A proud Fifer and Trade Unionist and, also, a superb musician.
Rab Noakes who died suddenly on Friday, aged 75, was a much loved and hugely admired touchstone of the Scottish music scene with a career stretching back to the mid 1960s. Best known as a singer/songwriter who recorded in Nashville in the seventies with Neil Young’s producer and for contributing songs to the first two Lindisfarne albums, Noakes had a much richer history behind him, beginning in the the folk clubs of Scotland, becoming an influential figure in radio broadcasting and a fierce advocate of ethics and fairness while championing musician’s rights with his union work.
Born in St Andrews in 1947 and raised in the Fife town of Cupar, he was the product of a staunch trade unionist household which instilled in him a fierce and proud sense of his working class heritage. He was an avid listener of the BBC’s Light Programme which introduced him to American music, one of his early favourites being Jo Stafford’s ‘Allentown Jail’. While enamoured with Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers along with Cliff Richard and The Shadows and then later The Beatles and The Stones and Dylan, it was while he was living what he called “the bohemian life” in Dundee in the early sixties that he started to play in a folk duo with Robin McKidd who had introduced Noakes to The Harry Smith Anthology Of American Music.
Noakes became a regular on the Scots folk scene, crossing paths with artists such as Gerry Rafferty (with whom he remained a lifelong friend), Billy Connolly, Archie Fisher and Barbara Dickson and he released his first album ‘Do You See The Light’ in 1970 with one of the songs from it (‘Together Forever’) covered by Lindisfarne on their hit album ‘Fog On The Tyne’ two years later. In 1972 he formed Stealers Wheel with Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty although he soon left the band to pursue his solo career.
Signed to Warner Brothers he recorded his 1974 album ‘Red Pump Special’ in Nashville with producer Elliott Mazer and became a mainstay of the regular concert circuit sharing bills with such unlikely acts such as Genesis and Greenslade and also appearing on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test. ‘Red Pump Special’ and its follow up ‘Never Too Late’ (again produced by Mazer) failed to sell well and as the seventies progressed Noakes developed an alcohol problem which he eventually managed to overcome in 1982. He moved into radio production eventually becoming the senior music producer for BBC Radio Scotland where he led what was a diverse and adventurous scene, promoting new musicians and presenters along with folk and traditional music. He returned to recording in the mid nineties releasing several albums and performing from house concerts to sold out auditoriums becoming a welcome regular performer at Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival where his interpretations of songs by the likes of Dylan were quite astounding. This career resurgence which, although interrupted by a serious illness, culminated in a triumphant celebration of his 50 years in the business in 2017 at Celtic Connections. This was followed by his last release, the excellent ‘Welcome to Anniversaryville’.
A lifelong believer in trade unions, Noakes served on the Musicians’ Union Executive Committee and represented musicians’ interests at the Scottish Trades Union Congress. He actively championed and mentored younger musicians throughout Scotland, always available to offer advice and giving many of them their first national exposure on radio and television. A superb guitarist, singer and songwriter, Noakes was a walking repository of knowledge relating to folk song in Scotland and its influence in roots, country, blues and Americana and would display this to great effect at live shows. He maintained a regular live gig schedule up until the week of his death and was due to perform at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections early next year. His sudden death has shocked the Scottish musical community. That he was truly loved and will be hugely missed was evident in the outpouring of grief on social media as the sad news came on Friday.
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