Obituary: Rab Noakes, hugely influential figure in Scotland's music scene

Rab Noakes, pictured at his Glasgow home by Martin Shields
Rab Noakes, pictured at his Glasgow home by Martin Shields

Born: May 13, 1947;

Died: November 11, 2022.

RAB Noakes, who has died suddenly aged 75, was an immensely influential figure on the Scottish music scene.

A distinctive, utterly sincere singer, a superbly accomplished guitarist and a master song craftsman, Noakes enjoyed a professional career of more than half a century. He was also a radio producer of great skill and, committed to fairness and equality, he was a staunch trade unionist who served on the Musicians’ Union Executive Committee and represented musicians’ interests at the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

Noakes was born in St Andrews and grew up in nearby Cupar, where his father encouraged one of his passions, classic cars, and his mother, a singer, inspired another, music. His cousin Derek deepened Noakes’ musical interests by giving him a collection of 78 rpm discs, including some by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who remained favourites and whose songs frequently appeared in Noakes’ early folk club sets.

Even before he moved to Glasgow in 1963 to start his first job as a clerical assistant in the Ministry of Pensions, Noakes had investigated the essential record shops. In his first week in the city, he attended a concert featuring another influence, The Everly Brothers along with Little Richard, Bo Diddley and The Rolling Stones.

Noakes inhaled all the live music he could find in Glasgow and had fond memories of Clive’s Incredible Folk Club, where he heard the Incredible String Band and guitar virtuoso Davey Graham, and the Glasgow Folk Centre, where he and long-time friend, Dundonian Robin McKidd, played their first professional gig in 1967.

It was the first of many as Noakes worked assiduously on interpretations (he hated the term “covers”) of songs by Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Cotten and others and increasingly developed his own songwriting.

When, a year or so later, he met Gerry Rafferty, who was then in the Humblebums with Billy Connolly, another long-time friendship began. Noakes briefly featured with Rafferty in Stealers Wheel but before that, with other long-time friends, including Barbara Dickson, John Watt and Davie Craig, he toured with the Great Fife Road Show and forged another lasting friendship with Archie Fisher.

In 1970, Noakes released his first album, Do You See the Lights, on the Decca label. By now, he was beginning to feature on the rock festival, concert and college circuit, going on to appear on bills with acts such as Budgie, Greenslade, and John Martyn while still featuring in folk clubs. Another friend, Alan Hull, took Noakes’ songs into the album charts with Lindisfarne, who recorded Turn a Deaf Ear on their first album, Nicely Out of Tune, and Together Forever on their second, Fog on the Tyne. Barbara Dickson also recorded Turn a Deaf Ear on her Do Right Woman album.

Noakes followed Do You See the Lights with the album, Rab Noakes (for another major label, A&M) and then Red Pump Special and Never Too Late, both produced by Elliot Mazer, who worked with Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Linda Ronstadt, for the mighty Warner Bros. More big-time associations came with albums for MCA and Ringo Starr’s Ring-O Records.

Despite their undoubted high quality, Noakes’ records didn’t match his labels’ sales expectations. He became alcohol dependent but stopped drinking in 1982. Always a keen radio listener, he followed this fascination by getting production work for BBC Radio Scotland, notably on the afternoon show fronted by Art Sutter, where Noakes memorably introduced another friend, singer-songwriter Michael Marra to radio presenting. This led to “proper jobs” in the Network Radio Department in Manchester, then Noakes’ appointment as Senior Producer in the Entertainment Department at BBC Scotland.

His vast knowledge of pop, rock, folk and country music made Noakes a natural for radio and he encouraged similarly equipped people, including the late, much-valued producer Stewart Cruickshank, to join him. With a busy BBC schedule, Noakes didn’t perform and tour so much but when he did play concerts they could easily have doubled as radio documentaries, with brilliantly informed background information, diverse song selections – interpretations of Little Feat, Talking Heads and Beck Hansen songs as well as beautifully crafted originals – and top notch singing and guitar playing.

In 1995, Noakes and his wife Stephy formed the production company Neon, making documentaries and releasing Noakes’ back catalogue and a steady stream of new recordings. His gig schedule picked up, including shows with harmonica player Fraser Spiers, Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, singer-songwriter Jill Jackson, and old friend Barbara Dickson.

Even being diagnosed with tonsillar cancer in 2015 didn’t stop Noakes singing, at least not for long, or from being generous with advice for emerging musicians. The loss of his wife and muse, Stephy, in May 2021 was another blow that music helped him through.

Noakes was due to appear in January at Celtic Connections, where he celebrated his seventieth birthday in 2017 and was a major contributor in tributes to Bob Dylan, Martyn Bennett and his great friends, Gerry Rafferty and Michael Marra. His innumerable friends and fans, however, will always have his cherished music. In a tribute posted on Twitter, Barbara Dickson wrote: "My dear and old friend Rab Noakes has died suddenly in hospital today. I am shocked. We had so much in common - The Everly Brothers, the Flying Burrito Brothers and an enduring love of songs, particularly traditional music. Sleep well, Rab. May you rest in peace".