Album of the Week, January 31: Sing Children Sing by Lesley Duncan

DuncanSingCSLesley Duncan is best known for the work she’s done for other artists, but she was a talented singer and songwriter in her own right. Born in northeastern England in 1943, she started writing songs in her teens. She sent a demo of her “I Want A Steady Guy” to EMI in 1963, hoping to become a staff songwriter. To her surprise, the label was impressed enough to offer her a recording contract. She spent five years recording angsty love songs with no real success. At the same time, her distinctive vocals made her an in-demand session singer, working with a wide variety of performers, notably Dusty Springfield and the Dave Clark Five. During this time, she met Reginald Dwight, a session pianist who became a close friend. When Dwight began recording his own material under his more famous name, Elton John, he asked Duncan to provide backing vocals. She did one better than that, lending him a new song that would become her signature. The inclusion of Love Song helped make John’s Tumbleweed Connection a standout in his early catalog. When she recorded her first album, he returned the favor, playing piano and providing moral support.

Album Sing Children Sing
Act Lesley Duncan
Label Edsel Release Date June 1971
Producer Jimmy Horowitz
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Chain of Love
  2. Lullaby
  3. Help Me Jesus
  4. Mr. Rubin
  5. Rainbow Games
  6. Love Song
  7. Sunshine (Send Them Away)
  8. Crying In the Sun
  9. Emma
  10. If You Won’t Be Mine
  11. Sing Children Sing

Duncan’s husband at the time, Jimmy Horowitz, produced the album and played some instruments. With the many connections from her session work, they were able to assemble a crack band, including established guitarist Chris Spedding and drummer Terry Cox of folk-rock pioneers Pentangle. With Duncan’s smart songs, warm vocals, and sensitive acoustic guitar, the group created a lost classic of early singer-songwriter magic.

Chain of Love opens the album on a strong note. A song about the power of music and friendship, it explores the many relationships that Duncan built in her early career and the strength she draws from them. Quietly moving, it’s a touching, appropriate way to start the proceedings. Lullaby is a song written to her as-yet unborn child. It’s a standard make-the-world-better song of cautious optimism. Duncan’s delivery saves it from being trite, instead moving it far ahead of its class and offering a good example of overcoming tropes. The same isn’t quite true of Help Me Jesus, a perfectly sincere song that doesn’t offer much beyond a glimpse into the songwriter’s personal beliefs and a very catchy chorus.

Things take a darker turn on Mr. Rubin. A firm believer in the healing power of love, Duncan was disgusted with some of the counter-culture rhetoric, particularly that of Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin. In a long, slow burn, she offers an open letter to him, underscoring each concern with a clear demand: “Don’t forget love, Mr. Rubin”. It’s a powerful track, demonstrating Duncan’s versatility. It also found a surprising second life. Elton John borrowed it when he co-produced Long John Baldry’s 1971 album It Ain’t Easy.

Duncan and Horowitz cleanse the sonic palate with the sweet Rainbow Games, a light love song that works because of its charming delivery. That paves the way for her signature song.

Over 150 artists have covered Love Song over the years, including John’s famously brilliant take and a much-bootlegged early recording by David Bowie. Nobody matches Duncan on her own turf, however. At once intimate and universal, it perfectly captures the fragmenting spirit of optimism of the late 60s. Offering hope while insisting on faith, Duncan delivers her finest vocal. For this track alone, the album is more than worth the price of admission. Amazingly, Duncan initially thought of it as “a little song I’d knocked off as a suitable B-side”!

She gets political again with Sunshine (Send Them Away), demanding that light drive out the darker forces in modern life. With one of her deepest, roughest vocals it’s a stirring song that transcends its place and time. Crying In the Sun is a sad lost love song reminiscent of Carole King. Emma is another ode to Duncan’s soon-to-be-born child (who would, in fact, be a boy named Sam). It looks at the parent-child relationship from a different angle than Lullaby, offering a more intimate view. The pair work nicely together, although Lullaby is the stronger track. With If You Won’t Be Mine, Duncan cements her talents as a writer of wistful love songs, turning in another fine vocal.

The album wraps up with the title track, a stirring ode to the power of music and hope. It bookends the album perfectly with Chain of Love, providing two different looks at similar themes. Sweetly anthemic, it sums up the best of Lesley Duncan’s worldview.

Sadly this little masterpiece was long out of print, and is now available only as a fairly pricey import. That’s a shame, because Duncan was a unique talent with a knack for turning out smart, folky pop. Her songs are very much of their time, with traces of Summer of Love blending into a somewhat skeptical early 70s consciousness, but her craftsmanship and delivery make them timeless.

FURTHER LISTENING: Duncan followed up with Earth Mother, a much darker look at similar themes including the monumental, nine-minute title track. When it also proved to be a commercial failure, she lost her contract and changed labels, recording three more albums for GM. Plagued by stage fright

“I hated it. I’d throw up before I went on, I was just a basket case. I didn’t look it on stage but that’s because I’d had to drink a quadruple brandy to get up there.”

she never toured to support her albums and eventually retired to Cornwall, doing rare session work. Producer Alan Parsons was particularly fond of her voice, and included her in the sessions for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as well as asking her to provide one of only two female leads for an Alan Parsons Project track. Duncan died in 2010, leaving behind a small body of her own work and an astounding legacy of session performances.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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