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.
In 1994 he started a new recording and also stopped smoking after 37 years. In June Ralph appeared together with Christy Moore, Loudon Wainwright III, Tanita Tikaram and the Bronte Bros at the Royal Albert Hall in a memorial and tribute concert to Ken Woollard, the organiser of the Cambridge Folk Festival. The following month Ralph played with the Alun Davies’ band “Good Men In The Jungle” to play at the Cambridge Folk Festival.
The Road Goes On Forever released “Slide Away The Screen” in CD format with three previously unreleased songs and during this year Ralph visit Ireland a lot of times. He played in Australia and New Zealand, and stopped over for a couple of concerts in Hong Kong. When he returned home, his British tour started and Ralph worked till the middle of December, celebrating his 50th birthday on the road. He was still not smoking.
In 1995 he finished recording at Dave Pegg’s Woodworm Studios and signed a record deal with Transatlantic Records owned by Castle Communication. In October “Sand In Your Shoes” was released on CD. “The Islands”, a song from the CD was used as the theme for Billy Connolly’s World Tour Of Scotland. Management with Michael Bisping was confirmed. Sinead O’Connor released “Streets Of London”. Ralph played his song “Bentley & Craig” at a special function for Derek Bentley buried in Croydon cemetery. Ralph was invited to play songs from “The Boy With A Note” in Swansea at the Year Of Literature Festival. Still not smoking.
In 1996 BBC Radio2 made “Sand In Your Shoes” album of the week. Ralph worked again on the soundtrack for Billy Connolly’s World Tour Of Scotland and in the Summer he worked with BBC Radio 2 as reporter and presenter at the Sidmouth Folk Festival. He played some gigs in the USA, Europe and UK. A live album, “Songs For Six Strings vol. II” was released on the Leola label.
In 1997 Ralph started his union with Tickety Boo. He played “In The Dreamtime” for the closing credits of Billy Connolly’s programme. The first official biography about Ralph, written by Chris Hockenhull, was published.
In 1998 a concert was recorded at Croydon Town Hall and released on video on the Leola label.
In spring of 1999 Ralph toured and a recording was made and released on the Leola label as a double CD: “Travelling Man”. An article appeared about him in The Guardian in May.
In 2000 Ralph released “Red Sky”. The album was made up of 19 tracks and released on the Leola label. Ralph published the first volume of his autobiography, “Angel Laughter”. On 25th June Ralph and Nanna’s first grandchild was born.
In 2001 Ralph played a special tour in the UK, called “National Treasure”. An album of the same name was released on the Leola label. Ralph discovered that he had about 24 guitars and a resonator.
In December 2002 Ralph published the second volume of his autobiography: “Summer Lightning”. BBC Radio 2 presented Ralph with a Lifetime Achievement award.
In 2003 Ralph decided to have a break from touring. He spent the time writing and enjoying being with his family.
In 2004 Ralph played toured Australia and New Zealand and the UK, Ireland and Europe. He appeared at the Cambridge Folk Festival, the Sidmouth Music Festival and at Cropredy.
Also in 2004, Leola Music Ltd consolidated its position by undertaking in-house a lot of aspects of Ralph’s career including his new website and concert booking.
McTell celebrated his 60th birthday with a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall in November, 2004. The entire show was filmed and released on DVD in 2005 as “The London Show”.
Leola published Time’s Poems - The Song Lyrics of Ralph McTell towards the end of 2005. Dedicated to “Woody Guthrie, the man who started it all for me”, Time’s Poems contains “...all the songs I could find in notebooks, on scraps of paper and old tapes, on records and CDs”.
In 2006 McTell’s “Walk Into The Morning” tour was a sellout success, creating such long queues to talk to him at his customary “meet and greet” sessions after concerts, that he was forced to announce in June 2006 that he would no longer be coming out into the foyers after shows to chat with fans.
For his “up close” tour in September, 2006, McTell performed a set billed as “Dylan, Guthrie and The Country Blues”, featuring his covers of songs by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and black American blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy. He also recorded an album of the material, titled “ Gates of Eden”. McTell described the music on this CD as “…the beginning of my own journey… these songs are almost sacred to me”.
A boxed set of four CDs (accompanied by an extended essay on McTell’s songs by Paul Jenkins) was released in October, 2006. Compiled by David Suff from recordings made between 1965 and 2006, The Journey was promoted with several radio interviews and a major tour that included two “gala” concerts at London’s Union Chapel. The box set’s packaging was designed by John Haxby, who also took the cover photograph.
A solo tour of Australia early in 2007 was followed by “The Journey Continues” tour in the UK. In August, 2007, Sanctuary Records recognised the 40th anniversary of McTell’s first recording contract by re-releasing his three Transatlantic albums as CDs with bonus tracks.
In October, 2007, McTell released an “audio book” titled “As Far As I Can Tell”. The three CDs included readings from the autobiography interspersed with new recordings of the songs they inspired. The “As Far As I Can Tell” treble CD was promoted by a tour that included a concert at St Mary’s church in Banbury, a location that featured in the first volume of autobiography.
A compilation CD comprising McTell’s own selection of songs, including the “hit” version of “Streets of London”, was released in December 2007 on the Highpoint label as “The Definitive Collection”.
During 2008 McTell combined the two volumes of his autobiography into a single volume under the title “As Far As I Can Tell” for publication to coincide with his autumn tour. The new edition featured additional chapters illustrated by photos from the May family album.
On 9 October 2008, McTell appeared on BBC1 TV’s nationally-broadcast magazine programme The One Show in a pre-recorded package about the song “Streets of London”. The interview was filmed in Paris and conducted by Myleene Klass.
