Bill Leader - 50 years in the recording industry (Part 1)

Sun, 10/31/1999 - 11:59
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Bill Leader - 50 years in the recording industry

Rummage through any collection of British folk music, read the sleeve notes and you will find that the name Bill Leader will be present on a huge number of them.  From the 1950s to the early 80s, Bill Leader’s recordings are monumental.

During the sixties his production work for Topic and Transatlantic is a roll call of everyone from Pentangle to The Watersons.  At the end of that decade he decided to go it alone with his own label, under a pair of titles ‘Leader’ and ‘Trailer’, which went on to document the British folk revival at its creative zenith.  Regarded by many as a giant of the revival, Bill was not a singer or musician, rather he is one of that group of people who could best be summed up with the title of ‘organiser’.

Bill was born in New Jersey in 1929 just after the Wall Street crash, his parents having emigrated from London in the 1920s in search of a better life.  The family returned to London a couple of years later “just in time to experience a replay of the depression.”  His father was a skilled machine and tool-maker and Bill spent his early years in London before the family moved north to Keighley when his father’s factory was evacuated during the War.  In 1951 Bill finished his apprenticeship as a fitter and then got shipped out for his National Service.  Returning to Yorkshire after two years in the Army, he discovered all sorts of things happening with folk music. 

Bill had friends in the Workers’ Music Association, which had started producing recordings of people including Ewan MacColl and Isla Cameron.  The influence of the Communist Party was there in the WMA which was set up to organise the publication of music, the rehearsal of choirs and the forming of brass bands.  Along with a friend, Alex Eaton, Bill helped to start a branch of the WMA in Bradford.  Bill claimed that he didn’t do much, the driving force being Alex who started a choir and also what Bill suspects was the first folk club in Britain - the Topic Folk Club in Bradford.  “Alex Eaton was a teacher, a natural teacher, and was always transmitting knowledge and enthusiasm and inspiring people to do things.  He was a member of the Communist Party and was an organiser.  He was politically committed and had a clear idea of the direction that he wanted to move in; more than that, he had the ability to figure out what he needed to do, and to do it.  He was able to organise other people, which is probably why he was attracted to the CP - an organisation that believed that if you could organise, you could put the whole world right.  There were people in other parts of the world that had a different view of what it was about, but the rank and file of the British CP – well meaning good natured people who were members of the extreme left wing organisations – I think took that view in general.  If you could only do the right things in the right way, then you would achieve things.”

There were several things that put Bill into a position where he could play his part in recording the traditional music of these Isles.  First and foremost he was a record buff.  “My mother must have hit me over the head with an old 78 or something.  I had an interest in sound recording like some kids have an interest in driving steam trains – I saw it as a romantic thing to do.  We are talking late 40s early 50s, probably not many kids looked at it in that way at that time.  I came from a politically conscious family, so there was a certain level of awareness of what made things work in the world and there was a cultural extension of that - where it was important to understand what ordinary working people did - not only for a living, or how they voted, or how they built barricades at the end of the road when the time came - but also what their cultural interests were.  So, in a simplistic sort of way, it meant that I was already intended to take an interest in folk music, because it was seen as being the music of the people.”

In the mid fifties Bill got a job in London.  He got in touch with the WMA whose head office was in London, as was their record label’s -Topic Records.  This was a time when people were beginning to buy records a bit more than they had and they needed somebody in the office to run the label but couldn’t pay them very much.  “I was the person around that had an interest and time to spare.  Everybody else had significantly more important jobs, even careers.  In a way I was the dogsbody – I had a little bit of knowledge, a lot of enthusiasm, and the time.  I said ‘I’m your man then’ and the job was mine.”

Bill describes this as a happy accident at what was a very significant time.  Topic Records had put out a couple of long playing recordings, but in the main their releases were 78s.  It was the cusp; LPs were coming in.  “Not everybody had these turntables that turned around really, really slowly; most of them spun round fairly fast in most peoples homes at that time – so there was that revolution happening and the important thing about that for an organisation that was trying to sell a few records – well not trying to sell a few records, only succeeding in selling a few records because there were only a few people out there interested in what they were producing - the important thing about LP records, was that the unit price was significantly more than 78s.  At that time a 78 sold for about six shillings whereas an LP was about two quid (six times the price).  So this little organisation that was trying to do its best for the culture of the working classes – actually its turnover shot up because the few hundred people out there that wanted to buy these records were spending two quid a time, instead of six bob a time.  That was a huge difference in the viability of making specialist records.  It didn’t only affect Topic of course, it affected other specialist music like Jazz; it suddenly became viable despite crippling purchase tax at the time.”

