Lesley Duncan was a North-East singer who deserves to be more widely-known and this personal appreciation by David Pearson pays tribute to a rare and lovely talent

IN March, 2010, The Northern Echo announced that “a singer/songwriter born in the North-East has died at the age of 66”. Lesley Duncan was not exactly a household name to most readers, but she released five critically-acclaimed albums in the 1970s, being hailed by one music journalist as “the English Carole King”. She was also a respected session singer, singing on albums by Dusty Springfield, Elton John, Pink Floyd and many others.

Lesley was born in Stockton and grew up in Park Road. She loved Stockton, once describing it as “a much nicer town than Middlesbrough”, which she called “a grey dismal place”. Her husband Tony Cox would later say: “Lesley’s fondest childhood memories were of the distant view of Roseberry Topping, and of getting on her bike to escape from the smoky town to the airy freedom of the North Yorkshire Moors.”

She attended the Richard Hind School, but left at 15, and after a variety of jobs, including waitressing in Scarborough, she and her brother moved to London. They submitted songs she had written and were gobsmacked to be given a one-year contract with Francis, Day and Hunter. Her manager took some of her demos to Parlophone and Lesley ended up with a recording contract. “I didn’t even audition which was quite unusual in those days.”

Over the next few years she had a number of singles released on a variety of labels. It was pretty conventional girl pop, but, by 1968, her music had become more reflective, and chimed perfectly with the emerging singer/songwriting genre.

Her first album, Sing Children Sing, was released in 1971, all songs written by Lesley herself or with her then husband Jimmy Horowitz. Dusty sang backing vocals. The album included what has become her best known composition Love Song. Elton had recorded it on his Tumbleweed Connection album and it remains one of the very few recordings which he did not create himself.

Sing Children Sing, with its bright gatefold sleeve, seemed like a breath of fresh air on the music scene, but sales were relatively modest. A second album, Earth Mother, was released in 1972.

The title song remains one of the most powerful and original eco-songs, and Lesley have a magnificent live performance of it at the 1973 Reading Folk Festival.

Lesley had initially carved out quite a career for herself as a backing singer, particularly for Dusty Springfield (Lesley sang on every post-64 Philips recording). She was part of a of girl ensemble which contributed to numerous sessions through the 1960s and 1970s.

In a 1987 interview Lesley says: “There was Madeline Bell, Kiki Dee, Dusty and myself, all on the same Philips group of labels and we all got very cheesed off because we couldn’t get the sound we wanted from any of the backing choirs that were available at the time. So we found that if we pooled our resources, we could make a sound that we liked better. And so we all started singing on each other’s records.”

As a result, Lesley can be heard on the 1970 Original Cast recording of Jesus Christ, Superstar. She sang the gorgeous Love Suite from Nirvana’s Black Flower album (that’s the 1960s Nirvana, of course).

She sang the equally beautiful If I Could Change Your Mind from the Alan Parsons Project’s Eve. Although the magnificent Clare Torry takes the vocal solo on The Great Gig In The Sky, from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon, Lesley’s voice is also in evidence throughout. Floyd’s 1992 album Shine On is also graced by Lesley’s vocal talents.

SHE sang on Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water; on fellow session chanteuse Kiki Dee’s Loving And Free; on Donovan’s Cosmic Wheels and recordings by the Dave Clark Five and the Walker Brothers – she also co-wrote three songs with Scott Walker.

Three more albums followed Earth Mother: Everything Changes in 1973, Moonbathing (1975, and Lesley’s own personal favourite) and Maybe It’s Lost in 1977. None was commercially successful and Lesley went off to live in Cornwall.

When 1979 was designated Unicef’s Year of The Child, Lesley was invited to record a new version of Sing Children Sing. This time she sang with Joe Brown, Billy Nicholls, Phil Lynott and Kate Bush.

Lesley remembered that “it got to about no 76 in the charts – my finest shot at it so far”.

Through the 1990s Lesley did a lot of fundraising work for Oxfam, and the disabled, before relocating with husband Tony Cox to the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. Few of the locals knew about her musical past and Lesley hardly mentioned it.

In 2010, Lesley died in the local hospital in Tobermory after a five-year battle with cerebro-vascular disease, and the music business lost a fine singer, wonderful songwriter, and, by all accounts, as lovely a person as you could wish to meet.

Her best-loved composition Love Song continues to be covered by major artists. As well as Neil Diamond, Marianne Faithfull included it on her new album.

To quote Lesley’s song: “Love is the opening door.

Love is what we came here for.” Thanks for the music, Lesley. Much love indeed.

  • With thanks to Ian Chapman, Val Jennings, David Barrett and Tony Cox