Rest in Peace Jim Marshall
JIM MARSHALL, the founder of Marshall Amps and a fixture on the music scene for 50 years, died on April 5. He was 88 years old and succumbed to cancer. Marshall began building amplifiers in 1962 to satisfy the demands of English rock 'n' roll bands who were demanding a louder, grittier sound. His amps, with the distinctive Marshall script logo, became integral to the sound of a generation of top-flight musicians including Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Deep Purple, and earned him the nickname "The Father of Loud."
James Charles Marshall was born in the London suburb of North Kensington on July 21, 1923. His family's struggles during the Depression instilled in a formidable work ethic. "My father was always losing jobs when I was growing up, and I vowed to always be working," he recalled. Before he started his amplifier company, he had done menial jobs in restaurants and lumber yards, worked in a butcher shop, and helped assemble aircraft for the British war effort.
At age five, Marshall was afflicted with a rare bone ailment, diagnosed as "Tubercular bones." To prevent his fragile bones from cracking, he spent most of the next seven years in a full body cast. Unable to attend school, his parents and uncles taught him the basics of reading and mathematics. At age 13, when he was liberated from the cast, the local school principle wanted put him in class with students four years younger. Marshall rebelled at the prospect and went to work with his father, helping manage a fish and chips shop.
Marshall's father enrolled him in a tap dancing class to strengthen in his legs after years in the cast. As the only boy in class filled with girls, the dancing teacher designated him "our Fred Astaire," and at a parent's night performance, pushed him on stage to sing few songs in front of a row of tap dancing girls. Band leader Charlie Holms, who was in the audience watching his daughter perform, was so impressed, he hired the young Marshall to sing with his big band. At age 14, with style he compared to Bing Crosby, Marshall began fronting the band in music halls throughout London.
London's pubs and music halls were notoriously rowdy during the Depression, and fights would routinely break out whenever the bands went on break. One night Holmes suggested that Marshall play a few riffs on the drums during the breaks to try and keep the peace. Marshall recalled, "He said said to me, 'you've got the rhythm down from your dancing, you should be able to drum.'" The effort succeeded and Marshall began honing his drum skills with the discipline and intensity he brought to all his endeavors.
When Germany declared war on September 7, 1940, Marshall attempted to enlist in the Royal Navy as his father had done years before, but was rejected because of his bone condition. Instead he was assigned to the Heston Aircraft Company, where he worked on assembling wings for the Spitfire fighter. In the five years he spent there, he mastered metal working and developed an understanding of manufacturing processes, skills that later proved invaluable in his amplifier business. Marshall continued to perform during the war, built up a large fan base, and even became one of Premier Drums' most prominent endorsees.
By the early '50s, Marshall used his popularity on the bandstand to attract drum students and built a thriving studio. Sixty to seventy students a week came to his small home on Lonsdale Street on the Westside of London. Although he considered himself a jazz drummer, he readily embraced the emergence of rock 'n' roll, and his students included Keith Moon, who became the original drummer of the The Who, and Mitch Mitchell, who played with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In 1960, Marshall used his savings to open a small drum shop at 76 Uxbridge Road in Hanley. His popularity with rock 'n' roll drummers made the shop into a gathering place for musicians. According to legend, Keith Moon got the job with The Who by responding to a flyer that had been tacked the bulletin board of Marshall's shop. Guitarists who came to the shop for the social environment began urging Marshall to stock guitars and amps, and a year later he crammed a selection of Fender and Gibson guitars into the tiny storefront.
Sometime in 1961 or 1962, on one of his routine visits to the shop, Pete Townshend began talking to Jim Marshall about building a louder, more powerful amp. In a 1993 interview, he recalled, "I was demanding a more powerful machine gun, and Jim Marshall said he could build it for me, and then we were going to blow people away all around the world."
The demands for a better amp became so frequent, Marshall and his head repairman Ken Bran began exploring the feasibility of actually making one. In the summer of 1962, they recruited Dudley Craven, a technician from EMI, and together began working on the project in earnest. Jim formed the metal chassis, Dudley laid out a schematic, that borrowed some design elements from the Fender Bassman, and Bran scrounged parts from Army Surplus stores and actually assembled the amp. The first Marshall Amp, the JTM 45 ("J" for James, "T" for his son Terry, "M" for Marshall, and 45 for the wattage, even though it only had 35 watts) was offered for sale in Marshall's shop in 1962. Pete Townshend bought the fifth or sixth production model, and after strumming a few chords in the shop declared, "That's it. It's going to be the Marshall sound from now on."
Although orders began coming in at the rate of a dozen a week, amplifier production was still a sideline. Jim Marshall shaped metal chassis in the spare time he had between teaching drum students and minding the store. That changed in 1966 with the emergence of Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix had just had one of his first breakout appearances at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, where he used the stack of Marshalls that were on stage. He was sufficiently impressed that he said to Mitchell, "I'd like to meet this guy who's got my name: James Marshall." Mitchell set up a meeting a day later. Marshall recalled, "Here's this American walking into my shop telling me he's going to be the greatest, and my first thought was 'Christ, another American wanting something for nothing.'" Instead, Hendrix pleasantly surprised him by paying full price for three stacks and asking only that Marshall provide service for them.
Hendrix's next appearances at The Monterrey Jazz Festival and Woodstock launched the Marshall brand name worldwide and quickly elevated the business to a much higher level. In the subsequent years, Jim Marshall always referred to Hendrix as "Marshall's greatest ambassador." By 1967, a dedicated factory was opened on Lyon Road in Bletchley. Two years later another location was added. In 1984, the company moved to its current location in an industrial park in Bletchley.
The Beatles, the British invasion, and the booming interest in rock 'n' roll lured a number of ambitious entrepreneurs into the amplifier business in the mid-'60s. Almost all of the brands foundered after a few years. Marshall, however, consistently expanded and prospered due to Jim's relentless work ethic and willingness to reinvest in the business. In a 1998 Music Trades interview, discussing his success, he said, "Don't ever think you are the best, and always remember that you don't know everything. The first Marshall amp came about because I listened to what the lads who came into my shop wanted. I still do the same thing to this very day. We listen to everybody--from the rank beginner to the top professional and all points in between. If they make suggestions, we follow up."
During his lifetime, Marshall received numerous honors. He was named and Officer of The Order of the British Empire, was presented with the Queens Export Award multiple times, received an honorary Doctorate Degree from Five Towns College in New York, and was one of the first inductees at the Rock Walk in Hollywood. He was active in charities, donating hundreds of thousands annually to the Buckinghamshire Association of Youth Clubs, the London Variety Club, and the MacMillan Nurses Organization. He took special pride in his membership in the Grand Order of Water Rats, an exclusive entertainment charity that counted Peter Sellers, Charlie Chaplin, and Sir George Martin as members.
Although Marshall suffered from several strokes over the past decade, he continued to attend trade shows around the world until last year, where he autographed posters for hundreds of fans. He leaves two children behind. He was married five times and once remarked, "I was good with business, but never very good in picking women."