John ‘Irish’ Earle – Legend

John as I knew him
John as I knew him

I did an interview with John ‘Irish’ Earle in January 2004 For a magazine that never made it to its second issue. I knew John for a while before I found out that he was a sax player who had played with legends.

The interview was never published – The minidisc recording of this is one of my most prized possessions.

John died in 2008.

You’re having a casual conversation, someone lists off bands they have played with and they’re not exactly your local pub band. Your first reaction is to, OK, my first reaction was to ask someone if the guy I was talking to was for real. I got my answer, Yip, he’s a legend. Everyone knows the sax on Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Moonlight’, I had been talking to the man behind it, John Earle.

John Earle is a quiet man, keeps himself to himself. His memory isn’t what it used to be so John has decided to write down everyone he has played with. It’s an impressive list I read from his little book. Graham Parker, The Clash, Ian Dury, U2, Ziggy Marley, Rory Gallagher, Jonah Lewie, Bo Diddley, Elvis Costello, Carlene Carter, Cliff Richard, Motorhead, Katrina and The Waves, the list goes on. Then there’s a note ‘Jammed with Jimi Hendrix and BB King’, You jammed with Hendrix? I ask in complete awe, ‘Er, Yes’, John replies, as if it was an everyday occurrence.

As a young boy John wanted to play clarinet, instead for his birthday he got a bicycle and a raise in pocket money. ‘It took me a year to save for a clarinet’, he says, ‘I only found out years later that it cost a lot more than what I had saved up.’ After 2 or 3 years of playing John felt the natural urge to move on to something else, the saxophone. ‘To switch from clarinet to saxophone is not an extremely hard thing to do. The clarinet is a harder instrument but the fingering is almost identical’, he explains.

So then John acquired all four types of saxophone and was playing in ‘The Odeon Showband’. ‘I was on an incredibly rapid learning curve. I was delighted to be on stage. The band wasn’t great but to me this was heaven’.

John is self taught, never having a lesson in his life. He got his first break in 1966 when he was asked to go to Libya with Paul Russell, the man later responsible for ‘The Showband Show’ on TV. John smiles as he remembers his time there. ‘First time in a helicopter, it was like the best holiday anyone could want.’ John ended up touring all over Europe. He was 21.

As John was playing with better bands, so his own musicianship benefited. In the UK after the tour, John joined Ian Dury’s band and then Graham Parker & the Rumour. ‘He took me to Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia; my reputation was growing all the time’. As one band was beginning to fold, John would be offered another position. He didn’t have to go for auditions anymore, A couple of times I went for audition but when they recognised me it was ‘Oh you have the job!. The development and success of the people I was playing with was such an upward curve.’ John admits that at this time he was one of the most sought after sax players, his reasoning being that he loved all types of modern rock music. ‘I had a reasonable enough jazzy touch but I was also a rock’n’roller in my heart.’

John glances through his ‘little book’ to jog some memories, referring to Ziggy Marley as ‘a very nice young man’ and Johnny Thunders as a ‘mad American’. He also has managed to get himself wedged in the pages of the history of the 1980’s, having played with Shakin’ Stevens and on the theme tune to ‘Fraggle Rock.

‘I say this with great pride but also with humility, I don’t think there’s another sax player in the world who could show a list even similar to this’, John says smiling widely, ‘It was very often that these artists would be doing a big showcase and would want to enhance the band by adding strings or a horn section. I was always asked to do it.’

After living in London for over ten years John returned to Ireland and says that’s when things slowed down a little. He hastens to add it hasn’t stopped and that he still plays. Of his time on the road with all these bands who was his favourite? ‘Ian Dury was wonderful and we got on incredibly well as friends.’

John tells me that he hasn’t been too well over the past couple of years. His health is his number one priority. He still plays though, ‘There’s a lot of stress on me to do these gigs, I have to do well for the band, the audience and of course myself.’

Of all the pieces John has played on what’s his favourite? Being very diplomatic John says, ‘Each of them had their own strength so one would give you something no one else had before in some different way. So the band may not have been a very famous band but the joy of doing it would be absolutely great.’

Randy Crawford seems to have made a big impact on him, ‘I got on incredibly well with her, she was a beautiful lady’, he says with smiling eyes. ‘If she was stressed out before a big gig she would sit beside me or ask for me to her dressing room and I would crack jokes, put my arm around her so she would forget her fear and then go out and do a wonderful show.’ John then explains that the ‘Cancelled due to illness’ for many stars was often just stage fright.

John’s one of nice guys, he still won’t say who it was who threw a TV from an eighth story hotel room. He has played all over the world with top musicians and most of know at least one track he has played on. There’s no ego with John, saying how thankful he is to have had the opportunity to play with such artists. He is a gentleman and a legend.

Photo: With Thanks

� Vanessa Monaghan/Nessy Productions 2009