Black and white photograph of folk music producer Bill Leader with Nathan Joseph at Olympic Studios, some time in the 1960's

When music critic Mike Butler discovered a folk legend in Manchester's midst it was the beginning of much more than an adventure in sound.

When I set out to write a biography of Bill Leader, the legendary sound recordist, what I pictured myself writing about was the music, of course. Those early recordings of the Watersons, the de facto first family of English folk music. Bert Jansch’s debut album, captured on a reel-to-reel machine in Bill’s Camden flat in 1964. The vast trove of recordings he has amassed across his ninety-three years, taking in everyone from Son House to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Ewan MacColl to Peggy Seeger; Pentangle to Pink Floyd.

Black and white photograph of Bill Leader operating a tape recorder at the London office of the Workers' Music Association in the late 1950s
Bill Leader at the offices of the Workers’ Music Association c 1950s – the organisation founded in 1936 to promote the relationship between music and social struggle. After the war, the WMA began producing recordings of the likes of Ewan MacColl, Isla Cameron and Peggy Seeger.  Photo: Bill Leader collection.  

When John Ellis told me that Bill Leader worked at Salford University I filed it in the category marked unlikely occupational trivia, such as Albert Einstein worked in a patent office and Philip Glass drove a taxi. Ellis, a neighbour of Bill’s in Middleton, said Bill was a regular at the folk evening at the Oddfellows pub. I promised myself a visit. Then I landed a piece for Manchester Evening News about Bill. 800 words tops. But 800 words is inadequate to the task. Indeed 505,628 words is inadequate to the task. That’s the amount of words already expended, four volumes into a projected eight book series inspired by Bill called Sounding the Century: Bill Leader & Co. Three books have so far been published. 

I set out to write a story about a folk music pioneer and found myself writing a social history. But then as we know, folk and struggle walk hand in hand. The dreams of the Young Communist League, the labours of the Workers Music Association, the longevity of Topic Records…these things are inseparable. So I found myself writing a social and cultural history, incorporating and rehabilitating first octogenarians and then septuagenarians and so on down to Baby Boomers. (That ‘& Co.’ in the title is very important.) It was something that was bigger than I was.

Black and white photograph of legendary folk producer Bill Leader with Topic club founder Alex Eaton and his wife Gloria, taken during a Young Communist League trip to Hardcastle Crags
At Hardcastle Crags, c 1930s. Bill (left) and wife Gloria were dedicated members of the Young Communist League, whose away trips they loved. Seen here with Alex Eaton (second left) with whom he helped start what may have been Britain’s first folk club, the Topic in Bradford. Photo: Louise Eaton collection.

Born in New Jersey in 1929 to East End migrants, Bill’s parents returned to London, but the depression came with them. Their council house accommodated grandparents, aunts, cousins – all refugees from Canning Town, a nightly target for the Luftwaffe. By the time the war ended he was in Keighley, West Yorkshire, where his father’s factory had been relocated.  Mother Lou was a loyal reader of the Daily Worker, Britain’s only socialist daily, and a mainstay of its annual bazaar. The paper had the best racing tipster in the business.

Photograph of the Topic Records album The Manchester Angel by Ewan MacColl, produced by Bill Leader
Topic Records, founded in 1939 as the WMA’s in-house record club, came into its own in the 1950s producing the first albums of traditional British music. The oldest indie label in the world, it was to become associated with two key figures of the folk revival: Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd. Cover art: James Boswell

Dead end jobs followed, but no job could ever be as thrilling as selling records for “this bunch of nuts in London called the Workers’ Music Association.” He helped found a branch in Bradford in 1953 then volunteered at the national HQ on Bishops Bridge Road, London, becoming production manager at the Topic record club at just the moment folk music was being reclaimed as a vehicle for political struggle. With Bill recording everything in his living-room, expenses were minimal for the would-be record label.

Black and white photograph of folk singer Bert Jansch by Brian Shuel, from the artists debut album cover
Bert Jansch, 1964. “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch”, said Jimmy Page. “When I first heard that LP, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch it.” Said Neil Young: “As much of a great guitar player as Jimi.” Photo: Brian Shuel.

When scrap metal merchant and aspiring label chief Nat Joseph founded Transatlantic Records, Bill was in the right place at the right time.

