John Garner, who became one of the unheralded bricklayers at the foundation of heavy metal in his role as lead singer and drummer for cult ‘70s powerhouse Sir Lord Baltimore, has died of liver failure.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Garner was barely out of high school when he teamed up with schoolmates Louis Dambra (guitar) and Gary Justin (bass) in 1968, later answering an ad in The Village Voice placed by aspiring producer Mike Appel (who would soon discover and guide the early career of a young singer songwriter named Bruce Springsteen) that read "Heavy band needed for recording.”

Within months, the newly christened Sir Lord Baltimore were being managed by industry mover and shaker Dee Anthony (Joe Cocker, Faces, etc.), were under contract to Mercury Records, and found themselves knocking songs into shape under Appel’s and engineer Jimmy Creteco’s supervision in a studio in West Orange, New Jersey. Mixing followed at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios by none other than Eddie Kramer.

The resulting LP, Kingdom Come, would become a cornerstone of the fledgling heavy metal movement (albeit not recognized as such until decades later), making Sir Lord Baltimore one of America’s first legitimate answers to British pioneers like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. They were described in Creem magazine as having all the “heavy metal tricks in the book.”

Indeed, there was a wanton savagery to Sir Lord Baltimore’s musical attack quite unlike almost anything yet captured on tape by 1970: Louis Dambra’s riffs and solos exploded with kinetic power, Gary Justin’s bass rumbled with bowel-churning intensity, and John Garner’s athletic, flamboyant drumming was matched only by his unrestrained vocal histrionics, pushing the ensemble’s performance to rare heights of excitement.

But Garner and his bandmates’ general career inexperience started catching up with them when they got the chance to open a few shows (including one at New York’s own legendary Fillmore East) for the fast-rising Black Sabbath, and largely failed to impress the assembled fans and critics. Not long after releasing their eponymous sophomore album in 1971, Sir Lord Baltimore’s backers lost faith and Mercury dropped the group, effectively closing their brief glimpse of potential rock stardom.

Listen to Sir Lord Baltimore Perform 'Kingdom Come'

Over the ensuing years, band members tried but failed to resurrect their career and then slowly drifted apart, with Garner resuming a “normal” life, working for New York’s department of sanitation, while managing wedding bands and playing with several bands to keep his chops up.

By the time heavy music fans started retroactively singing Sir Lord Baltimore’s praises in the late 1990s (thanks in no small part to the information-dredging powers of the Internet), Garner’s gratitude for this delayed recognition could barely make up for his lingering resentment over how things had deteriorated. “A few years back I got [a magazine] interested in doing a story on SLB," said longtime Roadrunner Records and Nuclear Blast A&R executive, Monte Conner, a Garner acquaintance and longtime, "but John refused to be interviewed unless they paid him. I guess this was the result of his bitterness over SLB getting screwed by the music biz. I convinced him to let go of the anger and that he should celebrate his legacy and keep it alive for new fans.”

Eventually, Garner and Dambra (now a born again Christian, and living in California) reconciled long enough to compile and finish rough demos originally recorded in the early ‘70s for release on CD as Sir Lord Baltimore III: Raw. Subsequent plans for an on stage reunion at a 2008 European festival unfortunately fell apart, but Garner later found contentment as the keeper of the Sir Lord Baltimore’s flame until his passing peacefully on Saturday (Dec. 5), after a few final days spent in a coma.

Reached for comment, Sir Lord Baltimore’s onetime Svengali, Mike Appel, reasserted his original enthusiasm for SLB’s visionary music and raw talent, stating they were “unsung heroes of the classic rock era” and confirming that Garner’s body will be flown home to New York from the site of his passing, in Tampa Florida, for burial in Staten Island.

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