Once upon a time in a little English seaside town, there lived a boy who loved music. Not just any music, but a particular kind of music. One that came from a far away land, way across the ocean….
Chances are, unless you’re the kind of blues fanatic who obsessively reads liners notes, bibliographies, and footnotes, you might’ve missed an anniversary this past week. On November 16th, 1974, the blues world lost one of its most passionate and tireless champions. A young British writer and researcher, named Michael Andrew Leadbitter. He was born in India, but grew up in the town of Bexhill-on-Sea, in Southeast England.
In a memorial written at the time of his death, John Broven says that he first met Mike in grammar school, in 1953. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1957, that they became friends — apparently talking about the rock ‘n’ roll hits of the day that captured their imaginations — by Elvis, Bill Haley, and Fats Domino. By the age of 16, Mike’s “formal” education was done. In his memorial, Broven hints at a persona that was a bit of rebel (“it was the age of James Dean, the Beat Era,” he writes), which was complimented by a seemingly natural curiosity and a photographic memory. “You could almost say,” says Broven, that “he was born to be a researcher.”
Broven says he lost touch with Mike after school let out, in the summer of 1958. A couple of years later, when their paths crossed again, Mike introduced him to Simon Napier, who Broven says he knew “just as one of the ‘big boys’ at grammar school.” Simon, often described as the one who handled the business end of Blues Unlimited, was three years Mike’s senior, having been born in Manchester, England, in 1939 — moving with his parents to Bexhill-on-Sea when he was fourteen. Napier later wrote about his future business partner and co-editor:
I first met Mike in 1955: he was intrigued by the fact that that I preferred Nappy Brown’s “It’s Really You” to the hit side, “Don’t Be Angry.” Some time later, he accosted me as I biked home with a treasured 78 of Chuck Berry’s “Down Bound Train” (in those days, 45s didn’t appear till weeks later; couldn’t wait), and invited himself home to hear it! A long and firm friendship was born — even then he was abstracting data from Jazz Journal’s list of recent U.S. releases, poring over R&B mags, compiling label lists and wondering who the hell Tippo Lite was; cursing over the fact that Ray Charles was winning Billboard Triple Crowns without a U.K. release, and tuning in faithfully to AFN’s [Armed Forces Network] Negro music shows to find out what the Cues, the Jacks, Google Eyes August, and Joe Hunter were doing. I was still fairly mainstream, digging Fatha Fats Domino and the Fontaine Sisters simultaneously, acquiring the definitive Hank Williams collection and standing in the Dominion cheering Bill Haley to the rafters….
In 1962, Napier and Leadbitter founded the “Blues Appreciation Society.” A year later, in April 1963, they launched Blues Unlimited magazine. The initial print run was 200 copies, which, according to several accounts, sold out almost immediately. Napier settled in as the editor, and would go on to hand-type the first 100 (or so) issues of the magazine, which at first, was just a simple mimeographed affair. By issue number five, Mike was listed as “R&B Editor,” and by 1965, was named co-editor. Between the two of them, Napier’s love of prewar blues meshed perfectly with Mike’s expertise on the postwar era. Where the two of them “met in the middle” (so to speak), was a mutual admiration for the music of Elmore James. Although Mike typically handled the LP reviews of ’40s and ’50s reissues, and Simon usually the earlier stuff, it’s a rare treat to see Napier, in the pages of Blues Unlimited, wax poetic about the slide guitar legend they both loved and respected so highly.
Going back to those very first issues — now, rare collector’s items — it’s nothing short of amazing to behold just how much both Mike and Simon knew at the time. Although today, information is taken relatively for granted in the “easy access” of the internet era, back in those days, if you wanted to find something out, you had to either dig, or know where to look for it. Fortunately, as the Blues Revival of the 1960s unfolded, Mike Leadbitter would be at one of the most unique junctures of the blues universe. Thanks to the magazine, information filtered in from all corners of the globe, and Mike — who, along with his photographic memory and natural curiosity, also apparently had the ability to collate vast amounts of data — took advantage of his unique position, and made full use of it, in his capacity as one of the magazine’s editors. [By the way… Mike also possessed a considerable knowledge of Cajun music; how he managed to accomplish that is a bit of a mystery!]
