Lesley Duncan

TrackAlbum / Single
Love SongSing Children Sing
See That GuyMercury MF 847
Chain Of LoveSing Children Sing
Love Will Never Lose YouEarth Mother
Old FriendsEarth Mother
Broken Old DollEverything Changes
Everything ChangesEverything Changes
I Can See Where I'm GoingMoon Bathing
Pick Up The PhoneMoon Bathing
Living It All AgainMaybe It's Lost

Lesley Duncan photo

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Lesley Duncan playlist

 

 

Contributor: Colin Duncan

A series of coincidences took me into the music of Lesley Duncan. Prior to a couple of years ago, I hadn’t heard of Lesley Duncan. Having neglected Elton John for quite some time, I had bought his earlier remastered albums which are brimming with great songs. Listening to the them more carefully and reading about the finer details, I discovered that one of the great Elton songs, Love Song, was written by Lesley who sings it with him on Tumbleweed Connection. I had always assumed it was an Elton John song, as many others do. Love Song is one of the great British songs, simple as that, and has been covered by over one hundred and sixty artists. You could do a Toppermost on versions of Love Song alone and it’s my first selection.

The earliest version of the song I came across is a demo by David Bowie and John Hutchinson from 1968. Lesley released it as a single in 1969, surprisingly as a B-side with a cleaner’s hoover on the track, and it is on her first album Sing Children Sing. This is a great version, and she sings the song beautifully to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar in a groove along with beautiful keyboard playing. The lyrics are brilliant, you can hear every word and every one counts.

Love is the opening door
Love is what we came here for

There’s a great live version sung by Lesley with Elton John, with outstanding guitar playing, at a charity event at the Royal Festival Hall in 1974, and recently I have been enjoying very different treatments of the song by Dionne Warwick, Barry White, Olivia Newton-John and Marianne Faithfull. Marianne’s version is haunting.

I started going to the dancing, as you did, in the later sixties in Scotland. That was my introduction to live music and during the last few years started playing Scottish bands on YouTube – some I had seen and some I hadn’t – from way back in the past. I really liked a song by the Dundee band, the Poor Souls, called When My Baby Cries. The lead singer is the late, brilliant Dougie Martin and I discovered that this song was written by Lesley Duncan.

It’s a great song and Lesley recorded it herself, but I couldn’t access a copy of her version of the song. However, I did discover that Tony Hatch, had produced an impressive version of When My Baby Cries sung by the Czechoslovakian singer, Yvonne Prenosilova, in 1965, but it didn’t chart. Great singer … but her career was hindered badly by the invasion of Soviet tanks. However, even to this day, copies of this record change hands for decent sums of money, and if I wasn’t keeping my selections to just Lesley’s recordings, I’d be including the Poor Souls’ version.

Other really good Lesley Duncan songs from this era would include You’re All Around Me written with Scott Engel for the first Walker Brothers album; the Liverpudlian favourite, Beryl Marsden’s Love Is Going To Happen To Me written by Lesley and her brother Jimmy; and Dusty Springfield’s I’m Gonna Leave You, a song written by Lesley, Dusty and Madeleine Bell for the B-side of Goin’ Back.

Lyrics from the autobiographical song Wooden Spoon from the album Moon Bathing

I was born with a wooden spoon in my mouth,
Lived in need, there was always money owing,
Daddy gone, said he wanted to be free,
Gave his seed but he never saw it growing.
It was me. And my brother was three.

… may help explain why Lesley left Stockton-on-Tees when she was young and ended up in London. But what is extraordinary is that she and her brother Jimmy gained work as songwriters for the music publisher, Francis, Day & Hunter. Lesley was paid £7 a week and Jimmy £10 a week.

