John Kpiaye

John Ogetti Kpiaye was born in 1948 in the East End of London to an English mother and Nigerian father. He lived in the countryside from the age of 4 to 12. He attended Phoenix School for asthmatics in Mile End and Daneford Modern in Bethnal Green. He left school at 15 and began working as an apprentice welder. In 1966 his mother bought him his first guitar which he quickly taught himself to play. At that time he was into ska and rock steady as well as soul and he began learning those styles. A year later he quit his job, formed a band called The Hustling Kind (later the name changed to The Cats) and decided to try and make it as a musician. He hasn’t looked back since.

Success was soon to come. In 1968 Kpiaye thought it would be a good idea to do a rock steady/reggae rendition of the classical composition Swan Lake. He worked out a piano melody line on his sister’s piano at home and his band recorded the tune. They made history as the first British reggae group to have a top 50 entry in the UK singles chart. This led to tours in the UK and Europe but by 1971 the group had split up. Soon after Kpiaye joined In Brackets, a popular reggae band on the club circuit who were also the backing band for most of the reggae singers doing live work, inlcuding Ginger Williams, Owen Grey, Winston Groovy, Dandy Livingstone and Joy White.

After the band folded in 1973, John Kpiaye became totally involved in writing, producing and playing on numerous reggae hits. It was during this time that he earned his reputation as the leading reggae guitarist on the British reggae scene, developing his own distinctive style of playing. His main influences were Steve Cropper, Freddie King, Grant Green and Earnest Ranglin. From the latter he learned that there was more to a reggae guitar than strumming and picking. Between 1975-77 John had his greatest success as a writer/producer, churning out countless hits for Dennis Harris’ Lovers Rock record label. His production had a distinctively British feel and consisted mainly of female harmony groups like Brown Sugar, Fifteen Sixteen and Seventeen and many solo female singers doing the kind of romantic reggae that became known as ‘Lovers’ Rock’.

Between 1977-82 John Kpiaye did a lot of session work, adding special touches to the productions of artists like I Jahman Levi, Georgie fame, Aswad, Eddie Grant, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dennis Brown, Janet Kay, Dennis Bovell and others. Since 1982 he has been the resident guitarist in the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, touring the world with Linton Kwesi Johnson. Working with Bovell and Johnson gave John Kpiaye the freedom he needed to perfect his soloing style, the evidence of which can be heard on LKJ’s recordings and on his own album, Red, Gold and Blues. This album combines the traditional and the modern, and taps into the breadth of Kpiaye’s musical experience and knowledge of reggae, ska, rock steady, blues, classical, African, dance hall and jazz. The album reached number 2 in the Jazz FM album charts.

Red, Gold and Blues
LKJ Records, 1994