Banner image and link to home page: Stirrings Magazine: folk, roots and acoustic music in South Yorkshire and beyond. Design by Raymond Greenoaken. Stirrings archive stirrings 137: front cover: Roy Bailey

number 137: september—november 2008

Cliff Hall: 11 September 1925—June 26 2008

An Appreciation by Raymond Greenoaken

Cliff Hall: photo by Guyse Williams

I can trace my discovery of traditional music (as something grown-ups did, rather than what we did in music class at primary school) to the year 1968. There was a programme in the 'God-slot' on Sunday evenings called Grief and Glory, which featured the likes of Sydney Carter, Nadia Catthouse and The Spinners singing folk-flavoured songs with a vaguely Christian message. Heavily into Hendrix and the Stones though I then was, there was something about this music that flicked a light-switch on in my 16-year-old head. Later in the year The Spinners turned up again in the late night comedy revue show Twice a Fortnight, where they provided the musical interludes. I decided I liked these hearty big-sweatered fellows and wanted to know more about them.

Eventually I lit upon an article in The Daily Mirror profiling the group. 'There's nothing long-haired or hey-nonny-no about Tony Davies, Mick Groves, Hugh Jones and Cliff Hall', Mirror hack Kenneth Tossell approvingly reported. 'They were exporting their kind of Liverpool Sound long before The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Searchers or The Beatles left the banks of the Mersey.' In fact, astonishingly, they'd been in the business for all of ten years. In the Sixties that was equivalent to at least a century in today's reckoning. These blokes were as old as Methuselah. Tony Davies was — gasp — 38; and Cliff Hall (sound of 16-year-old jaw hitting floor) was 40.

The truth was even further out there. Cliff had shaved three years off his real age, having been born — in Cuba, of Jamaican parentage — in 1925 on September 11, a date that now has rather less savoury associations. And it wasn't just his tally of years that set him aside from the common rout. Tossell put his finger on it with forensic exactitude. 'Cliff, a Jamaican who came over to join the RAF', he informed us, ' is coloured.'

Some things never change. Then, as now, the British folk scene was as white as a polar bear's pocket handkerchief. Apart from the aforementioned Nadia Catthouse, Cliff Hall was practically the only performer who bucked the Caucasian trend. 'We don't need to sing protest songs about racial equality', said Tony Davis in the same article. 'We just walk on the stage with Cliff.' Well, not quite. In fact The Spinners had a nice line in just such songs: 'The Family Of Man', for one, and 'Black and White', which they popularised (and which actually hit the singles charts in the Seventies, in a version by the black reggae outfit Greyhound). And songs that Cliff fished out of his West Indian childhood were an enduring feature of their repertoire. In their quiet pipe-and-slippers way, The Spinners were as multi-culti as The Imagined Village, just doing what came naturally.

Cliff Hall left school at 14 and arrived in England three years later in 1942, to enlist in the RAF. Shortly before his demobilisation he met his first wife Janet. They were married in 1947, which led him to put down roots in England. He'd taught himself guitar by the time he met Tony Davis on a building site in Cheshire in 1953. This fateful meeting led eventually to an invitation to join The Spinners, who had formed as part of the skiffle boom but were now graduating to proper folk music. Immediately popular in their home territory of Liverpool, the group quickly developed a national following and in 1963 turned fully professional. From then until at least the mid Seventies they were the face of English folk music for millions with their sellout concert tours and assorted television series.

This was not, of course, entirely to the taste of hardcore folk enthusiasts, for whom The Spinners were at best purveyors of folk-lite and at worst a travesty of all that was held dear about traditional music. If that bothered them — and surely it must have — they hid it behind their gleaming smiles and Nelson Mandela-style stage outfits. Nobody, though, could accuse them of just being in it for the money or the kudos. The Spinners were active supporters of many charities and humanitarian causes. Cliff Hall served on the governing board of the Lincoln-based Queen's Park School for young people with learning difficulties. Not headline-grabbing stuff, but entirely consonant with the early folk scene's concern for connecting with communities at grass roots level.

The Spinners disbanded in 1988 in their thirtieth year as a working group. Of the four, only Hughie Jones pursued a solo career, and, apart from the odd reunion concert, that marked Cliff's farewell to live performance. He eventually relocated to Australia after convalescing there from a knee operation. During his period in hospital he met his third wife Dorothy, a nurse (by this time he had been twice widowed). As well as Dorothy, Cliff is survived by two of the children of his first marriage, Clifford Jr and Robert.

Little-known fact: Cliff's is the basso-profundo voice intoning the word 'lurrrve' on Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders' 1965 chart-topper 'The Game Of Love'.

—back to Stirrings 137

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