Celebrating his 75th year, Chris Barber can look back on a life packed full of music … and also look forward to a whole lot more. From a boy learning the violin, the youthful collector of jazz and blues records, his graduation to the trombone and bass, the formation of his amateur band (which included fellow British blues pioneer Alexis Korner) in 1949 and his first professional band in 1952, his association with Lonnie Donegan and the spearheading of both the skiffle craze and the traditional jazz boom, the establishment of the Marquee Club and the National Jazz Federation, his vast recorded output (that includes the 1954 milestone recording of Rock Island Line) and his constant touring schedule, Chris Barber has remained amazingly passionate about music while also retaining his enthusiasm for performing. From his early days in smoky pub rooms and cellars on to concert halls and festivals, Chris has constantly led the way and continually created opportunities that have, in no small measure, enhanced both the British and international music scenes.
He's known primarily as a jazzman, but Chris's interest in blues, R&B and gospel led him, in the late 1950s, to arrange dates and tours for American artists, despite the difficulties imposed by The Musicians' Union rules of the day. It could be argued that the appearance in England in 1958 of Muddy Waters with his electric guitar was the spark that ignited the whole British blues boom which helped, in turn, to reawaken interest in the blues in the land of its creation. The British blues boom also laid a foundation for the advent of the British rock scene. Perhaps later, someone would have caused something similar to catalyse the British scene but, the fact is, we have to thank Chris Barber for opening a door and introducing a variety of influential American musicians to our shores.
I was 10 years old at the time Muddy Waters and Otis Spann made their British debut so I had to wait a few years before I could see and hear my first visiting American bluesman. So, who did Chris first see? Big Bill Broonzy, yeah! The first time I saw him was when he did the Albert Hall concert with Mahalia Jackson. Big Bill was most upset. He felt he shouldn't have been put on a concert with Mahalia because his was secular devil's music and it wasn't correct to be on with Mahalia. Mahalia, of course, only cared about the money. Quite funny, isn't it? We played with him in February '54, that's the first time I saw him and the next time would have been '55. Then in '57 we brought Big Bill and Brother John Sellers over. The union thing was a problem. We didn't really know how to get around that, the fact that you couldn't bring musicians into Britain from America. It wasn't allowed for them to play here, they wouldn't get a work permit. You could bring in singers: singers did not belong to the American Federation Of Musicians, they belonged to the American Guild Of Variety Artists we suddenly realised, and the variety artists' federation didn't mind as long as they paid 2% of their fee as union dues. They were very happy to have them here."
"When we knew that singers were allowed we thought 'Good, we can do that!' and we brought in Big Bill; we knew that Big Bill travelled and did things. It's all very well saying 'Get somebody' but you need to know how to locate them or even if they would be willing to do it. Courtesy of Yannick Bruynoghe and the Belgian and French people, Bill had been over to Europe, been to England ... Bill Wilcox of the 100 Club had got them over ... so we knew how to get hold of him."
"Then we thought we'd get something interesting so we got Brother John Sellers. If I had thought about it more I probably wouldn't have bothered and have just got Bill, but we thought it would be more interesting if Brother John got into a bit of Joe Turner kind of stuff with the band. But Big Bill loved being with the band. The thing was, if you saw Big Bill sitting in the dressing room he'd be playing the guitar, and what's he doing? He's playing I'm Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover and When Did You Leave Heaven?, he's playing Glory Of Love ... he didn't sit down playing the blues. He liked blues and played some very nice blues, very good indeed. Bill's attitude was, as he said, 'They're all folk songs ... I never heard a horse sing one yet!' Bill was such a nice man, great to work with and a very good player and probably happy working with the band."
