“I put an ad in Melody Maker – ‘musicians only need apply!’ – and we got Peter and Michael Giles, and Robert Fripp”: So many artists wanted to be part of Judy Dyble’s world

Judy Dyble
(Image credit: Getty Images)

New shoots from old roots was a fundamental theme in the life of late celestial songbird Judy Dyble. In 2011, with her fifth solo album and an anthology on the horizon, she told her kaleidoscopic backstory, with Fairport Convention, King Crimson, Trader Horne, trance music and modern technology all playing a part. The songs included below are some of those chosen by Dyble herself to accompany the original publication.

“People keep saying you’ve got to think of your career – I never wanted a career. I want to make music and I have words. The words need to come out and do something...”

It’s a chilly March day and Judy Dyble is standing in the kitchen of her converted-stable rustic caboose in Oxfordshire, making Prog a warming cuppa. Still cutting a petite and colourful figure, here is a lady in her early 60s who sang with what became the biggest British folk rock bands of all time, but was also muse to an embryonic King Crimson, knew the cream of swinging London, hung with faery folksters and jazz extemporisers and married the hippest DJ and music journalist in town.

Thirty years on, Judy Dyble is on her fifth solo record. For someone with no career plans, how did her extraordinary journey start – and how did this influential lady finally get heard?

Picture mid-60s Ally Pally: Music-mad teenager “Jude” – the diminutive schoolgirl with the Norfolk Dyble fisherman folksong gene, the enormous autoharp that shreds her fingers and the “jazz and rock-climbing” troubadour spirit – is already on a small music circuit with acoustic group Judy And the Folkmen and is a regular in the clubs and coffee houses of North London. It’s here she’ll meet a young man called Ashley Hutchings, drop her library school studies and join his group, the fledgling Fairport Convention. She’ll also fall for wildly talented guitarist Richard Thompson.

Hitting the road to play unis and the hip clubs of the day – Middle Earth, The Speakeasy, Revolution, Blazes – Fairport’s West Coast pop/new folk popularity is a whirlwind for Dyble, who states, on the recording of Fairport’s self-titled debut in November 1967: “When you’re that age you’re a sponge. I had no idea of where I was going so I just thought, ‘That’s a nice song; I’ll sing it.’”

Fairport’s mentor was American entrepreneur and record producer Joe Boyd, who found them gigs at venues like his UFO Club, got them a deal with Polydor and produced their debut. He remembers: “I saw Fairport in a small club in Chinatown. They were playing exactly the kind of music that I’d come to England to avoid! But they were impressive and strangely appealing. Judy had a lovely phrasing and sensibility... my favourite moment with her is If I Had A Ribbon Bow.”

The young band were going places. Sadly, it would be without Judy. “The album was finished, but so were Richard and I.” She remembers a strain beginning to show. Boyd had encouraged the band to recruit new boy Iain Matthews to “beef up the sound,” but Judy recalls: “My voice contrasted with Iain’s; they said I was out of tune. I was told to leave.”

It was a terrible blow – Fairport were more than a band; they had been Judy’s good friends for years, and now she was out of the gang. There would be no animosity between Judy and her replacement – “I met Sandy Denny just the once, at her flat. We were a bit wary but we did like each other; that wasn’t a problem” – however Judy admits the experience affected her relationships with bands she joined later.

“I kept in touch with Fairport a little bit, but it was uncomfortable. It was youth... but that’s why I never stayed with a band very long after that. I’d leave before they could throw me out.”

Judy may have lost Fairport, but she was “taken under the wing of various people,” so of course it was only a matter of time before a new beginning.

Robert Fripp was always very kind to me… He made me sing things I’d never sung before. It was all madness!

It’s 1967, and still “in the scene,” Judy encounters Ian McDonald, a 21-year-old multi-instrumentalist just out of the army, where he’s been a bandsman. “Ian had written some stuff with Pete Sinfield, like I Talk To The Wind,” says Judy. “We started going out and sang some songs together, but we needed some more musicians. I put an ad in Melody Maker – ‘musicians only need apply!’ – and we got Peter and Michael Giles, and Robert Fripp.”

