Rab Noakes, singer, songwriter and guitarist, was born in St Andrews, Fife, in 1947 and spent his early years in Cupar.
He was best known for his performances with Gerry Rafferty, Lindisfarne and Stealers Wheel in the 1970s, but was renowned as a solo artist, releasing more than twenty albums following his debut in 1970. He also played a key role in the Scottish music industry thanks to a career with the BBC, where he became senior producer of music on Radio Scotland, and through his own production company, Neon Media.
His long-term involvement and commitment to the Musicians’ Union began in the 1970s and he was an active member continuously for over forty years. He was first elected to the Union’s Executive Committee in 2004, the governing body consisting of members from across the UK, and re-elected unopposed from 2008 until he stood down at the end of 2020. Rab then took up the role of Vice Chair on the Union’s Scotland & Northern Ireland Regional Committee and highly effectively represented the MU on the Scottish TUC General Council. Furthermore, he was a regular and popular Conference delegate, where his knowledge and experience as a musician and activist was much valued.
Naomi Pohl, MU General Secretary, said:
“Everyone at the MU is heartbroken at the news of Rab’s passing. He was a wonderful man, a great musician, committed union activist and a champion of diversity. It’s rare to meet a man with such a passion to improve women’s rights. Many MU members and staff will have benefited from his encouragement and support over his forty years as an activist and he will be greatly missed.”
Caroline Sewell, MU National Organiser for Scotland & Northern Ireland, said:
“It was a genuine privilege to have worked so closely with Rab for a number of years. He was an exceptional musician, advocate and champion of culture and workers, and he consistently used his platform and considerable influence to fight for what was right and fair. He was a proud male ally in the struggle for gender equality in a male dominated industry as well as striving for equality in all other areas. There is no doubt that his involvement drove this Union forward in many ways over many years. It is hard to imagine a Musicians’ Union without Rab Noakes. He will be sorely missed.”
Rab came to prominence singing backing vocals and playing guitar in 1971 on the first solo album by Gerry Rafferty, ‘Can I Have My Money Back’, most notably on ‘Mary Skeffington’, a song about Rafferty’s mother. After these sessions he became an early member of Stealers Wheel, although he left the group before they recorded their first album.
Noakes performed with Lindisfarne, whom he supported on a national tour in 1972, and the group recorded his songs ‘Turn a Deaf Ear’ on their first album, Nicely Out of Tune, and ‘Together Forever’ on their second, Fog on the Tyne. Long-term friend Barbara Dickson also recorded “Turn a Deaf Ear” on her album Do Right Woman, on which Noakes also performed.
Noakes had made his own debut solo recording, ‘Do You See The Lights’, in 1970 with a line-up that included Robin McKidd on electric guitar and Scottish jazz bassist Ronnie Rae. This recording included the songs ‘Too Old To Die’, ‘Together Forever’, and ‘Somebody Counts On Me.’
One of Noakes’s best-known recordings, ‘Branch’, was released as a single in the summer of 1974 and featured on his album Red Pump Special. The track, which was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and produced by Elliot Mazer, attracted considerable airplay on BBC Radio 1, but just missed out on making the UK Singles Chart.
His 1978 album, Restless, was produced by Terry Melcher at Starling Sounds, based at Tittenhurst Park, Ascot, former home of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The albums, Rab Noakes (1980), Under the Rain (1984) aand Standing Up (1994) followed. Noakes subsequently toured with the Varaflames, containing Pick Withers, Rod Clements, and harmonica player Fraser Speirs. In November 2007, his album Unlimited Mileage, again with the Varaflames, was released.
In 2015, he released the album I’m Walking Here, a double album of 26 songs. It was his nineteenth solo album and many of the songs tell the story of his working life as a songwriter and performer. The first set consisted of new compositions that illustrated his gift for melody and love of Americana, and included ‘Out of Your Sight’, a tribute to a 1920s minstrel singer, and a poignant lament for Rafferty. The second disc was dominated by interpretations of songs from early Cliff Richard to Beck, along with the skiffle standard ‘Freight Train’, on which he was joined by Jimmy MacGregor.
Noakes was a highly respected contributor to Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, where he played a particularly notable role during the tribute concerts to Michael Marra and Gerry Rafferty.
Rab Noakes died on 11 November 2022 at the age of 75.
A further tribute will be published in the first edition of The Musician magazine in 2023.
Photograph: MU Executive Committee Vice Chair Andi Hopgood with Rab Noakes at MU Conference 2015. Credit: Joanna Dudderidge.