IME was when there might have been a debate about the identity of British Folk/Rock, but since the untimely death of the only other contender for the crow, Sandy Denny, in 1978, only one name can be considered, that of Maddy Prior. Still active in the 1990s - her latest solo album, Year, appeared in 1993, following the 15th original album by Steeleye Span, Tonight's The Night in 1992 (Maddy is the only member of the group to have been everpresent) and Carols & Capers,
her Christmas album with The Carnival Band in 1991 - she lives today in the far north of England, near the Scottish border.
From the cathedral city of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, Maddy's career began when she and her then boyfriend, singer/guitarist Tim Hart, played as a traditional folk duo in the late 1960. They made two albums for a small independent label at that time, Folk Songs Of Olde England Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and established a considerable reputation around Britain's folk clubs, before they met Ashley Hutchings, the first bass player of Fairport Convention and one of that group's early leading lights, who suggested the formation of Steeleye Span in 1970. Named after a character in Horkstow Grange, a traditional Lincolnshire folk song about an argument between two characters, John Bowling (or Rowlin) and Steeleye Span, the first version of the group never actually performed live, but split up after completing a debut album, Hark! The Village Wait. The original line-up was completed by Gay & Terry Woods - Terry is today a member of The Pogues.
Mr & Mrs Wood didn't stay long, and the group's next two albums, Please To See The King (their first to reach the UK album charts) and Ten Man Mop Or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again, saw Tim, Maddy and Ashley joined by singer/guitarist and English folk legend Martin Carthy and by violin virtuoso Peter Knight. When Hutchings left at the end of 1971 to launch the first of many line-ups of The Albion Band and Carthy also left to resume his solo career, the story of Steeleye Span began again. Carthy's replacement was the lead guitarist Bob Johnson, while the new bass player was Rick Kemp, who came from Hull and reputedly had played in an early local group alongside Mick Ronson. The first album by this Mark III group, Below The Salt (1972), was also their first for Chrysalis Records, and began a run of six UK chart albums in four years, which is certainly a significant achievement.
It's successor, 1973's Parcel Of Rogues album, almost reached the Top 20 of the UK album chart, and its release was immediately followed by the introduction for the first time of a permanent drummer, Nigel Pegrum (previously of art rock act Gnidrolog). The sextet of Prior, Hart, Knight, Johnson, Kemp and Pegrum became the most stable, long lived and popular Steeleye formation. Scaling the commercial heights, they even released two Top 20 hit singles during this period and appeared on `Top Of The Pops', becoming internationally known as Gaudete (possibly the only UK Top 20 hit single sung in Latin!) made them pop stars at the end of 1973. That hit was also included on their 1974 album, Now We Are Six [Wrong! not in this one but on Below The Salt -EM] (an especially appropriate title, as it not only evidently referred to Pegrum's recruitment, but was also their sixth LP), which spent three months in the UK album chart, peaking well inside the Top 20. A significant album in several respects, it credits Jethro Tull founder and ever present leader Ian Anderson as `Production Consultant', while its final track, a cover version of To Know Him Is To Love Him, the late 1950s million seller by The Teddy Bears (whose leader, Phil Spector, also wrote the song), features a certain David Bowie playing alto saxophone.
The final track on the group's first album of 1975, Commoners Crown, also featured a guest star of some note - comedian/film star/erstwhile Goon Peter Sellers plays `acoustic ukelele', but the end of the year brought Steeleye's greatest commercial success with simultaneous Top 10 entries in both the singles and album charts. In an intrepid move for a band with folk roots, Mike Batt, musical mastermind behind the success of The Wombles (8 UK Top 40 singles in two years!) was invited to produce the eighth album by Steeleye, All Around My Hat, and it became the group's only UK Top 10 album to date, while the title track was a Top 5 single. This contagious song became so popular that it was the subject of a lampoon in folk circles ("I'm going to drown my cat", etc.) Batt also produced the next Steeleye album, 1970's Rocket Cottage, but its unveiling coincided almost exactly with the arrival in the headlines of The Sex Pistols - while Steeleye were probably not regarded as "boring old farts" by the punk tastemasters in quite the same way as more established stadium rock bands of the early Seventies, their association (albeit tenuous) with Jethro Tull, whom they had supported on an US tour, seemed to be a nail in their coffin as far as further commercial success was concerned, and the album was only a brief visitor in the UK album chart, to which Steeleye have yet to return.
