Chris Barber

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Chris Barber
Chris Barber 2010.JPG
Barber in 2010
Background information
Birth nameDonald Christopher Barber
Born(1930-04-17)17 April 1930
Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England
Died2 March 2021(2021-03-02) (aged 90)
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • bandleader
Instruments Trombone, double bass
Years active1950-2019
Associated acts

Donald Christopher Barber OBE (17 April 1930 – 2 March 2021) was an English jazz musician, best known as a bandleader and trombonist. As well as scoring a UK top twenty trad jazz hit with "Petite Fleur" in 1959, he helped the careers of many musicians. These included the blues singer Ottilie Patterson, who was at one time his wife, and Lonnie Donegan, whose appearances with Barber triggered the skiffle craze of the mid-1950s and who had his first transatlantic hit, "Rock Island Line", while with Barber's band. He provided an audience for Donegan and, later, Alexis Korner, and sponsored African-American blues musicians to visit Britain, making Barber a significant figure in launching the British rhythm and blues and "beat boom" of the 1960s.


Early life

Barber was born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, on 17 April 1930. [1] His father, Donald Barber, was an insurance statistician who a few years later became secretary of the Socialist League, [2] while his mother was a headmistress. [3] His parents were left-leaning, his father having been taught by John Maynard Keynes, while his mother became, in Barber's words, "the only socialist mayor of Canterbury." [4] Barber started learning the violin when he was seven years old. [1] He was educated at Hanley Castle Grammar School, near Malvern, Worcestershire, to the age of 15, and started to develop an interest in jazz. [2] After the end of the war, he attended St Paul's School in London, and began visiting clubs to hear jazz groups. He then spent three years at the Guildhall School of Music, [1] [3] and started playing music with friends he met there, including Alexis Korner. [2]


In 1950 Barber formed the New Orleans Jazz Band, a non-professional group of up to eight musicians, including Korner on guitar and Barber on double bass, to play both trad jazz and blues tunes. He had trained as an actuary, but decided to leave his job in an insurance office in 1951, [5] and the following year became a professional musician. [6]

Barber and clarinetist Monty Sunshine formed a band in late 1952, with trumpeter Pat Halcox among others, began playing in London clubs, and accepted an offer to play in Denmark in early 1953. Simultaneously, it was found that Halcox would be unable to travel but that Ken Colyer, who had been visiting New Orleans, was available. Colyer joined the band, which then took the name Ken Colyer's Jazzmen. [7] The group also included Donegan, Jim Bray (bass), Ron Bowden (drums) and Barber on trombone. In April 1953 the band made its debut in Copenhagen, Denmark.

There Chris Albertson recorded several sides for the new Danish Storyville label, including some featuring only Sunshine (clarinet), Donegan (banjo) and Barber (bass) as the Monty Sunshine Trio. [8] The bands played Dixieland jazz, and later ragtime, swing, blues and R&B. Pat Halcox returned on trumpet in 1954 when Colyer moved on after musical and personal differences with both Barber and Donegan, [9] and the band became "The Chris Barber Band". [1]

The band's first recording session in 1954 produced the LP New Orleans Joys, and included "Rock Island Line", performed by Donegan. When released as a single under Donegan's name, it became a hit, launching Donegan's solo career and the British skiffle boom. [10] The Barber band recorded several In Concert LPs during the 1950s, regarded by critic Richie Unterberger as "captur[ing] the early Barber band in its prime.... [T]here's a certain crispness and liveliness to both the acoustics and the performances that make this in some ways preferable to their rather starchier studio recordings of the same era." [11]

In 1959, the band's October 1956 recording of Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur", a clarinet solo by Monty Sunshine with Dick Smith on bass, Ron Bowden on drums and Dick Bishop on guitar, [12] spent twenty-four weeks in the UK Singles Charts, making it to No. 3 and selling over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. [13] After 1959, Barber toured the United States several times [14] (where "Petite Fleur" charted at #5). [14] [15]

Barber performing in Hamburg, 1972 Chris Barber 2.jpg
Barber performing in Hamburg, 1972

