Colin H on Bill Leader
One of my ideas when I began writing The Wheels Of The World: 300 Years Of Irish Uilleann Pipers was to include a chapter or appendix on the Irish music aspect of the career of legendary English engineer/producer Bill Leader. Uniquely, he recorded several of the most significant figures in 20th century uilleann piping and during a key point in its history, when it was becoming visible to non-specialist listeners outside of Ireland.
As the book grew in size and scope, however, something had to give and I decided that a full chapter on Bill had to go. Much of the material specific to his recordings with pipers and a little on his general career was used elsewhere in the book (mostly in chapters on Finbar Furey, Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy and Liam O’Flynn). But a draft of the planned Bill Leader chapter was two-thirds complete and I’ve finished it off, after a fashion, to present it here for the enjoyment, I hope, of Afterworders.
I should also mention that Mike Butler is currently working on a Bill Leader biography and has already created an amazing illustrated Leader discography online at: http://www.dyversemusic.com/2013/01/bill-leader-discography.html
Bill Leader: The Man Who Paid The Pipers
‘The difficulty is getting round to record these people, but I would like eventually to have the whole of the traditional culture on record…’
Bill Leader, 1970
At its heart, the story of piping across its 300 years of existence has been the story of individuals, often lone voices in the wilderness, keepers of the flame, solitary geniuses who inspired the next generation and, in the age of recorded sound, every generation after. Sometimes those voices in the wilderness had a helping hand, from the collectors and patrons of previous centuries to the historians, sound recordists, broadcasters and promoters of the past hundred-odd years. Sometimes, like the indefatigable Captain O’Neill in Chicago – a man at the end of the 19th century whose dogged enthusiasm and patronage saved much Irish music from being lost – these ‘back room’ figures would invest sacrificial amounts of time and money into pursuing their interest, with no real prospect of reward.
‘Flattering reviews in the press, and appreciative comments in other ways, are all that could be desired but orders are disappointingly few,’ O’Neill wrote in 1913, to one grateful purchaser of his book Irish Minstrels And Musicians. ‘Should I be fortunate enough to be reimbursed for even half my outlay, not considering years of application and persistent effort I would feel satisfied.’
O’Neill, at least, started with money. Bill Leader, a softly spoken man recently arrived in London in the early 1950s, vaguely intrigued in technology, music and the left-wing aspirations of the burgeoning ‘British folk revival’, never really had any. It might be said that a great way to make a million pounds from traditional music is to start with two. The same line has been used of careers in jazz and of recording studio ownership for years. Bill’s roughly 30 year career in freelance music engineering, production and record label ownership never made him any money. He was, by all accounts, a truly terrible businessman. But he was a great recording engineer, working magic with very modest technical resources, and he made it his mission to record music in the British Isles during the 1950s, 60s and 70s which, to a great extent, would most likely otherwise have escaped preservation. In other cases, where he made records with people who had some level of commercial prospects – who had previously been, or would subsequently be, recorded by others – Leader’s artefacts would often be the definitive examples of those artists.
Born in 1929, Bill was presented with a BBC Folk Awards ‘Good Tradition Award’ in 2012, by Christy Moore, whose career-proper he had effectively started (after a few years of the singer bumbling along on the British club scene) with the release of Prosperous, on his own label, Trailer, in 1971. Perhaps emblematic of Bill’s luck, it was only when the record was sold on to the Tara label in Dublin a year later that it began to move into profit.
Bill Leader is perhaps most often celebrated for his work with artists who are generally perceived as English, who became legends or at least modest successes through the British folk revival – AL Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Gordon Giltrap, Louis Killen, Anne Briggs, Nic Jones, Pentangle, The Watersons, The Young Tradition, The Ian Campbell Folk Group among them – but he also made significant recordings with many traditional and contemporary Scottish and Irish artists. Among the Scots were Archie Fisher and the Fisher Family, Barbara Dickson, Hamish Imlach, Lizzie Higgins and Traveller family the Stewarts of Blair; among the Irish were Dominic Behan, Frank Harte, Sweeney’s Men, Joe Heaney, The Dubliners, The Glenside Céilí Band, Martin Byrnes, Jimmy Power, Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman.
All of these names just scratch the surface. Sometimes there would be one recording, sometimes many over several years. In those heady days of folk music of all kinds bubbling up into the world of mass interest and accessibility, Bill’s work covered ‘revival’ artists and ‘traditional’ or ‘source’ artists in equal measure. Now and again, he could be found recording the odd bit of jazz, blues or poetry – Annie Ross, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Adrian Mitchell – or something from Eastern Europe. Taken as a whole, it remains an incredible body of work, some of which has been available to consumers more or less regularly, from vinyl through to CD and into the download era, some of which is sadly now rare and seemingly lost to the reissue industry.
Yet, in among the mass of great names and lost treasures in the Bill Leader discography, is a quietly remarkable canon of uilleann piping. Uniquely, from one end of those ‘Swinging 60s’ to the other, Bill Leader recorded the McPeakes (1962), Willie Clancy (1967), Finbar Furey (1968-69), Séamus Ennis (1969) and Liam O’Flynn (1971). The first two artists were recorded for Topic Records, the Fureys were for Transatlantic Records and the albums with Séamus Ennis and Liam O’Flynn he would finance and release himself, on his own Leader/Trailer labels. The albums by Willie Clancy (The Minstrel From Clare) and Séamus Ennis (Masters Of Irish Music Vol.1) remain arguably the best single albums they ever made.
Part of Bill Leader’s story was covered in my book Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival (Bloomsbury, 2000; 2006; 2012), but it was a great pleasure to interview Bill again for this book, at the age of 84, with a focus this time on his work with Irish musicians and pipers in particular. The impetus to do so came from Finbar Furey’s unfavourable recollection of recording for Bill. Finbar’s negative impression was surely, I felt, more a case of cultural differences rather than record business manipulation. Certainly, Finbar’s impression of Bill jarred with my own experience of the man and his wider reputation as one of the good guys. But then nobody’s perfect.
A number of Bill’s associates from the folk musical world of the 1950s and ‘60s also contribute below: among them London-Irish music champion and chronicler Reg Hall; English folk club legends Martin Carthy and Robin Dransfield; Sweeney’s Men and Planxty member Andy Irvine; and Transatlantic Records MD, the late Nathan Joseph, from an interview he gave me in 1991. Some additional recollections from Bill also come from a 1991 interview.
‘Unfortunately I never kept a diary,’ says Bill. ‘One of the shortcomings of my recording sessions is that I came to them as record producer – I never considered myself a scholar. I went for the take: not the context. Of course, in those pre-digital days, you didn’t leave the tape running in the hope that something interesting might happen, as you might today. Tape cost money and, particularly if you were on a trip, you didn’t overload yourself with reels and reels of the stuff.’
Nevertheless, Bill Leader bottled magic. And with a bit of an effort, a few of those details can always be retrieved.
Camden Town In The 1950s
When I first came down to London from Bradford, where I spent my youth-hood, I managed to get a flat in Camden Square, and in the basement there was a bunch of Aussie academics who were over here doing their ‘world tour’. They had already discovered Irish music in Camden Town and had been impressed by it. Anyway, they were enthusiasts for this pub which they dragged me down to which was called The Bedford Arms and star turns at The Bedford Arms were this lady who stood up with a huge voice and a banjo called Margaret Barry and this fellow who sat quietly on the stage and never ever took his hat off, no matter how vigorous the music might be, playing the fiddle, called Michael Gorman. It was walking distance from where I lived I was quite taken with it – I’m from an Irish background myself so I was not unaware of all this tradition, though I was not familiar with it in any way. It was probably through going down there that I met Reg Hall, who was someone who also discovered all this wonderful stuff that was going on in London.
Born in 1933, Reg Hall was an Englishman who would go on to become involved as both a musical participant (on piano or melodeon) and historian of the London-based Irish music scene, as well as being active in the English country dancing world, recording throughout the 60s and off and on beyond them as a member of Bob Davenport & The Rakes (specialising in Northumberland music), and holding down a day job as a probation officer. He and Bill would collaborate on several Irish and London-Irish music projects in the 1960s, including Topic’s 1967 LP Paddy In The Smoke, documenting several of the key people on the scene.