The appearance on The One Show was the springboard for two “official” McTell internet videos. Made by Leola Music Ltd and published on YouTube, the videos featured McTell talking about his work and about “Streets of London”, with concert footage shot at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
The Institute of Contemporary Arts concert footage was released during 2008 as a full-length DVD titled “McTell on The Mall”.
McTell embarked on his most extensive UK tour for many years in October, 2008, visiting thirty venues throughout England.The concert at Birmingham Town Hall was unusual because McTell, who rarely appears with a supporting act, shared the bill with the Fairport Convention spin-off band, The Dylan Project.
McTell released his first downloadable album in July, 2009, titled “Streets of London and Other Story Songs”, comprising twelve tracks from his back-catalogue.
McTell’s summer 2009 festival appearances included a solo set at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention on Saturday 15 August. He also joined Fairport Convention on stage during their set later the same evening.
In October, 2009, McTell was honoured by the UK Parliament’s All Party Folk Music Group at a special award ceremony in the House of Commons, to celebrate his lifetime’s contribution to folk music. This was only the second time such an award had been made, the previous recipient having been Tom Paxton.
In early 2010, McTell’s Leola Music record label released “Affairs of the Heart”, a four CD box set of love songs in a presentation package. In keeping with its theme, the album was released on Valentine”s Day, February 14. There were no previously-unrecorded songs among the fifty-six tracks on the set. Two tracks were specially re-recorded but the remaining fifty-four were digital remixes of previous recordings. Comedian Rory McGrath contributed extensive sleeve notes in the set’s accompanying booklet. The sleeve design and set packaging concept were by designer Peter Thaine.
During 2010, McTell recorded an album of new songs, his first for ten years, to be titled “Somewhere Down the Road”. He kept an on-line diary of the album’s progress which described assembling the material, the recording sessions and preparing for release. “Somewhere Down the Road” is described on McTell’s website as “The first new and original studio CD from Ralph McTell in a decade” and is scheduled for general release on 18 October 2010 (with pre-release copies available from 3 September). McTell’s UK autumn tour will be branded with the same title.
On 21 November 2010, McTell released a seasonal song, "The Things You Wish Yourself", as a download-only single.
McTell was invited to record his own interpretation of a Bob Dylan song for the BBC Radio 2 celebration of Dylan’s 70th birthday in May 2011. Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright was also the title of McTell’s own six-song tribute to Dylan, which was released as a downloadable EP.
McTell embarked on a 36-date UK Autumn tour in September 2011, culminating in a concert at London's Cadogan Hall on 11 December. On the first night of the tour, McTell launched his new Songs For Six Strings boxed set. Eventually there will be six CDs, one for each guitar string, and each with live recordings of six McTell songs. They are available to purchase only at live concerts and from the official McTell website.
In April and May 2012, McTell undertook a short tour of Australia. McTell's 2012 UK tour, branded “An English Heartbeat”, commenced in October, and saw the release of a CD of guitar instrumentals called Sofa Noodling. In an interview published ahead of his 2013 “One More for the Road” tour, McTell said, “It could be the last time I do a big tour... this is the beginning of slowing things down”.
The spring of 2014 saw McTell touring the Celtic nations of the British Isles, and the release of a CD compilation of Celt-themed songs, Celtic Cousins. A high point of the tour was a performance of McTell's tribute to Dylan Thomas, The Boy With a Note, in Thomas's home town of Laugharne in south Wales. Later in the year, McTell marked the centenary of the start of the first world war with a four-song EP, “The Unknown Soldier”.
McTell’s 70th birthday is to be celebrated with a concert at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, on 7 December 2014.
2015 saw little sign of "slowing things down", as McTell played more than 30 solo shows over the year. Towards the end of the year McTell started a recording project with one of his earliest performing partners, Wizz Jones.
The resulting CD was released in June 2016 with the appropriate title About Time. McTell's fifty years as a recording artist was marked by Martin Guitars with a 'signature' Ralph McTell guitar, built to McTell's specification and marketed as the Martin RM50 (read more from Ralph's Official Site).
McTell played a special show at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2016. Billed as a “Loyal Command Performance”, the set list was voted for by McTell's fans, and McTell performed the 20 songs that received the most votes Summer highlights included McTell's first appearance at the Glastonbury Festival and a return to Fairport's Cropredy Convention. In the autumn McTell undertook an extensive tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The sixth and final CD of McTell's Songs for Six Strings boxed set was released during the tour
During 2017, McTell and Jones toured their About Time album, which was so well received that they recorded and issued a follow-up album, About Time Too. Ahead of his solo autumn tour, McTell invited applicants to submit recordings of original music, from which McTell would select performers to open for him in an ‘open mic’ format at the shows. McTell then chose one act to open his London Palladium concert in October. Since 2014, McTell had played an annual benefit concert for the UK homeless charity, Crisis at Christmas, and in 2017 McTell invited The Crisis Choir to sing ‘’Streets of London’’ with him at his Palladium concert. McTell also recorded his iconic song with The Crisis Choir and guest vocalist Annie Lennox, for release in the lead up to Christmas. The song charted at No.94 in the Official Singles Chart (for downloads, CDs and streams), and at No. 1 in the Official Physical Singles Chart (for CD sales).
In September 2018, McTell made his debut on BBC's music show Later... with Jools Holland, on which he performed two songs, including the Bob Dylan-inspired "West 4th Street and Jones". In a short interview segment with Holland, McTell announced a new tour and album for 2019.
The album, Hill of Beans, comprising 11 tracks including "West 4th Street and Jones", was released in September 2019