The influence of the proto-King Crimson bass/drum/guitar trio, then called Giles Giles Fripp, became Judy’s next musical progression as the group larked about in a small flat-cum-studio – “the vocal booth was carpet underlay draped over mic stands!” – in Kilburn, exercising their skewed take on art school pop.

“There was something odd about the music – it was far too loud and noisy,” Judy grins. “Robert was always very kind to me, but I felt like an experiment cos he’d never worked with a female singer. He made me sing things I’d never sung before. It was all madness!”

Within a short time Judy and Ian had split. But they remained friendly as another adventure beckoned. Leaving home for the first time, Judy and best friend Soup moved to Notting Hill as Soup began a relationship with guitarist Martin Quittenton from a band they’d met called Steamhammer. With a coterie of inspirational artists now suddenly encompassing them in the hippest postcode in town, Judy’s least favourite houseguest was the fiery and unpredictable Davy Graham (“he made me feel uncomfortable; I used to hide from him”).

We were also known as Penguin Dust. We did 20s-style songs and freeform jazz. It was Monty Python and Bonzo Dog-like, but Lol Coxhill was very serious

But her next door neighbour was Brian Patten, one of the much sought-after new Liverpool Poets, alongside Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. “I’d wake up to him sitting at the end of my bed with a cup of tea,” smiles Judy. “He was a wonderful man, and we had a small fling, but being with him was like trying to hold a flame.”

Judy would look after Brian’s typewriter while he was away; in return Brian gave her a poem that she would hold onto for 30 years. But more of that later.

Quittenton next introduced Judy to Northern Irish songwriter and former Belfast Gypsy/Them band member Jackie McAuley and ex-Sam Gopal’s Dream pianist/bassist Pete Sears. Together they formed Trader Horne – named by DJ John Peel after his nanny, it was a playful diversion for them all until Pete, a very in-demand musician, went to the US.

Pete recalls: “We rehearsed as a trio. It was a nice combination. But I had several other things going, including working with Mitch Mitchell and Pete Brown. I really wanted to stay in London, but the lure of travelling to America was too great.” Finding himself in a series of high profile groups – eventually Jefferson Starship – Sears still kept an ear on the duo’s activities. “Judy and Jackie ended up making a wonderful album,” he admits.

Trader Horne signed to Pye’s psychedelic offshoot Dawn, and album Morning Way emerged in 1969. Expecting big things, the label set up a gruelling tour. but Judy was “tired. I’d broken up with my latest boyfriend and I was devastated. Soup and Martin had left London so I was alone and homeless.” She broke down and ran away.

Finding solace as a new flatmate to flamboyant DJ, music journalist and bona fide part-French Count Simon Stable – real name de la Bedoyere – Judy’s interests fluctuated for a while. She recorded with Mike Batt (“a lovely man”) and did PR for Shelter Music (“I was useless!”).

However, her personal life picked up. Dating, then marrying Simon, they’d enjoy get-togethers with neighbours Pete Drummond-Hay and his wife, acid-folk group Trees frontwoman Celia Humphris, and old bandmates – now Crimsonites – Fripp and McDonald turned up as frequent spare-room guests. And through Simon, in 1971 Judy made her next leap into the great unknown with jazz sax improviser extraordinaire Lol Coxhill and the Miller Brothers Phil and Steve, all alumni of the Canterbury Scene; collectively DC And The MBs.

“We were also known as Penguin Dust,” Judy recalls. “We did 20s-style songs and freeform jazz. It was Monty Python and Bonzo Dog-like, but Lol was very serious. It was another ‘let’s see what happens’ situation and that worked quite well.”

Phil Miller remembers: “Lol picked Judy as he loved the sound of her voice – a great, soaring range – and they interacted well on stage. We’d previously been in Delivery, a blues-jazz band, and our singer Carol Grimes had left, but we had some gigs still in Holland. Judy very much wanted to get into Lol’s world of improvising and mucking around, so she came on board. It was delightful.”

Following the tour the group dissolved and it was time for another move. This time it would be a break from London as the ‘Stables’ relocated to Oxfordshire to run Simon’s cassette duplication business. The couple had two children and Judy lost contact with the music-making scene.

