Remembering the Hurdy Gurdy Man
- Credit: Alex Smee
Not everyone can say they have directly influenced The Beatles but that’s a legacy of one legendary St Albans musician who has died at the age of 79.
Mac MacLeod, born Keith, also spent time touring with his friend Donovan, who recently published a poem to acknowledge the guitarist’s skills, which he generously passed on to famous artists.
Mac, who lived at The Berries, was known on the St Albans music scene and hung around with The Zombies, The Kinks and Donovan in the 1960s.
Highlights of his career include supporting Pink Floyd, making it into top industry magazines NME and Melody Maker and he indirectly taught George Harrison to play guitar.
He is publicly acknowledged to have passed some of his guitar skills and knowledge to Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan in the 1960s. The pair toured together multiple times and remained friends.
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They performed a memorable gig at the 1965 NME Awards, where they shared the bill with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
At the time, Donovan told press: "The man who encouraged and helped me most was a fellow called Keith 'Mac' MacLeod. I've known him for about three years, and he's taught me everything from chord progressions on the guitar, to how to appreciate folk and real blues.”
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Donovan’s famous 1968 hit Hurdy Gurdy Man - which reached number four in the UK charts, was written about Mac - who taught him specialist guitar techniques when they were in bands together.
Mac was in a band called Hurdy Gurdy in Denmark, when Donovan was with The Beatles in India - where he wrote the song. George Harrison wrote an extra verse for it that remained unheard until Mac recorded an updated version for his anthology in 2002.
And his Beatles associations don’t stop there: Mac is recognised to have contributed to the guitar playing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose finger-picking style on The White Album was learned in India from Donovan. Donovan had originally been taught the skills by Mac.
The old friends were reunited when Donovan invited Mac to join him on stage at a concert in Oxford in 2006.
After a period away from the industry, Mac marked his return in 2002 with a career-spanning anthology, including new recordings with a new band featuring former The Zombies and The Kinks bassist Jim Rodford.
Jim’s son Steve (now The Zombies drummer) produced the new tracks. He said: “Mac was a very special man, legend and guru. He was an old mate of my dad’s from school. It was great that years later when I was playing drums and producing him in the studio, I got my dad in on bass.”
A talented folk and blues guitarist and songwriter, Mac appeared at The Cock, The Horn and The Peahen in St Albans, with many local musicians in several bands over decades.
His diverse expertise extended to other genres including heavy rock and sitar-drenched psychedelia in his early 1970s band Amber. He provided bass with top group Agent, fronted by ex-The Zombies Rod Argent. His work involved collaborations with folk legends Maddy Prior and John Renbourn, with whom Mac recorded recently.
Mac played flute with New Age band Maya in the early 2000s. Band member John Tobin said: “It meant so much to us when he agreed to join us on stage at our first public concert. We played without a rehearsal. He was so encouraging and supportive and transported the audience somewhere else when he got going on that flute. We’ll all miss him - but he leaves an incredible legacy in his music that will live on.”
Mac had been suffering for six years with tuberculosis, emphysema and cancer, for which he was being treated in hospital when he died of pneumonia in November.
Bill Johnson runs The Blue Angel acoustic night at The Horn pub in Victoria Street. It is currently suspended because of the pandemic. Bill best remembers Mac from when he performed with Ugly and The Beast, also featuring Ruth Tidmarsh.
He said: “My fondest memory of him is when he played flute with us. His incredible playing totally transformed the songs. He was a great intuitive musician with real sensitivity and feel. Sail on Mr Mac.”
Mac married Stella in 1964, separating 15 years later but remaining friends. He leaves two children and five grandchildren.