In 1969, vocalist John Lawton moved from England to Germany after meeting his future wife Iris there and being encouraged by the music scene. In 1970, he co-founded the German rock band Lucifer’s Friend and debuted with their self-titled album and first single, “Ride the Sky,” with a similarity to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” from that year. In his 2019 Goldmine interview Lawton said, “It turned out to be a classic, and compared to ‘Immigrant Song,’ we came first. We had the riff before ‘Immigrant Song.’ It’s been a bone of contention throughout the years, but it has been proven eventually that we got that before Zeppelin.”
The group’s single “Hero,” from their second album Where the Groupies Killed the Blues, began with a touch of Lawton’s “Ride the Sky” screams. Flip sides differed by country. In Spain, the album’s opening track “Burning Ships” was selected as the single’s flip side, beginning with Peter Hesslein’s acoustic guitar and filled with nautical sound effects.
Flip side: Burning Ships
A side: Hobo
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Lawton continued with Lucifer’s Friend for the next four albums, through 1976’s Mind Explosion, with the solid opening pair of songs “Moonshine Rider” and “Blind Boy” back to back. He then moved back to England and replaced David Byron in Uriah Heep as their lead singer from late 1976 through 1979 for three studio albums, ending with Fallen Angel, which included the single “Come Back to Me,” a moody ballad, with the steady tempo “Love or Nothing” on its flip side.
Flip side: Love or Nothing
A side: Come Back to Me
Debut: November 1978
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After Lawton’s Uriah Heep years, he returned to Lucifer’s Friend, releasing additional albums, beginning with Mean Streets in 1981. In recent years the group released the 2016 reunion album Too Late to Hate, including the emotional “When Children Cry” and 2018’s Black Moon with the catchy “Call the Captain.” Lawton also performed at different Uriah Heep concerts and reunions in recent years.
Decades after the 1970s ended, the album Uriah Heep Live in Europe 1979 was released, containing a mix of songs from the group’s first decade, including a twelve minute version of “July Morning” with Lawton sharing the stage with guitarist Mick Box, keyboardist Ken Hensley, drummer Lee Kerslake, and bassist Trevor Bolder.
Lawton told Goldmine, “’July Morning’ is a good song. I do a thing every year in Bulgaria. ‘July Morning’ has become a kind of tradition in Bulgaria on the first of July. They celebrate around 5:30 in the morning when the sun comes up with the song ‘July Morning.’ I only have to really sing the first line and the audience sings the rest.” On July 1, 2019, John Lawton sang “July Morning” at the annual Bulgarian July Morning festival for a final time and reported back to Goldmine, “The gig was good, with sunrise at 5:33 a.m. just as the opening notes to ‘July Morning’ rang out, so it was quite moving.” In 2020, the festival was canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and he shared with Goldmine, “It was the first time in fifteen years that I missed it. Maybe next year.” In late June 2021, John and Iris Lawton arrived in Bulgaria where he passed away unexpectedly on June 29 at age 74, with Iris by his side.
Lawton’s passing is the third Uriah Heep member death in the past ten months, beginning with drummer Lee Kerslake last September followed by keyboardist Ken Hensley last November. Uriah Heep’s Mick Box shared, “The passing of John Lawton on the 29th of June came as a complete shock and has left me numb. John was a big part of the Heep family. He was one of the good guys. We had some fantastic times. We never stopped laughing and I will always remember those joyous times. I enjoyed the songs we wrote together, and he had an amazing voice that was powerful, soulful and with a bluesy edge. Rock music has lost one of the great rock voices of all-time and his legacy will live on forever. Our condolences go to his wife Iris, their immediate family and his German band Lucifer’s Friend. John, may you rest in peace my friend.”