John Lawton, born 11 July 1946, started out in the city of North Shields, UK, in the early ’60s with a band called The Deans; his first attemptive steps into professional singing happened with Stonewall, which also included John Miles as well as future members of Geordie and Roxy Music.
After a season in Hamburg, John stayed on and was contacted by guitarist Peter Hesslein, whose band searched for a British singer.
– My previous bands had opted for blues rock and been on their way down the Deep Purple path, but then this band came along with their very dark, gothic music. It felt like a big challenge, John told me in 2008.
The singer added that the gothic, ghost-like sound of Lucifer’s Friend – as the band was to be called – hailed from classically trained keyboard player Peter Fecht, who loved working with darkness and minor harmonies.
Included on the band’s eponymous debut album (1970), is their first – and only – hit song. “Ride the Sky” is an energetically driven piece of hard rock, not least remembered for its horn fanfare, very resemblant of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. Considering who came first, John Lawton diplomatically told me that…
– It is up to the gods to decide! The only thing I can say for sure is that our horn fanfare was probably recorded long before any of us in the band had heard Led Zeppelin.
Lucifer’s Friend made another four albums during the early 1970’s, always expanding musically, never attempting to duplicate their first hit. This scribe is especially enamoured by “Spanish Galleon”, a bold blend of prog rock, jazz fusion and pure schlager pop from the 1974 album “Banquet”.
The connection to schlager music is in fact not too far-fetched. Peter Hesslein toured with orchestra leader James Last, whereas Lawton himself was part of show group Les Humphrey Singers, who participated in the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest.
In 1977, John Lawton transferred to Uriah Heep, then one of the planet’s biggest hard rock acts. This was, however, a time of transition for the group, so while Lawton’s first album with the band, 1977’s “Firefly”, was a traditional hard rock record, it’s two follow-up’s (“Innocent Vitim” the same year and “Fallen Angel” in 1978) presented a group dabbling with ballads, pop music, even disco rhythms. Some fans dislike the records, but this scribe holds them dearly.
After leaving Uriah Heep, Lawton returned to Lucifer’s Friend for another two albums, then moving on to bands such as Rebel, Zar, GunHill, JLB (John Lawton Band), OTR (On the Rocks) and Mamonama. In 1995 the singer rejoined Uriah Heep for a South African tour, filling in briefly for vocalist Bernie Shaw. In 2001, John formed the Hensley/Lawton Band with fellow Uriah Heep alumnus Ken Hensley (1945-2020). Away from music, Lawton became host of “John Lawton Presents” (2008), a Bulgarian TV travel show, and had a brief career as an actor in that country’s “Love.net” movie (2011). A new lineup of Lucifer’s Friend made its international premiere at 2015’s Sweden Rock Festival, making way for a compilation album (“Awakening”) and another two critically acclaimed studio albums.
An extensive discography, including two solo albums as well as participation in Roger Glover’s rock opera “The Butterfly Ball” (1974), ended in 2019 with Lucifer Friend’s “Black Moon”.
At the moment of writing, John Lawton’s cause of death had not been revealed. To the contrary, he is said to having died unexpectedly on June 29th 2021, at the age of 74. John Lawton’s legacy is synonymous with his very strong and emotional singing voice, which basically stayed with him all the way until the end.