Rab Noakes obituary | Music5 min read
On stage, Rab Noakes was an immaculately dressed singer and fine guitarist who might play almost anything. There could be Scottish traditional songs, American country ballads, or songs by his heroes Bob Dylan and the Everly Brothers, through to tracks by Cliff Richard, Talking Heads or Beck Hansen.
And along with the “interpretations” (he hated the word covers), there were his own songs, which showed his gift for melody, his love of Americana and his ability to write about a wide range of subjects, and ranged from tributes to other musicians, such as his great friend Gerry Rafferty, to the defiant That Won’t Stop Me, written after he had been treated for cancer, or Water Is My Friend, a song about hydration and praise for the NHS.
Rab, who has died suddenly aged 75, played a unique role in the Scottish music scene, thanks to his encyclopedic musical knowledge, his powerful songwriting, and his enthusiasm for great songs and musicians. He started playing and writing in the 1960s, working with Rafferty, with whom he founded Stealers Wheel (though he left before the band signed a contract and made hit records). His songs were also recorded by another bestselling band, Lindisfarne, with whom he toured.
He recorded a series of solo albums for major record labels, often with the help of well-known producers, but never notched up the expected hits. But he kept going at an age when many musicians might think of retiring, and his later work was as powerful and original as anything in his early career.
He loved to collaborate. He toured with the Scottish Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, and with the American singer-songwriter Brooks Williams, with whom he had recently finished recording an album of Don Everly songs.
With the singer Barbara Dickson, an old friend, he recorded Reunited in 2014 and last toured in September. She described him as “a great life force … a fantastic songwriter and wonderful guitarist. People would watch from the front row with binoculars to see what he was doing”.
He also built up a following among young Scottish musicians, several of whom who were preparing to play on his next album. Roddy Hart described “a sense of kinship even though we were separated by decades, in terms of age … he was part of the historical fabric of Scottish music.”. Jill Jackson described how Rab was her mentor when she was 16 “and he taught me everything I knew, performing, writing, recording. I was once late for a gig as the support act, and he asked how much they had paid me. I said £50, and he said ‘hand it to me’ and took the money – and I was never late for a gig again! He became an incredible friend.”
Living in Glasgow, it was inevitable that Rab would become involved with Celtic Connections, the annual festival featuring Scottish music, Americana and other global styles. Its creative producer Donald Shaw described how he and Rab spent hours discussing the musical links between Glasgow and America, how Woodie Guthrie once visited the Broomielaw bars, and how the traditional singer Josh MacRae would sent tapes from the Broomielaw to Pete Seeger, who would pass them to Dylan.
Shaw booked Rab to play at the festival, and he played a major role in tribute shows to Rafferty, the singer-songwriter Michael Marra and Martyn Bennett, who had mixed Scottish folk with electronica.
“He was important for making the connection between old Scots and new Americana music”, said Shaw. “Scotland has found its own voice by looking outwards rather than inwards in the last 30 or 40 years … he helped to bridge that gap. I think of him as a catalyst between different styles, young and old”.
Rab was born in St Andrews, Fife, the son of Robert Noakes, a postal worker, and Elsie (nee Ogilvie), a local government officer and amateur singer. The family moved to Cupar, where Rab attended Castle Hill primary and then Bell Baxter high school, where he first met Davie Craig and Artie Trezise, friends with whom he would go on to make music.
Leaving school at 16 he joined the civil service, working as a pensions and national insurance clerk, first in Alloa, then Glasgow and London. But he was also making a name busking and playing the folk club circuit. He made his first professional appearance in Glasgow in 1967 and in 1969 spent “nine weeks, seven days a week, four hours a night” playing in a hotel in Denmark with Craig.
In the same year he met Rafferty, in Billy Connolly’s father’s house in Glasgow. They remained close friends and in 1971 he played on Rafferty’s solo album Can I Have My Money Back?, before deciding not to remain with him in Stealers Wheel (although he still sometimes played live with them). By now he had met Lindisfarne, who recorded his Turn a Deaf Ear on their 1970 debut Nicely Out of Tune, and Together Forever on their bestselling Fog on the Tyne in 1971.
Rab was now following his own path. He joined Dickson, Craig and Trezise, and other musicians from across the region, in the Great Fife Road Show, which toured Scotland in 1970, and in the same year he released his first album, Do You See the Lights? A second solo album, Rab Noakes, was released in 1972, produced by Bob Johnston, who had worked with Dylan, while Red Pump Special (1973) was produced in Nashville by Elliot Mazer, famed for his work with Neil Young.
Its songs included Branch, which he sang on the BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, but it failed to produce any hits. Later albums included Never Too Late (1975) and Restless (1978), produced by Terry Melcher, famed for his work with the Byrds, and which included backing vocals by Rafferty and Dickson.
Once known as a heavy drinker, Rab gave up alcohol in 1982. With his pop career apparently stalled, he moved to the BBC, where he made use of his vast musical knowledge and love of radio, working in Manchester and then Glasgow, as a senior music producer. He quit in 1995 to start a production company, Neon, with Stephy Pordage, whom he married in 1998. This was followed by a label, Neon Records, and now his career blossomed, as he became a maverick independent shaking up the Scottish music scene.
His recent releases included I’m Walkin’ Here (2015), The Treatment Tapes (his 2016 answer to Dylan’s Basement Tapes, following a cancer operation) and Welcome to Anniversaryville (2018).
An active member of the Musicians’ Union, he served on its executive committee for 16 years until he stood down in 2020. As a performer who loved meeting other musicians and music fans in the media, he was one of the current organisers of the London lunches that he christened “the SCRIBs”: Songwriters, Composers, Rockers, Inky-fingered maniacs (writers & publicists) and Broadcasters. He often sang, and was always the best-dressed man in the room.
Stephy died last year. His first marriage, to Marianne Mitchelson, ended in divorce. Rab is survived by his brothers, Alan and Ken.