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.