Ralph McTell - Biography
By J Poet
Ralph McTell is one of the most influential guitarists and songwriters of the 1960s British folk revival. Many of his albums have never been released in the US, but in England and most of Europe he’s a revered artist known for his wide ranging musical taste and superb songwriting.
McTell was born Ralph May in 1944; he took the name McTell after falling under the influence of American 12-string guitar player and blues singer Blind Willie McTell. When McTell was three, his father left the family; his mother raised him and his younger brother Bruce. McTell started playing music on a harmonica given him by his grandfather. In grammar school he was swept up in the Skiffle movement, bought a ukulele and started a band. Although he had a high IQ, school bored him and he enlisted in the Junior Leaders Battalion of The Queen's Surrey Regiment when he was 15. After six months he quit the army, took his O levels and started college at Croydon Tech. His college mates introduced him to the blues and Beat poetry. He got a guitar, practiced fanatically and dropped out of school to play music while working part time jobs. He met Jacqui McShee, Martin Carthy and Wizz Jones and joined a bluegrass band called The Hickory Nuts, which was fairly successful, but he was restless. He quit he Nuts and busked around the continent visiting France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Yugoslavia. In Paris he met an American guitar player Gary Petersen, a former student of the Reverend Gary Davis and learned to play ragtime. He also met Nanna Stein, who he married. They moved back to England and lived in caravan (camper van) while McTell became a regular performer on the Cornish circuit with his pal Wizz Jones. It was then she started calling himself Ralph McTell.
He cut his first album, Eight Frames a Second (1968 Transatlantic UK, 1969 Capitol US) with producer Gus Dudgeon, later producer of The Zombies and Elton John. Tony Visconti, who later worked with David Bowie, arranged the music. The album was a hit after John Peel played it on his BBC radio show. McTell was now making a decent living as a performer. In 1969 he made Spiral Staircase (Transatlantic UK), which included his signature tune “Streets of London” which was captured in one take and My Side of Your Window (Transatlantic UK) named Melody Maker magazine's Folk Album of the Month. By the end of the year, McTell was headlining major venues. In 1970 he sold out the Royal Festival Hall and appeared at Isle Of Wight Festival that featured Jimi Hendrix.
ABC Paramount picked up McTell for the US, but failed to promote You Well Meaning Brought Me Here (1970 ABC). After a well received American tour opening for Fairport Convention, Warner/Reprise picked him up and released Not Till Tomorrow (1972 Reprise), Easy (1974 Reprise), with a rerecording of “Streets of London” that became a worldwide hit, Streets (1975 Reprise), which stayed on the British pop chart for 12 weeks, Right Side Up (1976 Warner), and Slide Away the Screen (1979 Warner).
In 1980, Ralph and Bruce set up their own label, Mays Records for Water Of Dreams (1982 Mays UK). In the 80s, McTell worked mostly on British TV. He hosted the children’s programs Alphabet Zoo and Tickle On The Tum, both built around his own tunes. Music from the shows is captured on Songs From Alphabet Zoo (1983 Mays UK). Best of Alphabet Zoo (1983 Mays UK) and The Best of - Tickle on the Tum (1986 Mays UK.) He returned to adult material with Bridge of Sighs (1986 Mays UK), which included “The Girl from the Hiring Fair,” which he’d written for Fairport Convention and remains one of their best-loved tunes. After tours of Europe, the USA and Australia he reorganized his label, renamed it Leola and cut Blue Skies Black Heroes (1988 Leola) live in the studio. He also produced Affairs Of The Heart (1989 Castle UK), new recordings of his earlier work and compiled older recordings for Silver Celebration (1992 Castle UK) to celebrate his 25 anniversary of recording. The BBC commissioned The Boy With A Note (1992 Leola) a suit in honor of the work of Dylan Thomas, which was lauded as a groundbreaking artistic achievement.
Sand in Your Shoes (1995 Transatlantic UK, 1998 Red House US), his first original collection of new songs in nine years, takes a look at loss, longing and the limitations brought on by age, Songs for Six Strings, Vol. II (1996 Leola) collects live takes of McTell favorites while Red Sky (2001 Leola UK) is another album of new songs. The London Show (2005 Leola DVD UK) documents McTell’s 60th Anniversary concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Gates of Eden (2006 Leola UK) included covers of the songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Big Bill Broonzy and the Rev. Gary Davis that originally inspired McTell’s songwriting. The Journey – Recordings 1965-2006 (2006 Leola UK) is a four CD overview of McTell’s recording career and As Far As I Can Tell (2007 Leola UK) is a three CD “talking book.” McTell reads from his autobiography and discusses his favorite songs, before singing them. In 2010 he released Somewhere Down The Road, followed by Don't Think Twice It's Alright in 2011, and an intrumental LP called Sofa Noodling (2013).