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Ralph McTell (born Ralph May in Farnborough, Kentmarker (now part of London), Englandmarker, 3 December 1944 and raised in Croydonmarker) is an English singer-songwriter and acoustic guitar player who has been an influential figure on the UKmarker folk music scene since the 1960s.

Ralph McTell is best known for the song "Streets of London" which has been covered by over two hundred artists around the world. In the 1980s he wrote and played songs for two TV children's programmes, Alphabet Zoo which also featured Nerys Hughes, followed by Tickle On The Tum featuring Jacqueline Reddin. Albums were also released from both series. He also recorded the theme song to Cosgrove Hall's adaptation of The Wind in the Willows with Keith Hopwood, and this was released as a single in 1984 after the series was aired on ITV.

McTell's guitar playing has been modelled on the style of the USA's country blues guitar players of the early 20th century, including Blind Blake, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. These influences led a friend to suggest that he change his professional name to McTell as his career was beginning to take shape.


McTell's mother, Winifred (née Moss), was born in Hammersmithmarker, Londonmarker. During the Second World War she was living in Banburymarker, Oxfordshire, with her sister Olive when she met Frank May. They married in 1943 while Frank was home on leave from the army. Winifred moved to Croydonmarker, Surreymarker, and McTell was born on December 3, 1944 in Farnboroughmarker, Kentmarker. He was named after Ralph Vaughan Williams - Frank had worked as the composer's gardener before the war. A second son, Bruce, was born in 1946. Frank was demobilized, but after a year or so at home, he walked out on his family in 1947.

Winifred was left to support herself and bring up the boys unaided. She told McTell's biographer, "I remember Ralph saying to me quite soon after Frank left us, 'I'll look after you, Mummy'. I guess he'd got used to Frank being away all his short life." But despite their father's desertion and the consequent poverty, Ralph and Bruce May had a happy and fulfilled childhood in Croydon.

McTell's love of music surfaced early. He was given a plastic mouth organ and his grandfather, who played the harmonica, taught and encouraged him. The brothers spent many contented summer holidays at Banburymarker with their uncle and aunt and their grandparents. Banbury and north Oxfordshire would figure throughout McTell's life. Later, he recalled those childhood summers in his song "Barges".


Other childhood experiences shaped McTell's songwriting. A young Irishman and his family were the Mays' upstairs neighbours. Needing a father figure, McTell greatly valued the young man's friendship, which later inspired the song "Mr Connaughton". Similarly, "Mrs Adlam's Angels" recalls his Sunday school teacher: "I loved the ceremonial and the music," he says, "you can hear the influence of hymn tunes in my song structures."

In 1952, two youths attempted to break into a Croydon warehouse: one, Derek Bentley, surrendered to the police but the other, Christopher Craig, shot and killed a police officer. Yet at the trial Bentley was sentenced to death. "My mum knew the Bentleys," McTell recalls. "I was about eight, but even then I could see the horror and injustice of executing a teenager for a murder he didn't commit." Many years later, McTell expressed that sense of injustice in the song "Bentley & Craig".


After passing his 11-plus school examination, McTell attended the John Ruskin Grammar School. He hated his time there, and despite being a very bright pupil, he did not do well academically. Many of his fellow pupils were from wealthier backgrounds, and though having many school friends, he felt he didn't fit in.

Musically, his tastes tended towards being an outsider as well. He was captivated by skiffle and American rock'n'roll. Acquiring an old ukulele and a copy of The George Formby Method, he played his first chord. He later recalled, "I was thunderstruck - it was like magic!" Soon, he mastered skiffle classics such as "Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O", and by his second year at school, he formed a skiffle band.

By the age of 15, McTell was very anxious to leave grammar school and the British Army looked like a way out, so in 1959 he enlisted in the Junior Leaders Battalion of The Queen's Surrey Regiment. Army life proved far worse than school. After six months, he bought himself out and resumed his education at technical college, passing several O level exams and an A level exam in art.