In the pages of Blues Unlimited, Mike and Simon constantly encouraged people to go out and talk to the artists, musicians, and producers who made the music — that were still around and could be interviewed. An early piece on boogie woogie legend Pete Johnson was particularly heart-breaking (“Pete Johnson – Today,” Blues Unlimited 8, January 1964). James Wertheim, a twenty year-old college student, befriended Johnson, and sent in an article. He described how this beloved piano giant still received letters from fans all over the world, yet was living humbly in Buffalo, New York, in ill-health, and scraping by on fourteen dollars a month — which was all that remained from his Social Security check after his rent had been paid (Wertheim goes on to mention that small royalty checks and donations from fans managed to find their way to him occasionally; according to one source, after the article appeared, Johnson became a member of ASCAP, which helped him to receive royalties on a more regular basis). This would be just one of several such “causes” that Blues Unlimited would bring to light, thanks to the platform the magazine afforded, and also, thanks to their readers (who in some cases, such as Juke Boy Bonner, sent in donations so he could get into a studio and record a new single).
Although Mike and Simon’s reviews and articles tended towards the positive and supportive end of the spectrum (one astute reader complained that it would take some £300 a year to purchase all the LPs that were earmarked as “essential” — almost $4,500 today, adjusted for inflation), Mike, in particular, was not afraid to tell the truth, as he saw it. In a rather excoriating review of the book Robert Johnson by Sam Charters, Leadbitter takes the revered author to task, in part, for publishing information gleaned from the pages of Blues Unlimited without giving due credit, and padding the book with lyric transcriptions and “vivid descriptions of crumbling Delta towns, dusty roads and sticky red mud.” He goes on to say, “I personally like and admire Sam Charters and can’t understand why he produced this bullshit for me to review.” What follows next reveals a key insight into Mike’s personality:
Perhaps [Charters] wanted to get his oar in before Steve LaVere and (reputedly) Mack McCormick get their interviews and pics in print. Who knows? Whatever, it’s about time that we got some of the facts about Johnson from those who know. I’ve never been one to sit on vital data just for kicks or money and I rather resent those who do. Blues, like science, is best served by those who share the fruits of their research….
After celebrating their tenth year anniversary, in the Spring of 1973, it was announced that Simon Napier would be stepping down. Assuming the reigns with issue 103, in the fall of 1973, Mike Leadbitter became the sole editor. With the magazine sporting a fresh new look, it seemed that a path was set, and the future assured. Mike became busier than ever, working for Hanover Books in London, writing articles and liner notes, working on a new book, making corrections to his magnum opus, Blues Records, and still — in his part time — making sure that Blues Unlimited was regularly published, according to schedule.
Starting the next year, however, troubling reports started filtering in. “This issue was somehow put together during a long bout of ’flu and even as I write this I have a feeling that it may finally appear a little later than usual. If it does, please forgive me,” he wrote in issue number 107 (April/May 1974). In his next editorial, little seemed changed:
By the time it was decided that I had an unspecified (?) ‘virus’ and not ’flu, BU 107 was already way behind schedule and your once chubby editor lost two stone [i.e., almost 30 pounds]. In spite of aching head and trembling limbs (no lie), I began work on this issue, to get it out on time, before seeing proofs of the previous one….
In issue 109 (August/September 1974), Mike’s health issues were starting to sound ominous:
Sorry to turn this into a health bulletin again, but London’s clinics and hospitals are rapidly disturbing my life. After nearly six months of treating me for everything but, they’ve at last decided that my continuing illness is being caused by an infection of the lungs. In spite of the dark hints about TB and the like, they’re still not very sure about what I’m suffering from and I really don’t know what they plan next. Any sort of confinement in hospital, be it only for further investigation, would play havoc with BU’s timetable, and I’d like to warn you that there may be delays over issues or other odd happenings.
“It was… clear to his friends that he was taking on too much work for his own good,” John Broven wrote in his tribute. “He was becoming run-down healthwise…. We all thought he was getting better during the summer but in early October came the sad news that he was critically ill in hospital with meningitis. He never recovered.”