Having been a jazz fan since his early teens, Reg was aware of the American collector and historian Alan Lomax, before he came to England in 1950 (out-running the anti-Communist blacklisting that was going on in America at the time). Having arrived in England, Lomax swiftly became a regular presence on the BBC with broadcasts focusing on indigenous music.
Reg Hall: I was very surprised to find out that he was interested in the traditional music of these islands,’ says Reg. ‘At the same time there was what has now been called the ‘square dance boom’, which was the English Folk Dance & Song Society (EFDSS) putting on country dancing all over the country, and I got caught up with that. So by 1955 I’d heard traditional music on the radio which Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson, Peter Kennedy had collected. I’d heard Irish music – Johnny Doherty, Mickey Doherty, these people who were recorded in the 40s and 50s, I’d heard them on the radio. So by 1955 I was actually seeing Irish musicians in London, and I started playing with them.
Me and my mate, Michael Plunkett, who’s older than me, we both were accepted and we were essentially the only English people who took the slightest bit of interest in Irish music. We’d go into a pub and be the only English people in the pub all night. Probably the only ones to be in that week. We went to Camden Town, we also went to Cricklewood, to Kilburn. We followed the music round, we hunted it out. In the end I was hunting music out in Woolworth, Wandsworth, Plumstead…
The Bedford Arms, especially, was an intriguingly otherworldly place in the context of the time, with a certain feeling of danger about it. Jenny Barton, who ran folk nights at The Troubadour in Earl’s Court from 1958-64, recalls going there once only:
A girl on her own in those days didn’t go to those places. They were fairly rough. Somebody got pitched out on his head one night and died. If you said you were going on your own to The Bedford there’d be looks – somebody would say, ‘No, no – I’ll come with you’. So someone took me to The Bedford.
Willie Clancy was working in London during the middle 50s and often played at a neighbouring Irish pub, The Laurel Tree, favoured by pipers – what few there were. In Reg Hall’s experience, piping was a rarity in London at that time:
In my subsequent interviews [with Irish musicians] I spoke to lots and lots of old country players whose only experience of piping was Leo Rowsome on the radio. I’m talking about before the war. At the end of the 30s and into the war musicians that I knew, living in London, who were living in Ireland then, only knew of uilleann pipes from the radio, from Rowsome. But some of them experienced the Travellers. I knew about five or six musicians who used to hear either Johnny Doran or Felix Doran when they were on their rounds.
Bill Leader would go on to make a splendid album with Willie Clancy in 1967, but he never recorded or met the fellow during his time in London in the 1950s. Willie, though, was recorded by Ewan MacColl, with fiddler Michael Gorman, at Ewan’s home in Croydon, in 1955. A 10” album credited to both men, Irish Jigs, Reels & Hornpipes, was issued in the USA on Folkways Records the following year – Willie Clancy’s debut release – culled from the MacColl sessions (albeit perpetrated on the sleeve credits as having been ‘recorded in Ireland’). Two further Clancy solo tunes and two duets with Gorman from the same Croydon session would be released, along with two Gorman solo tunes and a Michael Gorman/Margaret Barry duet (the latter an offcut from a Bill Leader 1957 session), on a Topic EP entitled Irish Pipe & Fiddle Tunes in 1963.
Bill’s friend Reg Hall, however, did experience Willie Clancy in London in the 50s:
I went and heard him in The Laurel Tree playing with, I suppose, [fiddler] Bobby Casey. I can’t remember – but I remember going in The Laurel Tree and hearing him play. And we saw him playing in the Soho Fair, which was playing in the street with Michael Gorman and we followed him round.
Reg’s experience, however, was not to be limited to that of a listener only:
Willie was the best Irish musician I ever played with. I played the melodeon [in 1956] for a little group of dancers in North London who were run by Ewan MacColl’s wife Jean, Kirsty’s mother. I went and played two or three times on the understanding that they sometimes had Irish musicians play for them. So I’d been going three or four weeks and one day she said:
‘Oh, we’ve got a little concert coming up, we’re going to be playing a social for the Labour Party in East Ham Town Hall.’
It was a dance but essentially we were a cabaret act.
‘And by the way,’ she says, ‘we’ve got some Irish musicians playing. You’ll play with them, won’t you?’
And I said yeah. So when I turn up the day before for the rehearsal, Michael Gorman turns up, who I was on nodding terms with, he vaguely knew who I was. And in comes [fiddler] Martin Byrnes and Willie Clancy. I didn’t understand a word they said! Martin Byrnes more of less ignored me and I think Willie Clancy couldn’t understand how my melodeon would be in tune with his pipes. Anyway, we sat down and we played the required tunes for the dancing. And the next day we did the show – but then Margaret Barry turned up! So sitting in the middle of the floor, in this whacking great big dance hall, was me on the left, Michael Gorman, Martin Byrnes, Willie Clancy then Margaret Barry – and we just played for 20 minutes. They were highly suspicious of me the day before – well, Michael Gorman wasn’t – but the next day we got on fine, had drinks together. But, significantly, when I met both of them years later neither of them remembered me!
Topic Records had been started in 1939 by the Workers’ Music Association (WMA), itself a wing of the British Communist Party, managing to press a few 78rpm discs before closing down for the duration of the war. It was an era when socialist organisations were trying to find ways to involve themselves in cultural activities.
Bill had been attracted by the idea of the WMA although they ‘had an ability to lose money’. By the middle 50s the General Secretary of the WMA was Gerry Sharpe , who managed a period of change for the well-meaning but wayward label to first of all actually make some money and secondly to stand apart from the WMA as a separate entity. The mid-50s advent of33 1/3rpm vinyl LPs (an advance from shellac 78rpm discs in terms of reproduction quality, playing time and retail price) made the economics of releasing records, even in small quantities, more favourable; and by 1963 the label would be constituted as a separate enterprise. During the late 50s and even on into the 60s there was, nevertheless, around the label a loose assembly of people in an advisory capacity, chief among them AL Lloyd and Ewan MacColl. Both of these godfathers of the British folk revival would use Topic as an outlet for their own records – MacColl getting in early, with a series of folk songs and self-written songs on 78s from 1950 onwards – and would use their patronage to have many others recorded.
Bill Leader, in the right place at the right time, would also find himself in a position of some
influence himself as to whom and what was recorded:
I think Topic saw [by the mid-50s] that there was a possibility here of releasing records that they thought were important – and not losing their shirt by it. So they got a few enthusiasts together who could work on the idea of them revitalizing the label – and I was the only one around who was keen on this and had time on their hands. Everyone else was committed to some sort of career.
Bill did have one experienced overseer and early colleague in Dick Swettenham, a technical visionary who went on to work at Abbey Road and Olympic Studios and to design and manufacture his own Helios mixing desks, on which much of the most iconic rock music of the era (Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Rolling Stones, most of Island Records’ catalogue) would be recorded. His first project for Topic could hardly have been further from this: a recording of the Fifth World Youth Festival in Warsaw, August 1955 – choirs from Albania, China, Russia and the like – which was released in a run of 99 copies on the absurd 8” LP format the following year.
Bill began as ‘a sort of foot-soldier’ under Dick’s guidance. Alongside the emergence of the LP, another factor would influence Topic’s ability to make records and do so viably: the recent availability of portable semi-professional tape recorders. While many of Bill Leader’s great records were, of course, made in multi-track studios, it is extraordinary how many – especially in the early days – were made essentially in a room with a decent microphone, a Revox machine and a bit of magic in the air:
If you were interested in the sort of music you can just go out and record, rather than elaborate music that requires a studio set-up, then you could actually get stuff down on tape at not too heinous a cost… We would take the tape recorder to wherever it was, or we would bring in the people. With Irish musicians it was characteristic to bring ‘em all in: a lot of players sitting around a microphone, a bottle of Guinness, off you go. You’d get a nice homely recording, which was very appropriate for that sort of music – you didn’t need it produced with a lot of gizmos going.
During 1956, Bill’s first toe in the waters of Irish music was a 10” 78 by Dundalk street-singer, ‘Queen of the tinkers’ and by then London-based Irish pub sensation Margaret Barry. It coupled ‘The Blarney Stone’ with ‘If You Ever Go Over To Ireland’. The following year a 10” LP appeared on the label, Street Songs & Fiddle Tunes Of Ireland, credited to Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman. Some of it had very likely been recorded at the time of the single, as Bill suggests:
The release date of the record doesn’t necessarily reflect the recording dates. It may have lain unissued for quite a long time, mainly because we realised it wasn’t going to be the hottest seller we’d ever done.
