.

A hard nut

All this, of course, went virtually unnoticed by the wider public. Marshall was still functioning perfectly professionally on the stand (Arnold L. Miller’s ‘London in The Raw’ contains a beautiful piece of colour footage of her in action on stage at her Mayfair residency The Blue Angel), taking guest-appearance bookings all over the UK and abroad (Belgium, Holland, Norway, Germany, Spain, Portugal), broadcasting regularly on the BBC and making TV appearances on such Light Entertainment classics as the Beeb’s ‘Dee Time’, a then new show fronted by the ill-starred disc jockey and media darling Simon Dee.

For a time during 1963-4 she had sung with the John Dankworth band (‘at a guaranteed £10,000 a year’, according to one press release) and had also understudied Cleo Laine in a stage musical (‘she just refused to get ill’). In 1965, she took a part in a touring production of Lionel Bart’s musical ‘Maggie May’. The tribulations of her private life came second in such circumstances. In their stead blossomed a tough, take-no-nonsense dedication.

‘Some of the club musicians give me a hard time,’ she told ‘Melody Maker’ of her unglamorous sorties into the Midlands and Northern nightclub circuit. ‘They don’t pay attention to the parts and sometimes it’s half way through the week before things are right ... I have a reputation for being a hard nut but at least I’m professional.’ (In her ‘Melody Maker’ obituary, Bob Dawbarn pulled no punches about how the singer wasn’t always quite the pro she liked to have people believe, often ‘liable to show up for the first rehearsal with only half the parts’. Indeed, another of the papers reviews of one of her gigs found it ‘suffered from half-remembered lyrics and some doubt in accompanying’.)

‘The dates I do [in jazz clubs] barely pay for the petrol,’ she confessed, ‘but I enjoy working with the musicians of the calibre of the Gordon Beck Trio. They’re more sympathetic and tasty.’

To be continued...

Photo: on the brink: Marshall and Peter King on their wedding day, Marylebone Registry Office, October 25th 1962

 

 

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