Lesley Duncan – Sing Lesley Sing
Released 21st July 2017
Subtitled “The RCA And CBS Recordings 1968-1972” this compilation features the highly rated singer’s first two albums proper along with associated single sides…..LTW’s Ian Canty looks at the career of a fine talent whose work was sought out by Elton John and David Bowie…
Lesley Duncan nee Cox, like many musical hopefuls, fled her hometown (Stockton-Upon-Tees in this case) at the start of the 60s for the bright lights of London. She ended up in working in a coffee bar, which luckily was the natural habitat of the UK Pop scene pre-Beatles. From there both Duncan and her brother Jimmy (who penned the Pretty Things smash “Rosalyn”) attempted to get their feet in the door of a pop scene eager for new song-writing talent. Her early efforts revealed a natural flair for words and her songs were versioned by the likes of the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Walker Brothers.
As a singer in her own right. her career commenced in 1963 with the I Want A Steady Guy single (backed by a band named the Jokers) and she was also seen in the film “What A Crazy World”, which was a star vehicle for Joe Brown. Much session work followed and she acted as the backing vocalist of choice for Brit Soul legend Dusty Springfield, appearing with her both live and on record.
The ten further Lesley Duncan singles that spanned the next seven years didn’t do much commercially, but the favourable critical reception given to the last few (A Road To Nowhere, included as an extra here and future LP title track Sing Children Sing) convinced CBS to let her record a full album of songs. The growing trend at the time (1971) for singer song-writers must have helped too.
On her debut LP Sing Children Sing, which emerged to the public in 1971, she was backed by long term fan Elton John (along with a couple of members of his live band of the time) and future Womble (and early Pistols producer) Chris Spedding. By this time Elton had already released a cover version of his favourite Duncan effort a year earlier with Love Song appearing on his 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection and his star was on the rise. With Duncan’s knack for subtle but effective wordplay and a voice of controlled purity all seemed bright.
The album itself was solid evidence of Duncan’s talents as both a singer and lyricist. She possessed slightly smoky, emotive voice that didn’t do grandstanding, but was more than capable of hitting the heights if necessary. A lot of the material on Sing Children Sing is pretty low key (apart from the big production number Crying In The Sun, which harked back to a 60s kind of arrangement), with the occasional Slim Chance/Folk Rock style barn burner like the first song here Chain Of Love. There’s some nice Hammond organ touches here and there (provided by producer and occasional co-writer Jimmy Horowitz, who was Duncan’s husband at the time), but Duncan’s voice is always the main attraction and focus and often simply framed by a guitar or piano plus a few other embellishments.
Though there are a lot of gentle passages to the music Duncan didn’t hesitate to take those requiring it to task – the most famous example of this being “Mr Rubin” a fiery pot-shot at the mealy-mouthed “King Of The Hippies/Yippees/Yuppies” (delete where applicable) Jerry Rubin. You can hear it’s heartfelt alright. The very pretty Folk Rock of Love Song is an obvious highpoint and Emma is breath-taking in its simplicity too.
This edition rounds up all A and B sides of the singles that lead up to the album and for the most part they’re not greatly different from the LP versions, but nice to have for a sense of completism. Though the single take of title track Sing Children Sing has an odd “Laughing Gnome” type figure (coincidentally David Bowie was also a fan too) which adds an eccentric slant, actually suiting the song quite well.
This album is a lovely “late night” record and although it added greatly to Lesley’s standing with the critics it sadly fell short commercially. However this did not hinder the recording a follow up and sure enough a year later album number 2, entitled Earth Mother, appeared. The LP built on the themes of the debut with tinges of Country, Blues and Gospel seeping into the mix.
The anti-rat race Fortieth Floor slowly develops a nice head of steam and Old Friends is simply a great pop song, cramming more warm Hammond into its graceful and attractive structure. It’s a sad song of regret but feels sunny and bright “Here we stand old friends who find the threads of love undone”- Duncan could in a few words sum up feelings tricky to explain, that was her gift. The title track’s mix of flamenco guitar and strings houses a languid and bittersweet pro-environment effort and the album ends on a curiously optimistic note, as Earth Mother segues into the choral angelic harmonies of By And Bye.
After this record struggled too, she recorded another three albums during the 70s before almost complete retirement from the stage in 1977. Perhaps being a modest soul who seemed to downplay her own sizable achievements meant she was just plainly not cut out for the hustling of the music industry. From there it appears she led a happy life away from the spotlight, working as a gardener on the Isle Of Mull. Sadly, she passed away in 2010. We lost a great, mostly unapprciated talent.
Though I will admit that the usual singer/songwriter set up is not one I strongly favour, Lesley Duncan manages to beguile on the two platters presented here. Though possessing a fine voice she has the crucial gift of restraint, which means few of the annoying tics or vocal gymnastics that more adept singers can be drawn into. Added to this there is an in-built strength in her songs that steers her far away from the “woe is me” sad-sack element – even on the more melancholy offerings, you know she isn’t going to mope about the outcome, just get on with the aftermath in her own resilient way. For fans of the solitary song-smith here is a fine example of the art, but Lesley Duncan’s voice, songs and sheer belief in her art should prove attractive to many more.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here