Nevertheless, the album would be repressed a number of times. It was an indication that there might be something tangible in this folk music stuff after all. Having begun life as a vehicle for, very largely, Russian choral music and Shostokovich with a sprinkling of similar stirring sounds from other nations and chamber-style folk song from the likes of black American baritone Paul Robeson, and a few Irish rebel songs from Patrick Galvin, by 1956 the label was moving in a distinctly folk and traditional music direction. Margaret Barry had already been recorded several times: in Ireland in 1951 by Alan Lomax for his Columbia Records World Library Of Folk And Primitive Music series (the volume on Ireland being released in 1955); in Ireland by Peter Kennedy for the BBC in 1952; once again by Alan Lomax in London in 1953 (recordings issued many years later); and in London around 1955 by Ewan MacColl for an album under her own name, released in 1956 as Songs Of An Irish Tinker Lady on Riverside Records in the USA.
Bill had seen Margaret and her peers in action at the Camden pubs and had initiated the Topic release. As far as Bill could see, she was quite a star in the emerging world of enthusiasm for folk music:
Ewan MacColl had already put her on at the Festival Hall. Or at least he’d put on a concert, it was something to do with the Daily Worker or something like that, a big sort of festival-ish thing. And this was before I ever went down to London. He’d already come across them. The way he told it, she didn’t turn up until halfway through the evening and then she walked onstage and entranced everybody with her singing. She was there. She was known to a bunch of people – the Irish community and those who had taken an interest in folk music.
We thought it would be a good idea to try and record this lovely bunch of people. There were things that you felt were worth doing so you did them, with no expectation that there was going to be a queue down the street to buy them. Reg was involved – he was the person who recommended the lady who came and played the piano, Patty Thorburn. But he wasn’t involved in the actual sessions. They were done in what we laughingly called our studio, in Bishop’s Bridge Road [Topic HQ], which was just a room at the top of the building. We blocked off the window to keep the noise of the trains coming into Paddington Station which was opposite. There was a wonderful whistle player called Paddy Breen. I suppose it was my first attempt at trying to record that sort of ensemble. We just did it on one mic – that was all we had. They just performed what they wanted to play, because I was not very familiar with the repertoire – I did have difficulty remembering the names of all these tunes.
Amidst a growing catalogue of recording credits, the next Irish artist with whom Bill was involved was Dominic Behan. His 10” LP Irish Songs Recalled, released in 1958, would be the first of many solo records and records in collaboration with Ewan MacColl, Steve Benbow, Peggy Seeger and others over the next few years. Dominic was not a great artist but he was certainly a big character on the early British folk club scene:
He was born that way! He came in a bit on the coat tails of [his brother] Brendan, of course. Brendan had already made his mark in 55/56 with the plays that were on at Stratford. And Alan Lomax put on something or other which included Dominic. He was quite the boy. So he was around and he made sure that the people at the Workers Music Association knew about him.
In 1960 Bill began supplementing his income – or, perhaps more accurately, subsidising his interest in recording – by managing a folk and jazz specialist record shop, Collet’s, in New Oxford Street. The shop was one of several Collet’s bookshops and two record shops owned by a left-wing publishing house of the same name, associated with the British Communist Party. This one would become a key meeting place, and occasional postal address, for folk musicians in London during the coming decade.
Bill’s recordings for Topic which were released during 1962 saw something of a break from the past: rather than another slew of AL Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Dominic Behan albums, a number of new, considerably younger artists were represented, several making their record debuts. From the thriving Edinburgh folk scene, both Ray & Archie Fisher and Dolina MacLennan & Robin Gray had EPs (Far Over The Forth and By Mormond Braes respectively); from the Soho coffee house and blues world came guitar heroes Davy Graham & Alexis Korner with their seminal 3/4 AD EP; from Liverpool, where they were already a huge draw with their own club, came The Spinners with a live EP, Songs Spun In Liverpool; from Birmingham, also local heroes with their own club, came The Ian Campbell Folk Club with their Ceilidh At The Crown EP; already a veteran accompanist, despite her youth, on Topic releases, Appalachian banjo/vocal stylist Peggy Seeger finally received her own releases, two EPs back to back, Troubled Love and Early In The Spring; from the North East of England, a trio comprising Louis Killen, Johnny Handle & Colin Ross also had a pair of EPs released, The Collier’s Rant and Northumbrian Garland; Johnny Handle had a solo EP of Newcastle and Northumbrian songs, Stottin’ Doon The Waall as did Bob Davenport, Wor Geordie; Glasgow traditional singer Enoch Kent had an EP, The Butcher Boy; and London singer/songwriter Leon Rosselson made his solo debut with Songs For City Squares. There were several other releases on the label that year, but these alone, all produced by Bill, indicate the growing breadth and diversity of the folk revival in Britain.
Nothing Irish was released on Topic during 1962, but during the latter part of the year an extended version of the McPeake family from Belfast came over to tour the British folk clubs, with a very unusual line-up of a double-trio combining pipes, harp and vocals. Francis I, Francis II and James (the original family trio) were joined by Francis III, Kathleen and Tommy McCrudden: four sets of uilleann pipes and two harps. Even one trio in this format was eccentric and beguiling. Bill made sure to capture some of their novelty:
They were across, I think, because MacColl was very, very enthusiastic about them. And long before we ever really got to know them and hear them he was singing their praises as a group of people who’d had this brilliant realization that, because they didn’t have mouth-blown pipes, they could sing – which nobody else seems to have thought of! And why not sing? Just because you’re moving your elbow… They were not virtuosos on their instruments. But they used them effectively.
Willie Clancy had not interacted with the beginnings of the British folk club world during his time in London and while Séamus Ennis was an occasional presence on the BBC with the instrument, and had performed once at The Troubdour in Earl’s Court, in 1959, uilleann pipes were still very much a novelty on the British folk club scene in 1962, as Bill recalls:
We’d seen Séamus doing the ‘wrestling the octopus’ trick – fighting this monster that he’d got under his arm but couldn’t quite manage to strangle to death. It always looked like a tournament of some sort. Some pipers can seem less phased than others about losing the battle. We had these Scottish people, of course, but they couldn’t do it without walking up and down, as if they were trying to tire it out… It was the harmonic aspect of the pipes that was really interesting, having the regulators, and playing with the forearm, which was a trick we were really unfamiliar with.
An LP, Irish Traditional Folk Songs & Music, and an EP, Wild Mountain Thyme duly appeared on Topic the following year. Bill wrote the sleeve-note for the EP:
The McPeakes first captured English attention in the early 1950s as a result of Peter Kennedy bringing Francis and his son – also called Francis – to perform at the Albert Hall. After that, they became a trio when the second son James took up the Irish harp… It was as a trio that they won major prizes at the International Eisteddfod every time they entered it between 1958 and 1962.
In late 1962 the McPeakes toured English folk clubs. This time the third generation of players came with them. The grandchildren, Francis and Kathleen – son and daughter of Francis the son – and Tommy McCrudden, their cousin. In London at the beginning of the monstrous winter of 1962, catching them between fogbound trips to Southampton and Co. Durham, these unique recordings of the whole family were made.
The McPeakes sessions would have been recorded at 5 North Villas, Bill’s flat in Camden Town, which he had sound-proofed with blankets and egg-boxes, and which had what he believed to be a certain magic in its natural acoustics. English singer/guitarist Martin Carthy recalls the novel arrangements:
The place only had two rooms: kitchen/bathroom and bedroom. He had a Revox set up in one room and you went and stood in the other room, with the microphone, and he’d give you the signal, which was the light going on and off. It didn’t always work so you’d be standing there and the door would open and he’d say, ‘You can start now if you like’ – and the door would shut! I’m making a joke of it because it’s funny now, but at the time the opportunity for making decent recordings just didn’t exist.
