Jet Black obituary

<span>Photograph: RB/Redferns</span>
Photograph: RB/Redferns

The Stranglers rose to prominence alongside the mid-1970s punk movement without ever being part of it, being a little older and more musically seasoned than bands such as Clash or the Sex Pistols.

Pivotal to the Stranglers’ development was their drummer and founder member, Jet Black, who has died aged 84 of respiratory problems. As well as being a musician who had grown up with jazz rather than rock’n’roll, Black was also a successful entrepreneur who had built his own home-brewing empire and enjoyed a lucrative career in the ice-cream trade. He later also managed to invent the patented Jet Black Power Bass Drum Pedal, allowing the drum to be played remotely.

In 1977 the Stranglers achieved immediate success with their debut album, Rattus Norvegicus, which reached No 4 on the UK album chart and delivered the Top 10 hit Peaches. Despite Peaches’ provocatively sneering, sexist lyrics, it became an enduring favourite, frequently used in TV shows, movies and video game soundtracks. Black’s jazz background had given him a level of expertise and flexibility that enabled the band to stretch out experimentally, as with their improvisatory revamp of the Dionne Warwick hit Walk On By or the prog-rock perambulations of Genetix.

Their most successful single, Golden Brown (1982), was conceived by Black and the keyboards player Dave Greenfield, and featured a quasi-baroque harpsichord part as well as a distinctively stuttering time signature. “It all took place in about 30 minutes, so it was very unusual,” said Black. The song reached No 2 on the UK chart, despite their then-record company EMI’s apathetic promotion of it. They belatedly sent the band a case of champagne after it zoomed up the charts.

Black played on all the Stranglers’ albums up to Giants (2012), and expressed a particular fondness for The Gospel According to the Meninblack (1981), the band’s enigmatic concept album about alien invasions, among other things. The recording sessions were fraught with problems and pitfalls. “It seemed that we’d touched something very occult with that album, and the day we finished it all the problems ended,” said Black. “We feel it’s stood the test of time and a lot of people think it’s our most interesting work.”

Black was born Brian Duffy in Ilford, Essex. His father, who had come to Britain from Ireland as a young man, was a headteacher who later became a private tutor, and his mother was a milliner. He recalled that “my mother was non-musical and my father, I think, actually hated music”, yet he found himself having piano lessons at the age of five. However, he displayed little aptitude for the instrument, and his musical progress lay dormant until he was sent to the Holy Cross Residential Open Air school in Broadstairs, aged 10. He suffered from asthma, and it was felt that the sea air of the Kent coast would be beneficial.

He described his time as a boarder at the school as the happiest time of his childhood, since it was an escape from the “domestic warfare” of his parents’ unhappy marriage. It was there that he also discovered an unsuspected gift for playing the violin – “within a short time I was the best in the school” – but when he left the lack of support at home deterred him from pursuing his violin studies.

Later, however, a visit to an Essex jazz club fired his interest in jazz drumming, and he formed a band with a group of fellow enthusiasts. As he pointed out, he grew up before rock’n’roll had been invented, and his idols were jazz players such as the drummer Buddy Rich. Unable to afford a drumkit, he initially had a go at playing the clarinet, but ended up behind the drums after stepping in to replace the band’s original lacklustre sticksman. Once he secured an apprenticeship as a cabinet-maker in London he was able to buy the drumkit.

The band performed regular gigs and cut a four-track EP under the name of the Omega Dance Orchestra. Black then branched out on his own as a semi-professional musician, playing regularly until his seven-year apprenticeship came to an end. Deciding against trying to become a full-time musician, he worked at a series of temporary jobs before getting involved in the ice-cream business. Initially he drove an ice-cream van, and was then offered a job as a depot manager in Guildford, Surrey, responsible, among other things, for organising ice-cream supplies to events such as the Farnborough airshow and Royal Ascot. He recalled how, in that period, he informally played drums at house parties thrown by Barbara Andrews, a veteran pianist and music-hall entertainer who was the mother of superstar Julie Andrews.

Black then then diversified further by pursuing an interest in brewing his own beer, and made a deal with a brewery to acquire a large building in Guildford with an off licence, The Jackpot, on the ground floor. He renovated the premises and installed his own brewing equipment, and was soon reaping rapidly escalating profits, developing a successful international wholesaling operation. However, his fixation on his businesses caused the collapse of his first marriage. After a bout of self-examination, he concluded that “I ought to be back in music! Music is where I belonged.”

After a period of experimenting and auditioning musicians, he met the guitarist and vocalist Hugh Cornwell, who had been in the Anglo-Swedish band Johnny Sox, and they were joined by bass player (and classically trained guitar player) Jean-Jacques Burnel as well as the keyboards player Hans Wärmling (also from Johnny Sox). In 1974 they named themselves the Guildford Stranglers – of various nicknames they took, Jet Black stuck – and played middle-of-the road pop, travelling to gigs in one of Black’s ice-cream vans. Wärmling was unhappy with the musical direction and quit the following year, to be replaced by Greenfield, establishing the classic Stranglers lineup.

Black stopped performing live with the Stranglers in 2015, having suffered various chest problems as well as an episode of atrial fibrillation (heart arrhythmia). He died at his home in Wales.

He is survived by his wife, Ava Rave, and their children, Charlotte and Anthony.

• Jet Black (Brian John Duffy), musician and businessman, born 26 August 1938; died 6 December 2022