Nicholas Flynn – The Independent
“Live your lives out? Naw, love your lives out” once exhorted Jack Kerouac, and there are few who better fulfilled that principle than the guitar virtuoso, singer and songwriter Isaac Guillory. Gifted in both artistic skill and temperament, he was the ultimate music-business maverick, eschewing (after his early deals with CBS, Atlantic and Charisma) record company shackles and media hype to forge a devoted following of fans up and down the country and around the world.
Fuelled by an indomitable will and a smoking habit that Ann Widdecombe would scarcely have condoned, Guillory singlehandedly set up, night after night, a sound system that would have taxed a crew of roadies. Following his show – which consisted of a dazzling display of roots music, jazz and pop standards as well as original material – he would again dismantle and put away an exhausting array of equipment and promptly vanish, via his purpose-built live-in van, into the night.
To survive as such a fiercely independent and uncompromising musician in today’s entertainment climate took considerable courage, and, although Guillory often faced hard times and was frequently met with the obstacles that less talented people delight in placing in an artist’s path, he never succumbed to bitterness or self-pity. He was the living exponent of Disraeli’s dictum “Never complain and never explain”, and consequently there was always an air of mystery about him. Part beat hipster, part sad-eyed Jewish prophet, he genuinely liked, and tried to understand people, and loved communicating with them through his music; he loved his family, and greatly enjoyed congenial company, fine wine and good food.
Isaac Guillory was born in GuantÃ¡namo city in Cuba in 1947. His father, Easton Joseph Guillory was stationed at the American navy base and it was there that he met Isaac’s mother, Victoria Ojalvo, one of a musically inclined Turkish family of four sisters and one brother. Although Isaac was born in Cuba, technically he was an American citizen, as the birth took place in the naval hospital, which was considered to be on American soil.
Shortly after the family had been re-stationed in Palatka, in northern Florida, Isaac took up his first instrument, the piano, at the age of seven. He moved swiftly on to the guitar; his first teacher was his mother whose knowledge of the instrument – though not inconsiderable as family history relates – he had exhausted within a week. While at school he played in his first group, the Illusions, and at the age of 17, after his father’s death, moved with his mother and family to Chicago.
There he studied music and sound at the Roosevelt University, and joined the Cryan Shames as their bass guitarist and pianist. The group released two albums and had a hit single on CBS but were broken up as a result of band members being drafted into the army because of the Vietnam War. By now in his early twenties, Guillory decided, on receiving his exemption from the army, that the time had come to see the world, and he left for Europe via North Africa (where he survived acute appendicitis), driving for the first time one of his trademark live-in vans. In his wallet he carried a return ticket home and the key to the front door, neither of which, fortunately, had to be used.
After travelling from Denmark to Morocco, Guillory then appeared at the 1971 Cambridge Folk Festival in England, a performance which swiftly led to his being established as an outstanding session guitarist and solo performer. By 1973 he had released an album on Atlantic, and soon after recorded with Donovan and Elkie Brooks – he also toured with the latter.
The following years saw him work with Barbara Dickson (as guitarist and musical director), form his own band, replace Big Jim Sullivan in the highly regarded jazz outfit Pacific Eardrum, work with Nick Heyward, Trevor Horn and Joan Baez and record Brazilian guitars for the soundtrack of a Mick Jagger film, She’s the Boss (1984).
He married his first wife Tina in 1973 and remained on friendly terms with her for the rest of his life. They had a daughter, Sienna (now a successful actress and model), and he also adopted Tina’s son, Jace.
Not surprisingly for such a technically proficient and knowledgeable musician Guillory was also called upon to teach. In addition to being invited as a guest lecturer at the Guildhall School of Music, he collaborated with Ralph Denyer on The Guitar Handbook (1982), a comprehensive compendium that was to inspire the BBC television series Rock School. Among the albums that Guillory produced on his own record label over the last 21 years, were: Isaac Guillory (1979), Live (1986), Easy (1988), Slow Down (1992) and, most recently, what was to prove to be his last recorded work, The Days of Forty Nine (2000).
Behind the scenes of any such rogue career there has to be more at work than meets the eye, and the pivotal contact between Guillory’s individualistic approach and the demands of business and tour schedules was his long-standing cohort, agent and friend, Dave Smith, who masterminded Guillory’s escalating musical activity for the last 17 years. Recently Smith booked Guillory on what was to be perhaps his happiest touring collaboration – with the legendary guitarist John Renbourn. If ever two musicians were matched in talent and friendship, these two were, and Renbourn’s assessment that “a lot of people play the guitar, but Isaac played music” could just as easily have been applied by Guillory to Renbourn.
On first meeting Guillory appeared to some (myself included) to be somewhat arrogant and distant; closer inspection revealed a true perfectionist and a man of rare culture and humanity. Most people who met him had some cause for envy but Guillory dissolved such petty considerations in the dynamism of his personality.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was the relationship he shared with his second wife, Vickie, and their two children. Not long after the birth of their first child his beloved van was stolen along with a camera and some other valuable equipment. When I commiserated with him on this loss his answer was that perhaps it was a “happiness tax”; if so the rebate was surely paid by the ceaseless and devoted care that Vickie gave to him in his last illness.
Inevitably it appears tragic that such a talented man should die in his early fifties, yet it cannot be seen to be wholly tragic when he has left so much love and fruitful work behind him. As he sang in the song Thanksgiving Eve “What can you do but work all your days – What can you do with each moment of your life, but love till you’ve loved them away.”