Johnny Gustafson was the bass player with The Big Three, a group which rivalled The Beatles for the title of top Liverpool band in the early sixties. Taken into his ‘stable’ by Brian Epstein, everything seemed to point towards fame and fortune for the band but it never happened. In Gustafson’s obituary in 2014 in The Independent they were summed up as “unmanageable, uncontrollable, and unbelievably good”. Gustafson himself is a good witness for the prosecution in relation to their relationship with Epstein. In the book The Brian Epstein Story [Faber and Faber 2000] Gustafson recalls “he wanted us to be suited up in the best finery money could buy”; given £80 by Epstein to buy suits Gustafson confesses “ we ran across the road to C&A and bought these suits for three quid each…and the rest we spent in various pubs around Liverpool”. There were disputes about which songs would be released as singles, the band wanting hard rock, Epstein wanting the sort of material that was bringing great success for Gerry and the Pacemakers. Gustafson, describing their parting said “we didn’t wear the suits he provided…..he used to give us money to stay in hotels but we used to sleep in the van and spend the money in the pub. He didn’t take too kindly to things like that. So he just fired us.” Soon after Gustafson left The Big Three and, whilst he may have missed the chance for stardom with Epstein he went on to become a musician highly respected in the business and play with some household names.
He was born in Liverpool on 8th August 1942 to Adolphus Frederick Gustafson and his wife Mary Ann (née McLoughlin). Various sources state that his father was Swedish but in fact he was born in Liverpool in 1893, the son of a Swedish father who worked for Tate and Lyle. At the time of John’s birth the family home was at 25 Lowther Street L8 (now demolished). According to a family notice in the Liverpool Echo at the time of John’s death he was pre-deceased by brothers Tommy and Gerry and sister Mary and had a surviving brother Tony.
His first band, in the late 1950s, was Cass and the Casanovas. The band backed Gene Vincent at the Liverpool Stadium in 1960 and after auditioning for Larry Parnes got the job of backing Duffy Power on a tour of Scotland. Taken by Gustafson’s good looks Parnes told him he could make him a star and he duly accepted an invitation to go to London. He then found out, as did many other young hopefuls at the time, that Parnes’ ambitions were not wholly musical. In Gustafson’s words Larry jumped into bed with me. I punched him and came back home”. When Cass and the Casanovas dumped the eponymous Brian Casser they became The Big Three.
Tensions in the band led to Gustafson leaving and joining the Merseybeats, playing on their hit singles “Don’t Turn Around” and “Wishin’ and Hopin’ “. Subsequent bands included Episode Six, which developed into Quatermass. He worked with the Walker Brothers and Duane Eddy and spent three years with Roxy Music, playing on the hit single “Love Is The Drug”. Despite his long treatment for cancer he was still doing session work and teaching guitar until shortly before his death.
I am grateful to Dave Roberts, who played in a band called the Pressmen, for providing me with the following insights into Johnny Gustafson's early music career
John Gustafson died at Whitstable, Kent, on 11th September 2014. He had married Pamela Morrison in Liverpool in 1964 and they had two children, John and Lee. Electoral records show that in 1970 they were living at 8 Botanic Place L7. He married Anne Piper at Bromley, Kent, in 1983 and they had daughters Alice and Lucy and son Joe.
Gustafson's address on the 1970 electoral register.
Some Post-60s [pictures of Johnny Gustafson
There is no single major source on Johnny Gustafson but worth reading are the obituary in the Independent and the Wikipedia entry for the discography. Also, on a website run by Canadian music journalist Dmitry Epstein there is a page on which many of those who worked with Gustfson record their memories and appreciation of him.
© Liverpool Footprints