Mac McGann: Folk musician in the vanguard of the singer-songwriter movement

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:14

Michael "Mac" McGann was a folk singer and songwriter, a unique guitarist, barrelhouse blues pianist, harmonica player, graphic artist, wood carver and cartoonist. He was best-known for his live performances in pubs and clubs around London alongside guitarists and singers who would become more famous – including John Martyn, John Renbourn, Ralph McTell and the "King of the Buskers" Don Partridge. McGann co-founded several folk bands, including the Levee Breakers in the 1960s with the 12-string guitarist Johnny Joyce and singer Beverley Kutner (later to become Beverley Martyn). They were a breakthrough outfit who became a major influence on McTell and such folk groups as Pentangle, with Renbourn and Bert Jantsch, and later the Incredible String Band.

McTell, who would make his name with Streets of London, was inspired by McGann, whom he described as "truly in the vanguard of the singer/songwriter movement, long before the term was coined." McGann played his unique, self-designed double-neck guitar on McTell's early solo albums and on many tracks laid down by the popular '70s rock band McGuinness Flint.

After marrying the London-based black American singer Dorris Henderson in 1974, McGann accompanied her on guitar at gigs around London before founding a string of folk acts including Big Mac and the Small Fries, Ward McGann (with Jeff Ward), Bob * Along & Mac McGann, East of Ealing, and latterly the Diamond Geezers, with his long-time guitar and banjo-playing friend, one of Britain's best-known 1960s buskers, Alan Young.

Together, in the early 1990s, Young and McGann turned a smoky upstairs room the Waterman's Arms pub in Richmond upon Thames into a folk venue attracting acts from around the UK. McGann would switch easily between the two necks of his custom-made John Bailey guitar – the lower neck with the traditional six strings, the upper neck based on a tiple, or tipple instrument, with four double strings tuned like a tenor banjo. He and Young's signature tune became "Living on Rain and Roadkill (sleeping in a hollow log)". Henderson often joined them as a vocalist until shortly before cancer caught up with her in 2005, her powerful voice and vivacity belying her illness until the end (Independent obituary, 9 March 2005).

McGann was never quite the same after Henderson's death and approaching the big man thereafter was not always easy. He could be prickly to strangers and perhaps missed out on as many friends as he made. "But he had a heart of gold inside a hard shell," his long-time musical partner and closest friend Alan Young said. "He did not suffer fools gladly, except me."

Michael McGann, known throughout his career as Mac, was a leap year baby, born in Chiswick, London, on 29 February 1940. He attended Hornsey College of Art in Crouch End, London, before getting a job in the city's Holborn district drawing illustrations of ladies' brassiéres for a magazine. "He liked to say he was into women's underwear as a young man," said Young.

Musically self-taught, McGann started as a banjo player in skiffle groups trying to emulate Lonnie Donegan. At the same time he designed posters for music venues, as well as record covers commissioned by Dobell's famous music shop on London's Charing Cross Road where he and other young folk singers, including a baby-faced Bob Dylan (calling himself Blind Boy Grunt), used to jam in the basement.

McGann was still a teenager when he played banjo with the San Jacinto Jazz Band, one of the most popular in England and headliners at the famous concerts on Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, west London, before rockers such as the Rolling Stones and the Who began topping the bill there.

According to Dixie Dean, who played the sousaphone with the San Jacinto Jazz Band and later became a world-renowned music photographer, the band began falling apart after McGann began playing what the trad jazz band's leader called "that dreaded guitar." (Dean would, years later, join McGann as part of Big Mac and the Small Fries).

It was in 1968, in the Pye recording studios at Marble Arch, London, that an excited young singer/songwriter called Ralph McTell walked in to record his first album, Eight Frames a Second. McTell, assuming he was going to play alone, spotted McGann and his double neck guitar. "What's he doing here?"

"He's going to play guitar," replied the producer, Gus Dudgeon. "What will I do then?" said McTell. "Well, you can strum along as well," replied Dudgeon. McTell wrote on his website tribute to McGann: "After we put down the track 'Louise', all that Gus could be heard to say was, 'Wow, what the **** was that?'"

McTell became a life-long friend, giving McGann's then girlfriend, Henderson, a new song called Streets of London. McTell's own version, released several years later, made him a worldwide name. McGann wrote many songs including "Babe, I'm leaving you", "Earl's Court Breakdown" and "Empty Tea Pot Blues", based on black American blues but usually rendered with a London accent. Other McGann songs were tongue-in-cheek, including "I Don't Like Your Country Music", recorded by Bernard Cribbens. But McGann paid most of his bills through his artwork. He was the signwriter for many a pub in London and many a barge on the Thames. He designed backdrops for clubs, including the pantomimes at his local pub, the Red Lion in Isleworth, west London.

He also created cartoons for local newspapers, a comic strip based on the customers at the St Margaret's pub and hand-painted wood carvings of fish based on photos taken by local fishermen of their greatest catches.


Michael McGann, musician and graphic artist: born London 29 February 1940; married 1962 Mollie Weil (marriage dissolved 1979; one son, daughter), 1988 Dorris Henderson (died 2005; one stepson, two stepdaughters) died Isleworth, Middlesex 18 February 2011.

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