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Ralph McTell

From Academic Kids

Ralph McTell (3 December 1944) is an English singer/songwriter and acoustic guitar player who has been an influential figure on the UK folk scene since the 1960s.

Originally born Ralph May in Farnborough, England, he grew up in Croydon, Surrey, with his mother and brother.

Ralph McTell is probably best known for the song Streets of London which has been covered by over a hundred artists around the world. In the 1980s he wrote and played songs for two TV children's programmes, Alphabet Zoo which also featured Nerys Hughes, followed by Tickle On The Tum featuring Jaqui Reddin. Albums were also released from both series.

McTell's guitar style has been influenced by many of the USA's country blues guitar players of the early 20th century, including Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson.

Contents

Biography

Ralph McTell's mother, Winifred (nee Moss), was born in Hammersmith, London. During the second world war she was living in Banbury, Oxfordshire, with her sister Olive when she met Ralph's father, Frank May.

They married in 1943 while Frank was home on leave from the army. Winifred moved to Croydon, Surrey, and Ralph was born on December 3 1944 in Farnborough, Kent. He was named after Ralph Vaughan Williams - Frank had worked as the composer's gardener before the war.

A second son, Bruce, was born in 1946. Frank was demobbed but after a year or so at home, he walked out on his family in 1947.

Winifred was left to support herself and bring up the boys unaided. Ralph remembers the traumatic effect of his father's desertion: "It shaped me totally," he said many years later. But despite their father's desertion and the consequent poverty, Ralph and Bruce May had a happy and fulfilled childhood in Croydon.

Ralph's love of music surfaced early - he was given a plastic mouth organ and his grandfather, who played the harmonica, taught and encouraged him.

The brothers spent many contented summer holidays at Banbury with their uncle and aunt and their grandparents. Banbury and north Oxfordshire would figure throughout Ralph's life, although he wasn't to know this at the time. Later, he recalled those childhood summers in his song Barges.

Influences

Other childhood experiences shaped Ralph's songwriting. For example, a young Irishman and his family were the Mays' upstairs neighbours. In need of a father figure, Ralph greatly valued the young man's friendship and it later inspired the song Mr Connaughton.

Similarly, Mrs Adnam's Angels recalls his Sunday school teacher: "I loved the ceremonial and the music," he says, "and you can hear the influence of those hymn tunes in my song structures."

In 1952, two youths attempted to break into a Croydon warehouse: one, Derek Bentley, surrendered to the police but the other, Christopher Craig, shot and killed a police officer. Yet at the trial Bentley was sentenced to death.

"My mum knew the Bentleys," Ralph recalls. "Even as an eight-year-old, I could see the horror and unfairness of executing a teenager for a murder he didn't commit." Many years later, Ralph expressed that sense of injustice in the song Bentley and Craig.

Teens

Ralph passed his 11-plus school examination and went to the John Ruskin Grammar School. However, he hated his time there and, despite being a very bright pupil, he didn't shine academically. Many of his fellow pupils were from wealthier backgrounds and, despite having many friends there, he didn't fit in.

Musically, his tastes tended towards the outsider too. He was knocked out by skiffle and American rock'n'roll. He acquired an old ukulele and a copy of The George Formby Method (George Formby was a well-know ukelele player). Following the book's instructions, he played his first chord. "I was thunderstruck - it was like magic!" He mastered skiffle classics like Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O and by the time he was in the second year at school, he'd formed a skiffle band.

By the age of 15, Ralph was very anxious to leave grammar school and the British Army looked like a way out. So in 1959 he enlisted in the Junior Leaders Battalion of The Queen's Surrey Regiment.

For Ralph, army life proved far worse than school. After six months, he bought himself out and resumed his education at tech college where he did several O level exams and an A level exam in art.

Discovering black music

At college, Ralph discovered the '60s beatnik culture. As well as the work of writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he discovered black American music - jazz, blues and R&B.

Inspired by musicians like Jesse Fuller, Jack Elliot, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Ralph bought a guitar and practised assiduously.