"The real frustrating thing is that Dennis Preston, who we were recording for by 1955, refused to record Big Bill with the skiffle group. 'Oh' he said, 'he should be with real musicians like he would be in America!' So, the only record Dennis made with him was with a band arranged by Kenny Graham, with Ronnie Ross and all those people on it, sort of modern jazz players who didn't know how long 13-bar blues were for a start! And it just sounded totally wrong because although they possibly had the arrangement, they didn't understand playing rhythm and blues. So that record is a waste. He could have recorded Big Bill with Lonnie [Donegan] who had just made Rock Island Line. Do me a favour ... he could have made Big Bill a millionaire and they should have! And made him known ... what a wonderful gesture ... but he wouldn't do it. He wouldn't record Sister Rosetta Tharpe with us either: 'Oh no, no. She goes out with Lucky Millinder. She wants to sing with a big band. Oh, I can't ... recording contract.' She hadn't got a recording contract ... I know she hadn't."
"So it was Bill and Brother John Sellers in February of '57 - we did that. We knew we could do this now so I said, 'Why don't we get Sister Rosetta Tharpe?' So our clarinet player Monty Sunshine says, 'It won't work ... two women on stage. Ottilie Patterson will be singing and it'll just be conflict,' ignoring the fact that, of course, Sister worked with Marie Knight. Added to which, Sister was obviously a consummate duettist. Anyway, I said 'It'll be perfectly alright', and so Sister was organised. At least we knew she'd worked with a big band outside of a church environment; she had an agent so we hired Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was absolutely fantastic, a marvellous singer, and she and Ottilie singing together was great."
"So, Sister was coming ... that was in November/ December, which was a marvellous experience, one of the best ever for my taste. We rehearsed with Sister an hour before the first concert. She arrived with her husband, a lovely guy, Russell Morrison. He was a band boy with Lucky Millinder when she sang with them. He was a funny guy. He didn't do anything, he walked the dog mostly, though how she got the dog in I don't know! But anyway, she arrived and I took her on stage in the Town Hall, Birmingham, and she'd got all the music and she put it down (we had no stands) on the floor. Well, what's all this? We can't bloody read music ... well not much anyway. We can't sight-read it, though some of us can read music. And it's Lucky Millinder - the band parts; she'd brought the arrangements. I said, 'We can't really read that. Can you start doing something and we'll join it?' So she started playing Every Time I Feel The Spirit and we just joined it - take it away. We knew the music."
"She was totally bowled over, really, because we knew what it was about. That was the point. We knew how to do it. Don't forget we'd had the benefit of having somebody in the band singing her songs already, so we knew the things you had to do. However well you do them, the practicalities are essential either way: how you start them off, what you do behind the singer or between the songs, that stuff. We just played it, and there was absolutely no shadow of a doubt. That concert that's recorded on the Lake album [Lake LACD 130] was no better than we played it on the first night in Birmingham."
Just like British blues players in the 1960s fell foul of the attitudes of purist critics, the Barber band's efforts in the late '50s were dogged by self-appointed experts of the day like James Asman.
"We'd been nagged by people like Jimmy Asman, told that it was absolutely offensive for us to dare to play and ruin the performances of these wonderful musicians we'd brought in: 'How dare they!', that's what he said, ignoring the fact that if it wasn't for our bloody money and our love for the music they wouldn't have had a chance to hear them at all. So we were a bit careful. Sister wanted us to play all the time, 'Come on, do some bass,' that sort of thing, and we said 'No, play by yourself now' and we sat on the back of the stage to encourage her, you know, and she would sing some things by herself. When we played with Big Bill he didn't sing with the band; although we played with him, it wasn't quite the same thing. But Sister was so powerful, so much joining in and getting us to join in, so we did. Muddy, we didn't. Again, we let Muddy do most of it but he wanted the band to play on that as well, so we didn't join in until we got to the end. We did Walking In The Park and something else, and The Saints, would you believe, as a last number. Well it was sort of our concert, so why not? He didn't mind in the least! I'd love to have been playing trombone along with him then, the two of them, or the four with Dick Smith playing bass and Graham [Burbidge] using brushes on the drums."