A few months before Rocket Cottage, Maddy Prior had released her first extra-curricular album since 1971's Summer Solstice, the third of her collaborations with Tim Hart. Her 1976 album was also a collaboration, this time with highly regarded British traditional folk singer June Tabor. Their album of largely traditional material was titled Silly Sisters, and the duo attracted considerable attention among folk fans, especially devotees of Maddy's talents, who were pleased to hear her singing again in the style which had first brought her to prominence, as opposed to the more rock-oriented direction with Steeleye Span had adopted. The album featured several notable musicians providing the backing, including Martin Carthy, famed double bass player Danny Thompson (who has worked with Ralph McTell, John Martyn, Richard Thompson and many others, and was a founder member of Pentangle), and Andy Irvine and Johnny Moynihan (ex-Sweeney's Men, the Irish group Ashley Hutchings wanted to join, but whose dissolution led directly to the original launch of Steeleye Span). It's worth noting here that Maddy Prior's vocal abilities should never have been regarded as exclusively relevant to folk music, although she has suffered from being pigeon-holed in this way for much of her career.
Back to Steeleye Span in 1977 for Storm Force Ten, by which time the band had undergone two significant personnel changes. Peter Knight and Bob Johnson, who had worked together before joining Steeleye, left the band, releasing an album as a duo. The King Of Elfland's Daughter. The vacancy left by Bob Johnson was filled by the return of Martin Carthy, who brought with him accordion star John Kirkpatrick as an effective stand-in for Peter Knight. But by this time, Steeleye were on the ropes, and Maddy Prior, perhaps sensing that the writing was on the wall, had launched a full-time solo career with an album of her own original songs, Woman In The Wings, which was released in early 1978, shortly after Storm Force Ten. Once again assisted by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who co-produced the album with fellow Tull stalwart David Palmer and engineer/producer Robin Black, it featured the entire Tull line-up of the time - drummer Barriemore Barlow, bass player John Glascock, guitarist Martin Barre (who contributed a solo on Cold Flame, Palmer (who played keyboard on both the title track and Mother And Child) and Anderson himself, whose archetypal flute is heard on Gutter Geese. Even Anderson's wife, Shans, joined in, as backing vocalist on Catseyes, although (perhaps purposely) no single track features Maddy fronting a complete Jethro Tull. Another of Maddy's outside projects in 1978 was guesting on Mike Oldfield's Incantations, while she also appeared on his Exposed album in 1979.
Back to 1978, the year when Steeleye Span recorded a concert album, Live At Last!. Tim Hart's sleeve nodes made it clear that this was intended to be the group's final album, and it was certainly designed as a farewell. By this time, Maddy was married to Rick Kemp, and they began working as a duo. Kemp was one of many musicians who contributed to her second Chrysalis solo album, Changing Winds, which was also released in 1978 - a busy year for Maddy! Chris Stainton, best known for his work with Joe Cocker & The Grease Band and more recently with Eric Clapton, plays piano on the album, and Britain's best known pedal steel guitar, B.J. Cole, was also involved, while the splendid lead guitar solos on the wonderful Canals were the work of two players from different musical areas - John O'Connor may be most famous for his work with Bucks Fizz (!), but Doug Morter was more of a folkie, having worked with Ashley Hutchings in one or more line ups of The Albion Band, and in the early 1990s as part of The Backroom Boys, a group of notable session players which also included ex-Fairport guitarist Jerry Donahue. The album again showcased Maddy's songwriting skills, which clearly had been criminally underused during her time with Steeleye, a group with four other writers. While she claims to be in awe of the compositional art, she has clear ideas of how she insists on approaching it: "I have to start with an idea. I'll very often have a beginning and know how the song will end, but if there isn't an appealing idea, forget it." Rather more tantalisingly, she adds: "My songs are in the first person, but they're not always about me."
Maddy Prior's career since her two major label solo albums has hardly altered. Steeleye reformed with their most successful line up (Prior, Hart, Johnson, Kemp, Knight and Pegrum) in 1980 for Sails Of Silver, once again released by Chrysalis, but the reunion was shortlived, and Tim Hart left the band he had helped to found a decade before, resulting in Maddy becoming the last remaining original member of a group which had broken up twice. She returned to a solo career, releasing Hooked On Winning on an independent British folk label in 1981. Two years later came her fourth solo album, Going For Glory, and in 1986, Steeleye, now composed of Prior, Kemp, Knight, Johnson and Pegrum, reunited yet again for Back In Line, since when the group has regularly performed and occasionally recorded (in 1989, a new album, Tempted And Tried, emerged, this time without Rick Kemp, whose shoulder had been injured, making playing bass a painful process, and in 1992, Tonight's The Night included drummer Liam Genockey, who replaced Nigel Pegrum).
While Steeleye survives (albeit on an occasional basis), Maddy has kept on with her solo career both as a live performer and a recording artist. Newer albums include a reunion Silly Sisters album with June Tabor, No More To The Dance, in 1988, Happy Families, a collaboration with Kemp, in 1990, and a sixth solo album, Year, in 1993. In addition, she has made three albums with The Carnival Band in the 1990s - this unique combo who play medieval instruments were fronted by Maddy for albums of hymns and Christmas carols! Plainly, we are not speaking on any run-of-the-mill performer here - Maddy Prior has been responsible for many musical highlights during a quarter of a century at the top of her profession.
(from "Woman in the Wings" and "Changing Winds" CDs booklets)