“I really like my old Marshall tube amps, because when they’re working properly (i.e., when the volume is turned up all the way), there’s nothing can beat them, nothing in the whole world. It looks like two refrigerators hooked together…..”
James Marshall Hendrix – Los Angeles, California (1967)
Jim Marshall, circa 2000While it’s hard for most of us to imagine now, there once was a time when rock and roll and all of its associated trappings simply didn’t exist. Dance bands and “Big Bands” were the rage along with wholesome family entertainment and cabaret shows. Black and white television was still a big deal and to stay out after the pubs had closed was almost bohemian. Now we’ve got colour television, MTV, birth control, jets, divorce, mortgages, two car families.
And rock and roll.
There are probably many people who have played a part in both of these eras, but surely few so significantly as Jim Marshall. It has always amazed me how such a quiet and unassuming man as Jim should become involved in a wild and frenzied business like rock, let alone to have contributed to such a violent assault on music lovers’ ears with the invention of the “stack”. But he has never led what you could call an ordinary life. He was born in Kensington on the 29th of July, 1923 to Mrs. Beatrice Marshall and her husband Jim. Unfortunately, he suffered from tuberculosis of the bones which meant that he was in plaster cast from his ankles up to his armpits during most of his school years.
He managed just eight weeks at school before leaving at the age of thirteen and a half to start a variety of jobs. His father owned a fish and chip shop in Western Road, Southall, but it wasn’t for Jim, so he started drifting around and found work as and where he could. He worked in a scrap metal yard, a builder’s merchant, as a baker in a biscuit factory, a “boiler” in a jam factory, a salesman in a shoe shop and as a meat slicer for a canned food group where he sliced off the top of his thumb!
Yet all this time he seemed to have a thirst for knowledge and had started reading books on engineering. Due to his illness he failed his medical for the Forces, so he went to work at Cramic Engineering throughout the Second World War and then he put his new found engineering expertise to good use by working at Heston Aircraft in Middlesex as a toolmaker from 1946 to 1949. However, at the age of 14 he had learned how to tap dance and music was already very much at the forefront of his mind.
“I went to tap dancing lessons and a Band Leader who’s grand daughter was in the same class as me heard me sing, he said he was playing locally at the Monapole, this was the largest dance hall in Southall. He asked me to come along and he would try me out. He thought that I sounded fine with just a pianist but may not be all right with a 16 piece orchestra. It turned out fine and from then on I was singing 5 or 6 times a week.
“I was making 10 shillings a night and because it was wartime, we didn’t have any petrol for cars, so I would ride my bicycle with a trailer behind it to carry my drum kit and the PA cabinets which I had made! I then left the orchestra to be with a 7 piece band and in 1942 the drummer leader was called into the forces and I took over on drums.”
Realising that he wanted to be more proficient at drumming, he started taking drum lessons from Max Abrams in 1946 in Knightsbridge every Sunday, trying to emulate the style of his idol, Gene Krupa.
“At the end of two years, I became quite efficient on drums”, so in 1949 Jim started teaching other drummers in Lonsdale Road, Southall. “I taught Mitch Mitchell who joined Jimi Hendrix, Micky Burt of Chas and Dave, Micky Waller with Little Richard and Micky Underwood who played with Ritchie Blackmore. I used to teach about 65 pupils a week and what with playing as well, I was earning in the early 1950’s somewhere in the region of £5,000 a year, which was how I first saved money to go into business.”
“In 1960 I started building bass and PA cabinets in my garage because nothing was really made as a column speaker, and I had the idea of using two 12″ speakers. Also, there was nothing produced whatsoever in those days for bass guitar. The bass guitarists used to complain that they were being out-gunned all the time by the lead guitar and they asked me for help. So I started building bass cabinets. They usually used a single 18″ speaker in a very small enclosure completely packed with sawdust and wood shavings. The back of the speaker cone was covered with a canvas back to prevent wood shavings from getting inside, and later used a 25 watt Leak amp as the power.”