So that was that. And then, in 1994, Simon died.

At 45, with two teenage kids and left in a “state of numbness,” Judy rejected anything that reminded her of Simon, including music. It wouldn’t be long before the past came knocking, though.

Marc Swordfish treated the voice as another instrument to blend with the music. It was good – but I’d written words and I wanted words heard

In 1997 Simon Nicol got in touch to ask if Judy would guest at Fairport’s 30th anniversary at Cropredy Festival with the original line-up. Although terrified, she agreed... and it was a success – and one that would be repeated with Fairport again and again.

Then in 2002, Marc Swordfish from trance outfit Astralasia made contact; he wanted sample her voice. “I had no idea what trance music or samples were!” says Judy. Nevertheless, her spirit of adventure rallied and three albums went into production, with Judy plundering a wealth of poetic scraps that had lain untouched for years – including Brian Patten’s poetic gift to her, which became 2004’s Enchanted Garden.

Judy Dyble

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Of that period Judy now says, “It was very electronic and Marc treated the voice as another instrument to blend with the music. It was good – but I’d written words and I wanted words heard.”

And that’s exactly how her next project would be. Helmed by a MySpace contact, No-Man’s Tim Bowness – “I thought, ‘This is somebody who really understands words and makes them important’” – 2009’s mystical folk-prog pilgrimage Talking With Strangers took 18 months to put together. Music was composed by Tim’s friend Alistair Murphy, aka The Curator, and recorded on his laptop. 

“The songs were beautiful,” says Judy, “and I worked with new collaborators, but also people I knew over years.” Digital files zipped across cyberspace connecting old chums such as McDonald, Fripp, Nicols, Humphris and Jacqui McShee with new faces such as Julianne Regan.

Approaching people online, Judy credits the internet for changing her life as an artist: “It was incredible. There was this fantastic medium where I could find all these people... and they didn’t say no! I was very proud of that record and it will always be special to me.”

The spring of 2011 sees another new beginning for Judy Dyble. A fascinating anthology of demos and rarities is imminent; and Judy’s fifth solo album, Newborn Creatures, is ready to roll. Put together by British producer-arranger Lee Fletcher alongside German virtuoso touch-style guitarist Markus Reuter, the line-up makes for a jazzier, more academic record – but still with the signature “astral goddess otherworldliness” that Judy is happy to accept as her signature.

Another digital patchwork of an project, Lee and Markus recorded her vocal at home in her famous pink music room (with a duvet tucked over the door for baffle), then the pair went off around Europe and the US, collecting contributors from the likes of Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto to add melody and textures – plus the odd soundscape, as ever, from Fripp.

Not bad for a woman of a certain age with some slightly scary health issues such as emphysema, rheumatoid arthritis and sciatic neuritis. “I feel as though I need to get it done in case I fall over!” she laughs. “But I’m amazed that everyone has wanted to join in too. I’m very lucky.”

It’s more than luck. This is a demonstration – contrary to how Judy used to feel about being in the ejector seat of former partnerships – that people want to be part of her present and future. So what if Fairport had been the beginning, middle and end?

“The fact is, if I’d stayed in Fairport they wouldn’t have done what they did, and I wouldn’t have gone where I’m going now. Wherever that may be!”

Jo Kendall

Jo is a journalist, podcaster, event host and music industry lecturer with 23 years in music magazines since joining Kerrang! as office manager in 1999. But before that Jo had 10 years as a London-based gig promoter and DJ, also working in various vintage record shops and for the UK arm of the Sub Pop label as a warehouse and press assistant. Jo's had tea with Robert Fripp, touched Ian Anderson's favourite flute (!), asked Suzi Quatro what one wears under a leather catsuit, and invented several ridiculous editorial ideas such as the regular celebrity cooking column for Prog, Supper's Ready. After being Deputy Editor for Prog for five years and Managing Editor of Classic Rock for three, Jo is now Associate Editor of Prog, where she's been since its inception in 2009, and a regular contributor to Classic Rock. She continues to spread the experimental and psychedelic music-based word amid unsuspecting students at BIMM Institute London, hoping to inspire the next gen of rock, metal, prog and indie creators and appreciators.