Ken Lees - 27 June 1944 – 19 July 2021

Mon, 01/31/2022 - 17:40
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0 comments of those traditional music devotees and organisers who, through much of his life, enabled revivalist musicians and traditional performers to be heard by enthusiasts

Ken Lees, my brother-in-law and good friend, a musician, club organiser, designer and illustrator, passed away on 19 July 2021.  He was an unassuming man, one of those traditional music devotees and organisers who, through much of his life, enabled revivalist musicians and traditional performers to be heard by enthusiasts.

Born in Birmingham, there was music in his family, and the big, family Christmas parties were a highlight for Ken.  His aunt and uncle, Lil and Rhys Hunter, were variety performers, and it was Rhys, known professionally as the 'Banjovial Songster', who inspired Ken's lifelong love of the banjo.

While studying graphic design and illustration at Birmingham College of Art, he was a regular visitor to Ian Campbell’s seminal Jug of Punch club.  Moving to London in 1964 for his first design job, he quickly found the Sunday lunchtime Irish music sessions at the Favourite pub, off Holloway Road, but a real discovery was the Fox Folk Club, set up in 1964 by Reg Hall and Bob Davenport at the pub on Islington Green, with its resident band, the Rakes.  Maybe its informal, welcoming approach was a reminder of his family parties in Birmingham, but the club was a real influence on his musical future, as it was to me. 

After the Fox’s demise in 1968, followed later by the nearby Kings Head, Ken and friends decided to start their own club based along the lines of the old Fox with a strong resident band.  Opening at the White Horse in 1972, the club moved a year later to the Florence pub, off Upper Street. The Florence welcomed the best of revival singers, Barbara Dickson was an early guest, but traditional performers were at the core of the guest list.   From the club residents, a group of young musicians emerged as the Flowers and Frolics band and, impressed by the band, Bob Davenport returned to sing and MC the club evenings.

The club moved again, to the Empress of Russia in 1978, with guest policy unchanged. You'd be as likely to hear Cosmotheka or Jake Thackeray as you would Belle Stewart, Johnny Doughty or John and Julia Clifford.  So no rules really, just the best of music.  (There’s a full history of Islington club, written by Dave Campbell, to which Ken contributed, at

Ken was at the heart of it all.  He enjoyed the post-club visits to the Sultan Ahmet Turkish restaurant in Essex Road, known at the club as ‘The Armpit’!  Or he would be seen heading out to a session on his old bike with banjo on his back and trademark woolly hat.  I have a memory of Ken sitting in a corner at the Hen & Chickens pub on Highbury Corner playing at a Greek wedding party with pound notes pinned to his woolly hat, as in the old North London Greek tradition.

In 1972 he joined Tony Engle (concertina), Peta Webb (fiddle) and Alan Ward (cello/fiddle) to form Webbs Wonders, the first revival dance band to promote English traditional dance music.  When Tony became managing director of Topic Records in 1974, he employed Ken’s skills as a designer and illustrator and Ken’s name is on several of the early Topic records.

When he and wife Susan (my sister) moved to East London, the Islington club was too far to travel to regularly.  So in 1991 he and local musician friends Gail Williams and Jim Younger decided to take a chance, start a local club and see if there was interest. In fact, the opening night at Hale End club was a sell out and the club established itself as a successful weekly venue.  He also organised a series of monthly dances featuring big name bands at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall.

It was probably playing in a band that Ken enjoyed most.  Tiring eventually of travelling to bookings, he left Webbs in the mid 70s.  He and Susan (on piano) played occasionally in the Rakes ‘Big Band’ and for several years they joined Dan Quinn in the Dan Quinn Trio and the Dan Quinntet.  Later, he and Susan were members of the Posh Band, their excellent English CD, for me, the best yet in that genre. 

In later years, Ken had the great honour of being asked by Reg Hall to join the Rakes band, who had been such a huge early influence on him.  Many a village dance in the south east was treated to the amazing dance rhythm of this wonderful band, made even better by Ken’s rock steady banjo.  He appeared too with the Rakes at the Musical Traditions club in Euston, which is still active via Zoom, and aims to continue the old Fox tradition.   

Ken loved traditional music, but took a broad view of it.  He loved the classical banjo repertoire, and introduced me to Bulgarian choral music and to Robert Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders, who may have inspired him to become an expert performer on the musical saw, In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree being a speciality.

He had a great love of the island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, and introduced many friends to that lovely island.  In 2008, working with the Société Sercquaise, he designed and produced a commercial CD, based on the BBC’s 1930s and 50s recordings of Sark voice and song. The CD, Sark Voices, is available from La Société Sercquaise, Visitor Centre, Sark, GY9 0SA.

So goodbye Ken, a man of many skills, you will be missed very much.  The many people who knew Ken will remember with pleasure a quiet and talented man, one of those people who made a very significant contribution to the world of folk music.    

Jim Bainbridge