Within a year, because of demos she had made, Lesley was signed by Parlophone as a recording artist. Her first single was the self-penned I Want A Steady Guy followed by You Kissed Me Boy in 1963. At the same time, she landed a part in the film, What A Crazy World, a vehicle for showcasing the talents of Marty Wilde, Joe Brown and Susan Maughan. Lesley went on to release about twelve singles between then and 1970, and my second selection is the B-side to Just For The Boy, entitled See That Guy which I enjoy for Lesley’s singing; the excitement of girl meets boy and memories of youth club and ballroom dances. Start playing this song and you will be singing it all day.

Another single I really like, this time from 1968, is a beautiful piece of music I Love You, I Love You, which was coupled with Lullaby and illustrates how Lesley’s songs were becoming more complex and pointing the way to the genre of singer songwriter.

Lesley never gained chart success with her 60s singles, but there were breakthroughs in the 70s with Love Song appeared on Tumbleweed Connection and both Love Song and Lullaby on Olivia Newton-John’s first album, If Not For You, a top twenty hit in her native Australia. There is a sadness that an outstanding song which has now been recorded by over one hundred and sixty artists was not a hit for Lesley herself. Perhaps it would have been a big boost for Lesley if Love Song with Elton had been released as a single, the same way Don’t Go Breaking My Heart was a career boost for Kiki Dee.

I’ve always enjoyed going to concerts when there are backing singers. I remember an outstanding Van Morrison concert where he was backed by the Crawford Bell singers. Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters made such an important contribution to the brilliant Leonard Cohen concerts. So I began reading about backing singers, beginning with the Ladybirds, which took me to Lesley working mainly with Madeline Bell, Kiki Dee and Dusty Springfield, but backing vocalists would work with singers from different groupings to meet the needs of a particular song. It wasn’t an easy life – the hanging about, having to learn songs quickly and sing well at all times, difficulties seeing your children if you had a family, the poor diets and the smoking – but backing singers could earn a decent living.

Lesley worked often with Dusty Springfield, including backing her on live shows on the BBC. She sang on many records, backing Elton John, Alan Parsons, Dave Clark Five, Long John Baldry, Ringo Starr and Donovan among many others, beginning in the sixties right through to the eighties. She appeared on The Dark Side Of The Moon and the studio album of Jesus Christ Superstar. A personal favourite is Love Affair’s Everlasting Love, where she is joined by Madeline Bell, Kiki Dee and Kay Garner, and the backing singers’ contribution is evident when listening to this great track.

 

Lesley went on to record five albums from 1971 to 1977. Her work was critically acclaimed, the songs received many radio plays and she picked up and maintained a loyal following of fans, as I discovered when I began to delve into her music. The third song in my selection, like Love Song, comes from the album Sing Children Sing (1971). Chain Of Love is about her friends in the music industry scattered throughout the world. I love this song, which gets airings on the BBC every so often on the programme, Singer-Songwriters At The BBC. Actually, it’s on BBC 4 tonight!

The song is well structured and the expertise built up through years of writing lyrics is there to see – the wings of love fly straight and true and we watch the wheels of life keep spinning on. Sing Children Sing is brilliantly produced by Jimmy Horowitz, her first husband, who assembled some of Britain’s greatest studio musicians, including Terry Cox, Chris Spedding and the young Elton John to make the album. Horowitz’s organ playing is sensitive and complements Lesley’s tremendous singing, then Elton’s piano comes in and both keyboards are playing together. Toni Campo’s bass and Chris Spedding’s acoustic guitar work really enhance the song. Every word is clear and Lesley emphasises certain parts of the song effortlessly. There are many good songs on this album, and Sunshine (Send Them Away) and Mr Rubin (also recorded that year by Long John Baldry) show Lesley recording protest/political songs for the first time.

 

Her second album, Earth Mother, released in 1972 was also produced by Jimmy Horowitz, and is again full of really good songs and a showcase of British musicianship. The title track Earth Mother is a good, noble song in support of Friends of the Earth, and the side one closer, Fortieth Floor, although very different to Stuck In The Middle With You reminds me of it, in that it conveys dissatisfaction with the music industry. There is also a really strong gospel song, God Is Real (In My Soul). Although these are all excellent songs, my first selection from Earth Mother is Love Will Never Lose You which has interesting lyrics that suggest a relationship breaking down, or is it a tale of everlasting love?