The other thing that was happening at the same time was that tape recording came in.  “It was much easier to plug a microphone into a tape machine, press play and record simultaneously and stick the microphone somewhere near a person who then performs, as opposed to actually having to cut a disk of that person performing, on some strange cutting lathe with a black lacquer disk and a delicate stylus.  Disk cutting is a craft and an art that few people do well; tape recording is in the power of any people to do.”

This was the middle fifties and suddenly there was this huge liberalisation for anybody who was interested in things musical.  At a time when so much was happening on the technical and economic side there was also a huge movement musically.  Skiffle was still vibrant, Elvis hit the world at that same time and clocks were being rocked around like mad.  “People talk about the 60s, but the 60s happened in the 50s for me.”

Bill has never been a musician and claims that he is not musically literate but does think that he has ‘ears’ and knows how to deal with acoustical problems that may occur in a musical situation.   He also had a strong sense that he was serving a cause in putting out this music.  “Absolutely!  There is no point in putting music out if it isn’t going to change the world.  78 revolutions per minute was something we aspired to – well 78 revolutions a year would have been alright for us – as long as we had the revolutions we would be happy.

“We thought it was important.  The other big thing at the time was the threat of atomic war.  So many things were happening – also there were great truths being told about Stalin in the USSR which had a shattering effect on the very people who were activists in a lot of movements in this country.  Suddenly, to some extent, the red carpet was pulled out from under us.  People realised that a lot of the people they believed in, didn’t really believe in what they believed in themselves.”

Although Bill had a real interest in recording the tradition as it was, he was also interested in popularising the music.  “Pre 50s, the EFDSS was viewed by a large number of people as a learned society. It was ‘all those vicars’ and people with intellectual interests in that sort of music, gathered around the study of folksong and folk dance.  There was also of course the social element, it was one of the areas where the middle class could procreate happily because dancing is a social event and it brought people together for other than academic and intellectual reasons   It happens in any organisation.  You joined the Young Communist League because you believed in the revolution, but there are girls there as well. – same in the Young Conservatives of course.”

The story of Bill’s early recording work is a big one and much of the detail will be covered in a second part of this article to be published in a future edition of The Living Tradition.  

The first recording that Bill was involved in was done by Ewan MacColl at Ewan’s home in East Croydon.  Ewan had a tape recorder that he had been given by the BBC.  At that time Topic did not have their own tape recorder but they had a deal organising English folk music recordings for Riverside in the US.  Topic thought that they would be able to do this much cheaper if they could get their own tape recorder and do the recordings themselves, cutting out expensive studio time.  Bill was there at the right time and they started looking around for a machine that was both affordable and not too big.  The solution came through Dick Swettenham who was on the technical staff of the WMA but was still working for EMI at that time.  His contacts led to MSS, Master Sound Systems, who had produced a tape recorder.  “It was a monster, but all ours.  Now we could go out and record.  What we were recording was mainly people singing.  It wasn’t elaborate.  With a decent mic in the right place in a decent sounding room, not too much traffic, you can walk away with something bearable.” 

The first recording that Bill was directly responsible for, was going to be released on  Riverside and was of Bert Lloyd and Alf Edwards doing some English drinking songs.  Then he organised a session with Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman and some of the fine Irish musicians that were playing around London at that time.  

The folk clubs were a big leap forward.  The Topic in Bradford started in 1956-57; Harry Boardman started one in Manchester about that time and Ewan MacColl was running Ballads and Blues concerts.  By 1960 there were folk clubs all over the place.  In 1957 Gerry Sharp became General secretary of the WMA and he separated off the part of the organisation that was running summer schools, publishing music and running choirs and losing money, from Topic Records which was making some money but still having difficulty with turnover at a time when there was only a tiny market for this type of recording.  After a while it became obvious that what they needed was somebody in the office who could say ‘the cheque’s in the post’ as if they meant it, which Bill found hard to do.  So Gerry came back into the office and Bill got a job with Collet’s record shop.

