Ralph’s parents married in 1943. Ralph May was born on 3rd December 1944 in Farnborough, Kent. His family was composed by his mother Winifred, his father Frank and his brother Bruce.
In 1947 his father left home and his family moved to Croydon. This event was very traumatic for Ralph and Bruce. But fortunately, despite their poverty they had a happy childhood. Ralph’s love for music was big and when he was given a plastic month organ, he learned to play with his grandfather’s encouragement.
At the age of 7 (1951) Ralph discovered Laurel & Hardy and Flash Gordon at the Saturday mornings pictures. Ralph and Bruce spent many holidays at Banbury in Oxfordshire with mother’s family. He remembers these summers in his song “Barges”.
Other childhood experiences influenced his songs, for example, meeting Mr Connaughton and Derek Bentley’s death sentence.
In 1954 Ralph made his stage debut in the school pantomime performing “Where Will The Baby’s Dimple Be?”
In 1955 he passed his school examinations and went to the John Ruskin Grammar School, and although he had a lot of friends he hated it because he felt he didn’t fit in.
In 1957 Ralph he changed his harmonica for a ukulele and formed a band.
At the age of 15 Ralph was very happy to leave the school for the Army. So in 1959 he was in the Junior Leaders Battalion of The Queen’s Surrey Regiment. But after six months, in 1960, he bought himself for £ 50 out and went back to school to Croydon Tech.
During these years he discovered black American music (jazz and blues) so he bought a guitar and practiced every day. To pay for his travels outside Croydon, Ralph worked in factories, laundries and hotels, and through these travels he met musicians who remained his friends for a long time.
In 1962 he left home to travel abroad to France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and then Greece and Turkey. He made his way by hitchhiking and busking.
Paris was revisited frequently and late in 1965 he took a room with a friend. It was here in Paris in 1966 that Ralph met a Norwegian student named Nanna Stein. Before their marriage Ralph and Nanna lived in Cornwall. At the end of 1966, in November, Ralph and Nanna married and Ralph changed his stage name to McTell (in honour of Blind Willie McTell).
On 21st January 1967, Ralph and Nanna’s first son, Sam Bjorn, was born. During this year Ralph signed to Transatlantic Records and at the end of 1967 he recorded his first album: “Eight Frames A Second”. This album was arranged by Tony Visconti and released in 1968. The release of this album brought a lot of work for Ralph his brother, Bruce, became his manager and booking agent.
In 1969 two albums, “Spiral Staircase” (including the first version of Streets Of London) and “My Side Of Your Window” were released and in July Ralph appeared at the Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time. In December he headlined in his first major concert at Hornsey Town Hall.
In May Ralph sold out the Royal Festival Hall for the first time, and in August he appeared at Isle Of Wight Festival on the same bill as Jimi Hendrix.
Bruce May bowed out as Ralph’s manager and Jo Lustig now took over. In October 1970 he again sold out the Royal Festival Hall and released his fourth album: “Revisited”.
On 9th February 1971 Ralph and Nanna’s daughter, Leah Hanna May, was born. “You Well Meaning Brought Me Here” was released on the Famous label. Among the songs on this album we remember “The Ferryman” inspired by Hermann Hesse’s book: “Siddhartha”. In this year Ralph played his first tour of the USA.
His first American label was Paramount but later he signed with Warner Brothers. During his American tour he met the British folk rock band: Fairport Convention. They established a long friendship.
In 1972 Tony Visconti produced “Not Till Tomorrow” on the Reprise label, featuring “Zimmerman Blues”, “First Song”, “Barges” and “Sylvia”. At this time Ralph and Nanna lived in Putney but they bought a cottage in Cornwall.
During 1973 McTell went on his first solo tour, which culminated in a sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1974.
At the end of 1973 Ralph and Visconti were in the studio again. At the beginning of 1974 “Easy” was released and “Streets of London” was rerecorded as a single for the Reprise/Warner Bros. label and reached number two in the British charts. A million-seller all over the world, the song soon became a classic and earned Ralph a prestigious Ivor Novello Songwriting Award.
In 1975 Ralph released the album “Streets” and decided to play a tour with a band but it was a nightmare and this experiment wasn’t a success. He went in America for a break and when he returned, he was refreshed and did a gig for Christmas in Belfast, where he got a standing ovation. Despite the intensity of the troubles in Northern Ireland, he was the only major British artist to have played regularly there.
On 7th September 1976 a second son, Tom Stein May, was born. Another album was released in this year “Right Side Up” featuring “Weather The Storm”, “From Clare to Here” and “Naomi”.
Ralph played another sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall and then went on tour to Australia (Sydney Opera House). All these concerts gave birth to the live album: “Ralph Albert & Sydney” released in 1977. He met John Jonah Jones and their friendship survived till John’s death in 2003. He appeared again at the Cambridge Folk Festival .
On 19th April 1978, his third son Billy-Joe May was born. This year was quiet and Ralph enjoyed it with his family. They divided their life between London and Cornwall.
In March 1979 Ralph played at the Royal Festival Hall with Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks and released his new album: “Slide Away The Screen” on the Warner Brothers label.
In 1980 Ralph and Bruce set up Mays Records.
During 1981 Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Richard Thompson and Ralph formed a band: The GPs. They played about 12 gigs. The first record on the Mays label was released: “England”, a single that Billy Connolly later utilised as the theme for one of his television travelogues.
In 1982 “Water of Dreams” featuring “Bentley & Craig” was released on the Mays label. Granada Television asked Ralph to write and perform some songs about animals for a children’s television programme (Alphabet Zoo). Some of these songs were collected on an album: “Song From Alphabet Zoo”, again on the Mays label.
In 1984 following from the tremendous success of Alphabet Zoo, Ralph had another television series created for him called “Tickle On The Tum”.
Bruce May made a contract with Telstar Reconds, with whom Ralph recorded “At The End Of A Perfect Day”. This album was released in 1985.
“Bridge Of Sighs” was released in 1986 on the Mays label. It included “The Girl From The Hiring Fair” (subsequently a great live Fairport Convention favourite).
In 1987 Ralph supported The Everly Brothers’ on tour. This was important for Ralph because Don and Phil were his musical heroes. At the end of the tour Ralph bought an African parrot: Albert.
It was 1988 when Ralph returned to his blues and ragtime roots with “Blue Skies Black Heroes” released on his own new Leola label. Bruce was no longer Ralph’s manager, a role taken by Mick McDonagh.
In 1989 he recorded an album with Castle Communications: “Affairs Of The Heart”, a double album with versions of some of his ‘love’ songs. Ralph toured to publicise the album.
In 1991 another collection of blues and ragtime songs was released on Castle Communications, called “Stealin’ Back”.
1992 saw the “Silver Celebration” tour and CD, in honour of the 25th anniversary of his first record. In it there was a selection of favourite tracks, “The Ferryman”, “From Clare To Here” and “Streets Of London”. The tour for this album took up most of the year. 1992 also saw the release of his most ambitious project to date: “The Boy With A Note”, an evocation of Dylan Thomas’ life commissioned as a musical play for radio by the BBC. This play was re-recorded on the Leola label for an album.
In 1993 Ralph freed himself from his manager. Nanci Griffith released a single version of “From Clare To Here” and asked him to appear as a guest on her tour in London. For the first time the complete collection “Alphabet Zoo” was released on CD and pre-recorded cassette on ‘The Road Goes On Forever’ record label. In the autumn he played a tour entitled the “Black and White Tour” that attracted an unprecedented interest.