One of the giants of British popular music died on Tuesday 2nd March 2021 aged 90. Without his influence and encouragement, Britain would not have found its enthusiasm for skiffle, jazz and the blues. Without him, pivotal artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters would not be recognised today. In April 2021 we published an article celebrating his 82nd birthday. This is it…
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRIS!
We all like to think that we are independent souls, free to make our own decisions and go our own way… but in reality, we’re not. Our lives are shaped and directed by outside influences - and these reveal themselves in everything we do - and say and think.
Some influences are easy to pin down - a teacher at school, the fashion designer, that man on the telly, this woman in the street … but much of our inspiration comes from people unknown. On 17th April 2012, one of the most important but least recognised movers and shakers of our time celebrated his 82 birthday. His name is Donald Christopher ‘Chris’ Barber, he was born in Welwyn Garden city and without him, British popular music and the scene that goes with it would not be as rich, as creative and as diverse as it is today.
Chris Barber was always into jazz and in 1949, after studying double bass and trombone at the Guildhall School of Music, formed his first group the New Orleans Band, inspired by the music of King Oliver, a mentor and associate of Louis Armstrong. In 1953 Chris Barber put together a new band as a musical home for controversial trumpeter Ken Colyer but this project was short-lived due to ‘musical differences’. The following year Barber took the band over in his own name with a new trumpeter, Pat Halcox. Pat was to remain with Chris Barber for 54 years until his retirement in 2008.
On July 13th 1954 the new Chris Barber Jazz Band went into a studio to cut an album. During the session, while the producer was out taking a break, Chris and his banjo/guitar player, Tony ‘Lonnie’ Donegan, supported by washboard player Beryl Bryden, recorded a couple of traditional American folk songs. In this one act these three musicians changed the musical and social face of the U.K forever. ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘John Henry’ reached the Top Ten in both the UK and America and launched a musical revolution called Skiffle. In a world of polished professional singers, where musical tastes were determined by middle-aged bandleaders and music teachers Skiffle was exactly the musical rebellion that bored teenagers were looking for. It was wild, improvised and above all - very easy to play. That’s why anyone with a guitar, washboard or tea chest bass was doing it. Every school, every youth club, every coffee bar had at least one skiffle group thumping away in a corner. From out of this came some of the most famous and successful bands of the 60’s. The Shadows, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and a thousand others have acknowledged their debt to skiffle. Instead of trying to copy the syrupy outpourings of Tin Pan Alley British teenagers were taking their musical motivation from the folk songs and blues of America. Chris Barber hadn’t pioneered this musical shift but he knew about the music and recognised how it might appeal to a largely white British audience. If Chris Barber hadn’t encouraged Lonnie Donegan to record ‘Rock Island Line’ it is highly likely that the Beatles, the ‘British Invasion’ of America and everything that followed would never have happened.
Chris Barber’s love for American blues and folk revealed itself in another way too. During the late 50’s and early 60’s, when the Musicians Union made it very difficult for American artists to perform in Britain, Chris was able to arrange UK tours by established folk and blues acts like Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters, often financing them out of his own pocket. These visitors and their ‘down-home’ music inspired British blues fans like Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, John Mayall, Peter Green and Brian Jones to form blues bands of their own. In the same way that skiffle encouraged thousands of kids to learn how to strum the guitar, Chris Barber’s American friends helped fire the British Blues boom. Eventually, British blues stars were able to take the blues back to America and help revive a musical heritage that was rapidly disappearing.
Chris Barber has other achievements to his credit. In 1959 he and trumpeter Pat Halcox provided the music for the mould-breaking film ‘Look Back in Anger’ written by John Osborne. The same year the Chris Barber Jazz Band spent twenty-four weeks in the UK Singles Charts with their recording of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur”, reaching No. 3 and earning a gold disc. In 1961 The Chris Barber Jazz Band headlined at the very first National Jazz Festival in Richmond and in 1968 shocked traditional jazz purists by introducing an electric blues guitarist, John Slaughter, into the band line-up.
At 82 years old Chris Barber is still out there, still experimenting and still playing his music with performers like Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Dr John. He may not have designed the miniskirt, or written “Catcher in the Rye” or set up the World Wide Web - but his influence is there in anybody who has ever strapped on a guitar or listened to the blues or tapped a foot to the backbeat of a gospel or rock tune. We are all in his debt. Happy birthday, Chris!
“Alexis Korner is often hailed as the father of the British blues scene, but if that’s the case then Chris Barber must be hailed as the great-grandfather. For Chris put together the band with Cyril Davies and Alexis and told them what to do. Chris is monstrously underrated for his contribution to the music scene in Britain.”
– Harold Pendleton
The Chris Barber Jazz and blues band in action in 1973 with Battersea Rain Dance
– from Martyn Day