He’s had an over 40 year career in music, played with stars and on smash movies…but few have heard of Hugh Marsh. The seemingly anonymous violinist turns 68 today, so happy birthday to him. And it brings us to this month’s Forgotten Gem – his take on “Purple Haze”.
Marsh was born in Montreal and grew up in Ontario, largely in Ottawa. Unlike a lot of kids of the ’50s, he loved jazz and R&B and began playing violin at the age of 5. He would end up taking 13 years of classical training on it, and picked up some sax chops in high school too. For awhile he said he preferred the sax to the violin, but his real talent was the latter and in the ’70s he switched over primarily to an electric violin, opening up a whole new world of sound for him.
He began playing shows behind Moe Koffman, a respected jazz musician at the time, which drew the attention of Bruce Cockburn, the folkie who was starting to become an international star at that time. Hugh played in Cockburn’s backing band for a few years and worked on two of his albums, 1980’s Humans and ’83’s The Trouble with Normal, even playing some mandolin on a few tracks). By the mid-’80s, he was signed to Toronto indie label Duke street (who also had quirky Jane Siberry on their roster) and put out a solo record. Which got him the chance to do a second one, 1987‘s Shaking the Pumpkin, which is where the Forgotten Gem was from.
As we mentioned recently in regards to Joe Cocker taking on a Beatles song to cover, it takes some amount of guts to do a cover version of a “classic rock classic.” Which Marsh did with Jimi Hendrix’ iconic “Purple Haze”. Besides the electric violin and jaunty beat Marsh applied, the most obvious thing about the track is that it sounds like a Robert Palmer song. And with good reason. Marsh got Palmer to do the vocals on it and several other tracks on the album. Amazingly, the pair didn’t know each other until then.
“I was a huge fan of Robert Palmer’s in the ’80s,” Marsh told Talkhouse, “and I would always try and find ways of getting ahold of somebody, not just the usual route…I read he was recording at Compass Point in the Bahamas, so I just went ‘Ok, I’ll send (a demo tape) to the recording studio. If he opens up the package, he can just put it on and see what he thinks.’” About three days later, Palmer called Marsh up and told him it sounded “great” and agreed to fly to Toronto to work on the record!
The pair remained friends after that, with Palmer apparently prone to calling Hugh up in the middle of the night to talk music. “He was a real musicologist,” Marsh remembers, “he was interested in World Music way before it became popular in North America.”
The song became a radio hit in Canada (it was the #55 record of the year at CFNY in his hometown Toronto for example) and in some markets in the U.S. when it was released there a year later.
Hugh’s had four more jazz albums since then and kept very busy. He’s been a member of Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt’s band for 30 years now. She calls him a “sound poet” but notes he refers to himself as a “music conversationalist, there to serve other people’s music.” More recently he’s toured with Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy and been a member of alt rock faves the Rheostatics. And if that’s not enough, he’s been a regular on the Hollywood scene, working on scores for, well, scores of movies including Sinbad, Shrek II and the Chronicles of Narnia. Sounds like he could be quite an interesting music “conversationalist”, doesn’t it?