David Hughes Obituary: ‘He was simply a one-off’ – friends and family remember local musician and author who died aged 72

By Ben Shahrabi

14th Apr 2023 | Local News

Friends and family have paid tribute to local musician and writer David Hughes, who has died aged 72, following a short illness.
Friends and family have paid tribute to local musician and writer David Hughes, who has died aged 72, following a short illness.

To many in the Maldon District, David Hughes was a familiar and much-admired man. His immense talents not only allowed him to share his passion for music - producing an abundance of records and working with some of the country's best-known musicians - but meant he could also successfully turn his hand to writing, producing several well-known books.

Although he was born in Liverpool on 27 October 1950, David was proud to be a 'Dengie Boy' – honouring the Maldon District throughout his career.

As a child, David stayed with his grandparents in Liverpool during the summer holidays. He loved going to Anfield by himself and purchasing a match ticket on the day, which was possible all those years ago. He remained a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC for the rest of his life – preferring to watch matches at home, rather than in the pub, so he could hear the commentary.

David's father, Gerald Hughes, was Mayor of Maldon in 1975/76 and later in 1982/83. Also known as 'Jerry', he taught at The Sandon School in Chelmsford.

While visiting family in Liverpool as a boy, David regularly took himself to Anfield to watch his favourite team.

David Hughes quite literally "wrote the book" on Maldon, following a decade of meticulous research. His 1996 book The Maldonians details the history of the town he loved, from 1872 to 1914. Far from a bland history book, David's wit, pace, and narrative voice brings long-forgotten local characters back to life.

He also chronicled his time on the road with legendary folk rock band Fairport Convention, as the opening act on their Winter Tour in 1998, in his book The Fairport Tour.

David's Cropredy adventures

David performed at Fairport's Cropredy Convention (formerly Cropredy Festival) on six occasions, between 1996 and 2003.

One of David's Cropredy adventures centred around a fan named Colin who had recently died. Colin's family asked David to bring his ashes on to the stage with him. David was touched and happily agreed, leaving the urn at the side of the stage while he did his set.

David quickly left the stage with a "rockstar goodbye" to the audience, arms raised in thanks.

As he mingled backstage, he realised: "F***! Where's Colin?".

David spent the next few minutes frantically searching. Colin's urn had been "tidied up" and moved by a stagehand, so it wasn't until David found the right stagehand that he could return the urn to Colin's family.

He later wrote a song called 'Where is Colin?' about the incident.

St Agnes Fountain

Members of festive folk band St Agnes Fountain, which David founded in 2000, have paid tribute to their "musical bedrock" in a statement.

David left the band in 2020, but remained good friends with bandmates Chris While, Julie Matthews and Fairport Convention's Chris Leslie, who described him as "a one-off".

They said: "His unique style of rhythm, of hearing and playing a groove, his satirical wit and sartorial style, his dead pan presence on stage, his beautiful turn of a lyrical phrase - all these things are the window dressing for what lay beneath. A beautiful man, a loving and devoted father, and a kind and loyal friend.

"David's music is his legacy to the world, a deep well of songs that span over half a century. Pick any one of his albums, turn up the volume and lose yourself in his genius.

"We will carry his love and laughter in our hearts."

David joined forces with Fairport Convention's Chris Leslie and popular folk duo While & Matthews to create St Agnes Fountain in 2001. (Photo: Julie Matthews)

Internationally renowned singer-songwriter Julie Matthews, one third of St Agnes Fountain, told Nub News David's loss will "reverberate through the folk world forever".

She said: "He was such a major influence on people.

"People will always think of David and his wonderful deadpan wit. I spent 20 years with him on stage, and I don't think a single day went by that we didn't laugh our heads off with David.

"That's not to say his talent as a guitarist as a singer and a songwriter wasn't immense too.

"He had such a massive place in so many peoples' hearts. The outpouring of love for him since he died has been incredible.

"David was a one-off – there will never be another. His loss will be felt for many, many years to come."

Dengie Boy

Local radio DJ Ray Clark said David was "one of those characters you would never forget."

Despite both attending Maldon Grammar School (now Plume Academy) and working either side of the music industry – one performing and one listening – the two did not formally cross paths until 2008.