Discovering black music

At college, McTell became interested in the beatnik culture that flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s. Besides reading the works of writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he discovered black American music - jazz, blues and R&B. Inspired by musicians such as Jesse Fuller, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, he bought a guitar and practised assiduously.

He and a group of like-minded friends became habitués of London's Sohomarker jazz clubs and regularly went down to Brightonmarker to "...sit on the beach looking windswept and interesting," as McTell put it. Soon he was spending much of his time away from Croydon, supporting himself with temporary work in factories, laundries and hotels.

During his travels, McTell met musicians who were destined to remain life-long friends, among them Jacqui McShee (later to gain fame in the band Pentangle), Martin Carthy and Wizz Jones. He was persuaded to join a bluegrass-influenced band called the Hickory Nuts, who gigged all over England and, despite playing in some dire places for pin money early on, ended up with decent fees and respectable crowds in venues such as Croydon's Fairfield Hallsmarker.

The busker

By now, McTell had begun travelling abroad, busking around Europe with his guitar. He spent time in Francemarker and visited Belgiummarker and Germanymarker. Other trips took him to Italymarker and through Yugoslavia ("I felt a madness there, even then" ) to Greecemarker.

Parismarker was a city which McTell revisited frequently. Late in 1965 he and a friend from Croydon took a room in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank, earning their rent by busking cinema queues. After braving a bitterly cold Paris winter, McTell met a young American, Gary Petersen, who had studied with the legendary guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. "There was a great anticipation every time I got to play with (Petersen)," McTell recalled. "Each time I learned something new, and through him I learned how to play ragtime properly."

In the spring of 1966, McTell met another émigré to Paris, a student from Norwaymarker named Nanna Stein. The pair soon became inseparable. Back in England, they lived in a caravan in Cornwallmarker. McTell and Wizz Jones were regular performers on the Cornish circuit, especially at The Folk Cottage in Mitchell. It was Jones who suggested the stage name 'McTell', "...after Blind Willie McTell, whose 'Statesboro Blues' we both loved".

Cornwall captured McTell's heart - a place whose "unique spirit got to me" - and the county has always remained a place for him to retreat to. By the end of 1966, Ralph and Nanna were expecting their first child. They married on November 30 in Norway and returned to live in Croydon with Winifred. Ralph and Nanna's son, Sam, was born on January 21, 1967.

After an unrewarding spell at teacher training college, McTell decided he'd try to make it full time in music. As well as his vocal and instrumental talents, he was developing as a songwriter and was in demand in folk clubs and festivals.

Record deal

During 1967, McTell landed a deal with Transatlantic Records and by the end of the year was recording his first album. Arranged by Tony Visconti and produced by Gus Dudgeon, the album, Eight Frames A Second, was released early in 1968. It came to the attention of the BBC and was featured on radio programmes including Country Meets Folk in August and John Peel's Top Gear. The release of the album meant more live work so McTell's brother Bruce became his manager and booking agent.

His second album Spiral Staircase, recorded for Transatlantic in late 1968, included the first recording of "Streets of London", which was recorded in one take by McTell on guitar and vocals.

The third album, My Side Of Your Window, released in 1969, became Melody Maker magazine's Folk Album of the Month. In July, McTell had appeared at Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time and at the end of the year headlined at Hornsey Town Hall.

Into the 1970s

By 1970, "I'd got a family," McTell recalled in an interview, "and found I had a musical career, somehow." He was getting extensive radio play, and the audiences at his concerts were growing.

By May, he was sufficiently successful to fill the Royal Festival Hallmarker in Londonmarker. In August, McTell played the huge Isle of Wight Festival alongside Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen.

Bruce May had bowed out and McTell was now being managed by impresario Jo Lustig. In October 1970, McTell sold out the Royal Festival Hall again and the album Revisited was released. This remixed compilation was originally intended to introduce McTell to American record-buyers but was released in the UK.

Ralph and Nanna's daughter Leah was born on February 9, 1971.

You Well Meaning Brought Me Here was released on the Famous label in 1971. Among the highlights of this fourth studio album was "The Ferryman", inspired by the Herman Hesse book Siddhartha. That year also saw McTell's first tour in the United Statesmarker.