"We got Louis Jordan over and he played with us, and we had a situation where he was a singer and came in without an exchange. We did eight or ten concerts and played the City Hall, Newcastle-on-Tyne. It was very nice. The local MU bloke came to the concert and thought it was great: 'Wonderful, wonderful!' Two weeks later we had a letter from the MU headquarters in London saying 'We notice Mr Louis Jordan played a saxophone solo in a concert. Next time you'll have to have an exchange for it.' Louis Jordan was fantastic, knew what he was doing exactly and did it perfectly. I'll tell you what, in 1962 I was 32 then, the average age of the band was 32, our band was no slouch when it comes to driving hard playing. Playing with Louis Jordan who was then 57 was like being dragged along by a wild horse. Not his personality but the way he played because he was so, so good. And of course his singing was miraculous. He could accompany himself on the alto and you would swear you heard him playing the alto while he was singing. He wasn't, but he only had to be in the middle of a line and he was literally changing over. He never did two things at once. He was singing and as he stopped singing the mouthpiece would be there and he'd play a phrase and carry on singing without disturbing anything. So you'd think in the end, you'd be quite convinced, that another alto player's backing him."
"Sonny [Terry] and Brownie [McGhee] were already booked for May '58. We knew they worked in nightclubs and so on in New York and played on film soundtracks, so they'd be alright ... which they were, of course. It was fun being with Sonny and Brownie but they were much more urbane people. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was very religious, very serious - I mean not gloomy with it but ... happily religious. She was a superb singer, a fine guitar player; a rock 'n' roll guitar player, actually."
"The next band that the NJF [National Jazz Federation] brought in was the Modern Jazz Quartet. That was after Rosetta Tharpe had been and gone ... by December '57. They all became lifelong friends of mine and Harold [Pendleton]'s. John Lewis said to me: 'Well, very good, Sonny and Brownie ... but if you want real blues, you've got to get the real thing. That's the bottom of it and the best you can get is Muddy Waters.' 'Well, I don't know how to get him. Do you think you just send a letter to the first cotton bush on the right in Stovall's Plantation?' 'No, he's got a Cadillac and an agent. I'll find him for you,' and he did."
"It was John Lewis who we have to thank for Muddy Waters in Britain! If John Lewis could be reincarnated I think he would want to be Otis Spann ... if not Charlie Spand ... at least. He loved Chicago blues. I mean he loved that music but, having hit upon the thing, playing with this jazz quartet that he had, having hit upon something that was so popular and so much in demand ... they did it! I remember in about '64 we did a concert where we did the first half and then the MJQ did the second half, and Ottilie sang Blues Before Sunrise with Milt Jackson. We got there and the MJQ had to do a sound check, they didn't use PA. They had to get the feel of the hall like classical musicians do, and what they did was they played a recognisable, typical Chicago blues just until they'd sussed the sound out. It took them about half a chorus."
"You can hear John playing quite good blues on the album he made with us in 1978. He was very fond of blues and he played it well, but he happened to have struck on something that made very good musical sense, 'cause he loved Bach and everything else as well. People tend to think because someone plays something they don't like anything else, or know about anything else, which is nonsense. So John Lewis said 'Oh, I'll find him' and he did, so that was the next thing. We brought Muddy over. We simply arranged it. I forget how much it cost now, and we hired them and over they came, Muddy and Otis [Spann]."
History likes to record that audiences were affronted by the volume of Muddy's electric guitar on that first visit, but history has apparently been rewritten on the basis of one extant press review.
