Steve Benbow

Steve Benbow – Guitarist, 1931-2006

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Steve with Hofner Archtop Circa 1956

Steve Benbow was a mainstay of the English folk scene for half a century. A fine performer who recorded more than 24 LPs and was once dubbed “Britain’s 1st folk guitarist”, he also collected songs, ran clubs, encouraged younger artists and generally proselytised for the music he loved, in the firm belief that maintaining the folk tradition was always more important than personal ambition. With performances on television and radio in the late 1950s and 1960s, he was a seminal influence on a whole generation of folk guitarists.

Born Stephen George Benbow in Tooting, London, in 1931, his family soon moved to Hooley, Surrey, where he remembered milking his first cow at the age of 5. At Reigate Grammar School he showed an aptitude for languages, speaking French and German. He also learnt Arabic from his father who had spent time in Egypt in the Camel Corps.

However, when he left school in 1947, he took a job as a farmhand in Axminster, Devon. In 1950 he was called up to the Army and joined the Royal Veterinary Corps, serving as a mule breaker and dog handler in Egypt, where his language skills were also put to good use.  It was while stationed in the Middle East that he bought his 1st guitar and he was soon entertaining the troops, performing songs by the likes of country star Jimmie Rodgers and American folk singer Burl Ives on forces radio and reportedly singing in 8 different languages.

On his return to Britain in 1955, he went back to farming, but realised swiftly that he could make more money playing in pubs a few times a week, with the additional advantage that a musical life did not require him to rise before dawn. He landed a gig playing trad jazz with Dave Kier’s Jazz Band but also began accompanying the leading singers of the English folk revival that was under way at the time, such as Ewan McColl and A. L. Lloyd, both on their recordings and in concert.

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By 1957 he had launched his own solo recording career with EMI, beginning with Steve Benbow Sings English Folk Songs and a companion volume called Steve Benbow Sings American Folk Songs.

Over the next 20 years he recorded around 24 albums, one of which was produced by EMI staff man George Martin, shortly before he began working with an unknown group from Liverpool called the Beatles. Sometimes nicknamed “Tiger”, he was mostly a solo artist but for a time had a group called the Steve Benbow Folk Four, which included Jimmy McGregor and appeared with the Sonny Stewart Skiffle Kings, Chas McDevitt’s Skiffle Group and the Brady Boys among others.

He also became a regular broadcaster, appearing on the 1950s television shows Guitar ClubThe Saturday Skiffle Club and Easy Beat. In the early 1960s he hosted a weekly folk slot called Have Guitar Will Travel on Radio Luxembourg, the only folk singer to appear on the pop station. Yet although his love of folk music was profound he was no purist, as he made clear in a sometimes iconoclastic weekly column he wrote in Melody Maker.

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 Steve Benbow (Left), Denny Wright (Right), go through a concert running order with producer John Paddy Browne.  Typically, Steve and Denny are not taking things too seriously!  Fo’c’sle Club in Southampton 1972

He was also well known in country and western circles and his gigs were famous for his witty repartee, which may have accounted for how he came to work with Spike Milligan on a 1963 stage show in the West End of London, which also led to them collaborating on the television series Muses with Milligan. Always ready to encourage other artists, he also produced recordings for the likes of Dominic Behan and Christy Moore.

By the late 1970s he had stopped recording and resumed his interest in animal husbandry, keeping goats, chickens, donkeys and even a pony and trap. But he returned to recording in 2003 with Don’t Monkey with My Gun, his 1st album in 25 years, and continued performing in local folk clubs in West London until a week before his death.

He is survived by his wife, Sandie.

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Steve and Bigsby Tailpiece Archtop with Denny Wright

Steve Benbow, guitarist, was born on November 29, 1931. He died on November 17, 2006, aged 74

Steve Benbow was still playing in pubs around Brentford, Isleworth and Hounslow until the Friday before his death. He was, as Colin Harper justifiably dubbed him in his Jansch biography, Dazzling Stranger (2000), “Britain’s First Folk Guitarist”. Benbow’s generosity to Davy Graham helped instil in Graham a similar spirit of open- handedness and the sharing of knowledge, for example, with Martin Carthy.

