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Ralph McTell

Born Ralph May, 3rd December 1944, Farnborough, Kent, McTELL will always be remembered – or indeed burdened – with scribing one of folk music’s most lasting and enduring songs, `Streets Of London’. Nearly reaching the giddy heights of peak position (it hit No.2 early in ‘75), the song has become synonymous with Ralph and the folk fraternity in general, whether in an appreciative or a derisory fashion. Recorded by a plethora of folk artists, it’s also been cut by many other stars in their day, from the easy-listening Roger Whittaker to Oi!-punks the ANTI-NOWHERE LEAGUE.
A post-WWII laddie, it was clear young Ralph had talent when he performed on harmonica aged only seven or eight. Progressing to ukulele and then acoustic guitar, his formative musical years were spent playing in the odd skiffle group in gigs all around the UK. Impressed by the sound of folk-blues legends such as RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT, WOODY GUTHRIE, LEADBELLY, ROBERT JOHNSON, BLIND WILLIE McTELL, BLIND (Arthur) BLAKE and dustbowl authors such as John Steinbeck, Ralph left busking the streets of London to turn troubadour in a hitch-hiking musical tour across Europe. It was on these travels that he met his wife, Nanna, who in turn bore him his first son on their return to the capital. Abandoning a career in teaching due to the demands of performing live (he took a residency in Soho’s most famous folk venue, Les Cousins), McTELL duly signed with a music publisher who secured him a contract with Nat Joseph’s Transatlantic Records.
EIGHT FRAMES A SECOND (1968) {*6} kicked off with his own `Nanna’s Song’, although it was the choice of covers that would be most interesting: BONNIE DOBSON’s `Morning Dew’, BLIND BLAKE’s `Too Blind Drag’, The PURPLE GANG’s `Granny Takes A Trip’ and trad cue `Hesitation Blues’. Opening with the original version of `Streets Of London’ and with orchestral arrangements of others by Mike Vickers, SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1969) {*7} saw Ralph interpret ROBERT JOHNSON’s `Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ and Buddy Moss’ `(My) Baby Keeps Staying Out All Night’; his first Cambridge Folk Festival spot arrived that summer.
MY SIDE OF YOUR WINDOW (1969) {*5} was a slight let-down, only `Kew Gardens’, `Michael In The Garden’ and `Girl On A Bicycle’ (the latter penned with Gary Petersen) coming away with any credit; REVISITED (1970) {*5} was basically what it said on the tin.
A one-off Gus Dudgeon set on the short-lived Famous Records, YOU, WELL-MEANING, BROUGHT ME HERE (1971) {*8}, found McTELL in flourishing songwriting mode, delivering all eleven tracks on his own (bar a B-side/outtake, `Truckin’ Little Baby’ from BLIND BOY FULLER). Fortified by the session work of mandolin-player Davey Johnstone (of MAGNA CARTA) and guitarist Caleb Quaye, plus Roger Pope and RICK WAKEMAN, best touches came through `Old Brown Dog’, `Genesis I Verse 20’, `Pick Up A Gun’ and `In Some Way I Loved You’.
NOT TILL TOMORROW (1972) {*7) was McTELL’s first for Reprise Records and his first to hit Top 40; the company it seemed was preening him for the lucrative American market where his rival CAT STEVENS was making it big-time; check out `Zimmerman Blues’, `When I Was A Cowboy’ and the 6-minute closer `Gypsy’. With former PENTANGLE player DANNY THOMPSON in session, EASY (1974) {*7} took McTELL even further up the charts, a record that housed some remarkable songs such as `Sweet Mystery’, `Let Me Down Easy’ and `Maginot Waltz’. Lit up by his hit re-take of `Streets Of London’, STREETS… (1975) {*7} entered the Top 20, a set not, as it may have suggested, a compilation, but totally fresh tracks with one trad exercise, `Red Apple Juice’; non-LP track, `Dreams Of You’, was Ralph’s second Top 40 hit later in the year.