This was another case of Bill being in the right place at the right time.  He was standing in Collet’s one day when in came a bright and breezy character called Nat Joseph who wanted the shop to carry stock of a record that he had just made called ‘Live with Love’, the first of three twelve inch LPs of sex education.  Nat had signed import rights to various educational records and was importing recordings from America having spent a year in the States after coming out of Cambridge and wanted to know if Collet’s would be interested.  Then he said that he was also interested in making some entertainment records and the label was going to be called Transatlantic.  He asked Bill if he would be interested in helping out in the studio.  That was to lead to Bill recording the Dubliners.  Nat was able to do the sort of things that Topic were not able to do.  Their first recording session with The Dubliners was a live session with an audience in a big studio and then he signed the Ian Campbell Folk Group who had been working with Bill at Topic.

A busy period followed for Bill. He was doing a bit of record importing, was working in a record shop and now doing freelance work.  As the sixties went on, he was doing more and more freelance work and getting the ideas for running his own record label.  “There were a lot of things that I was interested in doing that were not traditional enough for Topic and not commercial enough for Transatlantic.  I felt that there was a market, I felt that the way the folk clubs were growing, that if we could solve the distribution problem, then we could make a go if it.”

The concept of Leader and Trailer as imprints dedicated to different strands of the tradition was clear in Bill’s mind but now Bill is not really sure which idea came first.  “They were pretty simultaneous really, the first two releases, one on Leader and one on Trailer came together.”  

Despite seeing Trailer as the more commercial strand, he lavished care on the Leader releases with extensive sleeve notes.  “I thought it more important that the Leader releases were put into some kind of context.  If you have got a folk club singer getting up and singing his repertoire, then the people who are going to buy that record are the people who like seeing that singer in the folk clubs and they know the context.  They have bought the record because they know the performer and they like their music, and it’s there as a memento really of a live performance.  But if you produce something of some old feller from deep in the country, who has never sung in a folk club, perhaps with a repertoire that people are not familiar with, possibly singing in a style that people are not familiar with and don’t even find particularly pleasant to listen to always – it needs explaining a bit more about what actually is going on there.  So, a lot of the Leader releases had pages and pages of explanation and also transcriptions of the songs.  We didn’t transcribe the songs of the club singers because we didn’t see it as particularly relevant - although it probably was.”

Although there were some commercial successes among the Leader releases, they were always more expensive and their sales were almost always less than the Trailer records.  “There were some folk club singers who would probably not want their sales to be revealed, they were so small, but others sold what in those days were big numbers – or what were in those days, for us, big numbers.  The Trailer releases, in the main, supported those on Leader but  Leader looked after itself fairly well.  Although they looked lavish, we tried to be economical with the manufacture; we didn’t go into five colour covers and fancy manufacturers sleeves.  The actual sleeves were vestigial really in their concept – they were just a bit of grey cardboard with a pocket that we tucked the record in, then there were a lot of printed pages that got stapled in.  I don’t suppose that people have seen them recently, but they were like big twelve by twelve books with a record in the back.  The fact that they looked lavish is a tribute to Janet Kerr’s design.”

Given his experience with Topic Records, Bill was very aware of the limited market for this type of recordings and his plan was to sell direct to the enthusiast.  Bill was still doing freelance production work for Transatlantic and this initial plan to sell direct was knocked on the head when he got an offer from Transatlantic to distribute his new label.  The result of dealing with a distributor would be that they would only get a tiny fraction of the retail price, but Bill felt that he had to bite that bullet because he could not refuse his artists the opportunity of that wider distribution.  Even with hindsight Bill could not see himself taking a different decision having said they were going to support the popular side of folk club life and folk club singing.  “The folk club scene was at its peak at that time, or building up to a plateau at least.  You could have stuck with the specialist market for Leader, but if you have got folk club singers trying to earn a living I don’t see how we could have said no in that context.  In those days it was pretty tough, nobody paid you very much to sing in their folk club - unless you were an American – and a record was an important part of the publicity and the prestige“

Having a record out at that time was a mark of achievement for an artist, a fairly high hurdle compared to today when it is relatively inexpensive to put out a recording.  Where did the Quality Control or criteria for being on the label come from?  “We didn’t have a check list, it was a gut feeling I suppose.  An ear to the ground, taking on board other people’s opinions on who needed or deserved a recording – pushy singers who came and battered on your door and who if they were good enough you gave into them; and some mistakes – but not many of those.”  Asked to reveal what were the Jewels in the Crown, Bill responds by saying that he sees the whole Leader catalogue as a ‘cluster of jewels’.  Within that catalogue he acknowledges a set of recordings of the Copper Family and the Percy Grainger recordings as being particularly special.  

