svelte man with the mop of brown hair and large Buddy Holly - like glasses steps
forward clutching his legendary fiesta red Stratocaster and waggles the wammy
bar to kick off the opening bars of one of the best known instrumentals in
history. The simplicity, clarity, feel, tone and phrasing of those famous
opening notes are close to sublime and typically send shivers up the spine of
anyone who hears them. The guitarist warmly smiles, sways a little and gestures
as he feels the audience’s reaction; as he has done so many times before. The man
is Hank Marvin - cited by artists of
the calibre of Dave Gilmour, George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler as being one of the
most influential guitarists of the 20th century - and he is playing The Shadows first major hit, Apache.
Apache was originally written by Jerry Lordan but Bert Weedon transformed it into something more like the instrumental version that is so well known today. The Shadows first heard the song because Lordan was supporting them on tour; he first played it on his ukulele to Marvin and Shadows’ bassist Jet Harris, and Marvin immediately thought “This is sensational! What a great tune; what an atmosphere to it!”. Bruce Welch, the rhythm guitarist, and Tony Meehan, the drummer, also loved it, and so Marvin added an introduction and worked out how best to play it.
When the Shadows first recorded the song in Abbey Road Studios in London, in June 1960, bizarrely - in retrospect - record producer Norrie Paramor wanted to make it the B-side to a song called The Quartermaster's Stores. But Marvin knew that Apache had something magical about it and Paramor was eventually persuaded to make it the lead song.
Cliff Richard, who had been responsible for getting Hank Marvin and the Shadows their first separate record deal then had to watch as the powerful instrumental soared up the charts and displaced his own song, Please Don't Tease, from the top position in the UK charts, and then stayed there for five weeks. The Shadows followed up Apache with 13 more Top 10 hits over the next four years.
Years later Marvin recalled Richard’s reaction to the ‘usurpation’ of his song in an interview: "He was absolutely delighted when Apache got into the charts because we were all friends. But then of course we knocked his own song off the number one spot."
Brian Robson Rankin was born on 28 October 1941; later taking the stage name Hank Marvin.
Marvin first played a banjo that he had bought from one of his teachers before turning to a Hofner Congress guitar, which his father had bought him, after hearing Buddy Holly. Shortly afterwards he was impressed to see his Rutherford Grammar class mate Bruce Welch bring a “weird look metal body National guitar to school” and they got talking; it was to be the start of a working relationship and friendship that has endured over 60 years.
After playing northern bars and clubs in a band together the pair decided that they would have to move to London if they were to have any chance of making a living out of music. They headed straight for the tiny 2i’s club in Soho, central London, because that is where Tommy Steele had been discovered and it was considered a cool place to play and meet people in the industry.
At this moment Marvin and Welch were broke but they had some luck because the woman who owned their lodgings happened to be from the same part of the country as them and allowed them to stay despite not receiving rent. "The first few weeks were quite difficult," says Marvin. "We had no money. We couldn't really pay the rent. We very rarely had a lot to eat. On Sundays we'd nick an apple from someone's tree hanging over a wall and that was it."
As an aside, it is worth noting that Marvin actually ‘going hungry’ is quite a coincidence because many years later his name became Cockney rhyming slang for ‘starving’. In other words, if you say ‘I’m Hank Marvin’ in some parts of London, it means you are very hungry (starving). This connection was used in a TV advert for Mattessons’ snacks some years ago, with a lot of children dressed up as Marvin, along with his distinctive bob hairstyle, outsized glasses and brandishing red Stratocasters, while playing along to The Shadows’ hit Apache. Hank Marvin took this all in good spirit: ‘I’ve made it at last!” he said in one interview.
With their landlady’s support, the pair were soon playing gigs five or six days a week at the 2i's and Marvin was starting to develop his distinctive sound. At around this time he has said his main guitar influences were Scotty Moore (who played on the early Elvis records); Chris Gallup (who played with Gene Vincent); Buddy Holly and James Burton (who played with Ricky Nelson and Elvis, among many others). “Those sounds had never been heard before in the UK and as soon as I heard them I wanted to play like it,” Marvin says in one interview. “In 1959 I came across a Meazzi/Vox echo and I still use that echo today. As soon as I heard it I felt it was the missing link on stage so I immediately started to experiment with it, because at that time none was doing it.”
A key moment in Marvin’s career took place in the 2i’s club when he met Johnny Foster, Cliff Richard’s manager. At the time 17 year old Richard was having chart success with the song Move It and Foster was helping put together a backing band for his upcoming UK tour. Marvin was hired and joined Richard’s group The Drifters, which later became The Shadows when it was realised that the former name was already taken. Fortunately Foster also needed a rhythm guitarist for the new band, and so Marvin persuaded him to contract Welch as well.
In a 2017 video available on Youtube Marvin recalls the first time he met Cliff Richard in a tailor’s shop, as Richard was being fitted for a pink jacket: “We said hi to each other with a sneer. We then got on a Green Line bus to where he lived in Cheshunt [Hertfordshire]. The journey was great because we got talking. We discovered we had a similar sense of humour and liked the same things such as The Goons and Brigitte Bardot. We then had our first rehearsal in Cliff's parents' house. It was a council house and the front room became our rehearsal room."
It was in March 1959 that Richard famously imported the ‘first Strat in Europe’ for Marvin to play. Marvin says: “We were looking for the guitar used by James Burton, so we got hold of a brochure and went for the most expensive one in it, because we thought this is surely the one [he] uses. We got the guitar a few months later and we opened the box and this magnificent thing from outer space that was absolutely stunning [appeared] … we didn’t play it at first, we just touched it and looked at it.”
Bruce Welch said when he first saw the guitar he felt it was a work of art, but he adds another key detail that helped make Marvin’s sound so distinctive at the time: “We used to play a Vox AC 15 one speaker amplifier and Hank said to Vox ‘can you put two amps together?’, and that became the famous AC 30. So this guitar, the amp, the echo box [all helped make that unique sound], but more important I have to say is the way Hank played.” Marvin puts this transformation in other words in a separate interview: “I was weird – the first thing was the echo and the second was the heavy strings and it was a sound that people kind of liked.”
The Shadows undeniably gave Richard’s career a huge boost, and together they had big hits like Living Doll, Kon-Tiki, and The Young Ones. But when the Shadows split in late 1968, Hank Marvin decided to go it alone. His eponymous solo album of instrumentals, with guitars backed by an orchestra, was released in 1969, and went to number 14 in the UK album charts. It was to be followed by 15 more solo albums, many of which made the top ten in the UK charts, as well as playing on a number of critically lauded collaborations with Welch and John Farrar in a vocal harmony group in the early 1970s.
Since that time Marvin has played with stars like Roger Daltrey, Jean Michelle Jarre, Olivia Newton-John, David Gilmour and many others, and has continued to compose, record and play live. Cliff Richard and The Shadows also reunited for a major tour in 2009. Marvin still plays with Richard sporadically and has not ruled out concerts with him and The Shadows in the future.
The Shadows remain the UK’s most successful instrumental band and Hank Marvin’s status as a guitar legend is assured, both because of respect from his peers and the love of the public at large. It seems appropriate to leave the last words on his style from the man himself: “It is important when you are playing instrumentals to find out where it sounds best and where you get the most life out of the guitar” he says in the ‘Just Hank Marvin’ interview… “otherwise you will sound dull and dead – and who wants to be dull and dead?”