John Helliwell was born in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, England (U.F.O. centre of the U.K.) in 1945 and grew up, rather sheltered from the big world, in the quite austere 1950s. He sang in the church choir and had piano lessons for a year at age nine. After hearing Monty Sunshine play Petite Fleur with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, he was inspired, and saved up for two years to buy a clarinet for £15 when he was thirteen.
He soon began to appreciate “modern” jazz and bought a saxophone two years later. His inspirations then were Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. When he left school he went to Birmingham to work as a computer programmer. There he played with various bands and groups including The Dicemen and Jugs O’Henry with whom he turned professional in 1965. The experience was short-lived, and, after putting an advertisement in the Melody Maker music weekly which read “Have sax, will travel”, he joined The Alan Bown Set with whom he spent six years. They made several albums, played thousands of gigs, and had the singers Jess Roden, Gordon Neville and Robert Palmer. Their music progressed from soul music to quite free jazzy rock, calling in on flower-power and psychedelia on the way.
After the demise of The Alan Bown! (as it became) in 1971 he followed their bass player Dougie Thomson into The Twilight Rooms club in London to play non-stop music from 9pm to 3am for strippers and singers. When he couldn’t stand that any more, he moved to the Celebrity Club.
After touring with the bands of Jimmy Ruffin, Arthur Conley and Johnny Johnson in England, and also a spell in Germany with Pete Lancaster playing mostly U.S. air bases, he got a call from Supertramp, asking him to come and play with them in August of 1973. John was intrigued with, and excited by, the music, told a few good jokes, and stuck around (for 43 years so far!). They made the album Crime of the Century and began the long climb to international success, moving to California in the process. Breakfast in America was the biggest selling album in the world in 1979.
During a Supertramp hiatus in the nineties, he moved back to England to study at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. However, a scholarly life was to take a back seat in 1996 when he worked with ex-Supertramper Roger Hodgson, and then began recording and touring again with Supertramp.
John now plays music based on his many inspirations – including jazz, funk, blues, soul and rock. He has a jazz group, Crème Anglaise, and also plays around Europe lately with Leslie ManDoki and Alan Simon. Supertramp is currently on hold due to the illness of its founder, Rick Davies, but may continue touring in the future.
John now has two more projects : 1) The Super Big Tramp Band - an 18 piece big band playing the music of Supertramp instrumentally with John soloing and acting as master of ceremonies and 2) Ever Open Door – a sextet playing folk tunes and ballads with saxophone and clarinet, a string quartet and Hammond organ.
Photo credits: William Ellis - Laëtitia Lécuyer / Henri Selmer Paris - Linda Vukaj