Saturday, February 22, 2014

John Anthony Helliwell Interview:
The Maestro of Music
Conducted by Anthony Servante

John Helliwell

Today with us on the Servante of Darkness Blog we have the Maestro of Music, John Anthony Helliwell,.the saxophonist, woodwind player, and background vocalist for the Pop Rock band Supertramp. In 2004, Helliwell formed the band Crème Anglaise with Mark Hart, who joined Supertramp in 1985. It was when I heard the music of Crème Anglaise that I reached out to John Helliwell to talk about his music outside of Supertramp. But for the sake of historical accuracy and to look at the man behind the Sax, I included a few questions about Supertramp. So, without further ado, let's speak with the British Maestro.

1.   Can you tell us about your early days with music? How did you get started in the music business? I started to play the clarinet when I was 13, after hearing a British clarinetist, Monty Sunshine, playing "Petite Fleur" by Sidney Bechet. Then I bought an alto saxophone when I was 15, after hearing Cannonball Adderley play. In my teens, I played mostly jazz until one night in Coventry, UK, I heard The Graham Bond Organisation, which included Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Dick Heckstall-Smith. They blew me away! I then continued to play while I was a computer programmer in Birmingham. I joined a blues group, Jugs O'Henry" and we turned professional, moving to London. It didn't last long - then I put an advert in the Melody Maker which said "Have sax, will travel" after wich I joined "The Alan Bown Set" with whom I stayed for 5 or 6 years. In the early 70s I played with various groups including backing-up singers such as Jimmy Ruffin, Arthur Conley, Johnny Johnson. I also played in cabaret clubs, strip clubs, and a season in US Airbases in Germany.

2.   Who were your early influences in music? Handel, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Miles Davis.

3.   How did you come to become a member of Supertramp? I’ve followed the band since the first self-titled LP, the one the band never plays any music from. It seems there was a new band until the Crime of the Century LP settled down the personnel changes. I had met them when I was playing with Alan Bown (which had included for a short time Dougie Thomson) He subsequently had joined Supertramp, and when they were "re-forming" in 1973, he called me to see if I wanted to join them. I just sort of stuck around and I am still there, although they never did officially ask me to join!

Supertramp (John, center)

4. How did you go from Saxophonist to Emcee at the Supertramp concerts? You were a wonderful host that made every concert an evening spent with friends. As far as announcing, nobody else in the band wanted to do it - so I stepped in - I think that any humorous emcee-ing was perhaps to get a little light relief after a serious series of songs.

5.   What were your contributions to the music side of the songwriting? Your Sax solos seemed built for you. Did you help arrange them? Every saxophone and clarinet solo is extemporised - made up on the spot, by me, except the solo at the end of "Crime of the Century" which had to be re-done and arranged by me and Rick Davies when strings were added and clashed with the original solo. We all would help arrange each song

Supertramp (Rick Davies, left, John, right)

6.  After Supertramp disbanded, what did you do before starting Crème Anglaise? Supertramp didn't disband - we took some time off - and we may play again, even at our advanced years! In the early 90s I went to study saxophone at The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. It was there that I started playing jazz again and met some great players, some of whom I still play with!

7.  Now can you share with us how you put Crème Anglaise together? I had a band around 2004/5 and I was asked to play at a prestigious event in Geneva for the watch company IWC. They asked me to play a couple of Supertramp numbers, so I asked Mark Hart (who had been singing and playing with Supertramp for many years) to join us. I thought that we should have a more interesting name than "The John Helliwell Group" so, as they speak French in Geneva, I tried to think of something French/English, or as we say - "Franglaise." "Crème Anglaise" just came into my head!

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8.   Tell us about the music of your band. What are you aiming for with the Crème Anglaise sound? The music of "Crème Anglaise" reflects our eclectic tastes - we are influenced by soul, R&B, jazz etc. I like to think that our music is relatively uncomplicated and "easy to listen to" - not of the genre "easy-listening music" We feature the superb talents of Mike Walker (guitar), Arthur Lea (piano), Ben Bryant (drums), Mark Hart (vocals and keyboards), Geth Griffith (bass) On our eponymous CD we also have Barbara Walker singing. Lately, we have featured Steve Gilbert (drums) and John Ellis (vocals and keyboards) who will be on our future recording project along with Mike and Geth. We play only a few concerts as the guys are all busy and I'm a bit lazy.

9.   Lastly, I’d like to ask you to list your ten favorite songs, songs that you’ve written with Crème Anglaise or for other bands, or songs by other bands or artists that have had an influence on your career.

     10. John Helliwell's Song List:

1. "For unto us a child is born" from Handel's Messiah - the first music I remember - my parents would sing it (and various other pieces from Messiah) around the house when I was about three.

2. "Petite Fleur" by Sidney Bechet, played by Monty Sunshine with The Chris Barber Jazz Band

3. "Autumn Leaves" by Joseph Kosma, played by Cannonball Adderley from his LP "Somethin' Else" featuring Miles Davis.

4. "Tenor Madness" played by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane from the LP "Tenor Madness"

5. "The Goldberg Variations" by J S Bach played by Glen Gould. There is one aria , thirty variations, and a reprise of the aria. I would choose the aria if I can only have one of them!

6. "A remark you made" by Wayne Shorter from The album "Heavy Weather" by Weather Report

7. "You've got a friend" by Carole King, sung by Donny Hathaway, from his album "Live"

8. "A case of you" by Joni Mitchell from "Both sides now" with the London Symphony Orchestra - arrangements by Vince Mendoza
Click to Watch.

9. "En La Orilla Del Mundo" by Charlie Haden, from his CD "Nocturne"

10. "The ballad of the sad young men" by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman, played by the Keith Jarrett Trio from the CD "Tribute Live" (disc 2)
Click to Watch.

Best wishes, John.

BONUS VIDEO of John Heliwell with Helliwell-Derix Quintet in Beauforthuis, Austerlitz. Thanks to Egbert Derix for the footage.

Thank you, John, for being with us today and for sharing this great selection of Classical and Jazz, and everything in between. This song list has to be one of the most musically subtle we have had on the blog; it shows not only the spirit of a great overall sound and theme but also the soul of John Helliwell, the Maestro of Music. Visit John Helliwell at his website to learn more about John and Crème Anglaise. 

Thank you, readers and music lovers, for joining us today as well. Till next we meet on the road to musical discovery and enlightenment, this is your host, the Servante of Darkness, bidding you adieu. 


  1. Very nice intreview! Thank you.Like to share this clip of John and my band:

    1. Thank you, Egbert, for the video. I added it to the last of John's Top Ten Song List as a Bonus Video with thanks mentioned to you.