1. The Tragic Talent of Miss Joy Marshall

<h1 itemprop="headline">1. The Tragic Talent of Miss Joy Marshall</h1>

In 2018 I was approached by the Turtle label to pen a booklet note for an album by American vocalist Joy Marshall, a name well-known to veteran British jazz fans as Tubby Hayes' one-time partner, and whose controversial, drug-related death at the age of 32 in 1968 has sadly eclipsed her talent as a performer. I welcomed this opportunity to finally give Marshall her due, after decades of half-truths, second-hand insults and hack template-style journalistic dismissals. Extensive research went into these notes, some of it unearthing little-known or forgotten details of this talented singer's life and work.

In January of this year, I posted an extended and updated three-part adaptation of these notes on my Facebook wall. I am posting it here as a reply to a well-known American jazz writer whose own blog has recently borrowed exclusively from my notes to the Turtle album without any credit whatsoever.

The author of that blog is, rather depressingly, a well-regarded authority on jazz whose work I've hitherto enjoyed very much. His blatant (and lazy) paraphrasing of my words is therefore something of a wake-up call as well as a disappointment. A little acknowledgement takes barely a few key strokes and is, I would imagine, a common courtesy, one I'd expect between professional writers, but alas in this case seems to be something beyond the individual in question.

Anyway, let's not concentrate on his unabashed plagiarism any further. The following is the first part of the tragic, enlightening and little-known story of Joy Marshall. Parts Two and Three will be posted over the next two days.

Part One: ‘...something like a curse’

Let’s start with the bit everybody ‘knows’, the tale that has, over the years, become a legend, especially in UK jazz circles; a sordid denouement, the details of which are easily accessible through a paper chase of biographies, obituaries and interviews; the bit, which although factually correct, is so far-fetched sounding as to be almost mythic. The ‘story’, if you like.

Are you sitting comfortably? Good, because this is no fairy-tale. Actually, it makes for such uncomfortable reading that you’ll need all the cushioning – emotionally speaking – you can get. It begins at the end, with a nightmare from which we need to work backwards in order to escape the ready slumber of received wisdom. It’s not nice. It’s tragic. And it’s not a construct. It’s true, every last grisly bit of it. And it begins like this...

As female vocalists’ deaths go, it was about as rock and roll as they come, the same kind of over-driven substance-fuelled final binge that had earlier seen off Dinah Washington and which would, within a couple of years, also take Janis Joplin. And like Joplin and Washington, this was a woman who believed in having her fill... and then some.

The nameless young guitarist she’d picked up in a club the night before had awoken to find her beside him the following morning, stone cold dead. He’d called the police but had then panicked and fled her Hammersmith flat before anyone could ask any awkward questions. It had been left to the ambulance men to find her lifeless body, still in bed.

The next day it made the papers – not the music journals that were grist to the mill of the business – ‘Melody Maker’ and ‘New Musical Express’ – but the tabloids, ‘The Daily Mirror’, ‘The Daily Express’ and so on. After all, it was a juicy story – “Jazz Singer Found Dead, aged 32” – the very kind of thing sensationalist pressmen thrive upon.

But even to those who knew her intimately there was something of a tragic inevitability to it. Not only had she been an individual given to burning the candle at both ends, she’d also used that very same candle to light all sorts of conflagrations in the lives of others. What other way could she have gone, other than in some vulgar, valedictory blaze of selfish indulgence?

As always, in death as in life, it would be left to others to clear the fall-out.

There was an irony too in the fact that those left picking up the practical pieces in the wake of her passing – her ex-husband, who had to testify at her inquest, and her ex-boyfriend, who had taken her death so badly that it in turn launched another especially destructive bout of his own addictive tendencies – were also those who’d received the most painful burns inflicted by her incandescent persona.