The sales sheet described them as the “Custom-Line Range” of amplification and were available in 12″, 15″ or 18″ enclosures with Goodmans speakers and they looked strikingly similar to the “Selmers” of the time. Initially they were offered with “Linear” amplifiers, then “Leaks”, and production lasted for about a year. The catalogue announced that the cabinets were endorsed by “The Fabulous Flee-rekkers” and “The Sensational Flintstones”! It is perhaps no coincidence that Jim’s son Terry played saxophone with the “Flee-rekkers” and Rod Freeman, who was a salesman at Jim’s shop, played guitar and sang with the “Flintstones”.
“Having taught so many drummers, I used to buy Premier drums from the Selmer shop in Charing Cross Road and sell them to my students. The manager said that it was rather silly spending all this money there so why didn’t I open up my own drum shop? That’s how I started in retail. Then the drummers brought their groups in, including Pete Townshend, and said why don’t you stock guitars and amplifiers, which I knew nothing about. This would have been July, 1960.
“So I took the groups advice and they said they wanted Fender and Gibson. They were usually Fender Stratocaster guitars and Tremolux amps as well as quite a few Gibson semi-acoustics such as the 335. It was what they wanted and Ben Davis, who was the boss of Selmer at the time who imported most of the top models, was worried about how much I was buying, but I had already sold what was ordered. I then started stocking them in depth, as a result of which the West End dealers gave me 6 months to last.
“Ken Bran used to come into the shop with his band ‘Peppy and the New York Twisters’. At that time I think Ken was eager to stop travelling with the band and he said that if ever you want a service engineer don’t forget me. About a year later, after he’d worked with Pan Am, he came to work for me in 1962.
“It was Ken who said to me that it was rather silly to keep on buying in amplifiers when we could probably produce our own. So I told Ken to produce something and let me listen to it. We went all out to build a lead amp; I made the chassis while Ken and a bright young engineer called Dudley Craven designed and built the circuitry. I had already had chats with Pete Townshend, Brian Poole and the Tremoloes and Jim Sullivan and they said that they wanted something different in the sound because Fender was too clean, and listening to what they said imparted in my mind the idea of the sound they wanted.
“Obviously, we looked at the Fender amps because they were my favourite amplifier and the Bassman seemed to be nearer the sound that people were talking about, rather than their lead amplifier. So we were influenced by it, but after all, there is nothing new in valve technology; it’s all been done before.”
So the first prototype was built in September of 1962 and was a bare chassis without a cabinet to allow modifications to be made more easily. The first 4×12 followed shortly thereafter.
“We tried a 2×12 with the 50 watt lead but it didn’t give us the sound we wanted or the projection that was required; we kept blowing the speakers. Then we had the idea of putting four 12″ speakers into the smallest enclosure we could. There was nothing brilliant about designing the first 4×12, it was purely the most convenient size to get into the transport that groups had in those days. I thought that it didn’t look very nice with just the amp sitting on top, so I did the angle to match the dimensions of the amplifier and make it look a neater package. We were really proud when we finished it.”
Many orders were taken from that first prototype and Jim recognised that he was into something. By 1963 he had expanded the shop to include a small manufacturing area where Ken and his assistant Dudley built the first amplifiers at the rate of about one a week. As demand increased, the cabinet manufacturing was moved to another shop across the street and then into a 20 x 30 ft workshop in Southall, Middlesex.
By 1964 Jim had to expand again and the first proper Marshall factory opened in Hayes with 6000 sq. ft. and 16 people making 20 amplifiers a week.
Marshalls were only available to customers at first from his own shop in Hanwell then, as word spread, Jim offered them to other retailers in the South of England while his friend Johnny Jones of “Jones and Crossland” in Birmingham Distributed them in the north of England from late ’63. This arrangement continued for about 18 months until 1965 when Jim signed an exclusive Worldwide distribution agreement with Rose-Morris that was to last for about 15 years. Consequently, Johnny lost the rights to distribute Marshall so Jim introduced the “Park” line of amplifiers for Johnny to distribute as a favour.
It was now 1965. Britain was revelling in the hysteria of the “Beat Boom”, America was succumbing to the “British Invasion”……. and Pete Townshend needed a bigger amp. Jim put Ken to work on the prototype 100 watt head.
