Thursday 11 February 2010

Bill Leader

Topic Records, Britain’s premier folk label, celebrated their seventieth birthday in 2009. Three Score And Ten - a seven CD set dressed as a lavish coffee-table book - has been released to commemorate the occasion. Nearly a third of the tracks (44 out of 144, to be precise) were engineered or produced by Bill Leader. He is so prolific, it sometimes seems that his name is attached to every decent folk record made between 1959 and 1977, old-timers and revivalists alike. Quite apart from the Topic sides (an impressive roster, including Jeannie Robertson, Ewan MacColl, Shirley Collins, the Watersons and Anne Briggs), it was Leader who recorded the debut LP of Bert Jansch in 1964 - the very first British singer/songwriter album - and helmed the Pentangle classics Cruel Sister and Reflection.

For Topic, Transatlantic or his own label, Trailer, Leader produced recordings by, variously, Anne Briggs, Davy Graham, Billy Connolly, Mr Fox, Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, Martin Simpson and Robin and Barry Dransfield. Yet he denies any prowess as a talent scout. ‘No-one ever discovers anyone,’ he says. ‘You just respond to public demand.’ When you say (in all sincerity) that his name appears on more classic albums than Phil Spector and George Martin combined, Leader laughs and says, ‘Oh, you journalists are all alike.’ Ask him about his legacy and he looks blank and changes the subject. Bill Leader is a lovely man who recently retired as Head of Audio at Salford University, where he taught recording and sound engineering.

Older than Topic Records by ten years, Bill Leader was born in 1929 in New Jersey to Londoner parents. Bill’s birth roughly coincided with the Wall Street Crash, which ended his parents’ American dream, and Leader was brought up in a series of slum clearance estates on the fringes of London.Then, in 1940, his father’s engineering firm moved to Yorkshire, where Leader lived from ten to 21. As a politically-aware young man, he formed a branch of the Workers Music Association in Bradford. For Leader, politics and music were inextricably intertwined: ‘I thought that music would lead inevitably, as socialism would, to a better life. I don’t feel it quite as strongly now as I did then.’ In 1955, he moved to London and offered his services when WMA reactivated their record label - Topic Records.

‘I got this job on Topic as the record man, not that I was equipped to do it, or trained to do it, or qualified to do it, it was just that I had the time to do it. I was a bit of an enthusiast.’

Early recording assignments included singer Margaret Barry - the Mother Courage of London Irish pubs - with accompaniment from fiddler Michael Gorman. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was a figure of genuine exoticism, with his big cowboy hat and laconic Western ways. The photo of him entertaining London street kids says everything about the US/UK ‘special relationship’, circa 1956. Ramblin’ Jack’s Talking Woody Guthrie was recorded in Ewan MacColl’s West Croydon flat, with a tape machine borrowed from the BBC.

Recording conditions were primitive in the pioneering days, when equipment tended to be soldered by hand and egg-boxes served for sound insulation. Topic print runs were too small to be economical for the major pressing plants (a hefty purchase tax was imposed when the order exceeded 99 copies). So the company had recourse to ‘strange people in the backstreets’, like the manufacturer in Bermondsey who made dominoes and little records for dolls from the same plastic material. Early Topic records were not noted for high-fidelity.

Then, in the mid-sixties, the label and its hyperactive recordist hit their stride. Frost and Fire (1965), an album of ceremonial songs by The Watersons, introduced a new generation to its indigenous tradition (they were surprised they had one). Shirley Collins’ The Sweet Primeroses (1967) served as a sourcebook for emerging folk-rockers. Back then, folk-rock was no more than a glint in the eye of Joe Boyd. The future producer of Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band and Nick Drake had installed a hammock in Leader’s flat and was accompanying him on recording trips: in 1966 they went to Whitley Bay to record the Fisher family. Joe Boyd (as he acknowledges in his autobiography, White Bicycles) was virtually Bill Leader’s apprentice.

The folk revival, in its infancy when Leader first started recording, came into full flowering on his own Trailer label (which he ran in conjunction with the traditional label he gave his name to, Leader). On Bright Phoebus (1972), revival singers Mike and Lal Waterson found their own voices as writers. A working technical knowledge of traditional singing, acquired over years of dedication, was put to the service of self-expression. It was wonderful (and something similar is happening in contemporary recordings like The Time Has Come by Anne Briggs and Orfeo by Archie Fisher). ‘Bright Phoebus should have taken over the world,’ says Leader, before explaining why it didn’t (inefficiency at the pressing plant, basically).

Bad luck, cock-ups and a self-deprecating manner shouldn’t obscure Bill Leader’s real achievement. Before him folk was the music of the anonymous masses. After him, you could peg the songs to vivid characters and individuals, like earthy Margaret Barry or majestic Jeannie Robertson.

Officially retired, Bill Leader’s name appears as co-producer on Oddfellows: Monday Night at Nine, a 2008 CD which documents the stirring sessions at the Oddfellows Arms pub in Middleton. This takes it back to Paddy In The Smoke (1968), which Irish expats at play in their natural environment, and reunites Leader with John Howarth of the Oldham Tinkers. They came together in 1968 for Deep Lancashire, a collection of industrial and humorous songs.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Mike Butler.

    Several notes I've seen on the internet indicate you are writing a biography of Bill Leader. Has it been published? I can't seem to find it and I'd love the opportunity to read it.

    Bob Sickles, Larchmont, NY, USA.


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