John was born in Sydney on 6 January 1930, and except for a brief stay in Melbourne in 1950 with Frank Johnson’s Fabulous Dixielanders, spent his musical career based in his home city. He began playing clarinet at the age of 15 in 1945, and during his musical life also mastered the soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax and flugelhorn.
He joined The Riverside Jazz Band in 1947 and later the Port Jackson Jazz Band, both of which were established by trombonist Jack Parkes to promote traditional jazz styles in postwar Sydney. From 1958 he was also a member of the Ray Price Quartet. Here’s a clip of John playing with the Ray Price Quartet (in this case Quintet) playing Sidney Bechet’s beautiful tune A Moi de Payer (The Payoff).
The musicians on the recording are Ray Price on guitar and banjo; Johnny McCarthy, clarinet; Joe Costelloe, trombone; Dick Hughes, piano; and Wally Wickham on string bass. This recording reached No. 6 on the local Hit Parade, and was also popular overseas.
He left both bands in 1962 and joined Dick Hughes’ Quartet; in the mid-sixties joined the Graeme Bell Band, and in the seventies, the Bob Barnard Band.
The front line marchers are Ken Olsen (holding banner), John McCarthy, Frank (Sydney) Johnson, Jack Parkes, Roger Bell, Ade Monsbourgh, Don “Pixie” Roberts and Graeme Bell. (from Australian Jazzman by Graeme Bell.)
He worked extensively on a freelance basis: think of almost any Sydney band of standing and John McCarthy will have played with them.
One musician with whom he worked extensively was John Sangster. Click on the album cover (left) to hear Vale Theoden from John Sangster’s musical interpretation of Lord of the Rings. Originally recorded in 1974 by EMI it was reissued by Wave Records in 2002. (You’ll remember of course that King Theoden was a major character in Tolkien’s epic who died leading his people, the Rohirrim, against the Nazgul.) John McCarthy’s “spare but intense clarinet is heard to great effect in this track.” (Bruce Johnson’s Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz).
Any true Bohemian or discerning follower of live music in Sydney from 1976 onward would have encountered The Roger Janes Band. As regular musicians at Balmain’s Unity Hall Hotel they were a fixture at one of the world’s longest running jazz residencies. The CD – Crazy -captures vividly what was possibly their greatest line-up, each player a capable bandleader and gifted soloist in his own right. Roger Janes-Trombone & Vocal; Tom Baker – Trumpet; Marty Mooney – Saxophone; John McCarthy – Clarinet; Gary Walford – Piano; Lynn Wallis – Drums; Ian Date – Guitar; Don Heap – Bass. Click on the CD cover to hear a clip from Swinging the Blues.
In the late 1980s John played with Dave Dallwitz’s Sydney Big Band. Greg Englert recorded the following fabulous video of the Dallwitz Band playing on Bondi Beach in 1986. Greg is the lead trumpet in the middle between John Roberts and Cliff Reese. John McCarthy is on 1st tenor sax along with Trevor Rippingale, Paul Furniss and Tich Bray on clarinet.
A wake will be held for John McCarthy on Monday 17 October. Tony Buckley, Bob Barnard and many other musos who knew John and shared making music with him will be there to pay tribute to a fine musician and a lovely man.