Yes love withers and dies if it’s not given and there in your eyes
Let it be living the light never dies
And if you’ll just let it through
You’ll never lose love and love will never lose you

Perhaps I’ve quoted too many lyrics, but Lesley was a great lyricist. The song begins with brilliant electric piano, acoustic guitar and her voice as clear and pure as ever. I don’t know if the guitar is played by Lesley, but she had been taught to fingerpick by Beverley Martyn. Musically, the piano, guitar and voice are well balanced, but an instrumental highlight of the song is a haunting solo flute part played by Jimmy Horowitz, with the instrument continuing to play as Lesley comes back in. It is a beautifully crafted song.

The second song I have chosen from this album is Old Friends, which is a collaboration between Lesley and Jimmy Horowitz. I think there is Band influence in how the organ and piano work together. Lesley sings strongly and there is a great chorus – And I cried … Something’s died – something’s died, with Lesley holding the note ‘cried’ for a long time. Chris Spedding plays brilliant electric guitar on this track, conveying the emotion of a person crying. Horowitz explains that Lesley didn’t want to work with Chris initially, thinking him aloof and moody where he was in fact shy. If I quote Jimmy, “I knew that his playing would bring a greater edge or urgency to Lesley’s work, without detracting from its essential gentleness and sensitivity. He had, at that time, a wonderful lyric quality in his solos which few other guitarists seem to have. This I believe is a quality of greatness.” Chris plays on four of Lesley’s albums and the albums are a must-listen for devotees of the electric guitar. Sadly, she is woefully under-represented on spotify, but youtube is a bit better and you can listen to the whole of Earth Mother here here and Old Friends specifically at 23:32.

 

From Everything Changes, Lesley’s third album released in 1974, I have selected Broken Old Doll where the singer’s life is rescued by another person, or is it God? The song begins quietly with Lesley singing faultlessly to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Her singing is pure and the listener feels the emotion. As the song continues, the full band comes in with the bass and drums and backing singers as it builds to a crescendo. Towards the end of the song, Lesley sings a line, the backing singers respond, and then come back with another very different line, and this sequence repeats itself four times. It’s very effective and illustrates her long experience of how to use backing singers effectively.

Everything Changes is a love song, a breaking up song, a love between two people who have known each other for a long time song, when the singer is offering continual emotional support to a person whatever is going to happen in the future: Everything changes and love travels on, but the singer will always be there for the person. The lyrics convey a feeling, the musicianship is great, the band really together, strings add to the emotion in the song and Lesley’s singing is perfect. On what Lesley Duncan track is this not the case?

 

Lesley’s fourth album, the excellent Moon Bathing, was released in 1975, and I read that this was her favourite album. I play this fine album frequently and I’m going to take two songs from it, and it’s very difficult to choose. I Can See Where I’m Going begins beautifully with sensitive guitar and superb drumming by Glen LeFleur – a feature of the album. There is a moment of sheer brilliance when a stunning second guitar comes in. You really believe the lyrics, with Lesley’s confident, strong singing. There’s a guitar solo followed by an ongoing interchange between Lesley and the guitar which is really effective.

My second selection from Moon Bathing is about a broken relationship, as the title of the track Pick Up The Phone suggests. There’s an upbeat tempo to the song, pushed on by the guitar, drums and bass. A highlight is the backing singers repeatedly singing pick up the phone as Lesley pleads for her guy to come back. Again, her years as a backing singer are used to good effect and you can hear the emotion in her voice so much that I feel like phoning. It is a great song from a great album.