The McPeakes music does not, perhaps, transcend its time but they would remain a viable presence on the British club scene for the rest of the decade, recording further albums for Fontana (without Bill’s involvement). They would also appear on BBC TV’s Tonight show in 1964, but television had already been good to the folk movement. As early as 1956, for instance, Alan Lomax, Ewan MacColl and Shirley Collins had performed as the Ramblers on a series of shows for Granada, sneaking in under the guise of skiffle (folksong with a backbeat: a nationwide craze at the time). Ray & Archie Fisher had regularly appeared on a regional current affairs magazine show in Scotland, while fellow Scots Robin Hall & Jimmie Macgregor had effectively opened up the national airwaves to folksong in this context – appearing on Tonight on Burns Night (January 25) in 1960 performing a Scottish variant of the traditional ‘Football Crazy’ and effectively launching a career which later included TV variety series The White Heather Club. There would continue to be a surprising number of opportunities for folk and traditional performers in Britain – in Light Entertainment shows, in current affairs shows, in satire shows (kicked off by That Was The Week That Was in 1963), in religious programmes, in dedicated series on folk music (such as STV’s Hootenanny, ABC’s Hullaballoo, BBC’s Degrees Of Folk) – as the 60s rolled on. Very few of these programmes survive now, but at that time, during the 1960s, folk and traditional music was effectively a mainstream presence in living rooms the length of Great Britain.
While Topic Records would never get involved in putting out records by TV personalities, Nathan ‘Nat’ Joseph, a Cambridge graduate, theatre and cabaret enthusiast and budding entrepreneur had no such foibles. Bill recalls their meeting one day in 1962, in Collet’s record shop:
This little fellow with a squeaky voice came in and tried to sell me some records he’d got the rights to, from America, called Live With Love – three albums of sex education which he thought were going to be a sure-fire winner. And I seem to remember he had an EP on how to give up smoking. I remember he rang the press agent in charge of getting the smoking EP off the ground and gave him such a mouthful of abuse it quite made my hair stand on end. He then suggested that maybe I should like to help him produce some records.
Recently returned from a post-university year in America, Nat had come up with the idea of using 90 day credit to import various spoken-word recordings into Britain, including a language tuition series, while using 30 day credit to sell the records on to retailers. Based on the notion that the British public would be hugely interested in three subjects – the Queen (not known to be looking for a record deal), money (not an easy concept on record) and sex – he had settled on the third of these as a winning idea to kick off a record label. He had, in fact, not licensed but recorded Live With Love, with one Dr Eustace Chesser, using a pseudonym, to become the first three albums on his own label, Transatlantic Records.
Nat Joseph: Sure enough it worked. We got a tremendous amount of publicity, including the front page of the News Of The World. Really, we got about a million pounds of publicity for nothing. There were discussions on the radio about sex records and how evil they were and, actually, it was so tame it was unbelievable. I mean, today it wouldn’t cause a ripple in Woman’s Own but it sold what in those days was an enormous amount – nearly 100,000 records – and that enabled me then to do a number of things, like [buying] a record shop in Hampstead… The record company’s offices were [initially above the shop] and all sorts of people used to sleep there including, I remember, Bert Jansch when he first came to London and Paul Simon on more than one occasion. Soon after we moved to offices in Marylebone High Street.
Bill Leader was installed as the manager of Nat’s new premises, Hampstead Record Centre on 72 Heath Street. It would be the start of a winning relationship and one that would be crucial to the careers of numerous folk and traditional musicians from the British Isles. While Topic had gradually moved into folk music from deeply worthy, Communistic and commercially hopeless beginnings over many years, Transatlantic began with an entirely money-making, pragmatic agenda before moving into the folk revival field, albeit a slightly more commercially-focused, or commercially-feasible, end of it, with singer-songwriters a speciality.
Nat had his own quality control ethos, whatever his detractors might say:
I think I probably always had a very healthy contempt for the pop scene. We were often accused by people who were very ethnic of being pop orientated – and, I suppose, from their point of view we were – but as I saw it we weren’t. I have always been a believer in quality and I think one of the things that 90% of pop music lacks is quality. Most of the lyrics are an insult to the intelligence.
For all his entrepreneurial bent, Nat Joseph would describe himself as ‘on the left-wing of the Labour Party’. He had a love of words especially and was drawn to the personalities and fun to be had in the folk world of the early ‘60s in Britain, fast approaching what the Melody Maker would term (endlessly between 1963-65) a ‘folk boom’.
There was never much of a boom in chart terms, but it had a huge presence on the ground, as Martin Carthy recalls:
The term ‘underground’ was borrowed later on to talk about Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and stuff like that but there had been an underground going on since 1960/61. When this ‘folk boom’ took shape and gained momentum by the mid ‘60s you’re talking about millions of people going to folk clubs. You’re actually talking in millions. It was never, ever reflected in record sales, and I’ve no way of proving it, but it has to be true. Every sizeable town in England at that time had a choice of folk clubs, every night of the week. It was huge.
Several artists who began their careers on Transatlantic Records went on to enjoy huge success on other labels – among them The Dubliners, Gerry Rafferty, Mike Oldfield – but the label would still manage a level of modest success during the 60s and on into the early 70s, with a few hit albums and even the odd minor hit single. Along the way there would be some bold releases, not least Finbar Furey’s solo uilleann piping album of 1968. Nat saw himself as one of a small coterie of entrepreneurs in folk record-making, in Britain and America:
We all at the same time saw what was happening in the market – Jac Holzman of Elektra, who became a great friend, and Maynard Solomon of Vanguard Records [both in the USA]. Ironically, Topic could have competed, because they were there before anyone else but, really consciously, if anything was vaguely commercial they steered well off it … Although we had very good relations with Topic they were, I suppose, our rivals – although they were much more. They were really the guardians of the ‘old folk’ ethnic traditions. Gerry Sharpe who then ran it was a splendid, rough and ready sort of chap. [Though] I think he thought about us as evil capitalists! The only link between Topic and ourselves was Bill Leader.
Back in 1962, Nat reckoned an LP with TV personality Cy Grant (a Guyanese actor and calypsonian who had appeared many times on shows like Tonight), produced by Bill Leader, was a safe bet. Bill produced three other releases for Nat during the latter part of 1962: an EP by poet Adrian Mitchell; an LP, Songs Of Love, Lust And Loose Living, pairing actor Tony Britton up with folk singer Isla Cameron; and a quirky LP, Putting Out The Dustbins, by actress Sheila Hancock with Sydney Carter, a librettist for cabaret artist Donald Swann, and also ‘a folk poet, a holy sceptic and an iconoclastic theologian’, as eventually described by one obituarist. Sydney would also go on to host religious TV shows in the mid-60s (his Hallelujah, on ABC in 1966, gave Bert Jansch his first TV platform, performing the controversial anti-drugs song ‘Needle Of Death’) and record with Martin Carthy and others from the folk world. This marriage of people from folk, TV and the stage was certainly distinctive, but Transatlantic quickly honed into the folk world proper – though it would do so, curiously, via the long-established, rather fusty but deeply monetised Decca Records.
Bill Leader remains amused at the eccentricity, and wealth, to be found within the sleeping giant of the British record industry:
Decca had a producer at the time called Hugh Mendl whose speciality was speciality – he was the one who had the bright idea of issuing all of Winston Churchill’s speeches, which was a vast, I think, probably futile idea they had. Because a lot of his speeches were never recorded at the time so they had the problem of faking up Winston Churchill’s speeches. That was his idea. He was the ‘wide boy’ of Decca – he was quite a flamboyant sort of lad. And he assured me one time, I think as a result of the Edinburgh Folk Festival thing, ‘If you’ve any ideas, you just come and see me – my door is always open’. And I’m sure his door always was but he was never in his bloody office! Anyway, with Nat and he there was a sort of feeling there of entrepreneurial rascals, in a way. So things that didn’t work on Transatlantic that Nat took a fancy to he could sell to Decca. And sometimes Decca would take off some ideas from Transatlantic and issue them. For instance, we recorded an LP of Sydney Carter called Putting Out The Dustbins On The Gray’s Inn Road or something like that, which didn’t sell – it was before Sydney Carter was known as the writer of ‘The Lord Of The Dance’ and other such things. But the record did include a song called ‘My Last Cigarette’ which, on the record, Sheila Hancock sang – and Nat was able to sell that track to Decca as a single. I think it’s the only bit of that Sydney Carter session that ever gets played, and it still gets played on the radio.
The Carter/Hancock single was released on Decca in the first half of 1963. Nat Joseph had an idea to merge Decca’s resources with his acumen and Bill’s recording skills on a trip to the Edinburgh Festival that August. It would result in two LPs, Edinburgh Folk Festival Vols. 1 and 2, on Decca, representing a remarkable early snapshot of the early British folk revival. More importantly, for Nat and Bill, it represented an expenses-paid talent-scouting exercise for Transatlantic’s roster of artists.
