The Daily Telegraph

Michael Chapman

Guitarist who won fans such as David Bowie with his fusion of folk, country, jazz, rock and blues


MICHAEL CHAPMAN, who has died aged 80, was a maverick guitarist, singer and songwriter with a gruff voice whose individual approach earned the admiration of fellow musicians – Elton John and David Bowie among them – if not the mainstream popularity his talent merited.

Not that he ever craved stardom. Indeed, on the brink of major fame in the wake of his acclaimed album Fully Qualified Survivor in 1970, he went on stage at the launch of its follow-up, Window, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and told the audience not to buy it. He contended that the tracks featured on the record were only demos and that his record label Harvest – keen to capitalise on the breakthrou­gh success of Fully Qualified Survivor – had released it behind his back before it was finished.

Unsurprisi­ngly, the record sank without trace and cemented Chapman’s reputation as an uncompromi­sing loner who despised a record industry which never knew how to deal with him. His dynamic blend of styles had roots in jazz, blues, rock and country, yet he was most often described as a folk artist, which infuriated him. “I’m a songwriter that plays a lot of guitar and I’m a guitar player that writes a lot of songs,” he said. “I can’t sing and I don’t pretend I can.”

He would say his whole music career had been an accident. Born on January 24 1941 in Hunslet, a suburb of Leeds, where his father James was a steel-mill worker, he attributed the early breadth of his music taste to his grandmothe­r, listening to the eclectic likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hank Williams, John Coltrane and Jimmie Rodgers on the American Forces radio station on her radiogram. “In England they were playing How Much is That Doggie in the Window, but I flicked the dials and heard all this amazing American stuff.”

He got his first guitar at 15, became a big fan of Django Reinhardt, and played in skiffle groups without any profession­al aspiration­s. Instead he went to art college in Leeds and became an art, photograph­y life-drawing teacher at Bolton College until 1966 when, on holiday in Cornwall, he chanced upon a pub in Botallack which happened to have a folk club. Broke at the time, he offered to play a few jazz tunes if they let him in free.

His spot went so well that the club – the Count House – offered him a residency, and he ended up living in a van by the beach for the rest of the summer, abandoning his career in academia in the process.

He was signed to EMI’S “progressiv­e” label Harvest and recorded his first album, Rainmaker, in 1969 produced by Gus Dudgeon, soon to work with Elton John. Fully Qualified Survivor arrived the following year, Chapman refusing the label’s preference for leading session musicians to work with him in favour of his mate Rick Kemp (later of Steeleye Span) on bass and a neighbour from Hull, Mick Ronson, on guitar. Ronson would shortly feature in Bowie’s backing band the Spiders From Mars.

The album became a cult classic, for emotional songs like Postcards of Scarboroug­h, explorativ­e sonic layers, raspy vocals and original guitar technique. None of it was planned. “Nobody taught me to play – I figured it out myself. I don’t play like anyone else because I can’t.”

Single-mindedly independen­t, he ignored the mainstream music industry and, indelibly associated with flat cap and gruff persona, he gained a loyal following with rugged stage performanc­es and a series of powerful albums over the next few years such as Millstone Grit, Deal Gone Down, Savage Amusement and Life On The Ceiling, full of autobiogra­phical story songs about people he had met.

He developed a passion for vintage guitars and in 1978 recorded a guitar tutorial album, Playing Guitar the Easy Way, with each song played in a different open tuning.

Hampered for six years by writer’s block he drank heavily, but found respite living in a remote 19th-century farmhouse in Cumbria with his partner Andru – a former student of his – and became immersed in the local community. Recovering from a heart attack in 1990, he was heralded as a major influence by a new generation of musicians such as Sonic Youth and his career revived with a spate of reissues and a stream of albums and shows.

He was drawn to musical experiment, formed his own label, made an album of free-form avant-garde jazz improvisat­ions (VDSQ, 2015) and went to Tel Aviv exploring Middle Eastern music with the Israeli rock guitarist Ehud Banai.

Michael Chapman is survived by his partner Andru.

Michael Chapman, born January 24 1941, died September 10 2021

 ??  ?? Chapman in 1973: ‘Nobody taught me to play,’ he said. ‘I don’t play like anyone else because I can’t’
Chapman in 1973: ‘Nobody taught me to play,’ he said. ‘I don’t play like anyone else because I can’t’

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