The title of my book series is: Sounding the Century: Bill Leader & Co. If Bill didn’t insinuate himself, Zelig-like, into every major cultural happening of the Twentieth Century, one or other of his mates did. He knew Brian Epstein before Epstein knew The Beatles. As the rep for Folkways Records one of his stops was at North End Music Stores (NEMS) in Liverpool – the shop Epstein managed for Queenie and Harry, his mum and dad.

Photograph of folk producer Bill Leader recording a one man band outside Piece Hall, Halifax, 1970's
Bill recorded Jansch’s first LP in his bedroom in Camden, Ewan MacColl’s demo of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Peggy Seeger’s eponymous album, Jesse Fuller, The Dubliners, Mike Harding, Christy Moore, and here, a one-man band outside the Piece Hall in Halifax, c 1970s. Photo: Bill Leader collection.

“He cottoned onto The Beatles, which is one of the shrewdest moves any record person has done, and he cottoned onto Folkways Records too,” says Bill.  The sweat ran off the walls at the Cavern Club and the toilets were ankle-deep in urine.  “It was an interesting place!”

Photograph of Brian Epstein's family shop NEMS (North End Music Stores) from the early 1960's
North End Music Stores, the music and appliance shop at 12-14 Whitechapel, Liverpool – one of several owned by Harry and Queenie Epstein, and run by their son, future Beatles manager Brian Epstein. “People talk about the 60s, but the 60s happened in the 50s for me,” said Bill.

It was a crossroads of musical frontier and societal change, which is what I’ve tried to highlight in my account: in volume 4 [Time Immoral: 1959-1966] the sedate world of folk music rocked by gangsterism; in volume 5 [And Now It Is So Strange 1965-1968] an exploration of culture and decay; in volume 7 [A Messy Garden, If It Is a Garden: 1969-1978] an account of Bill’s years helming the Trailer and Leader labels.

Black and white portrait of legendary blues singer Son House and next to it and black and white live photo of the Jewish folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
Bill was supervising the recording of Stefan Grossman‘s ‘Ragtime Cowboy Jew’ album at Sound Techniques recording studio. On one occasion Grossman turned up with Son House (left) who happened to be in London. The tapes rolled all night and there is an album’s worth of unreleased Son House material stuck in a vault, somewhere. ‘New Pony Blues’ made it onto the LP.

Because Ramblin’ Jack Elliot (right) didn’t have a work permit, a plan was hatched to record the cowboy singer – and keen yachtsman – outside of territorial waters, which at the time was a modest three miles. Thus, Topic’s 1958 ten-inch LP, Jack Takes the Floor, was recorded on board The Magnet, a yacht berthed at Cowes, Isle of Wight. They didn’t feel the need to go the whole three miles out. It was a monumental session, the out-takes furnishing material for two further CDs in 2004. Photo: Brian Shuel 

It’s a personal opinion, but a portrait of Britain in sound recordings (if Bill’s career doesn’t quite manage an unbroken century of work it comes darn close) can restore to you a sense of humanity that was always, until recently, to be found in the national spirit.  Bill’s own story is the story of anyone who has been buffeted by the impersonal forces of history. As someone blessed with a long life, Bill has been buffeted by more than most, from the traumas of the Second World War to the collective calamity of 2020, the plague year.

Photograph of folk producer Bill Leader outside his old studio at 5 North Villas, London, his home and recording studio from 1958 to 1973; and next to it a colour photograph of the Carter's Arms pub in Rhodes, Middleton, where the Oddies folk night is currently held. Taken by Danny Moran
Bill today, 93 years young. The heyday of the folk clubs – the Topic in Bradford, the Manchester Sports Guild, the Unicorn on Church Street, Ewan MacColl’s Ballads and Blues club in London – may be long gone but the Carter’s Arms, Middleton, is home to one of Manchester music’s best kept secrets. On a lucky night you might spy a Mike Harding or a Donal Maguire – the greatest living Irish traditional singer in my humble opinion – or even Bill himself. Photos: Lynne Leader / Danny Moran  

And that’s why I say my biography of Bill Leader amounts to a social history of the 20th Century.

Bill is Everyman.

John Ellis: “I was teaching in the music department at Salford university, this was the early 2000’s, and at the same time Bill was teaching the sound engineering course, so we’d record the students. About six or seven years later I set up a recording studio in Middleton, and I was going down to the ‘Oddies‘ folk night – folk being a bit out of my field. But I wanted to record them, I thought it would be interesting to take some microphones down as a project, and I was reading (top US record producer) Joe Boyd’s autobiography, White Bicycles. Part way through there’s a section about how Bill was one of the main influences in his life. And I thought, he’s literally on the same street, so I got him down to the Middleton session. It turned out he’d recorded one of the musicians, John Howarth of the Oldham Tinkers, for the Deep Lancashire album in the 60s – he hired a room at Manchester University and had them all traipse through one by one – and never met him since.”

