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Chris Barber turns 90

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Chicago, 1959: Muddy Waters, St Louis Jimmy Oden, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson

Chris Barber is 90 today. Few people have had a more profound impact on the course of my generation’s musical tastes in the six and a half decades since he encouraged his banjoist/guitarist, Lonnie Donegan, to continue the habit — started when they were both members of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen — of breaking up an evening of New Orleans music with a skiffle turn in the intervals, thus leading directly to “Rock Island Line” and all else that followed.

That was no fluke. Barber had broad taste and was a lifelong proselytiser for great music and great musicians. He loved the blues, and in the late ’50s he brought Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters to Britain. The legend goes that purists turned up to hear Muddy sing the “authentic” Delta blues on an acoustic guitar and were scandalised when he plugged in his Telecaster and let rip with the electrified Chicago version. Luckily, at least as far as history goes, the purists were in the minority. Barber also brought over Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, thus helping to shape the tastes of a generation who would soon become Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Blues Breakers and thousands more.

Barber’s own ensembles veered gently away from the strict New Orleans format, adding an electric guitarist and extra horns (including saxophones, anathema to traddies). Later Paul Jones was often the featured singer with the Big Chris Barber Band, which I last saw playing in the park in central Baden-Baden on a sunny summer afternoon during the 2006 World Cup. On that occasion the bandshell was only 100 yards or so from the five-star hotel where the wives and girlfriends of the England team were staying, staked out by Fleet Street’s paparazzi, but I don’t recall any of them leaving their poolside loungers to listen.

Last year Chris announced his retirement. On his 90th birthday, I’d like to thank him for all he did, directly and indirectly, to guide so many of us towards the music that changed our lives. And, of course, to wish him many happy returns.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ben Thompson #

    Well said, Richard… and don’t forget his big band heavy blues phase https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=f6g38isg6ko

    April 17, 2020
  2. John Atkins #

    I’ll join you in wishing him Happy Birthday and also a big thank you to him for introducing Lonnie into my life of whom I’ve been a life-long fan. Due to Chris I took a reverse step and discovered Ken Colyer and Delta blues recordings. I was introduced to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s blues music by Julie Driscoll who was herself the daughter of a member of Lonnie’s band and went on to better things with the Steam Packet and of course her own very good solo career. So one way or another Chris had on me like you a considerable influence.

    April 17, 2020
  3. I always loved the fact that Chris also continued to be interested in later music from the Crescent City – his long association with Mac Rebennack was proof of his open ears.

    April 17, 2020
  4. John Walters #

    I was going to go and see Chris for the first time last September in Buxton.
    Unfortunately he had suffered a fall, cancelled the tour and retired from playing live.
    So sad. I was so looking forward to paying tribute to a musician who had so influenced the artists and bands that came after and who make up most of my listening pleasure today.

    April 17, 2020
  5. Lucy Duran #

    I so enjoy reading your blogs – I always learn new things about how we came to know the music that we take for granted – thank you for your vivid writing, diligent research and long perspective

    April 17, 2020
  6. Christopher Welch #

    Hi Richard,

    Well said! And I’d like to add to your congratulations to Chris Barber on his 90th and agree with all you said about his impact and influence. The first ‘live’ concert I ever saw was the Chris Barber Band with Lonnie Donegan at Lewisham Town Hall, when I was still at school. We all thought the music was fantastic and we 15 year olds promptly went out and formed our own skiffle group. I saw his wonderful Barber Big Band at the Mick Jagger Centre and the Churchill Theatre a couple of times. Sadly he wasn’t able to come the last one, as I understand he’d had a fall and broken his hip.

    I can just imagine all those wives and girlfriends not even bothering to listen to him by the pool or knowing anything about him. We were watching ‘Egg Heads’ last night and continue to be saddened by the utter lack of general knowledge often displayed. ‘Smokestack Lightning’? ‘Howlin’ Wolf’ ? Blank looks. Never heard of him!

    all the best

    Chris ________________________________

    April 17, 2020
  7. PHIL SHAW #

    I recall my dad taking me, when I was nine or 10, to see the Chris Barber band with Ottilie Patterson in Bradford. My brothers and I would rather have seen The Shadows and soon had our wish for live pop granted with a show featuring Billy Fury, John Leyton et al at the Alhambra.

