Michael Chapman R.I.P.
Michael Chapman, who has died aged eighty, didn’t quite make it to the age at which he said he might consider retirement. Andres Segovia, the great Spanish guitar virtuoso, had given his final performance aged ninety-four in 1987 (Segovia had also been due to give a concert in just a few days’ time when he died). Michael thought this was a good example to follow.
He had enjoyed a second career over the past twenty years, being feted by alt-rock firebrands Sonic Youth and younger players such as American primitive guitarist Jack Rose and the No Neck Blues Band, after thinking it was all over following a heart attack in 1990. There was even a compilation album, Oh Michael Look What You’ve Done, featuring musicians including Lucinda Williams, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Michael’s long-time friend Bridget St John and his sometime neighbours on the English-Scottish border, Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp singing and playing favourite songs and instrumentals from his forty-strong album catalogue.
This must have come as a surprise to the man who once told the Herald that his songs were too miserable for people to cover. Mind you, he also told a story about being at a festival when his wife, Andru said, “Listen. That’s one of yours.” Michael claimed to have no recollection of writing or recording the song in question but this might just have been mischief because it was on his first album, the startling Rainmaker, and still in his repertoire into the 2010s.
Michael Chapman was born and grew up in the Leeds inner-city area of Hunslet. His father worked in a steelyard and Michael was expected to follow suit. The arrival of Lonnie Donegan playing American folk and blues songs in the skiffle era and Michael’s discovery of blues pickers including Big Bill Broonzy and jazz players Django Reinhardt and, later, Wes Montgomery put an end to that idea. His parents were not at all pleased.
Through his later teens and during his studies to become a photography lecturer Michael was playing in pubs and clubs around Yorkshire. While at art college he took a summer job as a woodsman, finding inspiration for songs such as Among the Trees and In the Valley and subsequently, a book of recollections. His lecturing days didn’t last long and he made his way to Cornwall, where guitarists including the then Ralph May (now better known as Ralph McTell) were drawing audiences to local folk clubs.
Short of cash and seeking shelter from the rain, one night Michael offered to play instead of paying to get into a club. Word of his talent then began to spread on the Cornish scene then further afield. If his singing hadn’t quite found its world-weary character, his guitar playing, as documented on the retrospectively released Growing Pains, was already at the standard where people might gawp at the stage and remark, “Jeez, there’s only one of them.”
In 1969 EMI Records launched the Harvest label to capture the underground and progressive rock music that was popular on the fertile college circuit and on radio programmes such as John Peel’s Top Gear. Michael’s debut, Rainmaker appeared with releases by Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Cream lyricist Pete Brown, Kevin Ayers, and others.
There was a movement of singer-songwriters who were conspicuously able guitarists at the time, mostly based around Soho clubs like Les Cousins. Michael was often lumped in with them but never part of this scene. He’d returned to Yorkshire, to live in Hull, where he found a stupendous sidekick, guitarist Mick Ronson.
The sound on Michael’s early albums, which were produced by Gus Dudgeon, became a significant influence on both Elton John, whom Dudgeon also produced, and David Bowie. No-one hearing Ronson tear into Soulful Lady on Michael’s second album, Fully Qualified Survivor would have been surprised by Ronson’s heroics with Bowie. Ronson and Michael featured on sessions for Elton John’s Madman Across the Water. John apparently wanted them both in his band but failed to make this clear. Then Ronson’s band, the Rats, were hired by Bowie to become the Spiders from Mars. Michael never quite forgave Bowie for pinching his guitarist.
Michael had his own near-hit, Postcards of Scarborough, also from Fully Qualified Survivor, which John Peel championed and which appeared on the popular “sampler” album, Picnic. His next album, Window, was released in his absence and apparently without the promised contributions of saxophonist Stan Getz. Despite these instances and Michael covering songs including Blind Alfred Reed’s How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live ahead of both Ry Cooder and Bruce Springsteen, he shouldn’t be regarded as a nearly man. Albums such as Millstone Grit and Deal Gone Down, released by Decca, show a musician absolutely in charge of his art and added to his acoustic playing, an electric guitar style that inspired Sonic Youth to form.
Signing with Criminal Records (a source of much mirth) Michael released the surely ironically titled tuition album Playing Guitar the Easy Way. The band that had at various times featured drummer Keef Hartley and the aforementioned bass guitarist, Rick Kemp was jettisoned as he concentrated on solo live work. He seemed to like nothing better than getting into his Volvo and driving to the next gig. His relative proximity to Edinburgh and Glasgow meant that Scotland saw much more of him latterly than during his days with the major record labels, although he also became an enthusiastic driver down America’s highways and – always a source of stories and tunes – peculiar byways.
His assertion that he could keep on going as long as Segovia had was always backed up by the quality of his performances and the strength of his material. An appearance on Later with Jools Holland well into his seventies showcased a talent that was the real deal, the fully qualified survivor compared to the probably much better known, much younger bands on the same show.
One gig particularly stands out. In an Edinburgh nightclub where the promotion hadn’t been all it might have been, Michael looked out into the dimness after the first song and commented that, “There were people here for the soundcheck.” Maybe so but the set he played would have graced a packed Hollywood Bowl.
From The Herald, September 23, 2021