R.I.P. former Uriah Heep frontman John Lawton (1946-2021)

R.I.P. former Uriah Heep frontman John Lawton (1946-2021)

On June 29, 2021, former Uriah Heep frontman John Lawton passed away at the age of 74. Lawton was Uriah Heep‘s frontman from 1976 to 1979 and again as a live substitute in 1995 and 2013.

The following message was posted on Uriah Heep‘s Facebook page earlier today:

“It is with deep regret that we share the devastating and tragic news of the sudden and totally unexpected passing of John Lawton on 29. June 2021.

Contrary to reports, there was no illness involved, which makes his passing incomprehensible.

He went peacefully with his wife at his side.

John will be greatly missed.

A private funeral service to celebrate John’s life will be held following his wishes, with only family and close friends attending.

We would appreciate that the family’s privacy is respected during this difficult time.”

Wikipedia states the following about Lawton‘s time in Uriah Heep during the 1970s (with slight edits):

Uriah Heep recruited bassist Trevor Bolder (ex-David Bowie, Mick Ronson), and after having auditioned David Coverdale (Deep Purple, Whitesnake), Ian Hunter and Gary Holton (Heavy Metal Kids), brought in John Lawton, formerly of Lucifer’s Friend and the Les Humphries Singers, with whom they turned totally away from fantasy-oriented lyrics and multi-part compositions back towards a more straightforward hard rock sound typical of the era. [MickBox later said, “Image-wise he wasn’t quite what we were looking for, but his pipes were perfect and so we went for the music end of it.”  [KenHensley agreed: “He had a voice that I thought would give a new dimension.”

Firefly was released in February 1977, displaying “renewed effervescence and energy in unveiling what was clearly a new beginning for Heep” (per. K. Blows), “a new vigour and confidence” (according to a Record Mirror review) and also the new singer’s abilities: the latter (according to AllMusic), although lacking the multi-octave range of David Byron, “…boasted an impressive and emotionally rich hard rock voice that instantly jelled with the Uriah Heep sound.” The band then toured the USA supporting KISS. Paul Stanley later recalled, “They were incredibly professional, and so consistent that their worst nights were excellent and their best were tremendous.”

Innocent Victim, released in November 1977, “had a slight edge on Firefly” according to Box, but still in retrospect this “…blend of sharp, short rockers and pop-friendly ballads” looked like “an attempt to court the American AOR market.” The single “Free Me” (whose “acoustic style and accent on harmonies brought the group dangerously close to Eagles territory,” according to AllMusic) became an international hit. In Germany, the album sold over a million copies and became Uriah Heep‘s most successful, which coincided with the success of the re-released “Lady in Black.” For some time during this period, there were three Uriah Heep singles sitting together in the German Top 20, these being “Wise Man” (from Firefly), “Lady in Black” and “Free Me”.

In the end of 1978, Fallen Angel came out, having completed a hat-trick of studio albums to feature a consistent lineup (only the second time in their career that they had done so). “Too poppy” for Mick Box‘s liking (but still, “too eccentric to fit the bill of an AOR record,” according to Allmusic), it was well received at the time (Sounds gave it 4 stars) but failed to chart. Meanwhile, the relative stability of the Lawton period belied the behind the scenes unrest having to do with Ken Hensley‘s earning much more than his colleagues. “Everything he wrote, he had to use… And if you insist in using everything you end up with substandard albums,” disgruntled Box opined. The major rift, though, developed between Hensley and Lawton. As K. Blows writes, “the combination of constant friction between the two (resulting in the nearest thing to violence the group had seen) and the constant presence of Lawton‘s wife on the road finally led to the vocalist getting the chop, shortly after playing the Bilzen Festival in Belgium in August 1979.””

Uriah Heep with John Lawton on lead vocals: