2016 seems to be the year for greats to pass. We’ve lost David Bowie, Prince… and who knows who’s next. But another name, another great, has just joined the big gig in the sky: Stan Ambrose, Stan the Harper… or to many, just Stan. His is a loss that will be felt seismically in Liverpool and beyond.
Many knew Stan as a radio broadcaster – his legendary ‘Folkscene’ kept the folk flame burning with what’s believed to be the UK radio’s longest running show – and a man who championed music. It wasn’t just folk music and the grass roots, Stan was always keen to give people a platform who perhaps weren’t in vogue. Martin Carthy was the guest on Stan’s first show… and the programme went on to showcase and support all kinds of traditional, local and experimental music for almost fifty years.
Many more knew him as ‘Stan the Harper’, or ‘Stan the Harpist’, the quiet and unassuming gentleman playing the Celtic harp in the corner. I first met Stan at the Green Fish cafe, on Upper Newington, where he soundtracked cups of tea and laid back afternoons. I’m sure many remember that same feeling when thinking of their memories of Stan. He was an accomplished and long serving musician and, before taking up the harp, he regularly played the penny whistle with his own collective, Bothy Folk, and accompanied many other acts over the years. He also started the Bothy Folk Club, in Southport, which still runs today.
Stan was also an unlikely candidate for a Ninja Tune recording artist – and quite probably their oldest at the time – as part of Super Numeri, alongside playing with noise experimentalists a.P.A.t.T. In addition to supporting other musicians through his radio show and as a player, Stan was a huge champion of the grassroots: venues, people and all kinds of artistic projects – who remembers his soundtrack to the silent 1926 version of ‘Faust’ performed at the Bombed Out Church and The Kazimier a few years back?
Others will remember Stan as a wonderful spirit. On a personal level, I was fortunate enough to spend time with him, often going for a meal and more cups of tea, and whilst our friendship was rooted in music, topics of conversation ranged wildly. He was always wonderful company; a fine conversationalist and raconteur, with obscure folk facts, tales of his past studying in Southampton, his time in Cambridge and as a social worker in Liverpool. One tale I remember was of a young singer songwriter, called Paul Simon, who was paid less for a show than Stan’s group, Bothy Folk, who were soon to be playing the same venue. And we all remember the one about the big harp and small (Celtic) harp, don’t we…
Stan was anti-establishment in his own way, even as an employee of the BBC. Always softly spoken, always reasoned and somewhat radical at times, he labelled himself a ‘Stanarchist’ – and, from lost Liverpool music stories to what was going on in the world, politics, religion … he spoke with rare insight and a worldly knowledge.
Stan’s love and support for Liverpool music was undeterred. His interest in what we – and everyone else – were doing seemed insatiable and always enthusiastic; making time to chat to everybody and help where he could. He was always incredibly supportive of us at Mellowtone, whether it be playing a gig, sitting in the audience as one of our regulars or featuring upcoming artists on his radio show… I think he was also the only person to play live at every Above the Beaten Track festival. He was a constant presence in Liverpool – at Family Folk Ups, The View Two Gallery, Mello Mello, Egg Cafe, Liverpool Acoustic gigs, The Caledonia, The Folk & Roots Festival, the Shanty festival, The Kazimier… the list goes on. I always assumed he was the oldest regular at The Kazimier, by quite a number of years, and always a familiar face at all sorts of underground shows and events… not to mention seeing him at more gigs than practically anyone!
Now his fabled harp has left Liverpool, let’s hope his influence and understated legacy will be resonating for years to come. He meant so much to so many, and so many different things to so many different people, I hope he knew it. Stan is a true folk hero… RIP.
Stanley Ambrose (1930-2016)
Pic by Claire Freeman