"Funnily enough, there's all this fuss that we get. I mean, even [author and filmmaker] Robert Gordon - he won't believe me when I tell him Muddy Waters was not loud in 1958. Nobody complained about him being too loud except James Asman. He didn't play loud! Robert Gordon's film about Muddy, Can't Be Satisfied, was on the other night. Now there was one shot in there in [Chicago blues club] Smitty's Corner at the time when we were there, not on the same night, but that's when it was: Pat Hare on guitar, Andrew Stephenson, Otis Spann, Francis Clay and Muddy. And the guitar's quiet. It wasn't a guitar-laden band. It was balanced. A good sound. Muddy was not loud. He did not play loud guitar. And I mean, the only person who complained about Muddy Waters's guitar was Jimmy Asman who ostentatiously pushed across to his front-ish row seat in the concert, as a critic, you know, while we were playing the number before Muddy came on. When Muddy started up, within one number, he walked out again ostentatiously. Now, Rosetta Tharpe was twice as loud ... three times as loud as that. Really. She had a decent amplifier. She was loud and great and nobody complained about her. Brownie was relatively quiet. He had a little amplifier with him there."
"The way the sound was in those days, one microphone is all there was, probably. Amplification in general was a pretty poor proposition in 1958. Here we were, the most popular band in bloody Europe, having to plead to get a bit more 1000 Hz on the PA. But I know that Sister was loud, and Muddy was not loud. He probably set the guitar to balance with Otis's piano. The most important thing about Muddy, interestingly enough, I think, was that he did Can't Be Satisfied, or Walking Blues in the middle of the set, and while announcing it he de-tuned, he tuned to a major chord and while back-announcing it he tuned it to guitar tuning again, perfectly in tune both times, without looking at his fingers. So I see that, and I think Mark, Eric ... eat your heart out. Someone to tune the guitar for you? Fuck off. You don't need that."
"After we'd toured Muddy a bit, the people we played with after that, the blues singers, were mostly piano players - Memphis Slim and Roosevelt Sykes and Curtis Jones. We did play with Jesse Fuller, I liked him, very good, particularly when he wasn't playing the fotdella." [This was Fuller's home-made bass instrument that he played with his feet.] "We did a couple of nice concerts with him because we got him to do his buck-and-wing dance while playing the guitar and singing. We got him to stand up and play. We did Saturday Club ... " - the popular BBC Light Programme Saturday morning pop show, one of the few pop music programmes on the BBC before the advent of Radio 1 - "with Howling Wolf, I've got four tracks somewhere of that, which was very nice, with Hubert [Sumlin], you know, and that funny guitar with the press-button thing. That was good, it was nice. Well, with guitarist John Slaughter in the band anyway, we'd got much further into doing that sort of thing in that sort of way, by the time we got Wolf there. It was great."
"After John Slaughter joined us in June 1964, we had people complaining saying 'What are you doing with that stuff? You aren't supposed to play that. You're a trad band.' So alright, I'll call it a Jazz & Blues Band and that shut them up ... simple as that! I mean, we'd always played the blues. We'd done the tour with Muddy, and then went to America in '59. The whole band played Smitty's Corner with wonderful acceptance, we played our usual stuff. After we went to America and played with Muddy in '59 and '60, it was obvious, we felt we had to get an electric guitar player. So we got Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies in at the end of 1960 and the beginning of '61, which was very nice, went very well. We did the last half an hour of each gig, except for the last number at the end of it. They played a few months until Alexis said 'Well, frankly, I want to get a band and play this stuff all night'. Well, speaking as a horn player I read that as 'There's nothing in it for us, really'. They didn't like that music enough to really think it was worth it, so I said 'Why don't you have a night in the Marquee?'. I put my other hat on, the Marquee owner's hat, and they took Thursday nights."
Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies's legendary nights at the Marquee produced a famous album, R&B At The Marquee, and set the stage - by example, popularity and other musicians sitting in with the band - for the London R&B scene that burst into action in the early 1960s with bands like the Rolling Stones.
"We had no guitar player again so we thought we'd got to find one; put scouts out to find one; asked Geoff Bradford, who was very good. He was with Long John Baldry, but he was going to go back to college so that was out; he would have been very good. And then there was somebody else I knew but it didn't really work, and then we finally tried John Slaughter out, and you know, there's this guy and his parents had bought him a 200-quid guitar, that red custom Stereo he had ... not bad, age of 19, in 1964. Anyway, horn players play in flat keys, so we just said 'Keep loose, very slow, in E-flat'. So he just played it in E-flat, no capo, didn't look, played all the right notes. He could do it and he liked the music. His brother had always played our records. Happy to play Whistlin' Rufus, OK, so he played that as well. At first I just had him doing a blues set, and that didn't make sense, because he'd like to play all the time eventually."
