John Payne Guerin (October 31, 1939 – January 5, 2004) worked as a drummer, percussionist, and recording artist worldwide.
Guerin was born in Hawaii and raised in San Diego. Self-taught on drums, he worked with Buddy DeFranco from 1959 to 1960. In the 1963 he moved to Los Angeles. He was with George Shearing from 1965 to 1966, and worked in the late 1960s with other jazz artists such as Thelonious Monk and Donald Byrd. His talented drum work was utilised by artists including Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Them, Lou Rawls, Ray Conniff, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Nelson Riddle and countless others.
He is one of the great jazz-rock drummers, and has a style that is as distinctive in its own way as that of his peers such as Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason. Emerging in the late 1960s and flourishing from the 1970s onwards, the Guerin style of that era featured tasty fills around his single-head concert tom toms, displaced accents, and the frequent playing of three-four over four-four time. A perfect example of the coming-together of all these features is on the Frank Zappa Hot Rats cut It Must Be a Camel.
Guerin worked with Frank Zappa on two main occasions: firstly on the Lumpy Gravy album, sharing drumming duties with Shelly Manne and Frank Capp, and secondly on sessions in the latter part of 1969. The second sessions included (a) the Hot Rats sessions, comprising Willie The Pimp, Little Umbrellas, It Must Be A Camel, Twenty Small Cigars (appearing on Chunga’s Revenge), and Lil’ Clanton Shuffle (appearing on The Lost Episodes), and (b) the Jean-Luc Ponty King Kong sessions, comprising Idiot Bastard Son, Twenty Small Cigars, America Drinks And Goes Home and How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That? On the Hot Rats sessions, Guerin was partnered with his frequent musical colleague, bassist Max Bennett.
There is an interesting interview with Guerin in the January 1999 edition of Modern Drummer magazine. He shows the interviewer an artefact hanging on his office wall which turns out to be a framed piece of music from Lumpy Gravy. He says, “He (Zappa) laid this on me in the studio … he loved to do this kind of thing to me. What I would do was interpret as much as I could, which is really what he wanted me to do … He was always very serious and intense. He had a sense of humour, but in the studio it was another thing. But he was very easy to work with.” Interviewer: “Did you have to do things a hundred times?” Guerin: “No. Actually, Frank was a genius in the editing room. For instance, on the Hot Rats album, we let the tape run most of the time. There was no music, he just directed different feelings, or we’d establish a groove and he’d cut it off. Then, a few months later, an album with actual songs would come out. That was the beauty of his editing.” Guerin’s appearance on Apostrophe’. A mystery revealed.
In the Modern Drummer interview, Guerin says, “He (Zappa) once sent me an album and I said, ‘Wait a minute, Frank. My name is on here, but I don’t remember playing this.’ He said, ‘That’s because I took your drum track alone and wrote another song to it.’” Guerin is obviously referring to Apostrophe’, the only other Zappa album on which he has a credit. So which song does he play on? Side one of the original LP is obviously a continuation of the Overnite Sensation sessions with Ralph Humphrey. On side two, Jim Gordon plays on the cut Apostrophe’. Alex Dmochowski told me that Aynsley Dunbar plays on Uncle Remus, and the Zappa Recording Facts service states that Dunbar is also on Stink-Foot. So the Guerin track has got to be Excentrifugal Forz. Zappa probably extracted the drum track from something left over from Hot Rats and then recorded himself on vocals, guitars and bass, with George Duke on keyboards, probably in February 1974, when the finishing touches were put to the Apostrophe’ album, according to Neil Slaven in Electric Don Quixote. The drumming on Forz is typically tricky jazz-funk Guerin. It compares seamlessly to, for instance, his work on the cut LA Expression on the album Tom Scott and the LA Express (1974). The band served as Joni Mitchell's back-up on tour during the mid- to late-1970s, with whom Guerin had a brief relationship.
The Peggy Lee album Close Enough For Love (1979) is odd, but only in the sense that it features Ian Underwood, Max Bennett and John Guerin, and so should, perhaps, be subtitled Hot Rats Meet Peggy Lee. It’s an attempt by Lee to create a more contemporary, smooth jazz-type feel, and highlights some neat jazz piano solos by Ian Underwood.
His list of studio credits is amazing and undoubtedly his session career outlasted others’ because he was so musically open-minded.
He is one of the most recorded drummers of all time. Among his many contributions to motion picture and television scores, Guerin worked on the soundtrack to the 1988 film homage to Charlie Parker, Bird by Clint Eastwood. Those are also his drums on the theme song during the opening credits for the television series Hawaii Five-O.
In later years, Guerin worked with Oscar Peterson, John Faddis, Jimmy Heath, Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins, Justin Morell, Andreas Pettersson, David Basse, David Garfield, Gary Lemel, and Mike Melvoin. Guerin traveled worldwide co-leading the L.A. Express and working with Joni Mitchell. His compositions include "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" with Joni Mitchell, "Don't Be Blue" with Michael Franks and countless songs with other artists. Guerin produced many record projects including work for O.C. Smith, Keith Carradine ("I'm Easy"), and Terry Garthwaite. He achieved ProEmeritus status by winning the NARAS M.V.P. award for four years, and authored a drum book titled "Jazz + Rock = John Guerin".
Guerin died on January 5, 2004 in West Hills, California due to complications from influenza. He was known for his love of horses which he continued to own and ride until his death.