Initially, Paramount Records had been McTell's American label but had not been supportive, and he later signed with Warner Bros. Records. While in the USA, McTell hung out with the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, establishing a lifelong professional relationship as well as personal friendships.

Paramount put a new recording of "Streets of London" on the US release of You Well Meaning Brought Me Here, and, in April 1972, issued it as a single in the Netherlandsmarker, where it charted, climbing slowly to No. 9 in May.

McTell's fifth album, Not Till Tomorrow, was produced by Tony Visconti, and released on Reprise in 1972. His UK concert tour played to packed houses and he met one of his guitar heroes, the Rev Gary Davis. By the end of the year, he'd parted company with Jo Lustig and his brother Bruce was again managing his career.

Although living in Putneymarker, south west London, Ralph and Nanna bought a derelict cottage in Cornwall during 1972.

The Royal Albert Hall

During 1973, McTell undertook a major tour which culminated in a concert at London's Royal Albert Hallmarker on 30th January, 1974, where he played to a full house. By the end of the year, McTell was in the studio with Visconti again working on his next album. Released early in 1974, Easy won critical acclaim and became McTell's first album to do well in the charts. It was promoted by lengthy tours of Britain and Europe with Danny Thompson and Mike Piggott as backing musicians. Despite the civil unrest and violence in Northern Irelandmarker, the tour included concerts in the province - in fact, McTell continued to play there regularly throughout 'the Troubles'.

The hit and the band

McTell re-recorded "Streets of London" with bassist Rod Clements and backing vocalists Prelude. Released as a single late in 1974, it rocketed up the charts to No. 2 over the Christmas period, became a worldwide million-seller, and won McTell the Ivor Novello Award.

In early 1975, McTell released the album Streets... which sold strongly and spent twelve weeks in the album charts. Backing musicians on the album included Lindisfarne's Rod Clements, Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg and Jerry Donahue, and Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span. He decided to tour with a band to promote the album, but the experiment was not a success. That tour, he recalls, "became a nightmare." It was time for a break. McTell went to America with his family where he spent time relaxing and writing. Refreshed, he returned to the UK.

During 1976, McTell topped the bill at Montreux Jazz Festival and played another sold-out concert at The Royal Albert Hall. This was followed by his first tour of Australia and the far east. At McTell's insistence, local buskers were given free tickets for the flagship concert at Sydney Opera Housemarker.

Ralph and Nanna's son Tom was born on 7 September 1976.

McTell's eighth album, Right Side Up, was released late in 1976 and the year ended with a packed-out Christmas concert in Belfastmarker where he got standing ovations both before and after the show.

The concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House had both been recorded and in 1977, Warner Bros. Records released the live album Ralph Albert and Sydney.

During the year, McTell met John 'Jonah' Jones, a popular figure on London's music scene. It was the start of a close friendship that lasted until John's death in 2003. After tours in the USA and Britain, McTell again appeared at Cambridge Folk Festival.

Quieter times

Ralph and Nanna's son Billy was born on April 19, 1978.

Professionally, it was a quieter year so Ralph May was able to enjoy his family. He and Nanna divided their time between their London home and their house in Cornwall.

In March 1979, McTell played The Royal Festival Hall accompanied by Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention, and Nigel Smith and Mike Piggott.

McTell had written a lot of new songs and went into the studio with backing musicians including Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg and Simon Nicol. The resulting album, Slide Away The Screen was released by Warner Bros. Records.

The recording contract with Warner Bros. Records expired in 1980 so Ralph and Bruce set up Mays Records as an 'own brand' label. It would be a year or more until they had an album to release but meanwhile McTell continued to tour.

During 1981, McTell, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson formed an impromptu band called The GP's. They performed half-a-dozen concerts but contractual restrictions meant the band couldn't be developed further.

The first release on Mays Records was the 1981 single "England", a song later adopted as the theme for a television travelogue presented by comedian Billy Connolly, a long-standing friend of McTell's. Mays Records' first album release was Water Of Dreams which featured "Bentley & Craig", the song which led to McTell's support of the campaign to grant Derek Bentley a posthumous pardon.