Brimming with pills and booze, her death, Dr John Burton recorded at Hammersmith Coroners Court on November 26th 1968, had been caused ‘by misadventure’ - a cocktail of (her death certificate officially reads) ‘barbiturate poisoning mixed with alcohol’. Two days later, at 2.40pm on Thursday November 28th 1968, what was left of her ravaged body was cremated at London’s Mortlake Crematorium. It was a pitiful end, the coroners words still ringing in the mourners ears.

In some ways though, those same words had made for an especially fitting kind of epitaph as, for much of her life, Joan ‘Joy’ Pipkins Marshall had indeed been a kind of Miss Adventure, the sort of performer whose personal life was as reckless as her vocal art was assured.

That, then, is the ‘story’. How much of it we choose to believe depends entirely on how accurately we like to parse our jazz ‘legends’. Do we like them to be victims of the same old jazz-life vices as Billie Holiday or Chet Baker, reaching easy conclusions that can be repeated parrot-fashion-style without so much as a thought to the accuracy of what we’re disseminating? Or do we like to dig a bit deeper and get to the nub of their human flaws, letting posthumous reanalysis award them the justice they so bitterly failed to receive when alive? Do we print the legend, then, or the story. Do we tell the truth or speak the lie?

Nothing but negative

Mention the name Joy Marshall to jazz fans of a certain age in the UK nowadays and the first reaction will more than likely be a half-memory that for a few key years in the middle-1960s she had been Tubby Hayes’s girlfriend, the woman he once described as ‘a very special lady who has become a very important part of my life’ and to whom he penned one of the sweetest of all jazz’s love songs, ‘A Dedication To Joy’ (heard on the album ‘Mexican Green’).

Those who knew her a little better may be able to tell you more – that she was a feisty personality, a musical performer whose talents got overtaken by her appetites for alcohol and narcotics and who could have gone on to do so much more, had she finally gotten a hold of herself.

This is ‘Joy Marshall’ as opposed to just Joy Marshall. Yet to those who knew her as a friend more than a colleague, she was another being altogether – fun, warm, funny, blessed with great wit and even greater legs, a pal, a confidant, a laugh, a woman unafraid to mix it in what was then still very much a man’s world, musically-speaking. Tough, sure, but not unfeminine. Able to play the game, certainly, but doormat to no-one. A girl singer, definitely, but never just a ‘girl singer’. An actress in many ways, but never ever unreal. A real person, with real feelings, a real life and a real story, one which for so many years seemed destined to never be told accurately.

The respected English jazz journalist and writer Val Wilmer knew Marshall during her time with Tubby Hayes and, in a letter to the author in 2009, she began by explaining how far short the ‘myth’ had sold short the vocalist.

‘[I] knew Joy quite well,’ she wrote, [but] since those days, however, have heard nothing but negative comments about her.’ These criticisms were, it seems, all connected to her time with Tubby Hayes, and Marshall’s apparent part in the saxophonist’s downfall. Wilmer, though, saw then quite differently; as a couple well-met in temperament. Simpatico, in fact, is so many ways. And very much in love.

They certainly worked well together, as surviving radio broadcasts attest, and with Hayes ‘at home’ as it were the singer had a solid and immediate source of quality arrangements to draw on. They drew on each other too, Hayes’ long-term friend Tony Ketley telling me in a telephone conversation in 2007 that ‘[although] things were fiery between them...[Marshall] genuinely loved him and cared for him and, I think, because he couldn’t dominate here, the relationship meant much more to him.’

This last observation is a rather sad reminder of the fact that Hayes was very much a man’s man where women were concerned, and very much a product of a scene where macho posturing was the norm. Man-woman relationships of genuine parity were often rare things his his circle, musical ones rarer still.

Yet Hayes and Marshall never did become a John and Cleo, or even a Danny [Moss] and Jeanie [Lambe]. Their lives were never stable enough to allow that sort of creative union.

Recollections like those of Wilmer and Ketley, however, have never truly succeeded in wiping the rather monochromatic image of Marshall as some sort of malevolent entity, hell-bent on breaking hearts and marriages; a hard-hearted operator who had no soft centre.