 

 

My last one is from the album Maybe It’s Lost, released in 1977. I like it a lot but I’m only allowed ten selections, so I’m going to choose Living It All Again. The song begins with a guitar playing pizzicato style, which is joined by drums, and this rhythm continues throughout with Lesley singing a beautiful melody on top. It’s a sensitively produced track with an electric piano, bass and a second guitar making telling contributions. Lesley sings a beautiful melody over the rhythm as she explains to her lover that she needs reassurance about how he feels about her, but there is ambiguity – we are uncertain how the singer is feeling.

When I was writing this Toppermost, my bedtime reading was the excellent “Take It To The Bridge: Dundee’s Rock & Pop History” by Lorraine Wilson, a recent gift from a friend. My eyes nearly popped out my head when I read that the late Michael Marra, my favourite British singer songwriter, had met Lesley on the Isle of Mull. Michael had been invited by An Tobar Arts Centre in Tobermory to live on the island and write songs related to whatever he encountered. Perhaps I can quote from the book:

“Michael encountered a songwriter on Mull who was surprised when he mentioned a song from her past. “I asked her if she was the same Lesley Duncan who wrote When My Baby Cries,” he says. “I told her I was a fan of the song and had heard the Poor Souls’ recording of it. I said that Dougie Martin had spoken very highly of her, and she seemed very pleased with the news.”

Another coincidence. I was pleased that Michael was a fan of the song, as he could be quite critical of music. This was confirmation of my love of the song. And I thought that if Michael knew about the song, then Dougie Martin might have given it an airing from time to time at gigs he played in Scotland. I found that Lesley had drifted away from the music industry and had settled in Tobermory with her husband Tony Cox where she kept a low profile. Sadly, she died in 2010 after a long, difficult illness. I was in the town a few times when she lived there; I wish I had spoken to her and her husband. A final small coincidence is that a favourite album is Rock On by the Bunch, a record I bought because of the Dundee Horns and Sandy Denny, and on which Tony plays piano.

Lesley Duncan served a long apprenticeship as a singer and she has a wonderful voice. I stumbled across her work and I’m glad I did, and now play her songs frequently. Her musical life was astonishing in that it was a portrayal of the British music scene from the early sixties onwards to the mid eighties. Thank you to all the fans and journalists, who have written about her.

Although I could only choose ten songs for this post, I could easily have highlighted many more and come up with other strong selections, different favourites on different days. I did this Toppermost because I want Lesley Duncan’s music and life to be remembered. After I’d read everything I could about Lesley, a recurring theme was that her music should have been more widely known. The albums Sing Children Sing and Earth Mother, six single releases and great liner notes by Kieron Tyler have been released on a double CD entitled Sing Lesley Sing – The RCA and CBS Recordings 1968-1972 and the albums Everything Changes, Moon Bathing and Maybe It’s Lost, a 1974 concert from Golders Green Hippodrome, some great bonus tracks and notes by David V Barrett have been released on a 3CD set, Lesley Step Lightly – The GM Recordings Plus 1974-1982. They are both well worth buying.

 

Oh mother please forgive us
We’ve taken all you had to give
Claimed if as our right to live
Never thinkin’ you had that right too

 

Yes I’ll watch you climb to the fortieth floor
Where they throw you to the lions
And then show you the door
Cause it’s cold up there on the New York skyline
And the buildings are made of tin
And you’ve got to watch for the enemies within

 

 

Lesley Duncan singing If I Could Change Your Mind from “Eve” by the Alan Parsons Project

 

Dusty Springfield singing I Don`t Want To Go On Without You on her TV show with backing vocals from Madeline Bell, Lesley Duncan and Barbara Moore

 

Lesley Duncan (1943-2010)

 

The Fans of Lesley Duncan website (inc. lyrics)

Lesley Duncan at Discogs

Lesley Duncan biography (AllMusic)

Colin Duncan’s other posts for this site include Average White Band, Michael Marra, John Martyn, Stealers Wheel.

TopperPost #886

11 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jul 15, 2020

    Thanks for this great piece Colin. Some very fine music here which I hadn’t heard before. Thanks again for introducing me to this superb artist.