He and a group of like-minded friends became habitués of Soho jazz clubs and regularly went down to Brighton "... just to sit on the beach looking windswept and interesting," as Ralph put it. Soon he was spending much of his time away from Croydon, supporting himself with temporary work in factories, laundries, and hotels.

During his travels, Ralph met musicians who were destined to remain life-long friends, among them Jacqui McShee (later to gain fame in the band Pentangle, Martin Carthy and Wizz Jones.

Ralph was persuaded to join a bluegrass-influenced band called The Hickory Nuts. They gigged all over England and, despite playing in some dire places for pin money early on, ended up with decent fees and respectable crowds in venues like Croydon's Fairfield Hall.

The busker

By now, Ralph had begun travelling abroad, busking round Europe with his guitar. He spent time in France and visited Belgium and Germany. Other trips took him to Italy and through Yugoslavia ("you could sense the madness there even then") to Greece.

Paris was a city which Ralph revisited frequently. Late in 1965 he and a friend from Croydon took a room in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank, earning their rent by busking cinema queues.

After braving a bitterly cold Paris winter, Ralph met a young American, Gary Peterson, who had studied with the legendary guitarist Rev Gary Davies. "It was Gary who taught me to play rag time guitar," Ralph recalled.

In the spring of 1966, Ralph met another émigré to Paris, a student from Norway named Nanna Stein. The pair soon became inseparable.

Back in England, Ralph and Nanna lived in a caravan in Cornwall. He and Wizz Jones were regular performers on the Cornish circuit, especially at The Folk Cottage in Mitchell. Jones persuaded Ralph to adopt the stage name McTell.

Cornwall captured Ralph's heart - "its beauty and its unique spirit really got me" - and the county has always remained a place for him to retreat to. By the end of 1966, Ralph and Nanna were expecting their first child. They got married on November 30 in Norway and returned to live in Croydon with Winifred.

Ralph and Nanna's son, Sam, was born on January 21 1967.

After an unrewarding spell at teacher training college, Ralph decided he'd try to make it full time in music. As well as his vocal and instrumental talents, he was developing as a songwriter and was in demand in folk clubs and festivals.

Record deal

During 1967, Ralph landed a deal with Transatlantic Records and by the end of the year was recording his first album. Arranged by Tony Visconti and produced by Gus Dudgeon, the album was titled Eight Frames A Second and was released early in 1968.

Eight Frames A Second caught the ears of the BBC and was featured on radio programmes including Country Meets Folk in August and John Peel's Top Gear. The release of the album meant more live work so Ralph's brother Bruce became his manager and booking agent.

Meanwhile, Ralph began work on his next album. Entitled Spiral Staircase, it was released by Transatlantic in late 1968 and included the first recording of Streets Of London.

The third album was My Side Of Your Window. Released in 1969, it became Melody Maker magazine's Folk Album of the Month. In July, Ralph had appeared at Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time and at the end of the year headlined at Hornsey Town Hall.

Into the 70s

"By 1970 I'd got a family," Ralph recalled in an interview, "and I found I also had a musical career, somehow." A bit of an understatement - he was getting extensive radio play, the audiences at his concerts were growing, and his albums were getting positive reviews.

By May, he was sufficiently successful to fill the Royal Festival Hall in London. In August, Ralph played the huge Isle of Wight festival alongside Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen.

However, Ralph didn't find performing easy - always nervous before shows, mild stage-fright has stayed with him throughout his career. "But it's OK as soon as I walk out there," he said later, "the audience claps and the confidence comes."

Bruce May had bowed out and Ralph and was now being managed by impresario Jo Lustig. In October 1970, Ralph sold out the Royal Festival Hall again and his fourth album, Revisited, was released. This compilation was originally intended to introduce Ralph to American record-buyers but was released in the UK.

Ralph and Nanna's daughter Leah was born on February 9 1971.

You Well Meaning Brought Me Here was released on the Famous label in 1971. Among the highlights of the album was The Ferryman, inspired by the Herman Hesse book Siddhartha. That year also saw Ralph's first tour in the USA.