In 1982, McTell's career took an unexpected change of direction. Granada Television commissioned Alphabet Zoo, a series of children's programmes built around songs written and performed by McTell. Although initially reluctant to accept the offer, the fact that one of his heroes, Woody Guthrie, had composed dozens of songs for children, convinced him it was worthwhile. The first series, broadcast in 1983, was a big success. A second series followed and Mays Records released two albums of the material - Songs From Alphabet Zoo and Best of Alphabet Zoo.

During 1983, McTell presented his own music series on BBC Radio 2. His guests included Billy Connolly, Georgie Fame, Simon Nicol with Dave Swarbrick, and Mike Harding.

In 1984, McTell fronted another children's TV programme, called Tickle On The Tum, again built around his songs. The series featured guests including John Wells, Willie Rushton, Kenny Lynch, Penelope Keith and Nerys Hughes. Mays Records released The Best of - Tickle on the Tum in 1986.

McTell was still playing concerts between his television commitments and he toured during 1984 at home and in Canadamarker and the USAmarker. After composing the music for a Skol lager advertising campaign, he decided to concentrate on his musical career and turned down further television work.


Bruce May negotiated a deal with Telstar Records, a company that pushed its products heavily with major advertising and hyping campaigns. McTell was persuaded to record an album which mixed his own material and 'classic songs' such as "Penny Lane", "Morning Has Broken" and "Scarborough Fair". The result, At the End of a Perfect Day, released late in 1985, was one of McTell's least satisfactory recordings. It was "a totally commercial venture and a miserable failure," he said later; "...while I was reluctant to do it, the possibility of getting the kind of back-up that Telstar were offering was too good to miss."

The next year McTell was back on form with Bridge of Sighs. Released on Mays Records in 1986, the album gathered together a lot of hitherto unfinished songs. It included "The Girl from the Hiring Fair" (originally written for Fairport Convention, and in whose core repertoire it remains to this day), and "The Setting", influenced by Sean O'Faolain.


As well as tours in his own right, McTell secured a prestigious support slot in 1987 opening the shows on The Everly Brothers' UK tour. He greatly enjoyed working with Don and Phil who, he admits, were musical heroes of his.

McTell's end-of-tour gift to himself was Albert, an African Grey Parrot. In years to come, the bird would not only learn to talk but, by mimicking its owner's cough, would spur McTell to give up the hand-rolled cigarettes he'd smoked all his adult life.

After tours in Europe, the USA and Australia, McTell was back in the studio in February, 1988 to record the album Blue Skies Black Heroes. Released on his own Leola Music label, the album was a homage to the blues and ragtime musicians who had so influenced his playing.

"Nearly all my guitar heroes are black, American, usually blind and most of 'em dead," McTell explained. All the tracks on Blue Skies Black Heroes were recorded as live takes, four with Danny Thompson on bass. The follow-up tour that summer saw McTell on the road with a veritable arsenal of guitars.

1988 also saw the release of a compilation album, The Very Best of Ralph McTell. Issued by Start, it was McTell's first album to appear on CD.

McTell was a regular visitor to, and occasional performer at, Fairport Convention's annual music festival in the village of Cropredymarker, near Banbury. The location inspired him to pen the ballad "Red and Gold" about the English Civil War, which has become another staple of Fairport's repertoire.

At the end of 1988, Bruce ceased to be McTell's manager, the post being taken by Mick McDonagh.

Castle compilations

In 1989, McTell signed a deal with the label Castle Communications to produce a compilation of his love songs . For contractual reasons, some songs had to be re-recorded in Dave Pegg's Woodwormmarker Studio in Barford St. Michaelmarker. The result was Affairs Of The Heart.

To support the album's release, McTell undertook an extensive tour in the autumn and early winter. The tour was well-supported with PR material and was managed on the road by John 'Jonah' Jones.

The next year, 1990, Castle released Stealin' Back, another collection of McTell's blues and jug band numbers.

In 1991, McTell shared the billing with Donovan on a tour of Germanymarker. He also toured in his own right in the UK.

