Rab Noakes who died earlier this month was an artist with distinct phases to his life. As a singer/songwriter he never got due attention yet quietly behind the scenes he constantly supported musicians through their union. Later he produced excellent radio programmes and features for the BBC as well as his own Neon company making him a real player on the Scottish music scene. Simon Jones remembers a thoroughly decent man.
The thing about Rab Noakes was he always seemed to be smiling. In all my dealings with him he was always positive, jovial and never a glass half empty sort. His sudden passing has taken away a real personality from folk/roots music and Scottish music in particular. The reaction to the news proves that in no small measure he was appreciated far and wide, well beyond the borders of his homeland where his presence held particular significance. Rab loved music of all different stripes, he was equally at home playing roosty pop, rock, country or straight down the line rock’n’roll, to him there were no genres it was all the same, to be played and savoured.
Somewhere I’d written about how much I loved his albums and ‘Red Pump Special,’ in particular, that record came with a cover picture of Rab, head thrown back, hair blowing in the wind and a huge grin on his face, in a way the image seemed to capture the sound of the album, a soupy, gleeful mix of influences which made the listener feel at ease as its good time melodies washed over them. The disc, which came out originally as one of a pair he recorded for Warners in the mid 70s, was long deleted, but I got a phone call from him saying he’d read my piece and was considering reissuing it himself, would I like to write the sleeve notes and album history? Would I? You bet. In the end he released both albums as a twofer along with my words of wisdom in the booklet.
That led to regular contact with Rab, he’d tip me about what he was up to, ask what I thought about things and always sent me advances of any product on which he always followed up. He’d readily agreed to be interviewed for my radio shows on many occasions even cutting exclusive sessions for us in his home studio, nothing seemed too much trouble. And when you mentioned him to other artists you inevitably got the same reaction, a smile and affirmation of an honest and sociable individual who always delivered. Lindisfarne bassist Rod Clements was expansive in his admiration for Noakes ” do you think I’d have worked with him so much if we hadn’t been mates?” he asked me. The answer was obvious from the fact that Lindisfarne had been card carrying supporters since the late 60s including two Rab compositions. ‘Turn a Deaf Ear,’ and ‘Together Forever,’ on their best selling early albums, Rod going on to play with Rab on various projects like ‘Woody Lives. A Tribute To Woody Guthrie,’ and in his band The Varaflames, whilst other Lindisfarne members eagerly played on sessions for various Noakes albums.
In fact Lindisfarne gave Rab exposure before his own recording career really got underway. He’d already cut an album for Decca which did nothing but preceded a series of label hopping between majors including one label run by Ringo Starr. Most people first heard him as a backing singer on Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Can I Have My Money Back?’ in 1971. Rafferty and he had met in the hurly burly of the Glasgow folk scene both had an affinity for The Beatles and Bob Dylan, in the same slipstream was Joe Egan, Rafferty’s school chum. The trio began to plot and scheme, the result was Stealer’s Wheel but despite being in on early band photos Rab left in short order to pursue his own career though he kept in close contact with the troubled singer songwriter that Gerry Rafferty became, caretaking his memory after his death in 2011. Besides organising tribute concerts for Celtic Connections, Rab released an album full of demoes and rare tracks the pair had worked on when time and schedules allowed ‘Adventures With Gerry Rafferty,’ in 2014. It’s engaging, full of promise and enthusiasm and is well worth seeking out for hints of what might have been.
After six records for commercial concerns Rab turned his back on the mainstream and returned to his roots with folk label Black Crow, for which he cut a real return to form with Geordie mates ‘ Under The Rain.’ In it’s straight forward, earthy delivery and a bunch of songs which benefitted from being stripped down and direct, he made his best record in years, helped by sympathetic support who understood the material and how it should be delivered. For most of the 80s and the 90s he redirected his energies into radio, somewhere he felt entirely at home proving to be very adept at organisation and production, creating or manging new shows as well as existing ones for the BBC initially in Manchester and later in Glasgow. Later on he founded his own company Neon in which he was partnered by his wife Stephy, which put him right at the core of the Scottish music scene. He revelled in his independent status working with a whole roll call of Scots musicians some of his generation but many younger. Location and experience meant it was only a matter of time before he wound up with the Celtic Connection organisation/festival, he played the event solo and in tributes to Gerry Rafferty, Martyn Bennet and Michael Mara as well as acting as an adviser for some of their bigger presentations.
Even a diagnosis of cancer wouldn’t stop yer man, he just carried on working with Barbara Dickson, Brooks Williams and Kathleen MacInnes amongst sundry others. His wonderful sense of humour displayed when he put out an album titled ‘The Treatment Tapes,’ a tongue in cheek reference to Dylan’s ‘ Basement Tapes,’ as well as his own health. One of his final actions was to record a selection of Don Everly songs which will hopefully see issue in the near future, it would be exactly what he wanted, Rab Noakes always was a man of his word. He just loved to work.
The Rab Noakes website has understandably been mothballed for the foreseeable future whilst other matters are sorted. You can still click on the link, you’re taken to a huge photo of Rab with that welcoming smile spread right across his face, that alone is a fitting tribute. From Fife to stages across Scotland and many more beyond that that smile carried him. Rab Noakes always smiled. Remember him that way.