I was born the 13th of May 1935, in Groningen, the Netherlands. We were with thirteen kids, me being the eldest. I come from a musical family, those who played the drums were all self-taught. Because, you know, money was tight, so we couldn't afford costly lessons. My grandpa was the drummer in a Salvation Army Band. My father, John Engels senior, was a very distinguished drummer, I'd say one of the greatest, back in the thirties and later. Also his brother and two of mine brothers and my youngest sister, we all play the drums.
Whenever there was a jazz concert my father took me along. The 1950 Duke Ellington concert, for instance and the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. At that time I wanted so bad to sit in and play with those cats. So I had to be good, so I practiced and practiced. Later, at the North Sea Jazz festival, I jumped at the opportunity to play with Hank Jones, amongst others. In 1953 I went to the conservatory. There I had an intake meeting with my tutor-to-be Frans van der Kraan, a good friend of my father. It's in the genes”, he said, “but we have a problem. You're a left paw, here at the conservatory you're supposed to play right-handed.” Meaning, the setup of the drum kit had to be the other way around to what I was used to. So I should have to start all over again. I went two times to the conservatory, the first time and the last time. My breakthrough came with Mary Lou Williams, and after that when Pia Beck gave me a chance.