Tough girl

To the musicians who still remember working with her, she is everything from a tragic heroine to a veritable she-devil. One London saxophonist remembers her simply as ‘Trouble. The lives that woman fucked up!’ Another veteran who accompanied her – pianist Brian Dee – attests that for all her sass and sex-appeal, Marshall was a personality labouring under ‘something like a curse. I was with her on a couple of occasions when I thought she’d had it. One time, at the Bull’s Head [in Barnes] she got the most almighty electric shock from the microphone. I thought she was a goner. Then, one night on the way to a gig, we were overtaking a lorry and the driver shone this enormous bloody spotlight at us so we couldn’t see a thing going past him. I thought that was it.’

As with her former beau Hayes, the biggest tragedy of all is that, in some circles, Marshall has become a figure more remembered for her off-stage vices than her on-stage ability. True, she was wild in every sense – as hedonistic as any rock chick – and there exist legions of tales of her tough-girl ‘tude when dealing with other musicians or club owners.

At times she could be as handy with her fists as she was with a mic, but it’s important to remember that all these things, all the horror stories of fights and feuds, would matter not one jot had they not involved someone who was without doubt an outstanding vocal talent. Brawls and love-triangles can happen anywhere; when they happen in the life of someone like Joy Marshall they make news.

Unlike Tubby Hayes, though, Marshall didn’t leave behind a substantial body of recorded work. It wasn’t for the want of trying. From the time she arrived in England in June 1962 up to a few weeks before her death in November 1968, she’d recorded for a variety of record labels – Ember, Decca and Toast most notably – all of which issued 45rpm singles under her name. She recorded only one 12” LP – part of her 1964-66 Decca contract – ‘How About These?’, a 14-track survey of then recent popular material by the likes of The Beatles, The Animals, Petula Clark and Herman’s Hermits, the stylistic bias of which wasn’t solely decided by the companies’ A&R department (‘a careful selection of the best of these new songs ... a showcase for Joy Marshall’s warm and inviting voice’ ran the back-of-the-sleeve copy).

Indeed, listening back to Marshall’s earliest singles, it was clear that she could happily straddle the boundary between out-and-out jazz and pop. Her Ember sides – ‘Love Can Change So Many Things’/’Till The End of Time’ – are unadulterated, over-glossy early 60s girl-goo, while her Decca 45’s – including her only minor chart hit ‘A Taste Of Honey’, which reached number 34 in the UK - are really no more “jazz” than contemporary Sandie Shaw or Dusty Springfield. Her final single – released just after her death – ‘And I’ll Find You’/’I’m So Glad You’re Back’ is more in line with Motown or Chess than Capitol or Verve, more Fontella than Ella.

In fact, given what’s contained within her extant discography (which someone really ought to compile into a definitive collection) it’s rather surprising that Marshall is recalled as a jazz singer at all.

Close to her death, she was making no bones about how she saw things.

‘I’ve given up thinking I can make a living out of jazz,’ she said in her final press interview, given to ‘Melody Maker’ in March 1968. ‘But to producers I’m still a jazz singer. They seem to think I’ll be insulted if they ask me to sing commercial songs.’

A quick-study, she’d also been swift to recognise that commercial didn’t automatically mean substandard, her mid-decade gig-pad including as much Lennon and McCartney as it did Arlen and Mercer. ‘These days there’s a lot of good commercial music about,’ she told journalist Bob Dawbarn, adding ‘Thank God for Bacharach.’

This stance wasn’t a late-in-the-day volte face though, the sort of desperate thinking that led several British jazzmen of the time to record vapid sets of chart-hits. No, Marshall had been heading this way for a while. Even as early as 1963, she had remarked ‘my singing is really on the jazz fringe – I don’t think I am really a jazz singer. But I think I could take ‘Never On A Sunday’ and make it cook.’

To be continued...

Photo: Miss Adventure: Joy Marshall circa. 1962

BLOG TAGS