Cliff Hall

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Folk musician and singer

Born: 11 September, 1925, Oriente Province, Cuba.

Died: 26 June, 2008, in Adelaide, Australia, aged 82.

IT IS still relatively rare to see a non-white face on the British folk scene – whether as a performer or as a member of a folk club audience. Cliff Hall's was not the first black face to appear "on the scene" – that honour probably falls to Fitzroy Coleman, who worked with Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax in the 1950s and early 1960s. While notable singers such as the British Honduras-born Nadia Cattouse and US-born Dorris Henderson made important inroads into Britain's colour-bar era mentality during the 1960s and afterwards, Cliff Hall of the Spinners was indisputably the first non-white face on the British folk scene to obtain any measure of national presence.

Clifford Samuel Hall was born in Cuba to Jamaican parents and grew up bilingual, speaking English and Spanish. In 1939, the family returned to Jamaica, where Hall did labouring and farm work.

There was no music per se in the family and his later musical career wrong-footed his family. In David Stuckley's book The Spinners – Fried Bread and Brandy-O! (1983), Hall recalls his first trip back to Jamaica in 1968: "My parents knew I was in the entertainment business, and they knew I was singing, though I don't think they really believed it – until one day the Spinners were played on the radio and there I was. … I found myself in demand for interviews on JBC, and everybody wanted to know how come I was making a living out of singing when I hadn't shown any inclination for it in my youth. And I used to tell them, 'It's as much a puzzle to me as it is to you'."

In 1942, he joined the RAF and was sent to Scotland ("We landed in Glasgow on a crisp November evening, beautiful but cold") before being transferred to Filey in Yorkshire. His service involved delivering aircraft parts. On an electrical training course in Leeds, he met his first wife, Janet, a Scotswoman from a village between Glasgow and Hamilton. They married days before he was due to return to Jamaica on demob in 1947. He returned to Britain in 1948. They had three children – Lynne, Clifford and Robert.

In 1953, Tony Davis, later of the Spinners, met Hall for the first time during the building of a section of the Capenhurst Atomic Energy site. Davis was labouring and Hall came in as an electrician. "I didn't know any black people until I met Cliff at Capenhurst," recalled Davis. "So I sought him out after our first meeting. I thought, 'He's black. He's bound to know about music.' It seemed inconceivable that he wouldn't at least know calypsos'."

Actually, Davis's attention fazed Hall more than a little – he had forgotten his Jamaican folk songs and he was getting into US country music. Their paths crossed on Davis's trajectory from jazz and skiffle though – including Davis roping Hall in as a bongo-player for one New Year's gig in Wallasey that called contractually for a 12-piece band. Still without a name, the proto-Spinners first played together in May 1958 at a Conservative Party fte in Aigburth cricket ground in Liverpool. The line-up eventually settled on Tony Davis, Mick Groves, Hughie Jones – the only native-born Scouser in the pack – and Hall. By autumn 1958 they were hosting one of Britain's first folk clubs of any national reputation. Its nearest "rival" would be the Watersons' club in Hull.

After making the EP Songs Spun in Liverpool (1962) as the Liverpool Spinners and shortening their name, they made folk music history – trivial by today's standards – in the early summer of 1963, when the Fontana label signed them for an unprecedented three-year contract, a portent of changing fortunes for folk music. Although they already had the unrepresentative LP Quayside Songs Old And New (1962) – made while Jacqui McDonald was still in their number – to their name, it ushered in a new era of British-born folk music in a popular vein. With a Caribbean overlay as Hall rediscovered his Jamaican roots.

They would record extensively for Fontana and then EMI before their retirement in 1988. Indeed they became the popular face of folk music, appearing in television variety programmes alongside Harry Secombe and Deryck Guyler (who penned the introduction to Stuckley's history of the band) and on It's a Celebrity Knock-out. As a consequence they were also regularly derided for letting the side down and – folk circles can be sartorially cruel – reviled as "singing jumpers". What is unassailable is that the four-piece flew the folk flag as no act before or since. Furthermore, their multiracial line-up set them apart in ways that would only begin to be exploited in popular music marketing terms with the arrival of the Equals, the mixed-race rock group of the late 1960s that included Eddy Grant.

Cliff Hall is survived by two sons and his third wife, Dorothy.

KEN HUNT