Chris Barber: Father of British R&B

By 1963 everyone I knew had a TV. Two black-and-white channels: the one that was on and “the other side”. So when the Rolling Stones appeared on Thank Your Lucky Stars at teatime on Saturday 7th July, miming to their first single, ‘Come On’, I knew millions of teens would be watching the band I had seen at the Ricky Tick club in Windsor almost every Friday night for the last five months. I’d talked the Stones up weekly to my fellow sixth-formers, without persuading one to make the trip to Windsor with me, but I walked into school the following Monday, knowing my less hip peers would by now have had at least a three-minute monochrome glimpse of the best band around.

Anticipating approval of my excellent taste and congratulations on my foresight, what I got instead was a comprehensive thumbs-down, endorsed by sneers, some laughter, even a feeble impression, plus a new nickname – Mick – since, ignoramuses all, they had failed to identify Brian Jones as the model for my blond mop. Their response had me momentarily wondering, not for the last time in my life, whether an absolute belief that my band was heading for the big time was misplaced. No, I quickly concluded, I’m right, they’re wrong, and, what’s more, even if the Stones didn’t make it, I’d rather hear them wailing the blues in the back room of a pub, than too-eager-to-please Liverpudlians yeah-yeah-yeahing their winsome way to No 1.

In the bigger picture, the Stones’ TV debut was confirmation that R&B had become part of pop. Its emergence had been a long time coming, ten years in all – twice the lifespan of modern pop music – since the beginnings of a blues movement in Britain had huddled in the unlikely Trojan horse of traditional jazz. Through the early fifties, the traditional or Dixieland jazz movement, dedicated to the revival of New Orleans’ vernacular music, had been steadily gathering a momentum which, by the end of the decade, would generate a “trad boom”. In its vanguard was trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber.

It was in 1953, four years after he led his first amateur jazz band, that Barber formed the Ken Colyer Jazzmen with the eponymous trumpeter, lately returned – a reluctant, but revered deportee – from the fabled Crescent City itself. Colyer explained the band’s mission in the jazz-friendly music weekly, Melody Maker: “We are going to try to popularise New Orleans music without distorting it, aborting it, or slapping any gimmicks on it.” Having established a Monday night residency at Mack’s (later famous as the 100 Club, a basement at that address in London’s Oxford Street), in September they recorded New Orleans To London, an album which yielded traditional jazz’s first hint of a pop hit, ‘Isle Of Capri’. Although the band bore his name, Colyer grew increasingly disenchanted with its musical course, which, as he saw it, was being plotted solely by Barber, rather than by mutual agreement, and he quit in May 1954, after a final disagreement, remembered by Barber as “a blazing row”. Without him, the band became Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, its new name leaving no ambiguity as to its leader.

Unlike the more tunnel-visioned Colyer, Barber was eager to share with his band’s – and traditional jazz’s – escalating audience his singular conviction that the syncopated jazz born in New Orleans around the start of the century was not the only form of black American music worthy of their attention. There was another: dark, primitive, driven by raw emotion. The blues. Determined to disseminate what he saw as “the folk music of the American Negro” without jazzing up its unsophisticated instrumentation, Barber initiated within his band a stripped-down, skeletal trio to perform this rudimentary music more accurately than any arrangement for a Dixieland line-up would allow.

The trio, which took to the stage during the main band’s interval break, was recruited from existing personnel, and comprised vocalist Beryl Bryden mutely, but eye-catchingly, thrumming washboard percussion, with Barber himself on double bass, while the jazz band’s banjoist Tony Donegan played guitar and sang, the personable Glaswegian’s wholehearted commitment to the material going a long way to compensate for a pinched vocal tone that impeded a broad interpretation of the blues. As Barber acknowledged in our 1971 interview, “Lonnie loved the blues, but he could only sing it in a certain kind of way – he could get quite near to that particular nasal sound of Leadbelly’s.”

The unexpected popularity of the blues trio’s interval sets led to the inclusion of two of their favourites on the Barber band’s 1954 album, New Orleans Joys. Eventually paired as the A- and B-side of a single released late the following year, ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘John Henry’ showed up in the new year’s first Top Ten, where the record remained until the end of March, a three-month run that turned Donegan – by now calling himself Lonnie in homage to his blues idol, Lonnie Johnson – into a bona fide British pop star who would enjoy a prolific run of hits.

Donegan topped the UK charts three times, an impressive enough feat, yet two other statistics underline his pre-eminence. Between 1956 and 1962, the number of weeks in which Lonnie Donegan had a record in the charts was surpassed only by Elvis Presley, while his thirty hit singles outnumber even the totals attained by those pop colossi, the Beatles and Abba. And if Donegan was seduced by popstardom into recording ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Over Night)’ and ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’, red-nosed novelties that owed more to music hall than any ethnic tradition, he nevertheless continued to use his records and live performances as platforms to popularise blues, folk and country music.

