Guitarist John Till was born in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, on December 28, 1945. His parents were musicians who loved to play Dixieland, so Till was around live music performance from his earliest years. His mother played classical and ragtime piano and his father played Spanish guitar, tenor banjo, and string bass. They also had a Dixieland band with other musicians on trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and drums. Till recalls being taken to Saturday night jam sessions at the trumpet player's house where there was a rec room with a stage and a pool table turned into a buffet table. His parent's band would party and jam till dawn. The other musicians' kids would be there, too, and they'd fall asleep to the live sounds of "Indiana," "The Birth of the Blues," and "Stardust." Till's parents would also take the youngster to local clubs to hear Dixieland if they could arrange to get him in the door. One of the clubs, Campbell's, in London, Ontario, is where he ended up playing with Ronnie Hawkins 15 years later.
Till's family never pushed him into music or forced him to take lessons. They told him years later that their philosophy was to just have the musical instruments "around" and to make sure there was lots of music to be heard in the house. Till describes his parents as being "totally supportive" when he showed an interest in playing music himself. His father taught him to play the four-string tenor guitar and banjo by ear, and also taught him the concept of improvisation -- "taking off on the chords" -- which is such a big part of Dixieland. They weren't rich, but when he became interested in rock & roll around the age of 11, they managed to buy him his first electric guitar and amp.
While attending school at Stratford Central High, he formed a rock & roll band, the Revols, with classmates Richard Manuel and Ken Kalmusky. Manuel coined the name "Revols," short for Revolution. The Revols played local dancehalls around southern Ontario, but within a few years Manuel would go on to become a member of Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks, who later achieved fame as the Band, and Kalmusky would go on to play with Ian & Sylvia Tyson's Great Speckled Bird. In 1958 the Revols were offered the opportunity to play some dates in Arkansas that Ronnie Hawkins had arranged. However, the Revols went south without Till, who at age 13 chose to remain in school. His interests at the time were pretty much girls and cars, a point in time when he knew every automobile's make, model, and year. Music was his refuge from the daily grind while still in high school. In 1960 Kalmusky told Till about the band Larry Lee & the Leesures, who were going to need a guitarist, so Till hitched a ride to Le Coq d'Or tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto to audition, and he landed the job. Till then spent the summer of 1960 playing on Yonge Street at Le Coq d'Or, and later just up the street at the Zanzibar with Max Falcon and the Falcons before returning to Stratford and school in the fall.
Till didn't stay in high school for long, though. He got a call early in 1961 from Kelly Jay -- later of Crowbar -- and toured for several months through places like Madison, WI, and Gulfport, IL, with Kelly Jay & the Jamies. Upon returning to Toronto, he played the summer of 1961 at the Zanzibar Tavern with a performer known as Johnny Rhythm. It was at the Zanzibar that Till met David Clayton-Thomas, later of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Clayton-Thomas would regularly sit in at various Yonge Street clubs on Saturdays, and Till joined Clayton-Thomas for a month of playing around Bay City, MI, before Till returned to high school (yet again) in the fall of 1961. By then, Manuel had left the Revols to join the Hawks and Ken Kalmusky had also returned to school, but within a year or so Till and Kalmusky would journey to Toronto and find their way to Le Coq d'Or again, this time to audition for Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins was without a regular group after the Hawks had headed out on their own, so he hired Robbie Lane & the Disciples for a while, but he was also putting together a new band in the summer of 1965. They jammed one day at "the Hawks Nest" upstairs from Le Coq d'Or, and that was when Hawkins hired Till to play guitar and Kalmusky to play bass.
Till remembers the famous power blackout of 1965 on Saturday, November 9th. Hawkins and his band had just finished their matinee at Le Coq d'Or. Kalmusky, who had left Hawkins by then to join Great Speckled Bird, came by the club to catch some tunes. Till and Kalmusky were sitting by the stage having a drink when the stage lights dimmed for a moment, came back on for a second or two, and then went totally out. They walked out onto Yonge Street to find the crowded city in darkness -- no neon lights, no traffic signals, and the streetcars stopped. The band didn't play that Saturday night because the power didn't come back on for 24 hours, but that's how Till is so sure of the year that he joined up with Ronnie Hawkins. He can be heard on Hawkins' 1967 single "Home from the Forest," and stayed with Hawkins until he left in July of 1969 to replace Sam Andrew in Janis Joplin's Kozmic Blues Band.
Andrew was the guitarist in Big Brother & the Holding Company and had continued with Joplin for the recording of the LP I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! A few weeks before the Woodstock festival Till arrived in New York, and he watched from the audience as the Kozmic Blues Band performed in New Haven, CT. Then, at a concert in Forest Hills, NY, Andrew and Till played guitar on-stage together for the first and only time. At that point Andrew left and Till became the guitarist for Joplin throughout the rest of her career.
Farewell Song but not much else except for bootlegged material until the dawn of the CD era. The music was underrated at the time, but now provides a treasure chest of insight into how Joplin was perfecting her craft -- and how John Till was growing artistically as well. Full sets from Port Chester, NY, in early August, the first Woodstock fest in mid-August of 1969, and the Texas International Pop Festival from Labor Day weekend of the same year, along with material from the Boston Music Hall that December, exist and show the power of the band. When Joplin formed her Full Tilt Boogie Band it was the creation of a perfect unit with which she could express herself. The Pearl album and the tour that preceded it has the dependable John Till sound embellishing her music in a natural progression from the experimental sounds Sam Andrew provided.
Life after Janis brought Till back to Woodstock, NY, and in touch with original Big Brother & the Holding Company and the Band producer John Simon for sessions with Bobby Charles at the Bearsville studios. Members of the Full Tilt Boogie Band also appeared on Peter Yarrow's 1972 disc, Peter. Till eventually returned to Canada in 1976 and started playing locally every weekend with husband-and-wife duo Danny & Linda Hunter and doing occasional recording sessions with local artists such as Bob Burchill, Michael O'Brien, Michael's son Jesse O'Brien, and others. In the new millennium Till teaches guitar and performs a Saturday afternoon house gig at Sam & Bill's in London, Ontario, with B.W. Pawley & Plum Loco. Plum Loco include his son Shawn Till on bass and longtime friends Brian Pawley on guitar and vocals and Billy Hilton on drums and vocals. Shawn Till replaced Ken Kalmusky on bass, Kalmusky having passed away in the fall of 2005. On January 28, 2006, Plum Loco opened for Ronnie Hawkins on the Stratford Festival of Canada main stage, to a very appreciative packed house of Stratford friends and fans. In addition, for the first time in 30 years four of the five members of the Full Tilt Boogie Band -- Richard Bell, Ken Pearson, Brad Campbell, and John Till -- got together in 2003 for the filming of interviews for the movie Festival Express.
Festival Express includes interview footage with the guitarist, who attended the premiere showing of the movie at the Toronto Film Festival and recalls the heartfelt applause when the film's executive producer and producer of the original footage, Willem Poolman, and his son, co-producer Gavin Poolman, walked on-stage together. Till said, "A father could not be more proud of his son. He took the ball and ran with it." Gavin Poolman told the guitarist about his father's old film canisters in their garage that they used for hockey goal posts. Poolman said, "We as kids had no idea what was in those cans at the time." What the film "in those cans" has done, with the help of Beatles Anthology director Bob Smeaton, is to bring more interest to the music of John Till, a powerful guitarist who has never really been given his due for his contributions to rock music.