Steve Benbow

'Britain's first folk guitarist' - whose collaborators ranged from Ewan MacColl to Spike Milligan
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The Independent Online

Stephen George Benbow, acoustic guitarist, singer and music director: born London 29 November 1931; twice married (one son, one daughter); died London 17 November 2006.

When was the acoustic guitar's Golden Dawn? Some say 7 June 1959, the date the BBC television Monitor arts series televised Ken Russell's Guitar Craze. One scene had Davy Graham playing "Cry Me a River" on what looked like a tenement bombsite.

Graham was the first of arguably four major guitar stylists to create indigenous acoustic guitar styles in Britain - the other three being Wizz Jones, Martin Carthy and Bert Jansch. Before Graham there was a half-light period in which acoustic guitar went from being a rhythm instrument in the hands of the likes of Al Bowlly or an instrument for jazz hotshots to becoming a primary melody instrument with a British voice. Steve Benbow was an important link in the chain. A direct influence on Graham, nine years Benbow's junior, he played a key part in Graham's skyrocket development.

Benbow's music was coloured by time abroad. More directly, Graham recalled, Benbow "taught me some of my earliest chords". In his notes to After Hours (1997), a session the former Viper John Pilgrim recorded privately in 1967, Graham remembered learning "Miserlou" from "the singing and playing of 'Tiger' Steve Benbow".

Steve Benbow was born in Tooting, south-west London, in 1931. His family moved to Hooley in Surrey in 1936 and he attended Reigate Grammar School until 1947, developing a fondness for French and German. His father, who had served in the Camel Corps in Egypt, planted an interest in Arabic. Benbow was to go into farming, but when, later, he compared the hours and rewards of that life with what he could get in the skiffle and folk-club scene, the money, hours and perks beat hand-milking before dawn hands down. Nevertheless, animal husbandry remained a passion his whole life long.

In 1950 he went into the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and found himself posted to Egypt, where he became an interpreter working in Arabic, French and Mauritanian Creole. Jimmie Macgregor, briefly in the Steve Benbow Folk Four, recalls, his "great ear for language".

To keep boredom at bay, Benbow bought himself a guitar in a shop in the Egyptian town of Ismailia. He developed sufficient technique to play on forces radio. After demob in 1955 he walked straight into a gig playing trad jazz with Dave Kier's Jazz Band and before long was developing a name for himself around the London clubs.

He met the playwright, singer and songwriter Ewan MacColl, who, with Bert Lloyd, invited him to accompany them on their Bold Sportsmen All in 1957. One of MacColl's pieces was "Gaelic Football", which Benbow swiftly incorporated in his repertoire, only for it, in the best tradition of the folk process and the hurly-burly of the day, to be lifted from him for Tonight's Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor's much-remembered "Football Crazy". The MacColl connection also got Benbow to the 1957 International Youth Festival in Moscow. Another important early connection was Dominic Behan, with whom he recorded The Irish Rover (1960) and produced Ireland Sings (1965).

Benbow's reputation on guitar got him plenty of folk and skiffle-club work, whether at MacColl and Lloyd's Ballads and Blues as an accompanist, a Tuesday residency with the Steve Benbow Folk Four at the Cellar (the former Skiffle Cellar) in Greek Street or, sharing a residency with Macgregor, at the Tattie Bogle (Scots for "scarecrow"), a curious name for Soho's Golden Square.

"He had a good repertoire of English folk-songs," recalls Macgregor,

some of them pretty raucous, bawdy, earthy stuff. He delivered it with a lot of style. He was a very significant part of the early [Folk] Revival. If we weren't playing music, we just laughed all the time. He was a terrific companion and a top-notch entertainer as well. Unlike a lot of folkies who got very narrow-minded about certain things, Steve played a huge range of different songs.

One of John Pilgrim's abiding memories of Benbow is that "he was easy to work with", a fact borne out by the huge amount of work he did - at points in time at the expense of his health. He worked solidly, variously, as a soloist or as a member of such outfits as the Benbow Crew, Sonny Stewart Skiffle Kings, Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group and the Brady Boys. During the 1960s he appeared regularly on Britain's airwaves on Guitar Club, Saturday Skiffle Club and its successor Saturday Club and regional television programmes including Alex Awhile, Barndance and Hullaballoo as well as hosting his own Plectrum series for Scottish Television and becoming the resident musician on Spike Milligan's Muses with Milligan.

He also recorded extensively, débuting with Steve Benbow Sings English Folk Songs and Steve Benbow Sings American Folk Songs (both 1957) via Songs of Ireland (1966) with the Strawberry Hill Boys (later shortened to the Strawbs) to Don't Monkey With My Gun (2003).

Benbow's relationship with Behan was rekindled in 1969 when Behan talked Christy Moore into singing four of his songs (and his own repertoire) for Moore's first album, Paddy on the Road (1969). Benbow acted as the session's music director. "It was nothing to do with me really," Moore told me. "My name was on the album and that's about it."

Steve Benbow was still playing in pubs around Brentford, Isleworth and Hounslow until the Friday before his death. He was, as Colin Harper justifiably dubbed him in his Jansch biography, Dazzling Stranger (2000), "Britain's First Folk Guitarist". Benbow's generosity to Davy Graham helped instil in Graham a similar spirit of open- handedness and the sharing of knowledge, for example, with Martin Carthy.

Fittingly, one of the finest examples of Benbow's playing can be heard on People on the Highway: a Bert Jansch encomium (2000), on which he is in the company of such as Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones, Donovan and Johnny Marr's Healers. Benbow performed "Love is Teasing".

Ken Hunt

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