Every episode of Blues Unlimited always has a dedication to Mike Leadbitter and Simon Napier at the end. There’s a reason for that — because it’s our way of paying tribute to two passionate blues lovers who changed the shape of blues literature — and research — with their pioneering publication, Blues Unlimited magazine.
We recently asked some folks who knew Mike “back in the day” to write a few lines in his honor, and here’s what they had to say.
From John Broven:
For a man who died 44 years ago at the age of only 32, Mike Leadbitter continues to have a huge impact on blues, R&B and Cajun music research. Operating in a world where there was no internet or Google and little academic interest, his work has more than stood the test of time. For example, in recently updating my 1983 book, South to Louisiana, I found myself regularly consulting his publications and, of course, Blues Unlimited magazine. The accuracy of his research, especially his discographical masterpiece Blues Records 1943-1970, is astonishing. I am proud to have known him as a school friend and beyond, and to be mentored by him. Cheers, Mike!
Note: The first edition of Blues Records was published in 1968. The second edition, which came out after Mike’s death, expanded the coverage to 1970.
From Gayle Dean Wardlow:
Mike Leadbitter was my first contact at BU as early as 1965 when I did an article on H. C. Speir. Mike was the researcher and Simon the business part of the magazine. Later I combined my research on Elmore James from his brother in Canton, Mississippi and Johnnie Temple — and Mike and I did the first in-depth article on Elmore as co-authors. Later BU published my stories on Blind Joe (Reynolds) Sheppard and King Solomon Hill (Joe Holmes) where I added additional information from Holmes’ wife and friends in the Sibley/Minden area of Louisiana. I also did one on the Two Willie Browns. Mike and I thought alike on research and he and Simon even visited me in Mississippi when they did a 1970s trip to Houston. He always sent me a letter of thanks for my articles and supported the ones that sometimes created controversy or differing opinions. Without BU there was no other place to publish new research, especially after 78 Quarterly folded after two issues in the late 1960s.
Pictured (above): Leadbitter and Wardlow’s ground-breaking article on Elmore James, from BU #91 (May 1972); (below): BU #147 (Spring 1986).
Finally, our last tribute comes from Bob Eagle:
I first came across Mike when I purchased some early Blues Unlimited issues from Tony Standish in 1964. Issue #12 was the current issue, and I managed to get all the previous issues from Tony as well. By issue #15 (September 1964), I was the Australian agent, Tony having happily relinquished that task. Graeme Flanagan replaced me as Australian agent at issue #64 (1969). I had been admitted to practice as a lawyer in 1969, and was trying to publish my own magazine, Alley Music, and the BU agency fell by the wayside. However, I remained friendly with both Mike and Simon Napier, and caught up with both men when I visited England in January 1972. I first actually met Mike at the Eddie Burns concert at the 100 Club on 18 January, along with Mike Rowe (whom I just caught up with this past September), John Broven, Robin Gosden and others, including (as I recently rediscovered) Michael Prince. I met Mike again the following day at his work, and we caught up several more times before I left for the States early in February, including the obligatory visit to Bexhill-on-Sea. At Bexhill, I met and stayed with Simon and Diana (and was thrilled to see Diana again recently but saddened by how sick she was). I remember Mike successfully drinking me under the table on several occasions. I was introduced to the English habit of pubs closing in mid-afternoon, and the equally English habit of finding other pubs that remained open illicitly. I caught up with Mike again in early August 1972, enjoying a Chinese meal together, and on 4 August we went to the Marquee together, to see Johnny Mars and the hilarious local band, Brewer’s Droop. I then returned home to Australia and a job in law, after 8 months of immersing myself in blues. I had, in the intervening months, sent articles for publication in Blues Unlimited, while also fulfilling obligations I felt for Jim and Amy O’Neal at Living Blues.
Michael Andrew Leadbitter was born in Simla, India on 12 March 1942, and was raised at Bexhill-on-Sea. He and Simon began Blues Unlimited in 1963 and Mike remained its publisher after Simon’s 1973 “retirement,” until his own demise. Mike toured the United States in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1973, and compiled Blues Records: 1943-1966 with Neil Slaven. Mike’s enthusiasm for the music, and for life in general, knew no bounds. It was with great sadness that blues enthusiasts like me heard of his death on 16 November 1974 from tubercular meningitis, contracted during his last visit to the States. He was survived by his widow, Rose.
Originally published in 1968, Mike Leadbitter was working on a greatly expanded book-length edition of Delta Country Blues at the time of his death.
Thanks to our contributors, John Broven, Gayle Dean Wardlow, and Bob Eagle who sent in their remembrances. At some point in the future, we’ll have a “Part 3” of this tribute (sort of) — that tells the story of an intriguing blues mystery, of which Mike Leadbitter played a part (Sorry! No spoiler alerts…. yet!)