Robert Kirby: Musical arranger who worked with Nick Drake and Elvis Costello

The musical arranger, conductor, composer and multi-instrumentalist Robert Kirby was best known for the delicate, understated arrangements he created for Nick Drake on Five Leaves Left, the singer-songwriter's 1969 debut, and its 1970 follow-up, Bryter Layter. These albums, together with Pink Moon – the musician's bleak third album recorded without Kirby – only sold a few thousand copies at the time of their release, and following Drake's death after an overdose of antidepressant drugs in November 1974, he was almost forgotten.

However, the mid Eighties saw Drake become a cult figure, name-checked by The Cure, R.E.M. and The Dream Academy. By the late Nineties, the singer-songwriter had been the subject of an exhaustive biography by Patrick Humphries, and the first of several radio and TV documentaries. In 2000, the car manufacturer Volkswagen licensed the title track from Pink Moon for a commercial in the US, thus introducing this very English artist to a new fanbase. This led to further usage of Drake's atmospheric, haunting songs in several films, and his current standing as one of the most influential artists of the last four decades, a back catalogue jewel of the Universal empire. Along with the singer's sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, and producers Joe Boyd and John Wood, Kirby was a keeper of the Nick Drake flame, always happy to contribute to the raft of books and documentaries devoted to his late friend and talk about their times together at Cambridge and in the studio, as well as the darker days when "the shadows closed in".

Kirby was associated with another elusive, influential artist, Vashti Bunyan. He arranged her 1970 debut Just Another Diamond Day, and also Lookaftering, her critically acclaimed 2005 return. In the Seventies, he also worked with the folk-rock group Audience, and a raft of singer-songwriters including Ralph McTell, Elton John, David Ackles, Sandy Denny, John Cale, Richard and Linda Thompson, as well as The Strawbs. He eventually joined that band as keyboard player between 1975 and 1978 and made three albums with them.

With arrangers less in demand in the Eighties, Kirby went into market research, most notably becoming a director of Ipsos. But he took the occasional sabbatical for sessions with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Any Trouble. In recent years he returned to music full time and became something of a mentor to the Magic Numbers, as well as contributing arrangements to Paul Weller's Heliocentric album (2000) and Linda Thompson's Versatile Heart (2007).

Born in 1948, Kirby was a gifted musician and vocalist who played in a folk band in his teens. He went up to Caius College, Cambridge in October 1967 as a choral exhibitioner and sang in Caius chapel six days a week. He met Drake when they both auditioned unsuccessfully for the Footlights revue. Kirby then performed with a choral group called The Gentle Power of Song – they recorded a single and two albums for Polydor – but agreed to provide string arrangements for Drake after the singer visited him with a guitar and a book of lyrics in the spring of 1968. "I was working a lot with classical musicians, and his was virtuoso playing. He did not make mistakes," Kirby told Belgium's VRT Radio 1. "To start with, I thought the voice was a bit weak, but that was just my immaturity. I soon saw it was the perfect way to deliver the lyrics and vocals of those songs, very understated."

Their friendship blossomed over shared interests in classical and folk music and songwriters like Bob Dylan and Randy Newman. Kirby developed an uncanny understanding of Drake's unusual tunings, and tailored his arrangements to suit his friend's delicate compositions. He also recorded some of his songs on a reel-to-reel tape machine. With an octet assembled and conducted by Kirby, Drake gave his first concert at the Bateman Room in Cambridge, performing material like "Time of No Reply" and "I Was Made to Love Magic" – which became the singer-songwriter's first Top 40 single in 2004, three decades after his death.

In the summer of 1968, Drake signed a contract with Witchseason, Boyd's production company distributed by Island, and began recording Five Leaves Left, with him and Wood engineering. Richard Hewson was commissioned to write new arrangements but the results disappointed Drake, who convinced Boyd to let him use Kirby instead.

The arranger showed how in tune he was with Drake's muse and his gorgeous string parts underpinned the wistful "Way to Blue", "Day is Done", "The Thoughts of Mary Jane", and "Fruit Tree". "These four tracks with the string quartets, we did in one three-hour session. We did them live with Nick. Nothing was overdubbed," Kirby recalled. However, he felt unable to do justice to "River Man", a dark, prescient song in 5/4 time, which was eventually scored by the experienced bandleader Harry Robinson.

A month after the album's release in September 1969, Drake dropped out of university and moved to London, as did Kirby. On Bryter Layter, Kirby's input encompassed brass as well as string arrangements, though John Cale played celesta, piano and organ on the pastoral "Northern Sky".

In 1970, Kirby produced the Time Will Tell album for Millie – of "My Boy Lollipop" fame – which contained a version of "Mayfair", a Drake composition from 1968 which only surfaced in a demo version on the Made to Love Magic compilation in 2004. He also employed his friend on two albums he produced for Mick Audsley and a record made for the educational publishers Longman. However, the increasingly withdrawn and elusive Drake opted to cut Pink Moon, his last album, solo, with just Wood producing in October 1971. The affable and gregarious Kirby kept in touch as much as he could, and occasionally put his friend up. "He would arrive at all hours, quite unannounced, totally unexpected. He'd stay for one day, one week. Then he'd be gone. I've always thought that things accelerated from that point. I did rather sadly lose touch at the end," he admitted to Humphries. "My memories looking back on Nick are predominantly happy, but stained with guilt and remorse that I didn't do anything. But in 1974 I was 26 and what can a 26-year-old do to help someone like that?"

In the Seventies, Kirby, who had intended to become a music teacher, was working non-stop as a producer and arranger. "I produced "Sugar Me" for Lynsey de Paul, the only thing I ever earned a reasonable sum of money on," he said of the 1972 Top 5 hit. "I did Zero She Flies for Al Stewart. I worked with Ralph McTell on his first two albums, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Keith Christmas, Shelagh McDonald, Andy Roberts... Dave Cousins' solo album Two Weeks Last Summer. It seemed to be a positive thing to do, to get on with a career as an orchestrator. Arranging in those days was heaven. Everyone wanted strings! I put that down to what George Martin did. "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" were very English styles of string arrangements," stressed Kirby, who proved as inspired and dedicated as the Beatles' producer. Two years ago, Kirby wrote a new arrangement of the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" for the Magic Numbers to record on a 40th-anniversary remake of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1982, he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for a Costello concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

"They thought I was dead. For a long time when Nick died, a lot of people thought I was dead," he reflected. "Everything always goes back to Nick Drake. Meeting Nick made my career." Kirby took part in tribute concerts to his friend in New York in 2005 and Birmingham earlier this year.

Kirby died following emergency heart surgery after a short illness. Gabrielle Drake posted the following tribute to Kirby on the brytermusic website: "His loss is a blow to all of us. No one knew Nick better – both as a man and as a musician. There will be many who feel, as I do, enormous gratitude for the privilege of having known the fine musician and compassionate man that was Robert Kirby."

Pierre Perrone

Robert Bruce Kirby, arranger, conductor, producer, composer, keyboard-player: born Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire 16 April 1948; married 1979 (marriage dissolved, one daughter, one son); died London 3 October 2009.

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