Roy Guest: Obituary

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The Independent Online
For a brief while in the Fifties, Roy Guest gave the 16th- century Scots word "howff" back to the English language as a meeting place for songs and good company.

He always described himself as an impresario, and while he was much much more than that, the rather archaic term was a good description of this almost Orson Wellesian, rolypoly man who left his mark on the burgeoning folk revival in ways that his successors have probably never realised.

His was a generation which felt the need to reinvent itself along traditional lines, so while he was actually born in Izmir, Turkey, he always claimed to be a Welshman (he was brought up in Ebbw Vale), and made much of songs in his repertoire like "Cosher Bailey's Engine", which he sang with great panache when he was running his "Roy's Guest Night" concerts at the Purcell Room on the South Bank in the Sixties.

He had first picked up the guitar when teaching at A.S. Neill's pioneering "free school" Summerhill in Suffolk. To be frank, he was never a great singer, though his eight albums for the budget Saga label in the early Sixties were snapped up eagerly by those in search of repertoire, always hard to come by in those days.

It was when he went to Edinburgh to read Anthropology and Psychology that he made his real mark, when he opened the first of what were to be three Howffs, in collaboration with Jim Haynes of the Traverse Theatre. More than a folk club, certainly not a nightclub, but a bit of both with something of a family sing-song thrown in for good measure, the Howff was a unique venture which came at exactly the right time for the burgeoning Scottish folk scene, and owed a great deal to the warmth and surprisingly avuncular manner (for one so young) of its host. Guest wasn't the sort of entrepreneur to sit in a back room and count the takings, and indeed it wasn't about money at all - which is possibly why, ultimately, the three Howffs he ran failed to sustain themselves.

My most lasting memory of the late Sandy Denny, for instance, is of her singing at the London Howff in Primrose Hill, a crowd jam-packed close to her grand piano, intimate surroundings that fostered a depth of communication that I never heard from her before or after, in her tragically brief life. It was Guest's genius that created that kind of artistic ambience, bringing the best out of his guests.

Those were the days when the music business thought there might be money to be made out of folk, and so Roy Guest must have seemed a natural recruit to organisations like Harold Davison and NEMS, Brian Epstein's spin-off from his Beatles empire. When I asked him how he was getting on with Harold Davison, he told me wryly, "Every time we meet he asks me if we're making any money yet."

No doubt his big-name promotions, with people like Joan Baez, Benny Goodman, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Paul Simon made enough to satisfy his bosses, but he displayed his true forte with the Pop Proms, a boundary-crossing series of events at the Royal Albert Hall and the Roundhouse, which incidentally played a significant role in making the folk rock of Fairport Convention acceptable outside the confines of the folk scene.

When the Grade organisation took over the Harold Davison agency in 1965, Guest was invited to join the English Folk Dance and Song Society to set up an agency and information service for folk singers. He followed this with his own business, Folk Directions, which he ran from the building next door to the EFDSS headquarters at Cecil Sharp House, with Jim Lloyd, now presenter of BBC radio's Folk on Two programme.

Despite organising some excellent folk festivals at Croydon's Fairfield Halls in the 1980s, he became somewhat disenchanted with music and moved to Faversham, in Kent. There he took an interest in local politics, and stood as an independent candidate in the local elections in May 1996. He also returned to his first love, the theatre, and became chair of the local Arden Theatre Group. He had, after all, initially trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama (before going to Edinburgh), forming a touring company in his vacations which included Judy Dench and Ian Hendry. On graduation, he had acted in repertory in Ipswich and Bromley.

In the end, though, regardless of his maverick nature and his various talents, from psychotherapy to trying to penetrate neo-Nazi groups in the reunited Germany, Roy Guest's real achievement was his life, in all its restless, multi-faceted, multi-coloured extravagance.

Roy Guest, folk singer and promoter: born Izmir, Turkey 13 March 1934; married three times (one daughter); died Faversham, Kent 23 September 1996.