"I remember one place, some very, very traditional-minded club in, I think it was, Norwich, and they were all going on about, 'Oh don't. We want old stuff only!'. I said to John, 'Look, I know they're stupid, but don't do the set tonight', so he left the guitar on the stage by the amp, didn't play. And there were still people saying, 'Oh you're doing bloody guitar stuff', but we didn't play any! That's when I thought this didn't make a lot of sense. Then I thought 'Well, we're a jazz and blues band'. When we got John Slaughter we started trying to do some stock things that people were doing by this time with the horns, see what they're doing and see how we can do them. I remember we were just practising doing these things and it meant me singing because Ottilie wasn't really singing much by that time. To get the numbers done somebody had got to try and sing Can I Get A Witness?. Well, you do your best but you have to find out how you do the singing and what the horns can do."
"I had the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band record where they started doing that. We had Ian Wheeler with us playing the harmonica. He joined in 1961, he picked up the harmonica, we toured with Sonny Boy [Williamson] in '64, and Ian said 'I must try and play that' and within about four weeks he was playing it, really well. In fact he didn't improve from then till now. He still plays it very well. English blues players, however good they are technically speaking, very few of them would get up and say, 'Of course I'm better than the old black blokes', because they know that technique isn't the point."
"Eric Clapton said that he really felt in the '60s that he was carrying the blues on his shoulders and it was going to die if he didn't look after it. He didn't mean that others weren't involved with it, but you feel that it's up to you to keep the music going. That's how we all felt when we started doing the jazz thing then. And he did it and he became, through the process of growing up, or ageing ... different things ... a very fine blues player. His attitude is the right thing. Funny thing was, when we did our blues set back in 1949 with Alexis Korner on guitar and vocals, me on the bass and vocals, Roy Sturges on piano and Brian Laws, the band's drummer, on drums - the repertoire we played was the same repertoire that Eric trots out now when he does a blues set with Andy Fairweather Low and Chris Stainton, the same tunes, same numbers, same Big Maceo number."
"Lonnie Donegan joined my amateur band in the spring of 1952 and we right away started doing skiffle ... near enough. It was Blind Blake skiffle: clarinet, banjo, washboard. If you think of the records of him with Johnny Dodds on clarinet, like Hot Potatoes, that sort of period stuff, and we did things with the clarinet, banjo, bass and washboard. Midnight Special, for example, we were doing that with Lonnie in 1952. I remember one of the gigs, at the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, playing that. Lonnie was really into music. Just because he sang Chewing Gum and Dustman and so on ... I reckon he could out-expertise the entire knowledge of anybody at Cecil Sharp House on American folk music. His knowledge was outstanding, really seriously."
"I was the one that called it skiffle 'cause I'd got the Paramount 78 Hometown Skiffle, and I knew the Dan Burley records and I knew the word - I was reminded by that, so I said 'Let's call it skiffle!'. We didn't think much more about it. We didn't try and get press reports of it - a new music called skiffle! Mind you, we couldn't get arrested then if we'd walked into a journalist. But we were doing it right away. Before Ken [Colyer] left, skiffle had been Ken on guitar, Lonnie on guitar - both of them a bit of singing - me on the bass and, if we were in England or London or somewhere, Bill Colyer playing the washboard. And when Ken was gone, and Bill was gone, then Lonnie and I just did duo numbers - bass and guitar and he sang. Now ... we did a recording, I think it was '54. One of the things we recorded was Leavin' Blues, the old 1931 Perfect ... " - Chris sings, Leavin' in the morning mama, ain't got nowhere to go - "and I played that record to Sonny Terry: 'Who was that,' he said, 'old Leadbelly?'. I rest my case."