    Later, though, as I began to understand his place in the pantheon, I was pleased, when friends asked what my first gig was, to be able to say ‘Chris Barber’. This lovely piece underlines his importance in postwar music. Thanks, Richard. Please keep ’em coming.

    April 17, 2020
  8. Henry Ayrton #

    Yes, an important man to salute on achieving this milestone. I was fortunate enough to interview Chris for local radio in the summer of 2002 and, as you might imagine, he had a huge fund of fascinating stories and views to air. The thing that really lodged in my mind about the music scene in Soho in the mid-1950s, though, was a comment he made during our walk back to the hotel where he was staying. He said that if you were walking along a street then, as we were doing all those years later, and heard some music that interested you floating through a window, you’d think absolutely nothing of banging on their door and greeting the fellow enthusiast you knew you’d find inside.

    So Happy Birthday, Chris – keep ’em coming!

    April 17, 2020
  9. Grahame Painting #

    A brilliant brief tribute. Thank you so much for your superb blog. Long may you and it continue.

    April 17, 2020
  10. Excellent tribute Richard. ‘Lest we forget’ springs to mind.

    April 17, 2020
  11. Richard, thanks so much for your (always) thoughtful words about the living legend, Chris Barber. Chris’ role in the direction that popular music took cannot be overstated! best wishes to you both!

    April 17, 2020
  12. Roger Winfield #

    Delighted to add my happy birthday wishes to the man who started my lifelong passion for jazz. It was at the Colston Hall, Bristol in c1960 and I can still feel the tremor of excitement of hearing live jazz for the first time. A couple of years ago at the Cadogan Hall I was able to thank the great man in person, still providing great entertainment, and treasure the photograph of us together.

    April 17, 2020
  13. Alan Codd #

    No more important contributor to the history of human experience could be imagined.
    Anyone should check Chris Barber out from the very beginning all the way to the age of 90.
    His records of the 1950s were seminal because they went to the roots and he stayed at the roots.
    He has brought the roots of music to the population of the world.

    April 17, 2020
  14. GuitarSlinger #

    Finally … a ‘ turned 90 ‘ rather than the rash of R.I.P’s we’ve been … and will continue to be bombarded with

    April 17, 2020
  15. Philip Putnam #

    Ah, Walthamstow Town Hall, 1956. School blazer, foot tapping.
    Listening to his band again, you realise how good Pat Halcox
    and Monty Sunshine were.
    Make that are. The tracks from the mid fifties really stand up.

    April 18, 2020
  16. David Pusey #

    Dear Chris,
    I have enjoyed your music and your band for many years. I saw your band last year at Yeovil, sadly without you, but they sounded nearly as good and as tight as ever, albeit a bit light on the trombones!

    April 18, 2020
  17. Ann Price #

    Happy birthday Chris,First saw you at De Montfort hall,Leicester in the 50s.Been following you and trad jazz ever since.
    Ann Price,Bidford on Avon.

    April 18, 2020
  18. Colin Harper #

    Agreed – a hugely important figure in British music history.

    April 18, 2020
    • Alan Codd #

      THE MUSIC OF CHRIS BARBER

      Say it loud and say it clear
      For the whole world to hear
      The most important thing that can be said
      About someone who is not yet dead

      Bass, harmonica, and trombone
      Vocals, Leadership, and Presentation
      No one any longer alone
      From Nation to Nation

      He dug the road, he drew the map
      He cut the grooves, he did the dance
      None of it was ever Crap
      It was more than Protest and Romance

      Completely musical throughout
      With consummate Professionalism and Technique
      You can stay indoors and never go out
      And listen to Chris Barber every day of the week

      Ellington, John Lewis, and the Blues
      Trad Jazz so called was never the News
      It was Energy and Rhythm all the way
      And Melody and Harmony had their say

      For Chris Barber at 90

      from a hack poet who cannot better express his appreciation
      for an influence on his life that has been nothing but for the good
      Chris Barber looking back on it all has made some of the most collectible records ever
      and it makes one happy to own them and to see to what extent they reflect the man.

