Press Cutting #1
THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE
Ralph Mctell tells Ray Connolly about the day he bought a guitar for ?29, which he used to write Streets Of London
I came from a broken home and because I'd had a bit ala wayward boyhood, I joined the Army when I was 15 in 1960.
The battalion I was in was pretty tough. They were preparing young lads to be NCOs and would take kids from boys' homes and reform schools. I realised straight away I'd made a terrible error. You could buy yourself out for ?50, which must have been a fortune for my mum who was only earning about ?6 a week.
But she paid - on condition that I did my 0-levels, so I went to Croydon tech. There was a jazz club there and one night they played a record by Jack Elliott -the sound of his guitar just transported me. I had a guitar but it didn't sound like that, so I set about trying to find out what made that incredible sound. Then someone told me that ill couldn't afford a guitar like his, which cost about ?45, I should look at a Harmony Sovereign.
I was working at the weekends, with half of the money I earned going to pay my mum back, and the other half going into my savings for my guitar. When I'd saved ?29, I saw an advert in Melody Maker for a Harmony Sovereign guitar at Ivor Mairants Music Centre near Soho. It cost ?29. So I drew my money out and when the shop opened on Saturday at nine o'clock I went and asked ill could try it.
Ivor got it down, took me into the back room and left me them. I can remember holding this guitar and pressing my ear to the side of it, and playing my few chords, over and over. I was completely lost in the sound when, after what seemed like just a little while, Ivor came to the door and said, 'Well, son, what do you think?' And I said, 'I'd really like it.' And he said, 'That's good, because we're closing now.' It was half-day closing and I'd been sifting there all morning. Ivor threw in a case, and I floated home.
His patience and understanding were something I'll always cherish. This guitar was the passport to a new life, and gave me the confidence to go busking. In 1962, when I was 17, I hit the beatnik trail and took it all over Europe.
I was playing it on the street in Paris one night and was heard by an impresario who asked me to play at the Paris Olympia, and I started writing Streets Of London on it when going home another night and I saw an old boy sleeping out. He had his boots under his head. I had this tune and wrote the line 'Have you seen the old man...' about the streets of Paris, then later changed the words to 'the streets of London'.
There are now more than 200 cover versions of it around the world. It might have happened with another guitar. But it happened with this one because of that day.
Having seen the above article Geoff Pickering wrote:
Following the article I felt I had to make contact. In 1958 I came out of the RAF with a guitar and a passion for skiffle and Trad Jazz.
I had skiffled around Malta and Aden and seen many of the groups. Back home it was not long before I set up a Group and started a Jazz Club.
The guitar I had was in need of replacing so having heard about the Ivor Mairants Music Centre I got on a train at Retford where I lived and went to London one Saturday. Ivor sold me a Harmony Sovereign and threw in a case. A cheap compressed cardboard job in grey with brown trim and red interior. I think the shop closed at lunchtime so I was soon on the way back to Retford.
That night at the Jazz Club the new guitar made an immediate impact. I had bought a pickup which fitted across the sound hole. I still have the Harmony Sovereign and it's the best guitar I've ever heard.
It has served me well over the last 40+ years but I've stuck to a basic strum and only played socially and particularly with Sunday School children. You will see from these notes how the article rang bells for me. Unfortunately the beautiful guitar has not carried me to fame (and fortune!), but it has been a trusted friend for a lifetime. What joy when I invest in a new set of strings. Incidentally I don't remember seeing a boy in a back room at Ivor Mairants trying out a guitar.
Our paths didn't quite cross on that day!
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