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Barber was mainly responsible for arranging the first UK tours of blues artists Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters. This, with the encouragement of local enthusiasts such as Alexis Korner and John Mayall, sparked young musicians such as Peter Green, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. British rhythm and blues powered the British invasion of the USA charts in the 1960s. In January 1963, the British music magazine, NME reported the biggest trad jazz event in Britain at Alexandra Palace. It included George Melly, Diz Disley, Acker Bilk, Alex Welsh, Kenny Ball, Ken Colyer, Sunshine, Bob Wallis, Bruce Turner, Mick Mulligan and Barber. [16]

Barber stunned traditionalists in 1964 by introducing blues guitarist John Slaughter into the line up who, apart from a break between April 1978 and August 1986, when Roger Hill took over the spot, played in the band until shortly before his death in 2010. Barber next added a second clarinet/saxophone and this line-up continued until 1999. Then Barber added fellow trombonist/arranger Bob Hunt and another clarinet/sax and trumpet. This eleven-man "Big Chris Barber Band" offered a broader range of music while reserving a spot in the programme for the traditional six-man New Orleans line-up. [17] [18]

A recording of the Lennon–McCartney composition "Catswalk" can be heard, retitled "Cat Call", on The Songs Lennon and McCartney Gave Away . [19] Written by Paul McCartney the song was recorded in late July 1967 and released as a single in the UK on 20 October 1967. [20]

With guitarist Rory Gallagher, Barber and his band recorded the 1972 album Drat That Fratle Rat. [21]

In 1999, he expanded his band to 11 members, eventually renaming it The Big Chris Barber Band in 2001. This was among other things so that he could play the music of the early Duke Ellington band, one of his favourites. [22]

Barber published his autobiography Jazz Me Blues in 2014, with co-author Alyn Shipton. [23] He announced his decision to retire on 12 August 2019, after some 70 years of performing. The band continued under the musical direction of Bob Hunt. [24] The line up of the Big Chris Barber Band in September 2019, which carried on with Barber's full support, was: Bob Hunt (trombone/arranger), Mike Henry and Gabriel Garrick (trumpets), Nick White, Trevor Whiting, and Ian Killoran (reeds), John Watson (drums), John Day (double bass), Joe Farler (banjo & guitar). [25]

Barber was awarded an OBE in 1991 for services to music. [19] In June 2006 he received an honorary doctorate from Durham University, and in September 2013 he was awarded the "Blues Louis" for his services to popularizing the blues in Europe at the "Lahnstein Blues Festival" (Germany), where he is honored with the annual award. In 2014, he was honored for his life's work with the German Jazz Trophy. [26]

Long-term musical partnerships

Chris Barber, 1972 Chris Barber1.jpg
Chris Barber, 1972

Pat Halcox, trumpeter with the Chris Barber Band since 31 May 1954, retired after playing his last gig with the Big Chris Barber Band on 16 July 2008. Halcox and Barber were together in the band for 54 years – the longest continuous partnership in the history of jazz, exceeding even that of Duke Ellington and Harry Carney (48 years between 1926 and 1974). [27] [28] Tony Carter (reeds) also left the band at this time. [29]

John Crocker (reeds) retired from the band in 2003 after a 30-year stint. [30] [31] Vic Pitt (double bass) retired in January 2007 after 30 years with the band. [32] His feature duet with the drummers of the day – "Big Noise From Winnetka" was not only a feature of the Barber concerts, [33] [34] but also his time with the Kenny Ball band immediately before. [35]

Personal life

Barber was married four times. His second marriage, to Ottilie Patterson, lasted from 1959 until their divorce in 1983. He subsequently had two children during his third marriage. [1]

Barber died on 2 March 2021. He was 90 and had suffered from dementia in the period before his death. [1] [19]

Select discography

Related Research Articles

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Lonnie Donegan Musical artist

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Storyville Records is an international record company and label based in Copenhagen, Denmark, specializing in jazz and blues music. Besides its original material, Storyville Records has reissued many vintage jazz recordings that previously appeared on labels such as Paramount Records, American Music Records, and Southland Records. Many Storyville records were pressed in Japan.

