Rab Noakes was born in St Andrews and grew up in nearby Cupar, where music became as vital as oxygen. His mother sang. Hearing songs on the radio grabbed his attention and his cousin Derek encouraged Rab’s interest in music by donating a collection of 78 RPM singles that included items by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. So began a journey that would see Rab learn the craft of songwriting, first by parodying Jimmy Dean’s 1961 hit Big John before studying the mechanics of songs from the 1960s pop era back to the roots of Americana, through country, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues.
It may have been the arrival of a pair of guisers at the family home, singing Dinah Shore’s hit Buttons and Bows with conspicuous verve that inspired Rab to become a performer, or he might have just followed heroes including Bob Dylan’s example anyway. But by the time he left Cupar to take on his first job as a clerical assistant in Glasgow in 1963, singing and playing guitar were beginning to occupy his thoughts more and more.
During his first week in Glasgow he caught a package tour featuring the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and the Rolling Stones and within seven years he was recording for the same label as the Stones, his debut album, Do You See the Lights being released by Decca Records in 1970. Before that, he had moved to London, formed a duo with banjoist Robin McKidd, teamed up with Barbara Dickson and Archie Fisher and befriended a Newcastle-based singer-songwriter Alan Hull whose band Lindisfarne recorded Rab’s songs Turn a Deaf Ear and Together Forever.
With Robin McKidd, Rab progressed from playing floor spots in folk clubs to headlining and they played their first paid gig around the time of Rab’s twentieth birthday in May 1967. From there Rab became a mainstay of the UK folk club and college gig circuit. He briefly featured in Stealers Wheel with his friend Gerry Rafferty before a second album, Rab Noakes became the precursor to working with Neil Young’s producer Elliot Mazer and recording for Warner Bros, MCA and Ringo Starr’s Ring O’ Records.
In 1987 Rab’s vast knowledge of popular music became an invaluable resource when he joined the BBC and subsequently became senior producer of music programmes with BBC Radio Scotland. His own music-making became less high profile during this time but in 1995 his album Standing Up reconfirmed his status as a singer, guitarist, songwriter and interpreter of artists as diverse as Lowell George, Talking Heads and Beck Hansen.
With the formation in 2000 of Neon, the production company he ran with his wife, Rab’s back catalogue and a steady stream of new recordings became available. His appetite for performing had never deserted him and gigs with harmonica player Fraser Spiers and Rab’s band the Varaflames have been followed by solo tours and shows with Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes and old friend Barbara Dickson.
Rab has also been a major contributor to Celtic Connections tributes to Bob Dylan and Martyn Bennett as well as the festival’s celebrations of his great friends Gerry Rafferty and Michael Marra and following a brush with tonsillar cancer in 2015 he has emerged as a still vital performer and a master songwriter, able to draw on his own experiences and turn them into creative gold.