Initially, Paramount Records had been Ralph's American label but had not been supportive - he later signed with Warner Brothers. While in the USA, Ralph hung out with the British folkrock band Fairport Convention, establishing a lifelong professional relationship as well as personal friendships.

Ralph's fifth album, Not Till Tomorrow, a return to a simpler sound, was produced by Tony Visconti: it was released on Reprise in 1972. His UK concert tour played to packed houses and he met one of his guitar heroes, the Rev Gary Davies. By the end of the year, he'd parted company with Jo Lustig and his brother Bruce was again managing his career.

Although living in Putney, south west London, Ralph and Nanna bought a derelict cottage in Cornwall during 1972.

The Royal Albert Hall

During 1973, Ralph undertook a major tour which culminated in a concert at London's Royal Albert Hall where he played to a full house.

By the end of the year, Ralph was in the studio with Visconti again working on his next album. Released early in 1974, Easy won critical acclaim and became Ralph's first album to do well in the charts.

Easy was promoted by lengthy tours of Britain and Europe with Danny Thompson and Mike Piggott as backing musicians. Despite the civil war in Northern Ireland, the tour included concerts in the province - in fact, Ralph continued to play there regularly throughout 'the troubles'.

The hit and the band

Ralph re-recorded Streets of London and it was released as a single late in 1974. Featuring just Ralph's voice and guitar, the song was recorded in a single take. It rocketed up the charts to number two over the Christmas period, became a worldwide million-seller, and won Ralph the Ivor Novello Award.

In early 1975, Ralph released the album Streets which sold strongly and spent twelve weeks in the album charts. Backing musicians on the album included Lindisfarne's Rod Clements, Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg and Jerry Donahue, and Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span.

Ralph decided to tour with a band to promote the album. Sadly, the experiment was not a success. "That tour," he recalls, "became a nightmare."

It was time for a break. Ralph went to America with his family where he spent time relaxing and writing. Refreshed, he returned to the UK.

During 1976, Ralph topped the bill at Montreux Folk and Jazz Festival and played another sold-out concert at The Royal Albert Hall. This was followed by his first tour of Australia and the far east. At Ralph's insistence, local buskers were given free tickets for the flagship concert at Sydney Opera House.

Ralph and Nanna's son Tom was born on 7 September 1976.

Ralph's ninth album, Right Side Up, was released late in 1976 and the year ended with a packed-out Christmas concert in Belfast where Ralph got standing ovations both before and after the show.

The concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House had both been recorded and in 1977, Warner released the live album Ralph Albert and Sydney.

During the year, Ralph met John 'Jonah' Jones, a popular figure on London's music scene. It was the start of a close friendship that lasted until John's death in 2003. After tours in the USA and Britain, Ralph again appeared at Cambridge Folk Festival.

Quieter times

Ralph and Nanna's son Billy was born on April 19 1978.

Professionally, it was a quieter year so Ralph was able to enjoy his family. He and Nanna divided their time between their London home and their house in Cornwall.

In March 1979, Ralph played The Royal Festival Hall accompanied by Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention, and Nigel Smith and Mike Piggott.

Ralph had written a lot of new songs and went into the studio with backing musicians including Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg and Simon Nicol. The resulting album, Slide Away The Screen was released by Warner.

The recording contract with Warner Brothers expired in 1980 so Ralph and Bruce set up Mays Records as an 'own brand' label. It would be a year or more until they had an album to release but meanwhile Ralph continued to tour.

During 1981, Ralph, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson formed an impromptu band called The GPs. They performed half-a-dozen concerts but contractual restrictions meant the band couldn't be developed further.

The first release on Mays Records was the 1981 single England, a song later adopted as the theme for a television travelogue presented by comedian Billy Connolly, a long-standing friend of Ralph's.

Mays Records' first album release was Water Of Dreams which featured Bentley & Craig, the song which led to Ralph's support of the campaign to grant Derek Bentley a posthumous pardon.

Television

In 1982, Ralph's career took an unexpected change of direction. Granada Television commissioned Alphabet Zoo, a series of children's programmes built around songs written and performed by Ralph.