Trad jazz

Trad jazz, or "traditional jazz", was a form of jazz in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, played by musicians such as Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Ken Colyer, and Monty Sunshine, who tried to revive New Orleans Dixieland jazz, on trumpet, trombone, clarinet, banjo, double bass, and drums, with a repertoire which included jazz versions of pop songs and nursery rhymes.

Kenny Ball Musical artist

Kenneth Daniel Ball was an English jazz musician, best known as the bandleader, lead trumpet player and vocalist in Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.

Beryl Audley Bryden was an English jazz singer, who played with Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan. Ella Fitzgerald once said of Bryden that she was "Britain's queen of the blues".

British jazz is a form of music derived from American jazz. It reached Britain through recordings and performers who visited the country while it was a relatively new genre, soon after the end of World War I. Jazz began to be played by British musicians from the 1930s and on a widespread basis in the 1940s, often within dance bands. From the late 1940s, British "modern jazz", highly influenced by American Dixieland jazz and bebop, began to emerge and was led by figures such as Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, John Keating, John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott, while Ken Colyer, George Webb and Humphrey Lyttelton emphasised New Orleans, Trad jazz. From the 1960s British jazz began to develop more individual characteristics and absorb a variety of influences, including British blues, as well as European and World music influences. A number of British musicians have gained international reputations, although this form of music has remained a minority interest within the UK itself.

The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast is a live album by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber, released in 2000. Lonnie Donegan had played with the Chris Barber jazz band when he had his first hit with "Rock Island Line"/"John Henry" in 1955. He had been a childhood influence on Van Morrison, who had performed in his own skiffle band with schoolmates when he was twelve years old in Belfast, Northern Ireland. This was Donegan's second album in twenty years, reviving his career until his death in 2002.

Ken Colyer Musical artist

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Pat Halcox

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Monty Sunshine

Monty Sunshine was an English jazz clarinettist, who is known for his clarinet solo on the track "Petite Fleur", a million seller for the Chris Barber Jazz Band in 1959. During his career, Sunshine worked with the Eager Beavers, the Crane River Jazz Band, Beryl Bryden, George Melly, Chris Barber, Johnny Parker, Diz Disley and Donegan's Dancing Sunshine Band.

"Rock Island Line" is an American folk song. Ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, it appeared as a folk song as early as 1929. The first recorded performance of "Rock Island Line" was by inmates of the Arkansas Cummins State Farm prison in 1934.

Robert Wallis was a British jazz musician, who had a handful of chart success in the early 1960s, during the UK traditional jazz boom.

The cultural year was dominated by the Festival of Britain and the opening of The Royal Festival Hall, the first dedicated concert hall of its size to be built in London since 1893: located on the south bank of the Thames, this was to host concerts by major orchestras from Britain and abroad. The Festival itself was a celebration of music, art and theatre. It notably provided an opportunity for the staging of many events seen during the first Folk music Festival held in Edinburgh, organised with the help of such talents as the American Alan Lomax, the Irish traditional musician Seamus Ennis and the political theatre director Ewan MacColl, who would go on to form the Ballad and Blues Club.

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Bruce Turner was an English jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and bandleader.

Sidney Denis Preston was a British record producer, recording studio owner, radio presenter and music critic. He was particularly influential in the British jazz and associated skiffle scenes from the 1940s to the 1960s.

"Petite Fleur" is an instrumental written by Sidney Bechet and recorded by him in January 1952, first with the Sidney Bechet All Stars and later with Claude Luter and his Orchestra.

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<i>Sophisticated Ladies</i> (Sweet Substitute album) 1981 studio album by Sweet Substitute

Sophisticated Ladies is an album by the English jazz/swing all girl singing trio Sweet Substitute released in 1981 on the Black Lion Records label. At the time the trio consisted of Angie Masterton, Teri Leggett and Kate McNab. “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” and “Do You Know What it Means ” were recorded with Chris Barber’s band and Dear Mr. Berkeley with the Digby Fairweather Friends. "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" was issued as a 7" single in the UK and Germany in 1980.


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