Bill’s time at the helm of Leader Recordings came to an end with the Company eventually going into liquidation.  Talking about the demise of the label is still a painful experience for Bill and more about this part of the Leader story will be told in part two of this article.

At the time of the label’s demise there was a lot still to do.  “We were talking to people at the Library of Congress and at one point were at a very advanced stage in talking about doing a lot of American music – the sort of things that Rounder are now doing.  We had done a recording of Walter Pardon who had suddenly been discovered – but I think there were others still to be discovered.  Then there is the work of collectors in the field that needed to be published.  People like Mike Yates.  It would be nice if more of that were to get out.  The sort of thing that Rod Stradling is doing now, we hoped to be doing that then – but it wasn’t to be.”

Had Bill still been recording now, we might be telling a different story given the technological changes, including the introduction of the DVD.  “If there had been DVDs when we started Leader, think what we might have done when we were recording all these great Irish fiddle players and people like that.  If it had been easy to have documented their playing styles, I think  that would have been really valuable now to know more about the fingering and the bowing and things like that.  We are not yet using video properly for roots style music.  Alan Lomax did a bit with old style cine cameras in the forties, but they were all very staged.  If you see any of the old Lomax films I think very few of them were accurate documents, they were all very staged for the shoot, very often out of sync and things like that.”

“There is a big job still to be done.  Not because traditional music is going to die out, because it isn’t going to die out, but because it changes.  And it would be advantageous for us to know what is current now, just as it would be to know what was current twenty years ago or fifty years ago.  Cecil Sharp was convinced he had just collected the last song from the last folk singer in the country.  They thought this because it is obvious that it is all going to die because it is old men, but the truth is that it is old men that sit around doing these things because young me have other things to do.  So it is an illusion to think that it is dying because it is only old men that are doing it – and of course that is not even true now because it is more than the old men who are doing it.”

“The important thing is the change.  If only we could only have recorded Mozart playing there would be a lot less guessing about how things ought to be when you are trying to perform his music.  Documenting of actual performances in any area of music making, or even in acting or anything like that, is really valuable.  There is a whole Shakespeare thing going on now on the telly and you begin to realise that the styles - just the way that you deliver the lines - changes the whole feeling of the work.  And it is the same with singing.  We know so little really.  We have the advantage that from about 1880 you stand a chance of being able to check how somebody sang a song and we can track the change of singing and performance styles – but I think there are great gaps.  Certainly it would have been nice if Edison had invented the DVD at the same time as he invented the phonograph.”

Bill still retains an interest in folk music and still goes occasionally - very occasionally - to folk clubs.  When the company went bust, or rather before that, when they lost the Transatlantic contract, Bill had to get a job.  He heard that Salford University were starting a course and they couldn’t find anybody to teach it.  Bill applied and has been teaching recording techniques there for over 20 years.  At the time, in 1983, it was Salford College of Technology and the course called Popular Music and Recording, was the first of its type in the country.  “Actually this year is my 50th year in recording, 1955 to 2005.  I have seen it all.  When I first went into recording you couldn’t buy a tape recorder easily.  They were in the hands of people like EMI.  If they needed a recorder for Abbey Road, EMI would design and make one.  Quite a contrast to today.”

Despite the massive output, Bill doesn’t now have a large personal collection.  “You mass produce records and think – there is no point in taking one now, there are thousands on the shelf so I’ll get one later.  Then they have all been sold.  I do have some, but I don’t have anything like a copy of every thing I have ever done.”

When asked if he had a sense that these recordings were part of his life’s work, Bill’s response was typically modest and at the same time forward looking and optimistic.  “No not really, somebody else would have come along and done it.  And probably better!  No I don’t think it was my life’s work.  We’ll start that tomorrow,”

Bill Leader
50 years in the recording industry – Part 1