The first series of Alphabet Zoo was broadcast in 1983 and was a big success. A second series followed and Mays Records released two albums of the material - Songs From Alphabet Zoo in 1983 and Best of Alphabet Zoo the following year.

During 1983, Ralph presented his own music series on BBC Radio 2. His guests included Billy Connolly, Georgie Fame, Simon Nicol with Dave Swarbrick, and Mike Harding.

In 1984, Ralph fronted another children's TV programme called Tickle On The Tum, again built around his songs. The series featured guests including John Wells, Willy Rushton, Kenny Lynch, Penelope Keith and Nerys Hughes.

Ralph was still playing concerts between his television commitments and he toured during 1984 at home and in Canada and the USA. After composing the music for a Skol lager advertising campaign, he decided to concentrate on his musical career and turned down further television work.

Commercialism

Bruce May negotiated a deal with Telstar Records, a company that pushed its products heavily with major advertising and hyping campaigns. Ralph was persuaded to record an album which mixed his own material and 'classic songs' such as Penny Lane, Morning Has Broken and Scarborough Fair.

The resulting album, At The End Of a Perfect Day, was released late in 1985 and was one of Ralph's least satisfactory recordings. "It was a totally commercial venture," he said later, "but Telstar's promised back-up seemed too good to miss."

However, the next year Ralph was back on form with Bridge of Sighs. Released on Mays Records in 1986, the album gathered together a lot of hitherto unfinished songs. It included The Hiring Fair (originally written for Fairport Convention in whose core repertoire it remains to this day) and The Setting, influenced by Sean O'Faolain.

Homage

As well as tours in his own right, Ralph secured a prestigious support slot in 1987 opening the shows on The Everly Brothers UK tour. He greatly enjoyed working with Don and Phil who, he admits, were musical heroes of his.

Ralph's end-of-tour gift to himself was Albert, an African grey parrot. In years to come, the bird would not only learn to talk but, by mimicking its owner's cough, would spur Ralph to give up the hand-rolled cigarettes he'd smoked all his adult life.

After tours in Europe, the USA and Australia, Ralph was back in the studio in February 1988 to record the album Blue Skies Black Heroes. Released on his own Leola Music label, the album was a homage to the blues and ragtime musicians who had so influenced his playing.

"Nearly all my guitar heroes are black, American, usually blind and - most of 'em - dead," Ralph explained. All the tracks on Blue Skies Black Heroes were recorded as live takes, four with Danny Thompson on bass. The follow-up tour that summer saw Ralph on the road with a veritable arsenal of guitars.

Ralph was a regular visitor to, and occasional performer at, Fairport Convention's annual music festival in the village of Cropredy, near Banbury. The location inspired him to pen the ballad Red And Gold about the English civil war which has become a staple of Fairport's repertoire.

At the end of 1988, Bruce ceased to be Ralph's manager, the post being taken by Mick McDonagh.

Castle compilations

In 1989, Ralph signed a deal with the label Castle Communications to produce a compilation of his best work. For contractual reasons, some songs had to be re-recorded in Dave Pegg's Woodworm Studio in Cropredy. The result was Affairs Of The Heart.

To support the album's release, Ralph undertook an extensive tour in the autumn and early winter. The tour was well-supported with PR material and was managed on the road by John 'Jonah' Jones.

The next year, 1990, Castle released Stealin' Back, another collection of previously-recorded songs.

In 1991, Ralph shared the billing with Donovan on a tour of Germany. He also toured in his own right in the UK.

The third Castle compilation was released in 1992 to celebrate Ralph's 25 years of recording. Silver Celebration featured a selection of tracks including The Ferryman, From Clare To Here and Streets Of London. A very extensive Silver Celebration tour occupied much of the year, again managed by 'Jonah' Jones.

The Boy With A Note

Ralph completed a major project when in 1992, the BBC commissioned and broadcast The Boy With A Note, an evocation of Dylan Thomas in words and music. Re-recorded it was released on Ralph's Leola label as an album. Ralph is very proud of this ambitious piece. "Two or three years went into that," he said. "It's grown-up work."

During 1993, Ralph toured Australia and the far east, and back home he undertook The Black And White Tour.

