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In terms of a musical career, Jake Thackray was a late starter. Born in 1938, he was educated at the Roman Catholic St. Michael's College before graduating from Durham University as an English teacher. He worked for almost four years in France, teaching English in Lille, Brittany, and the Pyrenees — he also spent six months working in Algeria, a stint that somewhat unfortunately coincided with the height of that country's struggle to escape its colonial overlords. Back in Lille, Thackray had his first poems published in a local magazine, then returned to Leeds in 1964. There, his talent for writing short, religiously-themed songs established his lessons as among the most bizarre on the entire curriculum. Under Thackray's tutelage, the class would adapt these songs for musicals, and his own first recordings were tapes of the ensuing performances. By 1967, eight of these pieces had been preserved, including a Christmas show.
At the same time Thackray was also entertaining in pubs and for working-men's and Rugby-league clubs (he was once a keen player) in the same region, part of the explosion of wry acoustic singer/songwriters who emerged throughout the English hinterland in the wake of the mid-'60s folk boom. His precedents were firmly among such Gallic masters of languid observation as Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens (Thackray would later translate and cover the latter's "La Gorille"), but still he slipped into the English tradition, a wandering minstrel entertaining the masses with cogent, potent observations of the world at large — which is all a true folk performer should ever hope to accomplish.
By 1966, Thackray was a regular on local radio, frequently gracing the BBC's regional magazine programs with a smattering of his less salty songs. Radio producer Pamela Howe recruited him to record a number of songs for an ongoing series discussing the Yorkshire countryside; another producer, in England's distant West Country, then commissioned one song a month from Thackray, to accompany a similar program. And there he would doubtless have been content to remain, a star in a world that could not have been further removed from the hustle and bustle of rock, pop, and showbiz. Recognition, however, was not far away — according to legend, arranger/composer Brian Fahey was out driving one day when he heard one of Thackray's radio performances. He passed his discovery on to EMI staff producer Norman Newell and, in late spring 1967, Thackray signed with EMI's Columbia subsidiary, becoming a peculiar labelmate for Pink Floyd, the Pretty Things, and Cliff Richard to be sure.
Thackray's first recording sessions took place in August at Chappells studio in London; his first album, the wryly titled The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray, followed before year's end, and brought its maker to the attention of comedian Bernard Braden. Thackray was recruited to the cast of Braden's newly launched weekly magazine program, Braden's Week, performing one song a week. Initially panned by many viewers, the lugubrious anti-star persevered and Braden later noted, "The greatest tribute to Jake's staying power is that a number of the people who first wrote in to complain about him wrote again to say they'd changed their minds." Further evidence of Thackray's blossoming brilliance came with the release of his second album, 1968's Jake's Progress, which found him accompanied by a regular band comprised of Ike Isaacs (guitar), Frank Horrox (drums), and double bassist Frank Clarke — Jake's one close encounter with the aristocracy of the rock world. The previous year, Clarke was a participant in the classical overdubs that burnished the Beatles' "Penny Lane."
Into the early '70s, Thackray remained a powerful presence on the British broadcasting scene. His music opened the BBC's newly launched Radio Leeds in September 1972, and when Braden's Week reached the end of its run that same year, Thackray was promptly transferred to its successor, That's Life. His third album, Bantam Cock, however, did not appear until 1973, and Thackray's recording career slowly slipped out of sight. He remained a strong concert draw, however, and in 1976 headlined London's prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall, a show subsequently released as the Live Performance album. His final studio album, On Again, On Again, arrived the following year.
Thackray continued to make sporadic appearances; he appeared on Neil Innes' Innes Book of Records, while 1981 brought a BBC Two broadcast for an entire live show — highlights of the performance appeared in 1983 as the Jake Thackray and Songs album. In 1986, Thackray contributed one song, "Tortoise," to the Where Would You Rather Be Tonight benefit album, while illustrator Ralph Steadman selected a Thackray song for inclusion on his I Like It album within the EMI Songbook Series. However, attempts to lure him back onto a wider stage were doomed to failure. Thackray continued performing in local pubs, but showed no interest in venturing further afield, and it took his death in December 2002 to remind the British entertainment industry of just how remarkable a talent he was.