Following sell-out concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall, RIGHT SIDE UP (1976) {*5} was an easy-going introspective release, nine of his own compositions bookended by covers of TOM WAITS’ `San Diego Serenade’ and JOHN MARTYN’s `May You Never’. However, it failed to live up to expectations and bombed commercially. Recorded a year earlier, the live RALPH, ALBERT & SYDNEY (1977) {*7} stemmed from England and Australia’s finest music hall establishments but unfortunately went much the same way. But for readings of BLIND BLAKE’s `Dry Bone Rag’ and the perennial `Waltzing Matilda’, all the songs were McTELL originals from `Streets Of London’ and so on. SLIDE AWAY THE SCREEN (1979) {*5} was his swansong effort for Reprise, featuring covers of `Save The Last Dance For Me’ (Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman) and with DAVE SWARBRICK, `White Dress’.
While the 80s saw McTELL work as presenter of kiddies’ shows such as Alphabet Zoo and Tickle On The Tum, his LPs did little or nothing to revive his flagging career. WATER OF DREAMS (1982) {*3} was one such mishap, solitary highlight being a cover of DYLAN’s `I Want You’, although outtake/A-side `I Fall To Pieces’ stemmed from C&W duo Hank Cochran & Harlan Howard.
Bringing him closer to his first love – the blues – BLUE SKIES, BLACK HEROES (1988) {*5} featured exotic covers (two each) from ROBERT JOHNSON, BLIND BLAKE, BLIND BOY FULLER, JESSE FULLER, et al, alongside two of his own numbers (tracks from MUDDY WATERS, MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT, Peg Leg Howell, Joseph Spence and BLIND WILLIE McTELL were also raided). With his own arrangements, Ralph went the same route for STEALIN’ BACK (1990) {*4}, which borrowed from various sources including The Memphis Jug Band, Gus Cannon, and others from the previous set.
In 1992, as The GPs (McTELL, RICHARD THOMPSON, DAVE PEGG and Dave Mattacks) released their post-FAIRPORT set `Saturday Rolling Around’ for Woodworm Records, McTELL kick-started his own imprint, Leola with his most ambitious set to date, the BBC-commissioned THE BOY WITH A NOTE: An Evocation of the Life of Dylan Thomas in Words and Music (1992) {*5}, which gave fans of McTELL something a bit more cultured than his previous records. The MAARTIN ALLCOCK-produced SAND IN YOUR SHOES (1995) {*6} was more philosophical than usual as old age and turning the big 5-0 became an autumnal worry. Subsequent studio albums RED SKY (2000) {*4}, blues covers set NATIONAL TREASURE (2002) {*5} and GATES OF EDEN (2007) {*5} – a mixture of WOODY GUTHRIE and BOB DYLAN standards alongside his usual favourites – kept McTELL in the folk-music frontline as he became a bit of a national treasure himself.
It’d been some time since 2010’s SOMEWHERE DOWN THE ROAD {*6} and 2012’s SOFA NOODLING: GUITAR INSTRUMENTALS {*6}, but McTELL’s invitation to long-lost buddy WIZZ JONES to re-join him at the Folk Cottage in Cornwall after 50 years apart for the collaborative ABOUT TIME (2016) {*6}, was well worth its “wait” in gold discs. Swapping lead and backing harmony vocals along the way, folk and blues aficionados would be buzzing after hearing `Honey Baby Blues’, `Deportees’, TOWNES VAN ZANDT’s `If I Needed You’ and DYLAN’s `Abandoned Love’ (among several others), with each party seemingly content in one another’s space.
Cut from the same cloth, 2017’s second instalment, ABOUT TIME TOO {*6}, carried on where the last one left off. RALPH McTELL and WIZZ JONES were certainly a dream combination of bluesy folk men, both content to wile away their twilight years performing to an ever-faithful audience; pick of the bunch among traditional fare is their re-interpretation of The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND’s `How Happy I Am’ and STEVE ASHLEY’s `Best Wishes’.
© MC Strong 2010-GFD // rev-up MCS Dec2013-Jun2018

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