Road Goes On Forever Records released The Complete Alphabet Zoo bringing together all the songs from the two television series. Ralph and Mick McDonagh parted company.

In 1994 Ralph took part in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the life of Ken Woolard. Ken was the founder of Cambridge Folk Festival and Ralph assembled a band, Good Men In The Jungle, to play at that summer's festival. He also celebrated his fiftieth year by giving up smoking.

Slide Away The Screen was released as a CD by Road Goes On Forever Records with three previously unreleased songs added.

Sand in Your Shoes was recorded at Woodworm, by now relocated in Barford St Michael near Banbury. The album came out on the Transatlantic label during 1995.

Ralph performed his song Bentley And Craig at a special service for Derek Bentley held in Croydon cemetery with the Bentley family. Sadly, Bentley's sister Iris died before he was pardoned and, at her request, Ralph performed at her funeral a few years later.

A high point of 1995 was an invitation to perform songs from The Boy With A Note at the Year Of Literature Festival in Swansea, in south Wales.

Tickety Boo

In 1996, Ralph again worked on music for a Billy Connolly television series. He also presented BBC radio's coverage of Sidmouth Festival and toured the UK, Europe, and the USA.

An album of live material, Songs for Six Strings Vol II, was released in 1996 on Leola. Ralph was also the subject of a major feature in The Independent newspaper that year.

Early in 1997, Ralph began his association with Tickety Boo, the company which produced Billy Connolly's 'World Tour of...' television series. "In The Dreamtime," the song played over the closing credits to Billy Connolly's World Tour of Australia, is available on his album "Red Sky".

An authorised biography of Ralph was published in 1997 by Northdown Publishing. Ralph's concert at Croydon Town Hall was filmed and released as a videocassette by Leola in 1998.

Ralph's two sell-out concerts in London's Purcell Room were recorded and released on Leola as a two-CD set. Entitled Travelling Man, the double album came out in time for Ralph's 1999 spring tour. A two-page feature about Ralph appeared in The Guardian newspaper in May 1999.

New century

Ralph had been busy writing during the previous couple of years and the result was Red Sky. Recorded at Woodworm and released in 2000 on the Leola label, the album contained no fewer than 19 tracks.

Ralph's output was not restricted to songs, however. He had been working on an autobiography for some years and the first volume, entitled Angel Laughter, was published by Heartland Publishing in 2000.

To promote Angel Laughter, Ralph undertook a tour of bookshops and libraries reading extracts and illustrating them with appropriate songs. Heartland issued a promotional CD of the poems, text readings and songs.

Ralph and Nanna's first grandchild, Ezra, was born on 25 June 2000.

In 2001, Ralph undertook a special tour of the UK. Billed as 'The National Tour', it gave Ralph a chance to present concerts featuring his newly-acquired National Steel resonator guitar. Two live recordings from the National Tour made their way onto the 2002 Leola album National Treasure.

Their four children having left home, Ralph and Nanna moved to a smaller house in Putney in 2001 - during the move Ralph discovered he had collected nearly two dozen guitars.

Heartland published Summer Lightning, the second volume of Ralph's autobiography in 2002. Another highlight of the year was the Lifetime Achievement award for songwriting presented to Ralph at the annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. By then, Ralph had written and recorded well over 200 songs.

Ralph had been touring extensively at home and abroad for many years so in 2003 he decided to take a break from the road. He split the year between his London and Cornwall homes and spent the time writing, travelling and enjoying his grandchildren - by the end of the year there were seven of them.

In 2004, Ralph co-headlined on Steeleye Span's tour of Australia and New Zealand as well as touring in the UK, Ireland and continental Europe.

Ralph appeared at the fortieth Cambridge Folk Festival and his performance there was broadcast on BBC4 television. He also played at the fiftieth Sidmouth Festival and at Cropredy Festival, both of which events faced an uncertain future.

Leola Music Ltd consolidated its position by taking in-house most aspects of Ralph's career including his website and concert bookings. 2004 culminated in a concert at The Royal Festival Hall to celebrate Ralph's sixtieth birthday.

External links

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