Rab Noakes, one of the best loved, if undersung, performers in Scotland, has died suddenly in hospital aged 75, prompting a great outpouring of affection from peers and mentees. Barbara Dickson, one of Noakes’ longest standing friends and associates, broke the news, saying: “We had so much in common – The Everly Brothers, the Flying Burrito Brothers and an enduring love of songs, particularly traditional music.”
Novelist Val McDermid, who had been friends with Noakes since their teenage years, said she had “never known a kinder soul. Or a better guitarist”. Broadcaster Bryan Burnett credited Noakes with firing his love for country music, and for singer Julie Fowlis “it was always a joy and an education to be in his company”.
Noakes was man of great talent, knowledge, generosity and impeccable style, whose 55-year career encompassed a string of solo albums and brief stints as a member of Newcastle folk favourites Lindisfarne and an early line-up of Stealers Wheel, alongside Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty.
Noakes was in attendance at the ill-fated record company meeting which would inspire their best known song Stuck in the Middle with You. Its cheery tune and caustic lyrics would later soundtrack a notorious scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Since Rafferty’s death in 2011, Noakes had become a sensitive custodian of his legacy, organising hugely popular tribute concerts to his old pal, where his own rendition of Moonlight and Gold was always one of the highlights.
When his career stalled, he enjoyed a fresh lease of life in radio and later TV production, becoming a senior producer in Radio Scotland’s entertainment department before forming Neon Productions with his late wife Stephy Pordage.
He was also a committed trade union activist, joining the Musicians’ Union in the Seventies. Elected to the Union’s Executive Committee in 2004, he stood down at the end of 2020 only to take up the reins as Vice Chair of the Scotland & Northern Ireland Regional Committee.
However, Noakes considered himself a performer above all else, and enjoyed a music career renaissance from the Nineties onwards, when he would gig regularly as Rab Noakes and the Varaflames, backed by Lindisfarne founder Rod Clements, Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers and harmonica legend Fraser Spiers. He became a mainstay of Celtic Connections, curating tribute concerts to other artists, but also celebrating his own musical legacy to mark his 70th birthday in 2017.
He was born Robert Noakes in St Andrews and raised in Cupar, where his father worked for the Post Office, instilling in his son a lifelong civic pride and responsibility. His mother had a great love of singing and young Rab was encouraged to trill at family gatherings, discovering that he rather enjoyed the adulation of aunties and neighbours. His cousin’s record collection shaped his tastes for rock’n’roll and the BBC’s Light Programme was a portal to other American artists. Like many of his generation, Noakes was dazzled by the artistry of Bob Dylan.
He moved to Glasgow aged 16 to take up a job as a clerical assistant at the Ministry of Pensions, but was considerably more taken by the city’s live music scene, enjoying concerts by the likes of the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Gene Pitney at the Glasgow Odeon. He formed the first of many fertile musical partnerships with banjo player Robin McKidd and made his professional live debut in May 1967 at the Glasgow Folk Centre on Montrose Street, a stomping ground for the likes of John Martyn, Archie Fisher and fellow Fifer Barbara Dickson, with whom he toured as the Great Fife Road Show.
He was introduced to Gerry Rafferty before a Humblebums gig at Glasgow’s City Halls. The pair bonded over a duet rendition of The Beatles’ In My Life. Noakes was invited to play on Rafferty’s debut album, Can I Have My Money Back?, and toured briefly in a nascent Stealers Wheel before electing to concentrate on his solo career.
His debut album, Do You See the Lights?, was released on Decca Records in 1970. With his easy melodic style, technical chops and good looks, Noakes was considered a prospect and he went on to release albums on major labels such as A&M, MCA and Warner Brothers. He journeyed to Nashville in 1974 to record Red Pump Special with respected Neil Young/Linda Ronstadt producer Elliot Mazer and made it on to The Old Grey Whistle Test with lead single Branch, but hit records remained elusive.
Noakes did, however, enjoy a successful second career in radio production, where he formed another fond and fruitful partnership with the late producer and fellow music maven Stewart Cruickshank. What these men didn’t know about music history was probably not worth knowing.
Noakes was treated for tonsillar cancer in the mid-2010s but rebounded to celebrate his 70th birthday year in fine style with numerous concerts excavating all corners of his back catalogue, right up to his 2015 double album I’m Walking Here. He captured the joyful momentum of those shows on his final album, Welcome to Anniversaryville, released in 2019 on his own Neon Records.
Even after Pordage’s death in 2021, he continued to tour, often with Dickson, but also a new generation of artists including Kathleen McInnes and Jill Jackson, and was booked to play at Celtic Connections once again.
He was an enthusiastic contributor to the Scotsman Sessions in July 2020, debuting a new song called A Little Way Up, which was inspired by a visit to a Bridget Riley exhibition in London. Clearly, the muse was still flowing, as he quipped “it’s safe to say the song took less time to write than it does to sing it”.
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