Nat Joseph: Somehow I persuaded Decca to give me a lot of money to go and record the folk music at the Edinburgh Festival. There was no real Edinburgh Folk Festival in those days but there was a lot of folk music going on … Hugh Mendl said, ‘Well, we like the idea of folk coming up but we don’t know anything about it. Why don’t you go and make some records for us?’ I think I originally went in looking for some sort of distribution deal… Anyway, we trotted off up to Edinburgh and Bill took me around saying, ‘This is the chap who’s conned Decca…’ etcetera etcetera and everybody thought it was a huge laugh. They were wonderful people and I remember the parties were incredible … We got through 52 different kinds of malt whisky and they said there were a hundred-and-whatever, so we didn’t do that well! I remember saying to Bill, ‘These people aren’t signed up – this is the basis of a label…’
Transatlantic would go on to release not only records by six of the 14 artists featured on the two Decca LPs, but also numerous records by two other artists met during the trip: Bert Jansch (one of the label’s most consistent and emblematic sellers) and the people who soon became known as The Dubliners.
Despite the clue in their name, finding the men in beards to get as signature on a contract was straightforward:
Nat Joseph: I remember Bill and I going over to Dublin. I sort of pushed it [with them] since Edinburgh saying, ‘We would really like to sign you up’. It took such a long time to get a meeting. I mean, the idea of five of them actually ever being able to manage to be in the one place at the same time and mildly sober – it just didn’t happen. But finally we were met by Ciaran Bourke – a wonderful, gentle man, very learned. He took us out to a little pub in the Wicklow hills and everybody gathered there. There was a sort of all-night party, ceilidh, going on. I remember at about 4am there was a knock on the door and everyone said, ‘Oh, the police, the police!’ And Ciaran said, ‘No, it won’t be the police. It might be the priest.’ And the priest came in and joined in with the whole thing. I think Dominic Behan was there as well and I vaguely remember him singing. Anyway, we had a wonderful time and I think the boys actually signed on that trip. We took a contract over with us and then we recorded that first Dubliners album shortly afterwards.
The self-titled first Dubliners LP did indeed appear in 1964, the sixteenth release on Transatlantic, as did a single, ‘The Wild Rover’. But before the year was out, Nat and Bill would manage to get a few more quid out of Decca, for an album recorded by Bill at a folk club he was running at a pub in Swiss Cottage called El Toro.
Irish Folk Night, released on Decca (UK) and licensed to London Records (USA), was essentially half a live Dubliners album with a few tracks from Luke Kelly & Dave Phillips as a duo (one a cover of the McPeakes’ relatively recent ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’) and others, including Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman and Jimmy Power. A photograph of Margaret and Michael taken at the show by Brian Shuel, essentially the third member of the Transatlantic Records creative team, would become the cover of Her Mantle So Green the following year – an expanded Topic reissue of the various Bill Leader and Ewan MacColl recordings of the duo from 1955-57.
Over the next three years Bill continued to record English, Irish and Scottish music for Topic, Transatlantic and occasionally other labels. On the Irish side, there were a couple of Paddy Tunney albums for Topic; albums with 1966 All-Ireland winners The Glenside Céilí Band, Manchester-based Irish vocal group The Grehan Sisters and yet more Dubliners (before they defected to Major Minor and started having UK chart hits) for Transatlantic; and an album of dance tunes by fiddler Jimmy Power on the Bounty label. And then, in 1967, Bill took his recording gear on a field trip to the West of Ireland.
Field trip is a rather grandiose term, but [the idea] was to travel around. Bert Lloyd [at Topic] had set up one or two people who should be visited and recorded if possible. So we went along the north coast of Galway Bay for a bit and on into Clare and we recorded singers, mainly singers, and also Willie Clancy…
In visiting Willie Clancy, even doing so with a tape recorder, Bill Leader was but the latest in a line of piping pilgrims:
Reg Hall: In September 1965 Jimmy Power and I went to stay with his mother in Waterford, for a week. And one night he said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll go and see Willie Clancy.’ So we drove from Dublin to Miltown, and unexpectedly arrived on Willie’s doorstep at 6 o’clock at night. His wife was a bit angry about it but Willie was lovely. He said, ‘Give me a chance to have a meal and I’ll see you in the pub at 8 o’clock’. And so we went to the pub and it was Jimmy, me, Willie Clancy and another piper, his pal who played with him locally in the ceilidh band. The four of us sat in this back room of the pub for the whole evening. I’d had correspondence with him over that EP on Topic [Irish Pipe & Fiddle Tunes, 1963] – I wrote the notes – and he remembered the letter. But he didn’t remember playing with me all those years before. But then all English people look alike, don’t they!
As Bill recalls, the portents for his recording visit weren’t ideal:
I contacted Willie and he explained that his mother had just died. He realised that I’d come all the way from England to record him, so he had decided that it would be more seemly to do the recording away from the town, and avoid people thinking he was not respecting his mother’s memory. Willie played the tunes that he wanted to play, while I tried to find the best mic placement to pick up sound of the beast… You’ve just got to figure out where you’re going to put [them] – if you’ve only got one mic, particularly, which a lot of my other recordings were, or two if it was stereo. The pipes had a particular problem because there are so many mechanical valves and things going on you’ve got to be careful not to get much mechanical noise in – as much reed noise and as few flapping valves and wheezing bellows as possible.
The trick was to capture the instrument’s character, but not too much of it:
There’s a difference between being in a room with someone, when you can sort out what you want to pay attention to, whereas on a recording you get what you’re given. And if the perspective of what you’re given is out of true then there’s no easy way of [dealing with it].
Reg Hall: it would have been very disapproved of if Bill had gone and recorded Willie in Miltown, or if it was known. So they had to get in the car and they drove to somewhere in Galway – 30 or 40 miles out of the area, to record him somewhere he wasn’t particularly known.
Most of the recordings of Willie Clancy made by Bill were released in September that same year as The Minstrel From Clare. It was essentially Willie’s first album – a superb representation of his magic and artistry. A Topic advert in Melody Maker declared him ‘The ‘Compleat Musician’, virtuoso performer of the Uillean [sic] pipes, superb tin whistle player and no mean singer.’
Six of the album’s 14 tracks were piping tunes, four were songs (largely whimsical, and occasionally with the sound of chickens in the background) and four were whistle items. The tin whistle may even have come from Reg Hall:
Reg Hall: When we went to see him in Miltown, he and Jimmy did the playing but he saw I had a tin whistle, and it was an old one with a metal tipple at the end. He took a fancy to it so I gave it to him. I assume ever after that he was playing that tin whistle.
The Minstrel From Clare would be the only Willie Clancy solo album released in his lifetime. While Bill remains extremely modest about his contribution to traditional music, he admits to a certain feeling of stoicism and pride during his efforts, which must surely include those recordings of Willie Clancy at his free and easy best, in a Galway pub in the ‘Summer of Love’:
There were occasions when you were quite convinced that what you were doing was worthwhile, whether anybody else would ever agree with you. It happened quite a lot, travelling around and recording singers from Scotland, for instance, who would perform particular feats of genius and you’d be thinking, ‘I’m glad we managed to capture that’. If nobody else really hears it, it is there, it will be heard by someone sometime.’
Finbar & Eddie Furey
Among Bill’s usual eclectic range of recordings across 1968-69 can be found the only two albums by Sweeney’s Men (Johnny Moynihan, Terry Woods and, for the first, Andy Irvine); the first album by Northumberland’s High Level Ranters (Northumberland For Ever, featuring both Colin Ross and Forster Charlton on Northumbrian pipes); and, not least, two albums by Finbar & Eddie Furey and the Finbar Furey solo LP Traditional Irish Pipe Music.
The LP Finbar And Eddie Furey appeared in the Transatlantic catalogue in August 1968 as TRA168, back to back with the similarly self-titled The Johnstons (TRA169) and Sweeney’s Men (TRA170): three Irish vocal and instrumental groups, albeit in differing degrees and styles. Finbar & Eddie would effectively break open the British and European market to the sound of virtuoso uilleann piping; Sweeney’s Men would create the interweaving stringed-instrument template (bouzoukis, mandolins, guitars) that begat so many other Irish trad bands from the early 70s ever onwards (several of the most influential also incorporating pipes); while The Johnstons, though barely a footnote in Irish music now, were at the time the most successful of the lot.
