Rab Noakes, veteran Scottish folk musician who with Gerry Rafferty was in the original line-up of Stealers Wheel – obituary

Noakes on stage, circa 1980 - Tony Russell/Redferns/Getty Images
Noakes on stage, circa 1980 - Tony Russell/Redferns/Getty Images

Rab Noakes, who has died aged 75, was a leading figure on the Scottish folk scene, a singer-songwriter, guitarist and music producer who could switch effortlessly between blues and skiffle and American country and Scottish folk – and what he termed “interpretations”of songs by other artists.

In addition he wrote songs for the Newcastle folk line-up Lindisfarne and was famously a member of the first line-up of Stealers Wheel, with Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty.

Noakes’s music career took off in London in the mid 1960s, and in 1970 he released his first of many albums, Do You See The Lights, which included the song Together Forever, which became hit for Lindisfarne.

He first met Gerry Rafferty in 1967 at Billy Connolly’s father’s house in Glasgow; they bonded singing a duet of The Beatles’ In My Life. “Gerry and I were kindred spirits, “ Noakes recalled. “We could play for hours during the day and then sit up all night chatting, singing and writing songs. We were a portable party and I have some great memories of those days.”

Stealers Wheel on Top of the Pops - David Redfern/Redferns
Stealers Wheel on Top of the Pops - David Redfern/Redferns

Noakes played on Rafferty’s first solo album, Can I Have My Money Back and in 1971, with fellow Scot Joe Egan, they founded Stealers Wheel which would shoot to chart success in 1973 with Stuck In The Middle With You. Noakes had left the band by the time it was released, but recalled the occasion that inspired its acerbic lyrics:

“We were being wined and dined in the Aretusa, in King’s Road … by the boss of A&M Records, who was quite an aloof fellow, and these producers who were there for the time-honoured free meal... Gerry thought it was ridiculous these people were talking about the band, but not to it when we were all sitting there in the same restaurant. But then he did find a lot of the music industry ridiculous. Which, of course, it was in those days.”

Noakes and Rafferty remained good friends and continued to collaborate on occasions. They would meet up regularly at the Globe pub in Marylebone Road to discuss the frustrations of life in the music business that would inspire Rafferty’s greatest hit, Baker Street. After Rafferty’s death in 2011, Noakes kept his memory alive with tribute concerts at which his own rendition of his friend’s Moonlight and Gold was a highlight.

Stealers Wheel, the self-titled debut studio album from 1972, with a cover by the Scottish artist John Byrne
Stealers Wheel, the self-titled debut studio album from 1972, with a cover by the Scottish artist John Byrne

Robert Noakes was born at St Andrews, Fife, on May 13 1947, the son of a postal worker and a local government officer. The family moved to Cupar, where he took singing lessons as a child and was just six when he gave his first public performance. Later he taught himself guitar and violin and would play at parties and in schools.

He left Bell Baxter high school aged 16 and moved to Glasgow, working as a clerical assistant in the Ministry of Pensions. On promotion, he moved to London, working for the civil service by day while playing at folk clubs by night.

Over the years he recorded a series of solo albums and collaborated with others, including Lindisfarne (the folk group also recorded his Turn a Deaf Ear), the American singer-songwriter Brooks Williams, and Barbara Dickson, an old friend, with whom he recorded the album Reunited in 2014.

But although he kept going, touring and gigging regularly in later years as Rab Noakes and the Varaflames (including Pick Withers, Rod Clements, and Fraser Speirs), and becoming a mainstay of Celtic Connections, Glasgow’s annual folk, roots and world music festival, he never had a chart hit himself.

In the early 1980s Noakes became a senior music producer, and later head of entertainment, with BBC Radio Scotland, leaving in 1995 to start a production company, Neon, with Stephanie Pordage, whom he married in 1998. She died last year. An earlier marriage to Marianne Mitchelson was dissolved.

Rab Noakes, born May 13 1947, died November 11 2022