A second Castle compilation was released in 1992 to celebrate McTell's 25 years of recording. Silver Celebration featured a selection of tracks including "The Ferryman", "From Clare To Here" and "Streets Of London". A very extensive Silver Celebration tour occupied much of the year, again managed by 'Jonah' Jones.

Castle had by now now obtained the rights to the Transatlantic catalogue, and released a "Best of" CD with 24 tracks from McTell's earliest albums. Castle subsequently licensed the early McTell back-catalogue to other labels, resulting in the release of several CD compilations under such titles as The Best of Ralph McTell or Streets of London.

The Boy With A Note

McTell completed a major project when in 1992, the BBC commissioned and broadcast The Boy With A Note - 'an evocation of the life of Dylan Thomas in words and music'. It was re-recorded and released on McTell's Leola label as an album. McTell is very proud of this ambitious piece. "Two or three years went into that," he said. "It's grown-up work."

During 1993, McTell toured Australia and the Far East, and back home he undertook The Black And White Tour. Road Goes On Forever Records released The Complete Alphabet Zoo, presenting the songs from the two television series in alphabetical order. McTell and Mick McDonagh parted company.

In 1994 McTell took part in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the life of Ken Woolard. Ken was the founder of Cambridge Folk Festival and McTell assembled a band, Good Men In The Jungle, to play at that summer's festival. He also celebrated his fiftieth year by giving up smoking.

Slide Away The Screen was released as a CD by Road Goes On Forever Records with three previously unreleased songs added.

Sand in Your Shoes was recorded at Woodworm, by now relocated in Barford St Michaelmarker near Banbury. The album came out on the Transatlantic label during 1995.

McTell performed his song "Bentley & Craig" at a special service for Derek Bentley held in Croydon cemetery with the Bentley family. Sadly, Bentley's sister Iris died before he was pardoned and, at her request, McTell performed at her funeral a few years later.

A high point of 1995 was an invitation to perform songs from The Boy With A Note at the Year Of Literature Festival in Swanseamarker, in south Walesmarker.

Tickety Boo

In 1996, McTell presented BBC radio's coverage of Sidmouthmarker Festival and toured the UK, Europe, and the USA.

McTell's long-standing sound engineer, Gordoon 'Doon' Graham, had captured many of McTell's concert performances on the desk, and an album of live material from 1976 to 1995 was released on Leola as Songs for Six Strings Vol II.

Early in 1997, McTell began his association with Tickety Boo, the company which produced Billy Connolly's 'World Tour of...' television series. "In The Dreamtime", the song played over the closing credits to Billy Connolly's World Tour of Australia, later featured on McTell's album Red Sky.

In the same year, McTell was the subject of a major feature in The Independent newspaper. An authorised biography of McTell, entitled Streets of London, was published by Northdown Publishing. McTell's concert at Croydon Town Hall was filmed, and released on videocassette as Live at the Town Hall by Leola in 1998.

By now, Leola had taken most of McTell's management arrangements in house. Two sell-out concerts in London's Purcell Roommarker were recorded by McTell's tour manager and sound engineer, Donard Duffy, and released on Leola as a two-CD set. Entitled Travelling Man, the double album came out in time for McTell's 1999 spring tour. A two-page feature about McTell appeared in The Guardian newspaper in May 1999.

New century

McTell had been busy writing during the previous couple of years and the result was Red Sky. Recorded at Woodworm and released in 2000 on the Leola label, the album contained 19 listed tracks plus "Tickety-boo" as an instrumental hidden track.

McTell's output was not restricted to songs, however. He had been working on an autobiography for some years and the first volume, entitled Angel Laughter, was published by Heartland Publishing in 2000.

To promote Angel Laughter, McTell undertook a tour of bookshops and libraries .

Ralph and Nanna's first grandchild, Ezra, was born on 25 June 2000.

In 2001, McTell undertook a special tour of the UK. Billed as 'The National Tour', it gave McTell a chance to present concerts featuring his newly-acquired National Steel resonator guitar. Two live recordings from the National Tour made their way onto the 2002 Leola album National Treasure.