Ray recalled coming across David's song 'Dengie Boy' online, and enjoyed David's Maldon District-based parodies so much he played them on his BBC Essex breakfast shows. David got in touch with Ray and began to produce a weekly piece for the show as his alter-ego, 'Cocker Freeman'.

Listen to Cocker Freeman's interview with Ray Clark on BBC Essex:

As 'Cocker', David offered his satirical and subversive outlook on the world around him, in radio pieces that ran for six months.

One local news headline from 2008 reads "Dengie Boy fever hits the Maldon district", when Cocker Freeman's parody of Soulja Boy's 'Crank That' was viewed 4,300 times online.

To date, David's creations have racked up an impressive 206,000 views on YouTube.

Listen to Cocker Freeman's rendition of 'Burnham Rockstar':

"He was a musician's musician"

Journalist and local councillor Nick Skeens was a close friend of David's, and ensured Cocker Freeman got some airtime on his radio station, Saint FM - now known as Caroline Community Radio.

In 2009, the two collaborated on a spoof self-help book for non-smokers, entitled Cough Your Way to Fitness.

Listen to an extract from Cough Your Way to Fitness:

Nick reflected on his friend's musical talents in his tribute.

He told Nub News: "His compilation album 'Recognised' was a comment on how he never really was recognised. He never quite broke through – and there are so many less talented people earning an absolute fortune in this business.

"David's song 'An Ordinary Life', shows how he was almost surprised by the fact his life wasn't more celebrated."

Nick says the song 'Hold Your Horses Woman' focuses on the battle of the sexes.

david hughes music · Hold Your Horses Woman

He added: "It's about how women often get upset with men, because men are so bloody useless."

Rick Sanders and Chris Leslie feature on violin.

In his typically witty fashion, David's song features the line:

I was blind but now I see,

Woman, you have no secrets left but one -

Just what you saw in me

In '50 Yards', David reflects on his home in Maldon being just 50 yards from everything he needed – including the paper shop, the pub, and the guitar shop.

Listen to 50 Yards by David Hughes:

Nick continued: "He was a musician's musician - so all the top people in the world of folk knew and appreciated him.

"He was such an affable guy – good company, self-deprecating, immensely talented – so he had a fantastic network of friends in the higher echelons of the folk music world.

"When he did a recording, he had some of the best people in the country recording with him. So, the quality was highly professional."

"Chris Leslie, a violinist who worked with Fairport, Pentangle, and then with David in St Agnes Fountain, was always incredibly impressed by him – saying he'd not met anyone in the whole world who could play guitar like David did. He was absolutely right."

"I learned to play guitar and it was downhill from there"

Beyond the world of music, David was incredibly proud of a particular sporting achievement he earned while attending Maldon Grammar School. On Sports Day in 1967, David broke the school record for the boys' under-15s 220 yards race.

He was a keen sportsman, competing at county level in track and field, and loved to play football.

Many years later, David recalled: "The upshot of my athletic life was that I went to Loughborough College. That's where I learned to play guitar and it was downhill from there."

Friend, entertainer, Dad

Taylor and Ruby Hughes, David's beloved children, have spoken about their father – who was so much more to them than a mere self-professed "rock god".

Ruby said: "There are so many memories - being late for school pick up every day because he was busy working on something, the home videos he spent hours filming for us, thousands of trips to the Prom, or the model barge he built for me, complete with a Liverpool flag of course.

"My dad could always be found at his desk. I would often come home from school to the news of his latest projects, which we would enjoy together before I started to badger him to make our dinner.

"I have always spoken loud and proud of his music - both acoustic and hip hop. I am grateful to know his voice and humour will never be lost with such a variety of his work available to us."

Ruby and Taylor pictured celebrating their dad's 70th birthday in 2020.

Taylor added: "Everyone remembers the music, and the wit, but I'll also remember the father: the man who helped me make cardboard swords, the man who wrapped my apple pies for my lunch box to look like genie lamps, the man who caught me as I jumped off the sofa playing Peter Pan, and the man who once told the staff at 'the yellow shop' (Toymaster on the High Street) off for selling a Spider-Man 'webshooter' but not stocking the refills. They were 'selling children dreams and then ruining them by not bothering with basic stock management'.

"He was everyone's friend, he was an entertainer to lots of people, but he was only mine and Ruby's dad."

David died peacefully at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, on 10 April.

If you wish to pay tribute or share your memories of David Hughes, please get in touch.

     

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