  2. Colin Duncan
    Jul 15, 2020

    Thanks, Andrew. Lesley composed some great songs and it’s amazing the amount of songs Lesley appeared on as a session singer. I did this Toppermost so Lesley will be remembered.

  3. David V Barrett
    Jul 15, 2020

    An excellent piece, which included a few details I didn’t know! Thank you for writing it, and for your selections; I hope this introduces more people to Lesley’s beautiful music.
    The two fairly recent Cherry Red compilations, Sing Lesley Sing and Lesley Step Lightly, contain her five albums and quite a lot of bonus material — certainly the best way to get her music on CD.
    The Fans of Lesley Duncan website, created many years ago by American fan Sam Vetovich, contains a lot of material. The Yahoo fan group, which I ran for some years, has quite rightly been superseded by the Facebook group which is very active with news, chat and memories and includes quite a few musicians who worked with Lesley over the years.

  4. Colin Duncan
    Jul 15, 2020

    Thank you very much for your kind words, David. I learned much about Lesley from your excellent notes accompanying the GM Recordings Plus 1974 -78. I really enjoyed reading the notes. Beautiful is an ideal way to describe her music and I hope more and more people find her work. Can you tell me what concert the above recording of ‘My Soul’ came from? Thank you again, David.

  5. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jul 15, 2020

    Thank you Mr Duncan for giving this opportunity to learn about the “new” singer. A new singer for me, that is. – By coincidence I have listened to 70’s music from France and Denmark lately and I had my ears already tuned for this kind of melancholic orchestral background.

  6. David Pearson
    Jul 15, 2020

    A great article, Colin, I thought I knew a lot about Lesley, having written about her myself for various magazines, but I learned a lot of detail about her, and the Michael Marra anecdote is fascinating. Thanks again – she really did deserve to be so much better known. And she seems to have been such a lovely person.

  7. Colin Duncan
    Jul 15, 2020

    Thanks, Ilkka. Lesley was ‘new’ to me too a couple of years ago. It was a series of coincidences that took me into her music. Keep exploring as she has written and recorded many great songs. Thank you again, Ilkka.

  8. Colin Duncan
    Jul 15, 2020

    Thanks, David. I found the Michael Marra anecdote fascinating too and I was reading that book at the time of writing about Lesley. I love ‘When My Baby Cries’ by The Poor Souls. The lead singer of The Poor Souls was the late Dougie Martin, who ran a band called Mafia in the Dundee area, and many young musicians have passed through it over the years. Michael Marra described Dougie as the benchmark for singers in the Dundee area. I’ve since found out that The Poor Souls and Lesley were unlucky in that the song got many radio plays and hovered just under the top forty. If you look at the clip that Merric of Toppermost linked, you can see that somebody has made cassettes of the song, showing that the song’s popularity lasted. Yes, Lesley should have been better known and she seems to have been lovely. Thank you again, David.

  9. Colin Duncan
    Jul 15, 2020

    David, I didn’t realise at the writing of my last comment that I had read your work on Lesley Duncan in The Northern Echo and Record Collector. Also, I know from a post on the website that you had also exchanged letters with Lesley. I discovered much about Lesley from your well written, excellent articles. Sorry for not acknowledging you in my last post, but I didn’t link you to the articles. Many thanks, David.

  10. David V Barrett
    Jul 15, 2020

    It may be from a BBC Radio 1 In Concert, in which “My Soul” was the first song, but I’m not certain (I’d have to play that to be sure). I’m pretty sure it’s not from the Old Grey Whistle Test, which Lesley appeared on at least twice (including the very first one, pre-Whispering Bob).
    I’ve mentioned your piece here on the Facebook group, so you should get quite a few views…

  11. Colin Duncan
    Jul 16, 2020

    Many thanks, David. I discovered Bob Harris is a fan. Also, I read the obituary of Lesley that you wrote for The Guardian long before I read your liner notes, and have returned to it several times. I connected with how you described Lesley’s music.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