Of course, the music Lonnie Donegan brought to the attention of British record buyers was not known as blues. His version, communicated like a musical Chinese whisper, emerged as skiffle, originally an American term applied to the jug bands and rent party combos of the 1920s and ’30s, especially those employing home-made or improvised instruments, such as cigar-box guitars, washboards, and blown bottles and jugs. Re-adopted in the UK in the 1950s, the name not only suppressed the music’s true identity, but encouraged disapproving adults, marooned on the wrong side of the recently mapped generation gap, to rhyme it with ‘piffle’.

Besides catapaulting Lonnie Donegan into the big time, ‘Rock Island Line’ opened the charts to Top Ten hits by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, the Vipers, and Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys. Nevertheless, this handful of hits and Donegan’s dozens notwithstanding, skiffle’s seismic impact was not on record sales.

What the success of ‘Rock Island Line’ did was to launch Britain’s first nationwide – north to south, coast to coast – pop craze. Skiffle was ideal everyman music, accessible to anyone with the will to have a go, since its essential instrumentation was as inexpensive as its chords and rhythms were uncomplicated. Adequate equipment to enable a group to perform at a local youth club – where many made their first (and, almost as many, their last) appearance – could be purchased for a few pounds, and didn’t even necessitate a visit to a music shop.

In the lingering austerity of a predominantly white goods-free post-war era, the washboard that skiffle substituted for a drum kit could be found in the ironmongery that was ever-present in British high streets, the same shop providing the broom-handle neck for the bass, whose sound box was a tea chest, still redolent with the aroma of Darjeeling or Assam, a dusty residue dancing in its corners as the string stretched tight to the top of the neck was slapped and plunked. Even a guitar could be bought cheaply by mail order from a ubiquitous newspaper ad, illustrated with a drawing of a check-shirted musician whose beaky features were a dead ringer for Lonnie Donegan.

The fad spread across the UK like an epidemic. In London, Soho’s streets bristled with skiffle clubs; in Liverpool, a teenage John Lennon, having bought – and, as soon as he’d learned the song, sold – a 78 of ‘Rock Island Line’, had his momentous meeting with Paul McCartney at a performance by the skiffling Quarrymen.

In the village where I lived, our fresh-faced, novice vicar startled visitors to the summer fete by fronting his own skiffle group on the back of a flat bed lorry, the skirt of his cassock swinging above his sandalled feet like a bent church bell. Doubtless he genuinely enjoyed the singing and strumming, but, still short-trousered, I was suspicious of the church’s wiles. Surely the follow-up offer of free guitar lessons came with a catch? Wasn’t the group for which he really wanted recruits his confirmation set? Jesus would have to go on wanting me for a sunbeam, my Sundays weren’t worth sacrificing for a few chords.

Skiffle’s runaway popularity was not what its unwitting instigators had intended, and prompted Chris Barber to adopt a different approach to his proselytising. Redoubling the irony, Barber’s jazz band could be fingered for the fanfare that announced the arrival of the trad boom, when their 1959 recording of Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’ – the bandleader’s trombone blamelessly absent from this showcase for his misanthropic clarinettist Monty Sunshine – became one of the year’s biggest hits. Skiffle’s success might have taken Barber by surprise, but he couldn’t fail to notice the looming trad boom. He watched the music’s popularity build year by year, month by month, gig by gig, and, with characteristic altruism, saw his band’s favoured status in this onrushing golden age as an unmissable opportunity to step up his blues crusade.

“From 1955 we had the trad boom to ourselves,” he told me. “We were filling halls everywhere, we had money to spare, we couldn’t get any more people in or charge any more money for the tickets, but we thought we ought to get people to understand that jazz was really this – and all that. There was more to it than what we were doing.” So, early in 1957, he offered his fans a first-hand taste of the blues by stumping up to take on tour as support for his band Big Bill Broonzy and Brother John Sellars. “It was the first British concert tour with blues artists, I think. Big Bill had been over before (he had, more than once, en route to or from Paris) and done a couple of club dates, but not a concert tour. There was no meeting with the British public, only with a few dedicated fans. We were doing so well that we were able to do what we wanted and have these people guest with us. Brother John was doing a kind of Joe Turner blues act, and they both went down marvellously with the audience. Big Bill did waffle a bit, according to how much whisky he’d drunk before he went on, so his ratio of talk to songs used to vary from concert to concert, but people didn’t object to it, they loved it.”