The next issue, number 111 (December 1974/January 1975), announced the tragic details of his passing:
“Michael Andrew Leadbitter,” wrote Simon Napier, “…died of meningitis in London’s Brook Hospital, on the evening of Saturday, November 16th, 1974. He was 32 years old, and a leading light since 1963 in the revival of interest and study of blues.” Of the many unfinished things Mike left behind, was a manuscript he’d been working on, about the blues musicians of Mississippi. Simply called The Delta Blues Book, John Broven reported reading an early version of it in 1974, and referred to it even then as a masterpiece. Forty-four years later, blues fans still hope, and await its publication.
In 1975, Blues Unlimited magazine was re-organized under a new editorial team, spearheaded by the capable hands of John Broven, Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe, Neil Slaven, and Bez Turner. It would soldier on, for another twelve years, with additional editorial members coming in, and others going on to new things.
In 1987, Blues Unlimited published its last issue. In the previous years, its appearance had become more and more sporadic, and the challenges of publication (never an easy thing, mind you) — now with one third of the three-man editorial team living overseas — was just too much burden to bear. As suddenly as it had appeared, Blues Unlimited simply faded away. Although planned to be a special on Detroit blues, issue number 150 never hit the newsstands.
Simon Napier and Mike Leadbitter were tireless champions of the unsung, the unheralded, and the unknown — always making sure, of course, that the “known” folks received some coverage too. And although the magazine never had (as far as we know, anyway) a “formal” editorial policy, if they had an informal one, it would be this: that there is no such thing as a blues artist who is unimportant. During those early days, it’s hard to know whether or not they had a grasp of the magnitude of the work they were doing. With the benefit of hindsight, what they achieved was nothing short of remarkable — a priceless archive of articles, interviews, concert reports, photographs, news happenings, and contemporary record reviews, that, by today’s standards, is simply irreplaceable. In each and every page of Blues Unlimited, their love and passion for the music, and the artists that made it — was always front and center.
After Blues Unlimited, Simon Napier went on to run the family antiques business, and in partnership with Robin Gosden and Bruce Bastin, launched the highly respected Flyright record label, which encompassed a mail order department, a distributorship and publishing business, and a retail record shop. He was actively involved in the community of Bexhill, helping to umpire stoolball matches (“a unique Sussex game,” writes John Broven), lingering over games of chess, lending a hand in the local musical theatre, and eventually becoming President of the Bexhill Chamber of Commerce. Simon Napier died in his sleep on December 1st, 1990, at his home in Cooden, a suburb of Bexhill-on-Sea, where Blues Unlimited magazine was first published. He was 51 years old.
In 2015, the blues community welcomed the publication of Blues Unlimited — Essential Interviews from the Original Blues Magazine, edited by Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe, and Mark Camarigg, and published by the University of Illinois Press. The project had long been a vision of Greensmith’s, and after many years, finally saw the light of day — a testament to the legacy of the world’s first English language blues magazine, and the two men who helped pioneer modern blues journalism.
…We have lost a cornerstone, not only of BU, but of the whole blues world, musician and enthusiast alike. It wouldn’t be too extravagant a claim to say that he has almost single-handedly raised the standard of blues journalism far beyond the vagaries that we all thought so fascinating in the first days of BU. Many others of greater or lesser renown have done much of the research work that was fundamental to an understanding of the development of blues styles and tracing the musicians and their careers. But it was Mike who by amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of names, dates and recording information, was able to ask the right questions at the right time, and by so doing, illuminate a previously unsolvable mystery. As his knowledge and writing skill developed, his articles and interviews became models of factual accuracy and background detail.
— Neil Slaven, from a tribute in Blues Unlimited 111.
Over the next week or so, we will publish some reminiscences from those who knew and worked with Mike Leadbitter at Blues Unlimited. Stay tuned for that….
P.S. We were told a long time ago — by a source we regard as highly reliable — that a group of English gentleman gathered yearly on the anniversary of Mike Leadbitter’s death, and proudly drank copious amounts of beer in his honor. We hope that somewhere, the tradition still continues.
P.P.S. Although we’ve currently lost track of its whereabouts, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s recipe for home made corn liquor is ensconced somewhere in the pages of one issue of Blues Unlimited magazine. If we run across it, we’ll let you know….