John McLaughlin was born on January 4, 1942, in Doncaster, England. His mother was a concert violinist and John played that instrument as well as the piano in his youth. At the age of 11, he began studying the guitar in a variety of styles. In the early 60s, McLaughlin moved to London, where there were more opportunities for musicians. While there, McLaughlin played with several R&B bands, most notably those of Georgie Fame and Graham Bond. When not playing in an established band, John supported himself by playing as a session guitarist. In 1969, John recorded his debut album “Extrapolation” before moving to the United States to play in the jazz-rock fusion band, Lifetime, led by drummer Tony Williams.
In the US, John continued to work as a session player when band work wasn’t available. He played guitar on five legendary Miles Davis albums: “In a Silent Way”, “Bitches Brew”, “On The Corner”, “Big Fun”, and “A Tribute to Jack Johnson”. Playing on such high profile records gave John the reputation as a top notch session player and afforded him the opportunity to play with several popular acts of the time, included The Rolling Stones.
Early in the 70s, McLaughlin recorded two solo albums for Douglas Records. The albums had contrasting styles. The first, “Devotion”, was an upbeat psychedlic fusion album. The album included drummer Buddy Miles, who had played with Jimi Hendrix. McLaughlin himself once played an unofficial jam session with Hendrix. A recording of the session, dated March 25, 1969, captured the event.
By the time his second album for Douglas, “My Goal’s Beyond”, was released, McLaughlin had began following Indian spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy. The new album was dedicated to Chinmoy and was the album on which John took the name Mahavishnu. With his new spiritual influences, McLaughlin’s second Douglas album was a blend of jazz and classical Indian sounds. It is known for having some of the most melodic tracks of McLaughlin’s career.
After “My Goal’s Beyond”, McLaughlin began a rigorous schedule of woodshedding. His guitar playing progressed from the odd-timings and more traditional jazz sounds of before to a more aggressive form of playing, characterized by fast guitar solos that made use of exotic scales. He formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra as an outlet for his new playing style. The band mixed jazz and rock with indian influences in a highly virtuosic and musically complex way. Personality conflicts were rampant in the band, and its original lineup disbanded in 1973.
Before reforming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, McLaughlin took some time to collaborate with fellow Sri Chimony disciple, Carlos Santana. The result was an album called “Love Devotion Surrender”. The record was a tribute to John Coltrane, and featured rearrangements of his compositions.
McLaughlin’s second incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra featured new musicians and a string and horn section. In this form, the band recorded two albums, one of them with the London Symphony Orchestra. A third album consisted of a scaled down, quartet version, of the band. The recording was made mainly because of contractual obligations with the record label.
After the breakup of the second Mahavishnu Orchestra, McLaughlin focused on playing with his acoustic group Shakti. Shakti played largely western influenced Indian music, and John was one of the first westerners to play Indian music for Indian audiences. Shakti featured LakshminaMcLaughlinanan L. Shankar on violin, Zakir Hussain on the tabla, Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram on the ghatam and Ramnad Raghavan on mridangam. John played a custom guitar in the group which featured a standard 6 string setup over top of an additional 7 strings, tilted at a 45 degree angle and played via sympathetic vibrations, like a sitar.
After Shakti, McLaughlin performed with a few acoustic outfits before switching back to the electric guitar after three years or so of nearly exclusive acoustic playing. The return to electric produced his 1979 album named after the wording on his business card from his teenage years, “Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist”. The album represented his return to more mainstream jazz/rock fusion, which he had helped popularize years ago with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Also that year, McLaughlin teamed with drummer Tony Williams and famed bass player Jaco Pastorious for a short lived group entitled “Trio of Doom”. The trio played only a single concert, in Cuba, as part of a cultural exchange program of the US State Department. Some musicians referred to the program as the “Bay of Gigs”.