Ken Lees, 1944-2021: musician and linchpin of London folk

Ken Lees playing the banjo
Ken Lees in 2013. He took up banjo in his teens. Photo: Sylvia Pitcher

Ken Lees, graphic designer and illustrator, who died last year aged 77, was a great contributor to the folk scene: as the organiser of two of London’s successful folk clubs, a banjo player and a dance band musician for almost 50 years.

The thousands of folk club goers who enjoy great evenings of music in sociable company rarely stop to appreciate how the event happened: who found the venue, chatted up the pub landlord, sorted out the room, booked the guest and publicised the event. Ken, a great enthusiast, did this repeatedly from 1971 on behalf of Islington Folk Club, and later for Hale End Folk Club in Highams Park, north-east London.

Growing up in Handsworth, Birmingham, he was inspired by his uncle Rhys Hunter, a variety show singer, banjo player and dance band musician, to take up the banjo himself in his teens. From then on throughout his life, he enjoyed playing, talking about and tinkering with banjos, often generously repairing other people’s instruments.

Trained at Birmingham College of Art, he came to London for his first job as a book designer in 1965 and moved to Islington in 1966, before its gentrification. He discovered the great Irish session at the Favourite off Holloway Road, and the traditional music club at the Fox, Islington Green, hosted by Reg Hall and Bob Davenport.

The key ingredients of a night at the Fox were a resident band, strong regular singers, minimal introductions, switching from song to tune to recitation. “Keep the kettle boiling!” This was a blueprint for the many events Ken went on to organise.

The Fox club was greatly missed after it closed in 1968, and for a while Ken frequented a session where Bobby Campbell, Gordon McCulloch and Trevor Hyett played. But the idea grew among Ken and some friends, the siblings John, Bruna and Stella Cattini, to start a new club along the lines of the Fox. Tony Engle, a concertina player with the band Oak, helped Ken with advice on running a club, and the new club opened at the White Horse, Liverpool Road, on 15 Feb 1972.

Webb’s Wonders performing at a street festival in Camden Passage, Islington in 1974: from left, Ken Lees, Tony Engle, Peta Webb and Alan Ward. Photo: Paul Stubbs

Around that time Ken joined Tony, me and Alan Ward in a new English dance band, Webb’s Wonders, for whom he designed a brilliant publicity logo of a lettuce. We played together for dances and as a backing band for Bob Davenport until Ken left the band in 1978. He also designed a series of LP covers for Topic Records, where Tony was managing director.

The opening nights at the White Horse were a big success, greatly helped by a thorough advertising campaign. With his background in design and PR, good publicity was Ken’s watchword, and he went on to produce professional-looking logo designs, flyers and adverts for all the clubs and events he was involved in.

He was immensely helpful in later years, designing flyers for the Musical Traditions Club, run by me and Ken Hall. I would bring scribbled copy and watch Ken create from it a clear, attractive piece of artwork.

After 18 months at the White Horse and a change of landlord, the club moved to the Florence, then to several other venues. Dave Campbell has put together a full history of the club at islingtonfolkclub.co.uk.

Over the next few years the elements came together of a club that was to build a national reputation. The resident band, Flowers and Frolics, emerged from a group of young morris musicians and formed a great partnership with the singer Bob Davenport. Ken would often say the audience came to hear Bob and the band – “The guest is a bonus!”

Guests were a mix of the traditional and revival names, no strict policy except that it should be “the best”. It was not uncommon for a famous name to drop in for a floor spot.

With ideas for the season’s programme often coming from members of the Flowers band and Bob, the club was presenting a wide range of performers by the time it moved in 1978 to the Empress of Russia pub.

Richard and Linda Thompson or Tom Robinson would do an acoustic set, Alexis Korner might be on one week and a traditional guest the next. One memorable night featured Willie Scott (a Border shepherd) with Ray Fisher and Martin Carthy. An unlikely combination but Ken Hall was there!

Ken Lees was always keen to book a new act, or someone’s new project, and more than one artist has credited him with their first booking.

‘Richard and Linda Thompson or Alexis Korner might be on at Islington one week and a traditional guest the next’

Taffy Thomas recalls Ken being the first to bring Magic Lantern to London. Cellist Alan Ward mentions the time when Ken helped out at short notice by booking the Gambian kora player Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, who was staying with a friend.

In 1982 Ken married Sue Bainbridge, a piano player who had played with her brother Jim in the Marsden Rattlers band from South Shields. They moved to Highams Park in 1987 and in 1991 he, Gail Williams, Jim Younger and Kevin Sheils started the Hale End Folk Club at the County Arms, later moving to Ye Olde Rose and Crown, Walthamstow. The club is currently in abeyance but hoping to restart soon.

With Waltham Forest Council arts department, he organised a Waltham Forest Folk Festival and a series of big monthly dances at Walthamstow Assembly Hall. He also ran folk events for the Woodford Arts Festival, booking performers such as Carthy and an up-and-coming Lisa Knapp but keeping the relaxed atmosphere he enjoyed by always including a resident band.

The Dan Quinntet in Walthamstow in 1994. Clockwise from top left, Ken Lees, Will Duke, Jim Younger, Dan Quinn and Sue Lees

After Webb’s Wonders, Ken and Sue played for many years with the melodeon player Dan Quinn. “He was always first choice for the banjo chair at any session,” says Dan. “The offbeat, rock-steady rhythm was totally reliable and very recognisable.”

Later he was a member of the Posh Band, and his banjo and piano can be heard on their CD English. He often played with the Rakes (Reg Hall, Paul Gross and Michael Plunkett) and arranged a series of dances with music by the band at Cecil Sharp House from 2012 to 2015. When they retired in 2015, he played in a trio with friends Sarah Crofts and Paul Gross.

He was a sensitive accompanist for solo musicians and had a repertoire of solo banjo pieces himself, the music of composer Felix Burns being a favourite. He loved the classical banjo style, its cakewalks and rags, and admired players such as the Dartmoor Pixie Band’s Rob Murch.
Ken was an enthusiastic collaborator on others’ projects, contributing design and photography for many friends’ LPs and CDs, the latest being Roger Digby and Liz Giddings’ CD The Passing Moment.

In 2008 he designed and produced a commercial CD for the island of Sark in the Channel Islands, based on old BBC recordings of voice and song, mainly in Sark patois. It was a perfect task for him. He had loved the island since discovering it on a sailing visit in his early 20s, returning regularly throughout his life and introducing many friends to the island. The CD, Sark Voices, is available from socsercq.org.

A final word from cellist Alan Ward: “I didn’t know Ken very well personally. He was just one of those few great people who was always around, always positive and encouraging, always taking the responsibility without apparently making too much of the effort and financial risks involved. I don’t remember spending much time thanking him, but I and many others owe him a great deal.”

Ken Lees on record

Bob Davenport: Down the Long Road (with Webb’s Wonders)
Flowers and Frolics: Sold Out LP (two tracks)
Posh Band: English
Roger Digby & Liz Giddings: The Passing Moment

Ken Lees, born 17 June 1944; died 19 July 2021. Sue Lees contributed to this article, which appeared in Folk London 318, April-May 2022