Mike Ramsden

Singer/guitarist with the Silkie

Michael John Ramsden, guitarist and singer: born Totnes, Devon 21 June 1943; married 1966 Sylvia Tatler (two sons, one daughter); died Totnes 17 January 2004.

Mike Ramsden was singer and guitarist with the folk group the Silkie, who in 1965 were signed up by the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and recorded a version of the Lennon and McCartney song "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away".

Ramsden said later, "Bob Dylan knew that John Lennon had been working with us so he asked John what we were like. He replied, 'They're very silky.' " The comment was as accurate as it was cryptic, as the Silkie had a very soft and smooth sound, clearly modelled on the Seekers.

Ramsden was born in Totnes, Devon, in 1943 and his mother became its first Lady Mayor in 1945. He was a choirboy at St Mary's Church and went to Totnes Grammar School. At Hull University, he started a folk club and formed a vocal harmony group with Sylvia Tatler (tambourine), Ivor Aylesbury (guitar) and Kevin Cunningham (double-bass). They took their name from "The Great Silkie", a Hebridean song about a seal that they performed.

Cunningham, who came from Bootle, suggested that they should spend some time on Merseyside, and, in 1965, they performed alongside the Spinners at the Cavern club in Liverpool. Ramsden recalled,

We were featured in the folk column of the Mersey Beat newspaper, which also said that Brian Epstein was bringing the New Christy Minstrels to the UK. We wrote to Epstein and said he was turning his back on his home town and that he should sign us.

Epstein asked his "Mr Fix It", Alistair Taylor, to meet the group, and he appointed Taylor their personal manager. They were signed to Fontana Records and arranged a folk song, "Blood Red River", for their first single. Their second single was "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", a folk-styled ballad from the Beatles' film Help! (1965). There has been much speculation over the Beatles' role in their recording and, when I met Ramsden in 1998, I asked him the true position:

It was really Paul's arrangement of John's song. The bit at the beginning on guitar is Paul. We hadn't been expecting George Harrison but he turned up and he suggested tapping on the back of a guitar and going "sssh".

John was with an engineer in the control room, producing the record. We had six hours with three Beatles and Jane Asher, who was opening the beer. John was so chuffed that he rang Brian Epstein and said, "Listen, Brian, we've just made a No 1." He played it over the phone and Brian said, "Well done."

"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" only made the UK Top Thirty but it did get into the US Top Ten. The Silkie was set to go the United States but the American Musicians' Union demanded compensation in exchange for a work permit, and Epstein considered that blackmail. "We never went," said Ramsden:

I remember going to play the university at Aberystwyth and stopping off at Merthyr Tydfil to make a phone call to a radio station in America.

All four of us were in the phone box and it took some time to get through. We were being heard across America while some ladies from Merthyr Tydfil were outside complaining loudly, "Will you get off the phone? I want to call my husband" and "Listen to them, they think they're big shots, ringing America."

The Silkie made two more singles, "Keys to My Soul" (which they wrote) and "Born to Be With You" and released an album, The Silkie Sing the Songs of Bob Dylan (1965). Aylesbury and Cunningham then left the group, but Ramsden and Tatler married in 1966 and continued as a duo. They worked for the British Council and, from time to time, introduced their children to the act. "We were like the von Trapps," said Sylvia Ramsden. "By and large, we have managed to make a living out of singing," added Mike Ramsden. "We got a 30-year career out of one hit record, which can't be bad."

Some 30 years after that hit, I saw the Silkie performing on Merseyside. The blend of their voices was impressive, accompanied only by Mike's 12-string guitar and Sylvia's tambourine. They did Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" as a sung conversation and everyone shouted out "Hey" at the appropriate moments on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away".

Their repertoire extended to the present, with Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping". That song's theme about getting knocked down and getting up again resonated with Ramsden, who had endured kidney disease. In 1993 he had a kidney transplant and, on New Year's Eve 2003, discharged himself to play at the Cott Inn in Dartington. Despite his health, he was collecting for the kidney unit, typical of the musician who had raised thousands of pounds for charity by instigating the annual Totnes Raft Race.

Spencer Leigh

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