“We recorded two albums with the guys from Oddies, an album called Black Lung with Rioghnach Connolly [pictured] which I know she’s particularly attached to, one with George Borowski, and a set of Jacques Brel songs by a band called Dead Belgian from Liverpool. I was very, very lucky. To learn from Bill… his approach at Topic Records was coming from a Communist background, basically. It was about being as invisible as possible and recording what was out there. Very utilitarian. Just a tape machine and one or two mics. That utilitarian idea of what it sounds like in the room. How subtle movements in mic placement make such a difference. And his spirit around the place… very kind, very gentle. Generous. He’s how to grow old gracefully.”   

Six key Bill Leader recordings

Photograph of the Topic Records album Second Shift by Ewan MacColl

Second Shift – Ewan MacColl (1958)

Important because it proved the existence of industrial folk song. If an industry was song-less MacColl would pen one himself, becoming variously a road builder (‘The Song of the Iron Road’) and an electrician (‘The Fitter’s Song’), and elsewhere a miner (‘The Big Hewer’), fisherman (‘Shoals of Herring’) and lorry driver (‘Champion at Keepin’ ‘em Rolling’). 

Photograph of the album Who's going to shoe your pretty little foot? Who's going to glove your hand? by Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger

Who’s going to shoe your pretty little foot? Who’s going to glove your hand? – Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger (1964)

Two US urban hillbillies adrift in the UK. Three duets, seven Peggy solos, five solo Tom… his country picking gelling with her dexterity on the banjo. Freed from MacColl’s ironclad asperity, Seeger seems almost girlish.  

Photograph of the album Jack Orion by Bert Jansch

Jack Orion – Bert Jansch (1966)

Bert’s fourth solo album reunited Bert with Bill and introduced traditional songs to Bert’s repertoire, which has an invigorating effect. Bert hardly sounds doleful at all and the ferocity of his guitar playing is striking. It’s curious how an ancient song like ’Nottamun Town’ provides an apt commentary on the chaotic personal life of the singer. 

Photograph of the album Frost and Fire by The Watersons

Frost and Fire – The Watersons (1965)

Topic chief Bert Lloyd heard the Watersons singing ceremonial songs and suggested a whole album of the same, augmenting the popular ‘Holly Bears a Berry’ with more esoteric fare. It was also Lloyd’s idea to structure the album around the calendar. The resulting album introduced a generation to ritual songs of their own heritage.

Photograph of the folk album Deep Lancashire (1968) produced by Bill Leader

Deep Lancashire – Various (1968)

The album which introduced Lancastrian humour to the wider world, along with the likes of Mike Harding, the Oldham Tinkers and Harvey Kershaw. Dialect poetry, playground songs, industrial ballads… Deep Lancashire created a groundswell of regional pride that far transcended the folk scene. It was Topic’s biggest seller before Nic Jones’s Penguin Eggs came along. 

Photograph of the album The Noah's Ark Trap by folk singer Nic Jones, produced by Bill Leader

The Noah’s Ark Trap – Nic Jones (1977)

All the qualities that made Penguin Eggs so distinctive – free-flowing songs which sustain incredible excitement, voice and guitar locked in exhilaration – are to be found in even greater abundance in this 1977 album for Bill’s own Trailer label.

Sounding The Century: Bill Leader & Co (Vols 1-3) by Mike Butler are available from Troubadour Publishing here

Folk night at The Carters Arms is every Monday from 8.30pm: 610 Manchester Rd, Rhodes, Middleton M24 4PW. Tel: 07415 987913

Folks, folkies and all community-minded Mancunians! The Meteor is a co-operative on a mission to democratise Manchester media, and it is available to YOU! To find out more – click here.

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Feature image: Bill Leader and Nathan Joseph at Olympic Studio (Brian Shuel)

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  • Mike Butler

    Born in Middlesbrough in 1958, Mike gravitated to Manchester to take an arts degree in the mid 1980s before drifting into journalism as jazz correspondent at the city's what's-on bible, City Life. He's the author of Sounding the Century, an ongoing, multi-volume social and cultural UK history refracted through the medium of folk music. He lives in Rochester, NY.

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