Heartland published Summer Lightning, the second volume of McTell's autobiography, in 2002. Another highlight of the year was the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting presented to McTell at the annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. By then, McTell had written and recorded well over 200 songs.

McTell had been touring extensively at home and abroad for many years so in 2003 he decided to take a break from the road. He split the year between his London and Cornwall homes and spent the time writing, travelling and spending time with his grandchildren - by the end of the year there were seven of them.

Early in 2004, McTell co-headlined on Steeleye Span's tour of Australia and New Zealandmarker as well as touring in the UK, Irelandmarker and continental Europe.

McTell appeared at the fortieth Cambridge Folk Festival (the performance was broadcast on BBC Four television) and also played at the fiftieth Sidmouth Festival. He made a guest appearance at Fairport's Cropredy Convention in August.

The Journey

McTell celebrated his 60th birthday with a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hallmarker in November, 2004. The entire show was filmed and released on DVD in 2005 as The London Show.

Leola published Time's Poems - The Song Lyrics of Ralph McTell towards the end of 2005. Dedicated "to Woody Guthrie, the man who started it all for me", Time's Poems contains "...all the songs I could find in notebooks, on scraps of paper and old tapes, on records and CDs".

In 2006 McTell's 'Walk Into The Morning' tour was a sellout success, creating such long queues to talk to him at his customary 'meet and greet' sessions after concerts, that he was forced to announce in June 2006 that he would no longer be coming out into the foyers after shows to chat with fans.

For his 'up close' tour in September, 2006, McTell performed a set billed as 'Dylan, Guthrie and The Country Blues', featuring his covers of songs by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and black American blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy. He also recorded an album of the material, titled Gates of Eden. McTell described the music on this CD as "…the beginning of my own journey… these songs are almost sacred to me".

A boxed set of four CDs (accompanied by an extended essay on McTell's songs by Paul Jenkins) was released in October, 2006. Compiled by David Suff from recordings made between 1965 and 2006, The Journey was promoted with several radio interviews and a major tour that included two 'gala' concerts at London’s Union Chapelmarker.

A solo tour of Australia early in 2007 was followed by 'The Journey Continues' tour in the UK. In August, 2007, Sanctuary Records recognised the 40th anniversary of McTell’s first recording contract by re-releasing his three Transatlantic albums as CDs with bonus tracks.

As Far As I Can Tell

In October, 2007, McTell released an 'audio book' titled As Far As I Can Tell. The three CDs included readings from the autobiography interspersed with new recordings of the songs they inspired. The As Far As I Can Tell treble CD was promoted by a tour that included a concert at St Mary’s church in Banburymarker, a location that featured in the first volume of autobiography.

A compilation CD comprising McTell’s own selection of songs, including the 'hit' version of "Streets of London", was released in December 2007 on the Highpoint label as The Definitive Collection.

During 2008, McTell combined the two volumes of his autobiography into a single volume under the title As Far As I Can Tell for publication to coincide with his autumn tour. The new edition featured additional chapters illustrated by photos from the May family album.

On 9 October 2008, McTell appeared on BBC1 TV's nationally-broadcast magazine programme The One Show in a pre-recorded package about the song "Streets of London". The interview was filmed in Paris and conducted by Myleene Klass.

The appearance on The One Show was the springboard for two 'official' McTell internet videos. Made by Leola Music Ltd and published on YouTube, the videos featured McTell talking about his work and about "Streets of London", with concert footage shot at the Institute of Contemporary Artsmarker.

The Institute of Contemporary Artsmarker concert footage was released during 2008 as a full-length DVD titled McTell on The Mall.

McTell embarked on his most extensive UK tour for many years in October, 2008, visiting thirty venues throughout England. The concert at Birmingham Town Hall was unusual because McTell, who rarely appears with a supporting act, shared the bill with the Fairport Convention spin-off band, The Dylan Project.


Main Albums released in UK

Significant Album Reissues

Other Albums featuring significant contributions by Ralph McTell

External links

Official website:



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