While Bill Leader recorded the Furey brothers and Sweeney’s Men on the cheap, Nat Joseph produced The Johnstons’ LP in a decent studio with John Wood engineering. His sleeve-note to the album give a clear idea of why this was the case – and why Transatlantic were issuing three Irish ballad albums in quick succession:
Ireland is a country of miracles and one of the 20th century miracles that exists in Ireland today is that folk music is chart music. A large proportion of the singles that make the top 10 charts in Ireland are folk ballads. The Johnstons’ first ever record was a ballad, ‘The Travelling People’ by Ewan MacColl which went straight to Number 1 in the Irish charts and was one of the best-selling singles in Irish record history. Since then The Johnstons have had three more hits and here now is their first LP…
Nat even took a punt on releasing singles from the albums by both The Johnstons and Sweeney’s Men, a week or two ahead of the albums in August 1968: versions of Judy Collins’ ‘Both Sides Now’ and Irish traveller Pecker Dunne’s ‘Sullivan’s John’ respectively. Neither was a hit, though The Johnstons’ single was licensed to labels in five other territories around the world, and did reach No.12 in Ireland. As Nat ruefully conceded: ‘We never regarded ourselves as a singles label and I have to say we were pretty bloody useless at promoting singles.’ Clearly, however buoyed up he was with The Johnstons’ prior chart successes in Ireland, Nat drew the line at a Finbar & Eddie Furey single.
While the members of Sweeney’s Men already knew Bill Leader from trips to Ireland, Finbar & Eddie first met him for the recording session of their first LP, sometime in the first half of 1968. They would meet him again around March 1969 for the recording of two further albums: the second duo LP The Lonesome Boatman and Finbar’s Traditional Irish Pipe Music.
Conflating the two experiences into one general memory, Finbar’s view in retrospect is perhaps tainted by two things: a cultural difference with Bill Leader, a quiet, professorial Englishman; and a general feeling, common to almost every 1960s recording artist, that they were in some way ripped off. Finbar stakes a claim (which Bill would not deny) for all the musical ideas on the albums:
Bill Leader just recorded us. We stayed in Bill Leader’s flat in the basement, me and Eddie, for three days when we made our album(s). A cup of tea and a sandwich in the morning: ‘Thank you very much… Next please…’ I remember sitting in the back of a fucking pick-up van with no windows being driven to the studio, me and Eddie in the morning. He was like the jailer, you know! And then in the evening that was it: there’s a meal and good luck; going to bed at half eight at night. He was an Englishman – nothing to do with us. But he was collecting music. We were good for him at the time. Bill was jumping on the bandwagon. Bill wouldn’t spend money unless he was getting something back. He was a nice man – but he wasn’t a musician.
On this occasion, Bill was simply a hired hand:
I didn’t hear them before I recorded them. It was another Nat Joseph thing. I got the job of producing them, this bright young lad and his brother. I don’t know how Nat came to hear them.
Nat had most likely seen the brothers on BBC TV’s Degrees Of Folk in December 1967, heard of their reputation from other musicians on his label or heard their early 1968 LP for Waverley/EMI with Paddie Bell.
Finbar Furey: We didn’t just travel to London – we were asked and begged to do these albums. My father, he hated us recording stuff… So we needed the money. We wouldn’t have done those albums only we needed the money. It was 60 quid we got, for those two albums: £30 each. But £30 to me and Eddie was a lot of money in those days. So we don’t look back with sour grapes: we needed the money, they paid us… We wanted somebody to help us build something, you know… [But] they didn’t see. They couldn’t see beyond the nose of a quick buck. It was as bad then as it is now.
The first album was recorded by Bill, in a cheap studio. It at least gave Finbar and Eddie the opportunity to overdub parts on a couple of tunes – quite an innovation in itself in the history of Irish instrumental music on record – but studio time was clearly of the essence and, for Eddie, it was frustrating:
Eddie Furey: We wanted to get a bit more backing music on it for the songs. In those days you weren’t doing stereo, it was mono. I was thinking of the studio being a studio and all the things we could do in it, you know. And we never did anything I suggested in it. I remember the next album we made was The Lonesome Boatman and I remember saying to Nat Joseph, at Transatlantic Records… with Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick we done the very first festival up at Cleethorpes and the four of us got up on stage at the end of the festival and I got the drummer and bass player out of the High Level Ranters from Newcastle – and that was the first time there was ever jigs and reels played with drums and bass. And I thought this was a bit of a breakthrough. I went in and I said to Nat Joseph, ‘The next album we make, can we have a lead guitar, a drummer and a bass player?’ And he told me, ‘Look, your last album’s selling pretty good at the moment and we don’t want to spoil that by bringing something different out.’ Nine months later on the Fairport Convention started and I went in and put my hand to my nose and said, ‘Ah, you slipped up there, didn’t you?’
Reflecting the obvious solid success of the first album, the second session with Bill as producer, around March 1969, was held at Livingstone Studios in Barnet, engineered to Bill’s recollection by Nick Kinsey. Bill contributed a lively sleeve-note to the first album, but for him, having recorded Willie Clancy, Finbar’s flash was less impactful than it was to the masses on the British club scene:
I don’t think he compared at all. As a person there was no comparison. Willie was a mature and quite wise person; Finbar was young and carefree – and that reflected in his playing too. Finbar was a young man proud of what he called his express train style of playing. There was a careless virtuosity about the man – the faster he could play a tune the happier he was.
Reg Hall, already a veteran of the Camden Irish pub scene for over a decade by this stage, had a similar perspective on the young duo:
I was in their company on a number of occasions. [Finbar] came in and he was accepted and liked by all the musicians. But he was a different sort of character. His music was flash in the sense that he played very fast – because he could! Aside from his Traveller background, which is different in itself, he represented the new wave of young Irish people, who weren’t like the old-timers. They were flash in the sense that they built up technique, they could do Sean McGuire stuff, ‘The Mason’s Apron’ and all that. [But] I’ve seen him, in my opinion, ruin a session which was going wonderfully. They say, ‘Come on, play a tune’ – and he gets the pipes out and the whole atmosphere changes. But then that’s what happens in sessions.
The nature of Finbar & Eddie’s Transatlantic records was, of course, different to that of Topic’s Willie Clancy album. Not only were Finbar & Eddie operating very much within the commercial arena at the time – touring British folk clubs, while Willie was a spare-time traditional music icon in a small town in rural Clare – but the recording equipment was different. These are points not lost on Bill:
Recording Willie I did as a location recording in his native territory, if not actually in Miltown Malbay, whereas because Transatlantic were behind Finbar & Eddie it was done in a studio. Immediately, instead of setting up some mics in a cosy, familiar situation you’ve moved people into this strange atmosphere of a studio. Livingstone in Barnet was probably as friendly as you could get. Yet still, nevertheless, there’s a load of gear, a load of technology, around you. I get the feeling that Finbar responded to this and it brought out the best in Finbar but I think it creased Eddie up a little bit. He was never terribly confident or terribly able, I think, at that time, anyway. [But] they were familiar with what they were doing. They were not playing unfamiliar material … And I do remember him saying [about ‘The Lonesome Boatman’], ‘We’ve got this great tune, it’s going to be a huge hit, we should record it’ – which we did.
‘The Lonesome Boatman’, featuring a bamboo Indian flute – the prototype of the ‘low whistle’, used now by Irish musicians as frequently as the bouzouki introduced by Sweeney’s Men’s Johnny Moynihan – became Finbar’s signature tune. The albums on Transatlantic may not have made the brothers any money but they were crucial in launching and establishing long careers. The same could be said for so many albums by so many artists on the label during the 1960s. It was an era when records still had a cachet, a rarity. They were a statement that somebody, some third party institution with resources, was endorsing you as an artist of quality and commercial possibility.
Before the end of 1969, Bill Leader had decided to pretend he had some money and to put it where his mouth was. Launching a binary star of labels, Leader (for ‘traditional’ artists) and Trailer (for ‘revival’ artists), he was going to record the best of both worlds and in many cases give a chance to people who were falling between the cracks of Topic, Transatlantic and the other independent labels (like the folk-rock friendly Island Records) that were emerging at the time. His second release would be a man he almost recorded in the 50s and who had all but disappeared by this point in the 60s: Séamus Ennis.