“Jimi said that he wanted to use Marshall gear and that he was also going to be one of the top people in the world at this type of music. I thought he was just another one trying to get something for nothing, but in the next breath he said that he wanted to pay for everything he got. I thought he was a great character, I got on very well with him and he was our greatest ambassador. I saw him play about three times, and I saw him at the first sort of major concert which was at Olympia with Jimi Hendrix, The Move and Pink Floyd. I was very impressed by him as a musician; it was something new to me. I also went out with Ken and saw bands like The Who and Cream”.
From 1966 onwards Marshall enjoyed explosive growth and consolidated their position as the Worlds premier rock guitar amplifier. During the Seventies the number of products offered mushroomed and Marshall found themselves in the forefront not only of guitar amplification but also of bass, PA cabinet and mixer designs, supplying mammoth systems for such bands as Deep Purple and Elton John.
By 1981 Jim decided to end his 15 year association with his distributor Rose-Morris and handle his own distribution. He had by this time drastically reduced the number of models available and concentrated on the newly introduced JCM800 series. It was tough at first not least of all because Britain was in he depths of a recession at the time, but they pulled through and in 1982 Marshall celebrated their 20th anniversary with a special run of white Marshall’s.
In 1984 Marshall was awarded the “Queens Award for Export”, an honour bestowed by the Queen in recognition of their outstanding export achievement over a three year period.
“That award meant a hell of a lot to me personally and to the company because we could use the Queens Award logo on our letterhead as well as in any advertising. It gave us prestige and as far as the employees were concerned was a source of pride.”
In November 1985 Jim was invited to add his hand prints to the “Rock Walk Hall of Fame” in Hollywood along with Leo Fender, Robert Moog, Frank Martin III, Les Paul, Bill Ludwig, Remo Belli, Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Wonder. As Jim explained to the Los Angeles Times:
“At first I thought it was some kind of joke, but as I was putting my hand prints in I thought, ‘Good God! I’ve really arrived!’ On meeting Les Paul for the first time, as I did then, we hit it off straight away and he has a fantastic sense of humour. It was great. He’s somebody I’ve looked up to for many years and I used to play his recordings. I admire anybody who has achieved what he had, especially when the man is such a nice man.”
1987 marked the celebration of Jim’s 50 years in music and 25 years in amplification, and was the catalyst for the introduction of the “Silver Jubilee” range of 50 and 100 Watt amplifiers, looking stunning in their chrome and silver vinyl and which became one of Jim’s personal favourite models.
Marshall’s long awaited JCM900 series were announced in 1990, universally referred to as “The amps that go to 20”, and of course this particular feature was inspired by Spinal Taps’ Nigel Tufnel whose previous Marshalls only went to “11”! Jim appeared alongside Nigel in the hilarious promotional video called “Twenty”, basically a short sequel to the legendary film “This is Spinal Tap” and which is now highly prized by musicians and film buffs alike.
Outside of the music industry, Jim had devoted an increasing amount of time to many charities, including the Variety Club and the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs.
“I’d done well from nothing, all these kids around the World were buying Marshall, so I thought it was about time that I started to put something back in for handicapped and underprivileged children.”
Jim Marshall, circa 2001 Most recently, Marshall have marked their 30th Anniversary in 1992 with two new products, the 30th Anniversary amplifier which was designed to be the ultimate valve head and the JMP1 midi preamp which is easily the most technologically advanced amplifier yet built by the company. To top it all, they have once again won the “Queens Award for Export”.
In one of life’s little ironies, Marshall has now been contracted to build the reissue of the Vox AC30 which started production in early 1993. Tom Jennings, who back in the ’60’s had threatened to sue Marshall, must surely be rolling in his grave!
“The original AC30’s had that particular sound that I could appreciate, even through we were in competition right from the word go with Vox, but the company changed hands so many times that the amplifiers no longer sounded the way they used to. So we’ve recreated that sound.”
When Jim considers where he will take his company from here, he remains quite philosophical:
“Over the next five years we will expand; I’ve just bought another factory. I would say that all we will endeavour to do is to try and improve on what we have done in the past, and I don’t mean purely on the money angle. You can’t take it with you, you can only live in one house and drive one car at a time. It’s the name that means something to me – because it is my name.”
Jim Marshall died Thursday, April 4, 2012 in a London hospice at age 88. Jim’s legacy lives on.
Aloha, Jim. We miss you.