For most of Ralph McTell’s musical career he has been a renowned British folk musician. But this bio primarily focuses on his lesser-known involvement with the blues.
Born Ralph May in 1944, he had a poor but happy childhood in post-WWII Croydon, despite his father’s desertion when Ralph was two. His harmonica-playing grandfather gave him a plastic harmonica at age seven and began to teach him the basics of that instrument.
When the skiffle craze hit, Ralph used the George Formby method to learn how to play the ukulele, then formed a skiffle band during his second year at the John Ruskin Grammar School. American rock’n’roll inspired him to pick up
a guitar and form a rock group. At 15 he escaped grammar school by joining the British Army; he left the Junior Leaders Battalion of The Queen’s Surrey Regiment after just six months.
Discovering blues, jazz and R&B in college, Ralph was especially taken by Jesse Fuller, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and folk singer Woody Guthrie. Seeing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott perform Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues changed his life; Ralph hit the musical road. His guitar style reflected that of early country bluesmen like Blind Boy Fuller, Lead Belly, Blind Blake, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. He joined bluegrass performers Hickory Nuts and played throughout England, then busked all over Europe. He learned ragtime blues from Gary Petersen, a former Reverend Gary Davis student. Ralph took his stage name on the advice of his friend Wizz Jones (they both loved Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues).
McTell became a teacher but continued to play London’s folk clubs. A steady gig at Soho’s Les Cousins club led to his Eight Frames A Second LP, a 1968 blues and folk mix. While Ralph’s BBC appearances mostly consisted of blues, his own songs soon began to enter his repertoire. Spiral Staircase (1968), included his first take recording of Streets Of London.
By 1970 he was filling London’s Royal Festival Hall. A series of folk LPs followed his 1970 Isle of Wight Festival appearance. He first toured the US in 1971, establishing lifelong relationships with Fairport Convention. He met Reverend Gary Davis in 1972. The critically acclaimed Easy (1974) was McTell’s first big-seller. A 1974 re-recording of Streets Of London shot up the charts to the No.2 position, becoming a worldwide million-seller. He sold out the Royal Albert Hall that year, the first British solo act to do so in 14 years. In 1975 Ralph formed a band to promote his Streets… LP. The shy and reserved singer then took some well-deserved time off in America.
McTell headlined the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival and gave another sold-out Royal Albert Hall concert. He embarked on his first Asia and Australia tour, during which he insisted that local buskers be given free tickets to his Sydney Opera House concert. In 1980 his contract with Warner Bros Records expired, so Ralph founded his own label, Mays Records.
In 1982, Alphabet Zoo, a children’s TV series built around McTell and his songs, was a hit, resulting in two popular LPs. McTell hosted his own 1983 music series on BBC Radio 2, followed by McTell’s children’s TV show Tickle On The Tum, which ran for three seasons.
He toured again in 1987, opening for the Everly Brothers. Blue Skies Black Heroes (1988) and Stealin’ Back (1990) honoured Ralph’s blues (and jug band) influences. His authorised biography, Streets Of London, was published in 1997. The author of over 200 songs, Ralph was presented with the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards’ second Lifetime Achievement Award (for songwriting). His 2006 tour, Dylan, Guthrie And The Country Blues (recorded as his Gates Of Eden LP) featured covers of songs by his musical heroes, compositions he considered “almost sacred”. As Far As I Can Tell (2008) combined his two previous autobiographies, Angel Laughter (2000) and Summer Lightning (2002). For Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, McTell recorded Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (2011), a downloadable six-song tribute EP.
McTell is best known for the third song he ever wrote, Streets Of London (covered by over 200 artists, including Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin). He was named after classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and bluesman Blind Willie McTell.
Visit www.williamstout.com for info on William’s work. His book Legends Of The Blues is out on Abrams ComicArts.