Clive Palmer, who has died aged 71, was a founding member of the mid-60s avant-garde folk group the Incredible String Band, and later brought his songwriting and instrumental talents to Clive’s Original Band. He was an accomplished banjo player, initially specialising in the English finger-picking “classic”style that emerged in the late 19th century, but his 1967 virtuoso recording, Banjoland, considered too esoteric at the time, had to wait until 2005 before it was released.
In the early 60s, Palmer had formed a duo with Robin Williamson, with the rather unimaginative stage name Robin and Clive, and they toured folk clubs in Scotland and northern England. They recorded a track on the Decca album Edinburgh Folk Festival in 1963. Robin and Clive’s repertoire was mainly Scottish traditional song which, as the US record producer Joe Boyd (who visited Edinburgh on his voyage of discovery of the British folk scene) later said, sounded as if it had taken “a journey to the Appalachians and back via Morocco and Bulgaria”.
By the time Boyd returned six months later to sign them for the US Elektra label, they had expanded into a trio, with the addition of Mike Heron, and changed their name to the Incredible String Band. The new name was accompanied by a change in musical direction – original songs with American and Scottish roots. Their debut, eponymous album was released in 1966 and became Melody Maker’s folk album of the year; Palmer’s song Empty Pocket Blues had enduring popularity.
Shortly after the album’s release, Palmer hitchhiked along the hippy trail to Afghanistan and India. Williamson travelled to Morocco, but soon returned and, in Palmer’s absence, he and Heron reformed the Incredible String Band as a duo.
Palmer eventually returned and – moving to Cornwall – joined the Famous Jug Band. With this new outfit, Palmer recorded the album Sunshine Possibilities (1969), which included one of his best-known songs, A Leaf Must Fall. History repeated itself when Palmer left soon after the album’s release, this time because of artistic differences.
With John Bidwell and Mick Bennett, Palmer next formed Clive’s Original Band. The thriving Cornish folk scene had attracted singers such as Ralph McTell, who recommended the band to his manager, Jo Lustig, and Lustig suggested the trio’s name. Palmer provided most of the tunes for their two albums, Spirit of Love (1971) and the gloriously titled Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart (1972).
They toured as support to the folk band Pentangle, but big concert venues did not suit their intimate style. The acoustic, melancholic sound of Clive’s Original Band became dated when the alternative folk scene moved into folk rock through the 70s, and they disbanded.
Palmer was born in Edmonton, north London, the fourth child of William and Violet. With his mother and siblings he took part in local amateur dramatics and musical shows, and he sang in public at the age of eight with the tap-dancing Foster-Miller Dance Troupe. His brother gave him a guitar, which he swapped for a banjo and, at school, Clive started his own skiffle group. He contracted polio as a boy, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
School life was therefore disrupted and he left at 15, eventually enrolling at Hornsey Art College. He sang in coffee bars and took lessons from the banjo ace Alfred Lloyd, but left college without completing his course to busk with the acoustic guitarist Wizz Jones in Soho, Cornwall and Paris, before moving to Edinburgh. There he shared a flat with the musicians Bert Jansch and Williamson, with whom he soon formed Robin and Clive.
After the breakup of Clive’s Original Band, Palmer trained as a musical instrument technician, worked in a variety of jobs in Cornwall and continued to play in several local bands. A solo album, Just Me, was released on a German label in 1978.
Palmer’s brief involvement in the Incredible String Band was over before its more famous mystical and psychedelic phase, but he toured with Williamson again in the 90s, before they hooked up with Heron to revive the band’s original lineup. Williamson left in 2003, but Heron and Palmer continued to tour the UK and the US before disbanding again in 2006.
A biography Empty Pocket Blues: the Life and Music of Clive Palmer, by Grahame Hood, was published in 2008. Back in Cornwall, Palmer recorded several new albums, including two with the Clive Palmer Band. Palmer’s music was always unconventional and his musical influences were eclectic, but as a performer he was not interested in commercial success: making music was what he loved doing.
He is survived by his wife, Gina.
• Clive Harold Palmer, musician, born 13 May 1943; died 23 November 2014