Bill had been a member of the Academy since 1964. Here his friend and fellow award winning songwriter Mitch Murray CBE pays tribute.
Bill Martin MBE 1938-2020
It’s 1964, and I am drinking in a bar across the road from Denmark Street, basking in the glory of my second Number One in a row; ‘I Like It’ for Gerry and the Pacemakers. A stranger strides up to me and says, loudly, in a Glaswegian accent, ‘Mitch Murray? ‘My name’s Bill Martin. I’m a songwriter too, and I’m going to be bigger than you!’
He turns around and walks away, leaving me thinking, ‘Well, at least he can rhyme.’
Bill certainly turned out to be, not only one of the great British songwriters, but a unique music business personality, an entrepreneur and – to me – a friend for life. Born William Wylie Macpherson in Govan, Glasgow 81 years ago, Bill actually spent most of his life in London. Nevertheless, he was a Scotsman to his very sporran, and we, his close friends in the Society Of Distinguished Songwriters, usually called him ‘Wylie’.
When I founded SODS in 1971, Bill and his writing partner, Phil Coulter, another great talent, were among the very first to be invited to join. By then, they were at the top of their game, having won the Eurovision Song Contest for Britain in 1967 with Sandie Shaw singing ‘Puppet On A String’.
The following year, scandalously, they wuz robbed when ‘Congratulations’ only made runner-up. However, Cliff Richard’s single gave Martin and Coulter their second Number One in the UK charts, and another worldwide hit.
Since then, I’ve always raised a glass to Bill and Phil when a royal wedding, or other special celebration takes place at Windsor, and the Band Of The Royal Regiment Of Scotland begins to play Martin and Coulter’s classic hit song. Wow! Think of the PRS!
With a catalogue of successful copyrights, performed by the prominente of their day – The Bay City Rollers, Elvis Presley, Sir Van Morrison, the England World Cup Squad and so many others.
Bill’s career has earned many accolades; three Ivor Novello Awards, including – jointly with Phil – Songwriter Of The Year 1975, a Gold Badge Award in 2009 and, in 2014, the MBE.
His recent autobiography, published in 2017, entitled ‘Congratulations: Songwriter To The Stars’ was, typically, outspoken and controversial. It was very Bill! Naturally, it sold well.
There was never any middle ground with Wylie – he either loved you or hated you, but his kindness and generosity was amazing, and he was certainly lucky in love. He had four children, two of them with the lovely Jan, to whom he was married in 1972, and who was with him until the end.
In recent months he faced many medical challenges, but Bill was incredibly brave and, supported by Jan, would always turn up at a SODS get-together no matter how uncomfortable he must have been. He wanted to join in with the banter despite his difficulty in speaking clearly, and he did.
I’m so pleased I was able to enjoy an evening with Jan and Bill last month. We all went to see my daughter, Mazz, who was starring as Donna in Mamma Mia in the West End. Along with my grandsons, we had a private room for drinks before the show and during the interval. After the performance, we all went to Mazz’s dressing room where Zac and Charlie, great football fans, were blown away to hear that Wylie actually went to school with Sir Alex Ferguson. Jan helped Bill throughout the whole evening and kept a beady eye on her beloved husband every minute.
On Thursday, March 26th, Jan broke the sad news to his fellow songwriters that Bill had passed away, with these words; ‘His old heart couldn’t handle his love of life any more. I can’t believe he isn’t coming home again.’
We’re all going to miss Bill Martin – a class act who’s memory will live on alongside his songs.
Just remember this: ‘Happy Birthday’ is all very well, but ‘Congratulations’ – now there’s a song to wash your hands to.
Mitch Murray CBE