Later that same year Barber brought over Sister Rosetta Tharpe, then, in May 1958, the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – “unbelievable, marvellous tour, it was fantastic” – and, crucially, before the year’s end, Muddy Waters. Like Tharpe two years before, Waters offended finger-in-the-ear folk-blues doctrinists by plugging his guitar into an amplifier, but the Barber band’s less pedantic fans were open-minded. According to the band’s singer (and Barber’s wife) Ottilie Patterson, “Our fans were ready to take what was given, because it was our scene. The thing that made them accept the electric guitar was that it was played by a black person – ‘It must be all right, because they’re genuine, they’re the real thing’.”

What Waters was playing was rhythm and blues: not the acoustic country blues that had previously found favour with British jazz and folk revivalists, but the urbanised, electric mutation of post-war black America. Barber, unblinkered as ever, was hooked. “We were all pretty aware of Muddy’s records in the band, but we weren’t doing any of his numbers at the time. We were doing some numbers in the style – almost – but, of course, not being electric, you wouldn’t notice it particularly. But after Muddy did the tour in ’58, we were obviously more keen on his thing.”

Waters had come to Britain with only his pianist Otis Spann, but just weeks later Barber and his band undertook their first American tour, which provided the opportunity to experience the real Muddy Waters on his home turf in Chicago, supported by his own band – for Barber “an unbelievable experience. One of the most enjoyable things ever was to see Muddy performing ‘I’m A Man’ to a black audience – those screams you hear on a live recording, they were all laughing. It was a rave for a black audience.” The night was a memorable one too for Ottilie Patterson, once Waters had managed to coax her onstage. “I was shit-scared,” she admitted. “Here I was, white, English, in a black blues club in Chicago singing, ‘I wonder why that southbound train don’t run.’ How were they going to take that? Luckily they recognised it for what it was.” She and Barber fell so deeply under Waters’ spell that not only did Patterson become the first British singer to regularly perform his ‘(I’ve Got My) Mojo Working’, making it the earliest anthem of the British blues boom, but, six years after kick-starting skiffle, Barber assembled a second offshoot of his band with the aim that every Waters number they performed would approximate the sound of the amplified original that had knocked them out at Smitty’s Corner in Chicago.

“We were playing these numbers of Muddy’s for a year or two,” he explained, “and I thought we really ought to do it the proper way. None of the jazz band’s instruments had a resonant tone. The sound goes on as long as you blow, and then it stops. So we thought, ‘Electric guitar – we’ll give it a go.’ I had known Alexis Korner for years – he was in my first band, ten years before – and we heard he was doing electric blues in England, so someone said, ‘Let’s get together,’ because it seemed we’d get more of a sound.” But the association with Korner and his chalk-and-cheese partner Cyril Davies proved to be problematic from the start and, despite his audience’s delirious response to the R&B repertoire, Barber dropped the duo, just as he had earlier abandoned the skiffle group. Although he continued to include blues numbers in his band’s repertoire and to bring American bluesmen to Britain, notably James Cotton in 1961, his immeasurable contribution to the development of British R&B ceased with that split.

Trad was by then a nationwide fad, but while a caravan of costumed charlatans peddled their vacuous novelties like placebos to a gullible public, Barber stayed true to the spirit of New Orleans and Chicago. So it was an unpalatable irony that when, in 1964, he updated his band’s instrumentation – electric for stand-up double bass, electric guitar for banjo – and returned to R&B, he was branded an opportunist.

“When our difficulties began,” Ottilie Patterson reflected a few years later, “when R&B came up and traditional jazz went down, I remember Chris saying that the blues fans we had brought into the concerts were the ones who were now the nucleus of British R&B fans.” Barber affirmed, “If we hadn’t brought those singers in, because we liked that music and thought other people ought to appreciate it as well, blues would not have been brought into their consciousness.”

Candidates for the paternity of British blues are few, and the line-up for a DNA test does not include John Mayall. Not to belittle his achievement in making membership of his Bluesbreakers an apprenticeship programme whose graduates form their own blues Who’s Who, but Mayall didn’t move south from Manchester until 1963, too late for fatherhood or midwifery. Cyril Davies, dead by 1964, inspired harmonica players specifically. Because the lineage from skiffle to R&B is direct – it is a lot quicker to count the musicians who didn’t start in skiffle than those who did – Lonnie Donegan belongs on the short-list. Which leaves Chris Barber and Alexis Korner.

Recounting the story of British R&B to a 24-year-old would-be chronicler in November 1971, Korner held my eye to add weight to his words as he said, “I must point out that one of the people most directly responsible for the R&B boom was Chris Barber, who must have known perfectly well what he was doing. He was cutting his own throat, and he did it quite deliberately.” Korner, who made no claim for himself, knew who the real father was.

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