Obituary: John Renbourn, musician

John Renbourn: Pentangle musician was one of the defining figures of the British folk rock movement
John Renbourn: Pentangle musician was one of the defining figures of the British folk rock movement
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Born: 8 August, 1944, in London. Died: 26 March, 2015, in Hawick, aged 70

John Renbourn was one of the defining figures of the British folk-rock movement which sprang up in the late 1960s, and is remembered most readily for his defining collaboration with the Glasgow-born Bert Jansch in the group Pentangle. Although the group were only in existence between 1967 and 1973, however, Renbourn had a long career as a solo artist and a frequent collaborator with others. He was also an enthusiastic tutor of the guitar and a classical composer with a degree in composition from Dartington College of Arts which he earned when his career was already well-established.

He was born John McCombe in Marylebone, London to Robert and Dorothy, and his father served in the Royal Highland Tank Regiment; his mother was a piano player. The family piano had served as a makeshift shelter for the McCombes during the Second World War air raids.

Renbourn’s father was killed in action while on duty. When he was eight his mother remarried a physician named Edward Renbourn and the child’s name was changed when his stepfather adopted him. Having moved to leafy Surrey with the family, Renbourn continued to take piano lessons, moving to guitar in his teens around the same time he took classes at Guildford Art School.

As the 1960s drew near, the popular skiffle style of music caught Renbourn’s attention, and he began playing and recording with others, including frequent collaborator Mac MacLeod.

This was around the time he hitchhiked across Britain and Europe aged just 16, having left home following his stepfather’s objection to his choice of career. Eventually pitching up in London again, Renbourn became part of the Soho folk scene, playing at venues including the Roundhouse and recording two albums in collaboration with the American singer Dorris Henderson, who introduced him to her friends T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker and Memphis Slim.

It was in Soho that Renbourn met Jansch, who had recently moved down from his native Edinburgh, and the pair lived in digs together as well as recording two songs for Renbourn’s eponymous 1965 debut album and the collaborative 1966 record Bert and John. It was their strong working relationship which formed the basis of Pentangle (so called because it had five members), a group set up in 1967 with fellow Soho players Jacqui McShee (vocals), Danny Thompson (bass) and Terry Cox (drums).

Grounded in the folk scene from which they had emerged, Pentangle’s popularity beyond it would partly be accounted for by the range of influences their members brought to the table, including tastes in jazz, blues, rock and the very voguish sound of Bob Dylan.

It was also down to their score for the BBC drama Take Three Girls, whose theme song Light Flight brought 1969’s third album (of six the original line-up recorded before Jansch left and the band imploded in 1973) top five chart success.

Having continued to release solo albums during his time with Pentangle, Renbourn kept busy during the rest of the 1970s, playing with his John Renbourn Group and in collaboration on an album of guitar duets with Stefan Grossman, a partnership that would continue on into the 1980s.

While gaining his education later that decade and moving into music academia with his alma mater, as well as writing magazine articles on guitar playing, he continued with projects including Scream For Help, a 1985 soundtrack album recorded with his friend and neighbour, Led Zeppelin drummer John Paul Jones, and the short-lived 1988 group Ship of Fools.

In 1995, after a year living in San Francisco, Renbourn played at the Edinburgh Festival and decided to make Scotland his home, settling in Hawick in the Borders.

“I felt a lot safer (than in San Francisco) for some reason,” he said last year. “I was living in a ghetto before. There was so much street violence I was scared to be out there. I mentioned this to a Scottish guy and he said, don’t worry laddie, we can provide violence here just as much.”

Pentangle finally reformed for the BBC Folk Awards in 2007, where they were presented with a lifetime achievement award from Richard Attenborough, and would continue to play venues including the Royal Festival Hall and the Glastonbury and Green Man festivals until Jansch’s death in 2011.

Renbourn’s own story came to an end when he failed to show up for a gig at the Ferry in Glasgow, leading concerned friends to call the police, who discovered he had died from unknown but non-suspicious circumstances at his home in Hawick. He had been married twice, and had two children from each marriage – Joel, Jessie, Ben and Jake.