      April 19, 2020
  19. Michael Napier #

    Happy Birthday Chris. From the Marquee Club and Soho in the 1960s to your 2018 concert in Cadogan Hall you have given me so much pleasure and appreciation of jazz and blues. Ottilie Patterson was one of the finest jazz vocalists and your band at the London Palladium when you won the Jazz News award was at its best – Pat Halcox, Ian Wheeler, Eddie Smith, Dick Smith, Graham Burbidge, and Joe Harriott as guest.The interpretation of Gershwin’s “S’wonderful” was truly wonderful. I shall play the vinyl of the concert as I wish you a happy 90th birthday.

    April 19, 2020
  20. budgie9 #

    Richard
    Chris had and maybe still has a love of motor racing and I saw his band play at Brands Hatch after a British Grand Prix in 1964 won by the great Jim Clark. In his band he had a great guitar player called , if I remember correctly John Slaughter. Thank you for your excellent piece.
    David

    April 22, 2020
  21. An excellent and fitting tribute. I love the quirkiness of history. Who would have thought that the origins of the booming 1960s and 1970s Anglo-American rock business lay with a mild mannered Trombone player from Welwyn Garden City?

    Belated Happy 90th Birthday and thank you Chris Barber both for your own music, but also for your open ears and attitude that sowed seeds without which….

    April 22, 2020
    • Alan Codd #

      I am always staggered by how this ‘figure’ has produced what he has done, apparently for most of the time quite naturally. To some extent it doesn’t really come as a surprise to hear that he is 90, which doesn’t apply to all that many people. In its own way it’s as exceptional an accomplishment as what he has done in music. And ‘anyone’ can do it, again, and as well. If you’re . . . (jam packed with talent, good will, resourcefulness, and indomitability . . . ) Which is probably all you need to continue to stay alive. I am sure that Chris will have the pangs of no longer being able to continue touring. I hope he gets over it. Is there a place in seniority for old men who are no longer musicians? Is there forgiveness for anyone who exceeds the limitations of mortal possibility? I am not there yet. I am only 76. (Music is International, Music is the Food of Love.) I hope Chris Barber doesn’t die before he gets old. (Did he record with Roger Daltry?) Reflecting on all this causes one to face some serious questions. Would Roger Daltry have made a good singer in Chris Barber’s Band? Has Chris Barber contributed to Immortality in a fashion, in his own, small, provincial way? Is everyone larger than themselves? How much music Transcends Time? What are the criteria of Timelessness in any musical format? Who are the musicians in musical history with whom Chris Barber can be usefully and critically compared? What qualities does he share with any eminent people? This man deserves more than an obituary or a commemoration. He deserves serious consideration. May I use this occasion for thanking you Chris, for the track record, and the record tracks, that you have given us. Would Chris Barber like to be a famous 90 year old retired band leader? Or would he prefer to be left in peace? I for one will be checking the health and wellbeing of Chris Barber out. I have been listening to his records all my life. And I am only just beginning to appreciate them as much as I should always have done. R.I.P. And he ain’t dead yet. Let it RIP . . .

      April 22, 2020
  22. Lovely tribute to a remarkable man and musician. Chris is, to my mind, much underrated – considering the “cult” status given to so many lesser talents. I guess looking like the maths lecturer he originally aimed to be and never getting messed up on drugs/alcohol/wild women counts against him in the UK music media. I’m especially enthusiastic about his recordings with Ottilie Patterson – I used to crate dig in search of those wonderful EPs they made then, a year or so ago, Jasmine Records gathered many of them on a superb CD The First Lady Of The Blues – I stumbled on this at Ray’s Jazz and whooped with joy!

    I only got to see Chris perform once – at Cadogan Hall 3 or 4 years ago – and the performance ranged across his career with tales of touring with Sonny & Brownie and even a beautifully felt take on All Blues. I hope he gets to enjoy his retirement.

    Best

    Garth

    May 5, 2020
    • Alan Codd #

      I was so glad to read this because it puts generationaly my exact feelings with relation to Chris Barber, and mentions all the points for which he is prominent for me, his genuine and not exaggerated personality, the absolute value of his early EPs and LPs as collectible records, and the broadness of his musical taste, effortlessly and sincerely covering all the periods of jazz. (And not least his being underrated, which I really think he is big time.) Thank you for writing it. And for ending it on the most important point of all, that he enjoys the Best of everything, which he deserves.

      Alan

      May 5, 2020

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