As Bill puts it, of his daring venture in label ownership, he ‘wanted to produce some of the things that were happening around that seemed to be important’. He had a cunning plan:
The economical way of doing it was to sell directly to the customer by mail order. That way we could cut out the retailer and the wholesaler and all the people who took the money for doing little or no work. But then we realised that if we were going to sell by mail order people needed to know what they were buying. And if we just produced something titled Folk Songs Of England on a label, the Professor of Ethnomusicology in Vladivostok University, whom we were hoping to sell a copy to, would not know whether he was getting an English revival singer or a roots singer. So we decided that we would have two labels: one would be traditional music, truly roots as we would call it these days; and the other would be revival. Not always an easy thing to decide without offending the particular artist in question. But that’s what we did in general. So our first two releases, simultaneously, was: one Leader, Jack Elliott of Birtley; and one Trailer, Archie Fisher & Barbara Dickson.
An album by Séamus Ennis, on Leader, would be the third, followed swiftly with albums by fiddler Martin Byrnes and flautist Séamus Tansey, all three entitled Masters Of Irish Music. Reg Hall would accompany the latter two on piano, but the Ennis record but be a glorious solo showcase.
Bill Leader: I first met Séamus around 1957 or so, through Jean Jenkins, ethnomusicologist and political activist. Topic was going to record an LP of Séamus and Jean. It was to be an Irish/American song swap. The venture eventually fizzled out. It was early on in my career as producer/recorder/organiser, and I failed to keep up the impetus of the idea. I originally knew Jean through the Paul Robeson campaign committee.
I next saw Séamus during a period when I made frequent trips to Dublin. It was in O’Donoghue’s. He was sitting at the bar explaining that his doctor had told him that he must drink milk, which was why he was adding it to his vodka.
When I was starting up my Leader and Trailer labels, it struck me that it would be a good idea to include Séamus to go alongside players like Martin Byrnes and Séamus Tansey, who we were recording through the good offices of Reg Hall. Séamus [Ennis] was recorded in the back room in my flat in North Villas, Camden Square – the room where Bert Jansch’s first record was made. Séamus needed no direction, coaching or encouragement. He was fully professional; after all he’d worked both for the BBC and Radio Éireann. So the session consisted of his playing, singing and storytelling.
We were trying to get a fairly total picture of the man. That’s the way I pretty well always worked. It got a bit difficult sometimes. I hadn’t realised early on that if you just let Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman record what they wanted to record, they would record what they had recorded for the last record company. Obviously that’s what record companies wanted [they thought] – that particular song or that particular tune. But other than that as a general principle I just let the artist speak.
Interestingly, after the record’s release, we got an angry letter from Leeds demanding a refund on account of the fact that they didn’t buy folk records in order to get a load of talking.
In theory, the Trailer records (of popular club artists) would subsidise the Leader records (of pure traditional musicians). In practice, it was a fairly leaky vessel:
Bill Leader: Neither of [the labels] sold particularly well, though there were exceptions. We set all this up and thought, ‘Right, it’s economical, we can produce a few records and if we sell them direct to the public we can get enough to finance the next release’. We did have a lucky break because, as soon as we started releasing, Transatlantic wanted to take over the distribution. Well, we could have happily said no to that because we’d just have been paying them to do the good or bad job of distribution. But they’d just done a deal with HMV/EMI whereby Transatlantic Records were going to be distributed by EMI, and Transatlantic were going to retain their own wholesale distribution – but EMI were going to press the records.
One of the problems that we’d suffered at Topic, and looked as if we were going to carry on suffering as a small label, was the inability to get competent presses to press the records. We were always driven to backstreet abortionists to press out records, with inferior materials and no technique at all. So the opportunity of being pressed [properly], the records actually sounding like they should sound, was terribly attractive. So we fell for that. And of course immediately we lost our margin – but we did sell in reasonable numbers into Transatlantic’s wholesale section and an early bonus was that EMI said to Transatlantic, ‘Well, we’ve never handled this sort of crap, er, product before – how many do we order?’ They came to the conclusion that how many they would take on and put into the warehouse at Hayes, Middlesex, or wherever it was, would be the same as what Transatlantic ordered. So if Transatlantic ordered 1000 copies, EMI would order 1000 copies.
So there was a honeymoon period when we were selling bloody loads of these things – only at wholesale price, of course, but at least we were selling in quantities. Then EMI woke up one morning and realised that they were heavily overstocked with all this folk nonsense and they started unloading. And I think you can still find warehouses in the depths of the Indian subcontinent where you can buy boxes of Leader/Trailer records for bugger all if you know who to ask.
In 1971, Bill was persuaded to make a record with an Irish singer called Christy Moore, popular in the North of England folk clubs:
Bill Leader: Mike Harding was the connection. Christy spent a lot of time in the mid-Pennine area between Lancashire and Yorkshire, between Manchester and Halifax, that sort of way. He was not that happy with [his first LP] Paddy On The Road and talked to Mike about it and Mike, who I think had just finished recording his own album for Trailer, said, ‘Get in touch with Bill Leader, see if you can’t do something there’. So he did that. We met up in some Irish bar in Fleet Street – Mooney’s, that was the place – and he got me by the ear and by the end of the conversation I’d agreed to go across to Ireland.
The LP would be recorded in the resonant cellar of a big old house in Prosperous, County Kildare, the LP itself being named after the townland. On it would be the four musicians who would soon thereafter come together as Planxty: Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, Andy Irvine and piper Liam O’Flynn.
Bill Leader: It didn’t sell for me at all. It sold for Tara [a newly founded Dublin label to whom we sold it on] and we sort of gifted it to Christy, ‘cos there was nothing we could do. Christy was known in the folk clubs but outside of that he wasn’t particularly known and he wasn’t known particularly in the Irish community. … But I think [the grouping on the album] was a glimmer in Christy’s eye which developed into whatever it is that glimmers in eyes develop into. It was an idea and I think it probably exceeded the original intention. In fact, it did exceed it. It was done on virtually no equipment. I carried my trusty Revox to Ireland with a couple of not terribly expensive, nor particularly good, microphones, strung them up the best I could to capture the sounds … The trick was it was a sort of vaulted cellar we were doing it in and it had a rich acoustic so the natural sound.
Characteristic of most if not all of Bill’s recordings, Prosperous has a richly atmospheric sound – a ‘real’ and compelling sound, captured despite the minimal equipment involved:
Bill Leader: That may be the secret, you know. Less is definitely more. I discovered later when having to teach this as a subject that it goes in phases. There was a time when you put as many microphones around a drum kit as you possibly could but I’ve come to the conclusion that the fewer microphones the better is actually quite a good slogan.
Released in 1970, the fourth LP on the Trailer imprint (after albums by Archie Fisher & Barbara Dickson, The High Level Ranters and Martyn Wyndham-Read) was The Rout Of The Blues, the debut album by a Yorkshire duo, Robin & Barry Dransfield, that had been storming the club scene. The Rout Of The Blues would go on to become Melody Maker’s ‘Folk Album Of The Year’. The duo would record the second LP, Lord Of All I Behold, for Trailer the following year while Robin Dransfield would experience an interesting period as Bill’s office assistant:
Robin Dransfield: When we were recording The Rout Of The Blues, our first album, we were doing it in his flat [in Camden Town] a couple of songs at a time – sometimes literally doing them on the way to a gig in Southend or somewhere. He was so broke at the time that his electricity used to get cut off. His flat was first or second floor, his aged mother lived on the ground floor flat, the basement flat, and there used to be a cable up the wall outside to plug the kettle and the bloody tape recorder into. And when an aircraft went over you had to stop recording.
Actually, the only time we ever fell out with Bill was because he had a very particular angle on the way stuff should be recorded. He wanted it to be flat and he used complete separation stereo – all of me on one side, all of Barry on the other, no crossover. If you got the equipment right it was just like being in the room, it was amazing. But it didn’t work particularly well and it was just done on a two-track revox. It was hard work. It sounded very dry. And he was resistant to anything outside that. As far as getting on with him was concerned he had a very quiet, studious angle on stuff; [he] didn’t say a lot but he could be quite obtuse.
