Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lesley Duncan, Singer Songwriter (1943 - 2010)

The musical dynamic that exists between Britain and the USA is one that has propelled music throughout the last 50 years but never more so than in the early years when rock/pop was a blank sheet stretching away to the horizon.

First there was the initial blast from the States in the 1950s to be answered by the British Beat Boom of the 1960s and so on back and forth throughout the 70s and 80s, a rivalry which has seen the emergence of some of the best music this century. But whereas the Brits had the upper hand in the 1960s when it came to floppy haired beat combos, they sadly lacked in the field of singer-songwriters and especially female singer-songwriters.

In the early 60s when A&R was God, performers and writers were kept firmly at a distance from one another but by the end of the decade, the writer inmates of the Brill Building had formed an escape committee and had tunnelled their way from under the piano to freedom. Thus we had a whole host of new performers who actually wrote their own stuff and on the distaff side the USA led with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Joan Baez and many others. Here in the UK we had…er…well, no one really.

On this side of the pond, the 60s was a hard time for women in rock. Whilst we had some great performers – Dusty Springfield leading the way, and one or two that wrote a bit but generally performed within a band context like the mercurial Sandy Denny, there were no true singer-songwriters who wrote and performed solo. Whilst there were a few false starts (Lyndsey De Paul, anyone?) it would not be until a teenaged Kate Bush crashed onto the scene in the late 1970s that Britain had a truly talented female SS in its ranks. Or did it?

Back in the early 70s there was a candidate that may lay claim to being the first British female SS and her name was Lesley Duncan. By the seventies, Lesley was not exactly a newcomer as she had spent much of the sixties in a backing singers' co-operative with fellow would-be pop stars Madeline Bell, Kiki Dee and even Dusty herself, singing on each other’s albums. But by 1971 she had written, recorded and released her debut album, entitled ‘Sing Children Sing’. It contained one true hit, ‘Love Song’, covered by Elton John on his ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ effort but her nervousness over live performance rather stymied any commercial success that was her due and her star never rose despite further LPs in the mid seventies. It seems she preferred the anonymity of session work and can be found in the chorus of many well-known albums including ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

As far as I know, her first two CBS (and best albums) were not released on CD until the early 2000s and even now you’d be lucky to find copies of them and that’s a shame. It seems pioneers never benefit.  Worse, the shocking news has just reached me that Lesley died on 12th March, aged just 66.  As a tribute, here's a video of Lesley singing 'Earth Mother', the title track from her second LP and below that, a glimpse of the 'Backing Singers Co-operative' in action supporting Dusty Springfield at the NME Pollwinners concert in 1966.  From L-R Madeline Bell, Lesley Duncan and Kiki Dee.

Rest in peace, Lesley.

And if you'd like to read more about my views on music, don't forget my book, 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.


xpat said...

As a long-time fan of Lesley, and having been fortunate enough to see her perform live at Drury Lane,I am sure that her discomfort performing live was used by promoters at the time as an excuse to keep her low profile, which led to her disillusionment with the industry. Other performers thought the world of her and were very protective of her. She was a truly talented writer and it is surprising that so little of her material was covered. Her songs are very personal and convey some of her anxieties about the world. I hope that her later work will also be re-released, but I suspect it will need a lot of pressure to do so. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Xpat - thanks for stopping by and providing more insight to Lesley's career. I always found her an enigmatic performer which to me was always a draw. She has one of those voices that is instantly recognisable and am sad that her work is so difficult to find now. I'm trying to get hold of the 'Sing Children Sing' album on CD but no luck so far.

Anonymous said...

Actually Sandy Denny was a prolific songwriter, who had four solo albums! So your argument does not quite work. On the strength of those solo recordings (1971-1978) lay Sandys claim as the best female singer songwriter to come from Britain. Sandy Denny actually left Fairport Convention to pursue her own songwriting more fully. Kate Bush is her own serious contender to that title in terms of quality. Interestingly Lesley Duncan recorded a Sandy Denny composition called 'By the time it gets Dark'.


musicobsessive said...

Hi Andrew - thanks for your comment. If I was to be really pedantic I'd say that by 1971, Lesley appeared as a 'new' (that is largely unknown to the public) singer songwriter whwereas Sandy had been around for years as part of Fairport. Nevertheless, you are right in that they were contemporaries in the genre and I'd be hard pushed to say who was the better.

However, as Lesley has just died, I thought I'd give her her own moment.

Bill said...

Great spot on the Dusty Springfield performance !

musicobsessive said...

Hi Bill - OK I confess, someone else had done the spotting (see the comments attached to the clip) but it is such a joyous piece of film, I thought it served Lesley well. Her death had me pulling out my scratched copy of 'Sing Children Sing' as well. Such a shame that her albums are virtually impossible to get hold of unless you are prepared to break the bank.

sweetpea said...

I was saddened to hear that Lesley passed away - she deserved more commercial success and was a true talent. However, I must disagree about UK female singer-song writers in the 1970's. Starting with Lynsey de Paul, who was the most commercially successful before Kate Bush, not only in the UK but internationally. In the UK alone she wrote 7 top 40 hits for other artists (an additional 7 she performed)and recorded 4 acclaimed albums full of her own songs (1975 album "Love Bomb" has just released on CD in the USA). Lynseys songs have been covered by artists such as Heatwave, Nancy Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Cherryl Lynn and even Ricky Martin when he was the lead singer with Menudo. Carrying on, what about Kiki Dee, Joan Armatrading, Linda Lewis all of whom had successful albums and singles?

musicobsessive said...

Hi Sweetpea, thanks for your comment - I too was very saddened to hear of Lesley's passing as a part of my musical past died with her. I think the point I was making in my post was that Lesley was the first true female singer songwriter to emerge from Britain, her single releases starting in 1963 and continuing through the sixties to her first LP release in 1971. Of the others you mention, you rightly point to Lynsey dePaul and Joan Armatrading as they were also singer songwriters in the 1970s but came a little later in the decade. I don't count Kiki Dee or Linda Lewis as they were primarily singers who wrote a bit.

Feel free to drop by again!