Michael Chapman, who has died of a heart attack aged 80, was a singer-songwriter and guitarist who became a cult hero in the late 1960s and early 70s thanks to his highly original fusion of jazz, rock, Indian and ragtime styles, and thoughtful, often bleak lyrics. Praised by the DJ John Peel as “one of the most interesting and inventive guitarists around”, he was best known for the album Fully Qualified Survivor (1970), on which he was joined by Mick Ronson, who would go on to work with David Bowie, and Rick Kemp, who became a member of Steeleye Span.
He was prolific, recording 58 albums, and although his popularity waned in the 80s and 90s, he built up a new, younger following from the late 90s on, particularly in the US, where his supporters included Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Moore appeared on the 2012 tribute album Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman, along with Lucinda Williams and Hiss Golden Messenger, and British musicians including Kemp and Maddy Prior.
Chapman hated to be called a folk singer, but he started his career on the folk circuit, at a time when many of the clubs encouraged a wildly eclectic range of performers. In the summer of 1966, while on holiday from lecturing at Bolton Art College, he was in Cornwall, then something of a folkie (and hippie) mecca. He did not have the entrance fee for the Count House folk club in Botallack, so he offered to play some decidedly non-folkie tunes – including Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight and Booker T’s Green Onions. He was offered a paid residency, and never returned to lecturing.
Playing around the Cornish folk circuit he met Wizz Jones and Ralph McTell, who taught him to play finger-picking guitar. Moving back north, he quit Bolton for Hull, and as his reputation grew around the folk scene he played at the celebrated Les Cousins club in Soho and moved on to university and college shows.
In Hull, he met Kemp, who was then playing in local bands and managing the music instrument section of a department store. Kemp was asked to play bass on Chapman’s first album, Rainmaker – the first of 16 albums they would record together. Produced by Gus Dudgeon (later famed for his work with Elton John), Rainmaker was released on EMI’s “underground” label Harvest, home for such artists as Syd Barrett and Shirley and Dolly Collins.
His second Harvest album, Fully Qualified Survivor, included some of his finest and most varied songs, from the jazzy and atmospheric Aviator to the brooding Postcards of Scarborough. Electric guitar was added by Ronson, who had played in bands with Kemp, was working as a gardener for Hull city council, and would soon be recruited by Bowie as one of the Spiders From Mars.
After the album’s release, Chapman decided to form a band, with Kemp on bass and Ritchie Dharma on drums. Their first performance together was on 18 March 1970, when they appeared on the BBC TV comedy show Not Only But Also alongside Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. “Chapman was a man of few words,” Kemp remembers. “He didn’t tell us where we were playing until the day.” The following year, the duo of Chapman and Kemp were on tour in the US, as support act for the jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley.
After releasing four albums for Harvest, Chapman moved on, first to Decca’s Deram, and then many other labels. He kept recording and playing when his music fell out of fashion in the post-punk era, and for a while he supplemented his income by delivering cars.
All that changed when he was invited to play on the US east coast in 1998, was introduced to Moore, and discovered that he had the reputation of a guitar hero, often compared to the great John Fahey. He recorded two albums inspired by American blues and ragtime (Americana and Americana II) and toured with American musicians, including Jack Rose.
Another American fan was the indie rock guitarist Steve Gunn, who produced and played on his much-praised album 50, released in 2017 on the American Paradise of Bachelors label. The same team released Chapman’s final album, True North, in 2019.
Born in the Hunslet area of Leeds, Michael was the son of James Chapman, a steelworker, and Jane (nee Wheelan), who worked for a mail-order company. He attended Cockburn grammar school, where he played in a skiffle group, and then Leeds College of Art, by which time his musical taste had moved to jazz, from New Orleans styles to Django Reinhardt and Jimmy Giuffre. He also occasionally played in rock bands.
He gave up music to concentrate on teaching, running the photography department at Bolton Art College, but it did not work out. He was married, to Margaret Fox, but started a relationship with one of his students, Andru Makin, who accompanied him to Cornwall when he began his musical career. She remained his partner for the rest of his life. They never married but entered a civil partnership in 2020.
For nearly 50 years they lived in a farm house in Northumbria, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, where Chapman developed a passion for chainsaws and logging. A more predictable passion was guitars – he had recently acquired an electric 12-string. At the time of his death he had written enough songs for a new album, which he planned to record at home.
He was godfather to Kemp and Prior’s daughter, Rose-Ellen, also a musician, who said Chapman had “enormous integrity – and great taste”. Kemp remembers him as “a wonderful writer, who didn’t say much – until he’d had some red wine”, while for Prior he was “very Yorkshire. If he said something, it was pointed. And he wrote great, distinctive songs.”
He is survived by Andru and by his sister, Margaret.
• Michael Chapman, singer-songwriter and guitarist, born 24 January 1941; died 10 September 2021