Steve Benbow in Egypt

I first met Steve in a tin shed euphemistically called the billet as a farrier in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps on October 10th 1950. The shed was where we going to live of and on for the next 3 years and was in a place called Moascar in the Canal Zone of Egypt, This was next to a town called Ismalia by lake Timsa on the Suez Canal. I was allocated (if you can call it that) a bed space next to Steve. Over the years we got to know each other very well, in fact our friendship lasted up until the day he died and beyond I think.

A couple of months after I arrived Steve saw a man called Rolland Acarris playing a guitar in Ismalia, and was really taken with it, he immediately negotiated some lessons with the Rolland, and so it started. Of course he had to get a guitar, which he did for the princely sum of 6 Egyptian Pounds. At his 1st lesson he found out that it was not a very good one so sold it and got a better one recommended by the teacher, a “Catania”.. In the mean time I was taken with the bug and bought a similar instrument, and so away we went into the local music world.

Our Army pay at that time was 28 shillings (1.40p) per week reduced after stoppages to 25 shillings (1.25p), so in order to pay 50 Egyptian piasters for a 1 hour lesson we decided to have a lesson between us, each of us kicking in 5/- or 25 pence. We worked at our jobs from 6 am to 1 p.m. and after lunch (Tiffin) had the rest of the day except for an hour in the evening to ourselves, so after a time well over 6 hours practice was the norm. How the others in the unit, all 11 of them put up with it I don’t know, but they did, perhaps they thought we were tougher than we in fact were and left us alone. So Steve and I were on our way, in Steve’s case it was to take over the rest of his life, while I though intensely interested in Latin style music, really used it to pass the time and learn while I had the chance.

After a couple of weeks of intensive practice we started playing simple tunes, mostly Italian or Greek folk music, which I and Steve liked. In fact these suited Steve with his flair for languages, so much so that by the end of 3 years he was fluent in French, Mauritian Creole, Greek, Italian and especially so in Arabic. When we had a couple of months of intensive practise we seemed to be good enough to perform in public, we were rubbish really looking back on it, but good enough for in Sgt’s mess it seems, but then they had very few other options.

After about a year we were asked to perform with a concert party, very much like “It Aint Half Hot Mum” and there are so many similarities that I wouldn’t be at all surprise if that isn’t where the ideas for it came from. At this time we were in a place called Geniefa near the Great Bitter Lake, only now we lived in a tent. I think at this time is when Steve got the urge to be an artist, though he may not have realised it at the time, and so his life followed that route until he died. From there we graduated to Radio, this was BFN or British Forces Network which entertained the troupes for few hours per day mostly in the evening, no TV or much else then.

The Royal Army Veterinary Corps was there to supply Mules to the transport unit and War Dogs to the guard units and Steve was in his element with the animals. But unusual for the Army they recognised his use of languages and so he was loaned to the Garrison works department to use his Arabic on the Arab labourers. Later when Nasser caused trouble and we lost them he was used with the Greek Cypriots with his Greek, closely followed by Creole with the Pioneer troupes from the Seychelles Islands. Steve finished his tour a few months before me, and so returned to the UK complete with his guitar. After a couple of months he returned to the Canal Zone having signed on for another tour, I on the other hand left a few weeks later never to return except in passing through the Suez Canal on route to other places.

We never lost touch, and kept in contact through various means right up until a few days before he died, now that is a real pal and friend. There is so much more to write about Steve’s younger life when the urge to play a guitar first came over him, a lot of it very funny, perhaps one day I will set it down. – Giles “Jolly” Holtom – Ex very bad guitarist in Egypt.

Steve Benbow

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Steve Benbow was still playing in pubs around Brentford, Isleworth and Hounslow until the Friday before his death.

He was, as Colin Harper justifiably dubbed him in his Jansch biography, Dazzling Stranger (2000), “Britain’s First Folk Guitarist”. Benbow’s generosity to Davy Graham helped instil in Graham a similar spirit of open-handedness and the sharing of knowledge, for example, with Martin Carthy.