When me and Barry split up for the first time in ‘71, after we’d split up, for a while ¬– just a few weeks – I actually worked for Bill, for Leader/Trailer Records. It was just him and Helen, his then wife, sitting round a table with a mug of tea doing it in his flat. He was making no money and I came in, ‘cos I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at that point, and for one reason or another me and Helen decided it might be an idea if I came in and helped to run the whole thing. I sat down with Helen and we went through all the books and I found out very quickly that every record Bill made, unless somebody knocked on the door at 5 North Villas, Camden Town, and payed him full retail price for it, he lost money. And when I told him it made him very angry because he didn’t really want to face it, ‘cos he’s a purist. And the reason why so much good stuff was recorded by Bill Leader was ‘cos he’s a purist; his heart’s in the right place with it. All those lovely Irish fiddle players he recorded would never have got onto recordings at all if it hadn’t been for Bill, and all that stuff he did for Topic. He’s a purist, for all the right reasons. But as a businessman he was a fucking disaster.
I do also remember when we were recording Rout Of The Blues being called to the phone at North Villas by Bill because Nat Joseph was on the phone trying to get us to do it for Transatlantic instead. And I’d heard stories about Nat and didn’t fancy it and said, ‘No, we’re just going to stay with Bill’. Whether that was a good idea or not, I don’t know. It probably didn’t make a lot of difference at the time.
The one thing where a decision to sign with Nat Joseph’s Transatlantic Records would have made a difference would be in the ‘legacy’ department. Leader/Trailer effectively hit the buffers around 1978. Bill continued to produce folk music recordings, mostly club singers, for a variety of small labels (Fuse, Highway, Hill & Dale and others) up to 1985 – drifting out of view just as the CD reissue era was approaching. Many of his recordings for Transatlantic and Topic, in particular, have appeared on CD, some of them several times over, and more recently on iTunes (including the Topic Willie Clancy LP). The Leader/Trailer catalogue was bought by a businessman, now deceased, in the North of England who reissued several titles on vinyl but was disinclined to the digital medium. A small handful of Trailer recordings appeared on license to other labels’ projects (notably several Robin & Barry Dransfield tracks on the Free Reed 2CD anthology Up To Now in 1997) but the vast majority of the Leader/Trailer catalogue has lain dormant and sadly out of reach.
Perhaps ironically, with vinyl now revived as a luxury/totemic commodity, the past Record Shop Days (2013-15) have seen three classic though rare Bill Leader-recorded EPs repressed for a new generation: Davy Graham & Alexis Korner’s 3/4 AD (1962); Shirley Collins’ Heroes In Love (1963); Bert Jansch’s Needle Of Death (1966). Several Leader-produced albums have been reissued in recent years on heavyweight vinyl too.
The most unusual resurrection, perhaps, has not been of Leader-produced classics of yore but of the man himself as a man making recordings. Between 2010-13 Bill quietly produced a handful of releases for Limefield Records in Manchester, the most recent of which is Hunter Muskett’s That Was Then, This Is Now. It was Muskett’s first album in 40 years, a stunningly good reunion project brimming with humanity, warmth and the kind of musicianship that only comes with age. It was a reunion, too, with a producer they had nearly worked with back in the day, a comeback album that emerged from an idea to simply reissue some old material. I asked Musketteer Roger Trevitt to explain how the album with Bill had come about. If Bill Leader does nothing more in the world of recording, That Was Then, This Is Now will have been a glorious way to bow out.
Roger Trevitt: Bill Leader appeared, out of the blue, at Lloyd’s Hotel, Manchester a couple of years ago. We had talked about recording with Bill 40 years ago and now, quite unexpectedly, here was a chance to put it right. Rather than fixing up the old recordings why not move on with a new one with Bill? So we did, at John Ellis’ Limefield studio. …
We used to play in folk clubs in London during late 60s/early 70s and would have come across Bill and Helen in 70/71. He was very distinctive at that time with sticking up white hair and protruding teeth – ‘like an avuncular Ken Dodd’ one club organiser said (Bill himself mentioned the same comparison to us recently).
Muskett, as a trio, had the Decca album out [Every Time You Move, 1970], but, Nova folded so we needed a label. We were looking to the likes of Muff Windwood at Island, Peter Jenner at Harvest etc. Nevertheless we went down well in clubs (even with a PA) and Bill and Helen invited us to their house in Camden for a meal and to talk about recording, on Trailer, I think. Bill chain-smoked and every time he lit up threw another fag at Doug [Morter, our guitarist] who couldn’t keep up; he ended up with a pile of them down his front – quite a vivid memory.
There was another meal, at a Soho restaurant (gratefully paid for by Bill), and we must have met a few times and talked through ideas, but we didn’t agree to anything. An acoustic-type album would be OK for some of our ‘folkier’ stuff, but Bill wanted to pick the songs – so no deal concluded. We knew about the legendary stuff that Bill had done, we also knew people like Richard Digance and Dave & Toni Arthur who were very happy with Bill. We just wondered if he had the resources to provide us (as opposed to Ashley Hutchings) with the type of studio, or the studio time, that we needed for a decent band job.
I think at that time Bill was doing his own stuff with a two-track in the basement in Cecil Sharp House, recording acoustic artists pretty well live. Muskett was starting to use electrics and ideally would record with drums. Two-track studios in Denmark Street (Regent Sound/Central Sound) were fine for demos, but we needed something more – and, of course, Chris, Terry and Doug had already been into Decca studios at West Hampstead with Danny Thompson and an orchestra. So we hung on.
Eventually a couple of managers offered to set up a major deal and we went for it; they got us Bradleys – for better or worse [Muskett’s eponymous second LP was released on Bradley’s in 1973, produced by ex-Yardbird Keith Relf]. We’d never agreed anything with Bill and Helen so there was no problem. Later we wondered if Bill might not have been the better option after all, but he didn’t quite seem right for us and finances were a major headache for a four-piece doing folk clubs. Bill and Helen moved out to Yorkshire but they came to see us play at Clarence’s in Halifax; we were very pleased. (In ‘Steel Guitar’ we used two roadside flashers whilst Doug did a joke bit of Hendrix – Bill reminded us of our ‘light show’ when we recorded it at Limefield).
Big gap 1974 – 2010…
When Bill turned up again at a gig in Manchester it was a huge surprise after nearly 40 years – he looked so well (and nothing like Ken Dodd) that we could hardly believe it was him. It was just for old time’s sake, we were just playing for a bit of fun, and hardly thinking that we might record again. However, Bill was working at Limefield so – one more thing coming round.
In the studio Bill did a lot of work in setting up mikes for recording acoustic guitars and voices – the number of mikes, positions, type of mike, etc. Also: should each vocalist have a mike? Should they be shared? Where should people stand? Even positioning mikes pointed elsewhere in the room, pointing mikes across each other… John said that he had learned most from Bill in this respect.
John did all of the equipment operation, whilst Bill sat beside him in the control room. John and Bill worked as team, consulted endlessly, listened, advised, made suggestions during both recording and play-back. It’s John’s studio and he’s a top musician but he clearly has a lot of respect for Bill.
I’d say that Bill’s main thing is the sound, especially voice and acoustics. (John dealt with the sound of all of the electric instruments and the drums). There’s nothing prescriptive, Bill’s very quiet, a very good listener, very calm and reasoned. I’m not sure about the ‘dry’ sound [some have mentioned], I just think that Bill tries to capture a true sound for an instrument and would probably like to record as much as he can live to get that feel and maybe a live sound. One problem with this can be the overspill from vocal to acoustic guitar mikes if the vocal later needs to be re-recorded. (Sometimes on the CD we used the acoustic from the DI track to get over this).
Bill’s main input was in the recording and the selection of takes. We’re not averse to a few overdubs and extra instruments because we generally view a recording as different from a live performance (we’ve only ever used drums on stage twice). It was John’s studio so he handled most of this and also did the mixing with us. Bill had some suggestions about the mix though: he doesn’t like fade outs (he calls them ‘cop outs’), although we got away with one on ‘Steel Guitar’. The other one, on ‘River Runs Dry’, fades but still ends on the track.
We tried a version of Mike & Lal Waterson’s ‘Scarecrow’ which had always been in the set. Here Bill put Terry right on a bit of the tune, he also thought that the drums, which we introduced for the middle section, were a bit sudden – so suggested a bit of a cymbal wash or bells earlier to ‘let people know he’s about’. That was experience talking – though in the end we shelved it anyway. It’s probably clear that we have great affection and respect for Bill so we’re really pleased to have done it this time around.