His life reads like a who’s who of Blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Alexis Korner, Lonnie Donegan, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page are just some of the men that Chris Barber has helped on their individual ladders to stardom. in an exclusive 3songsbonn interview before his appearance at the Stadthalle in Bad Godesberg on Saturday (10 Jan) the legendary British Jazz pioneer told John Harrison about both the joys and the struggles as Blues and Jazz set off to conquer the UK and Europe for the first time in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Interview 06.01.2015 with John Harrison
Did you ever regret inviting Ken Colyer to more or less take over your own jazz band in 1953, when he returned from jumping ship in Mobile, Alabama, and catching the Greyhound bus down to New Orleans to play with the George Lewis Band? He’d been unceremoniously ejected from the United States for flaunting numerous race and foreign musician employment laws and subsequently returned to England.
He didn’t take it over. His elder brother Bill tried to take the band over and failed.
Pat Halcox our trumpet player at the time was not prepared to leave his day job as a research chemist at Glaxo to take the leap and become a professional musician. That was early in 1953 when the band first went full time professional. As we heard that Ken Colyer was returning from New Orleans, we invited him to join the band on trumpet as an equal member and put his name to it. Monty Sunshine wrote the letter and Ken turned up.
We made a condition of dealing with Ken Colyer not to bring his brother Bill with him to the party. Bill Colyer had a bad reputation and was a self proclaimed Jazz expert and manager. He was trying to make himself a force in the jazz movement, although he didn’t really know much about it at all.
The band itself was marvelous it was terrific music and excellent music and a band that I really regretted couldn’t go any further because Bill called for a meeting and said, “Ken’s not happy with the band, and you’ve got to sack the rhythm section”. This was effectively the end of the band as it was initially formed as a collective.
The first rehearsals we did with Ken, his brother Bill didn’t come to them, I was surprised but quite happy about it, as if he’d been there he would have been wasting our time. We had excellent rehearsals there. We invited Ken to join the band and put his name to it, which he did, and keep Bill away from it. It took Bill about 6 months to wangle his way in and spoil things.
What instrument did Bill Colyer actually play then?
Nothing. Well, washboard.
You are better known these days as a Jazz man, but if my researches are correct you probably did more than any other single person to personally ignite the passion for Blues in England which in itself had blossomed out of the skiffle boom?
The skiffle boom was long before the blues boom happened. The skiffle came because Lonnie and I had a record collection of people like Leadbelly and Lonny Johnson and Lonnie and I used to perform numbers like “Rock Island Line” now and again with Lonnie.
Lonnie was a devotee of Max Miller and the object of his life was to be a “cheeky chappie”. Bear in mind that the one thing Ken Colyer hated most in the world was a “cheekie chappie” He could never get on with Lonnie, because Lonnie was murder.
There were musician union issues with foreign musicians (instrumentalists) coming over and playing music, but there were American singers playing at the Palladium so it was easier to bring over singers, who also played. We arrived at a point where we wanted to play together with these original Americans blues musicians .
In the late 1950s and early 1960s you brought over many US blues musicians including Sister Rosette Tharpe in 1957 and Muddy Waters debuting a Fender Telecaster, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in 1958, seemingly a long time before any other people apparently had the idea (or the money and determination to do it)? I watched a clip on YouTube recently playing on a superfluous and made over British Railways platform near Manchester on the The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours’ but that was in 1964 seven years after you first started doing it?
A lot of other people heard the people we brought over and immediately started doing it too. At that time we wanted to play that music too and had our own guitar player, John Slaughter join us and we were doing blues things. Alexis was joining in with us in our blues sessions.
This was just after I’d opened the Marquee club and I asked Alexis if he’d like to play a blues night there on Thursday nights . Alexis Korner’s band started playing at the Marquee as a blues band.
When Alexis Korner formed his band it was really quite professional, how should I put it, sophisticated serious blues, not smart Alec, but it was quite sophisticated, not just Muddy Waters but also more Riley B B King. They needed a relief singer because you can’t sing all night long, a trad band can play all night, but you can’t physically sing all night. A young chap came along with a guitar and singing Brownie McGhee best blues songs. The young chap was called Jimmy Page. Jimmy Page went on to form Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin had a hard time of it at first in the UK and it was in the USA that they found their first success and they got what they deserved in the end.
Muddy Waters played with his band at the Newport Festival as a proper blues band. It’s now a folk festival. As Bill Broonzy said, “It’s all folk music because horses don’t sing ’em.” That was Big Bill Broonzy!
We began to bring over Muddy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee the other musicians and we played with them and developed our own style and started the blues boom off in Britain.
Most people who’ve learned to start playing trad couldn’t begin to play right for any New Orleans ensembles with real old New Orleans guys, they play totally differently.
Those New Orleans marching bands, and we had the pleasure of doing a four hour march with all our front line as part of the Eureka Brass band in Washington DC in 1962.
Those marching bands they don’t improvise, they aren’t supposed to, the minute you get some trad players up and you’re doing a wake for Johnny Parker who had just died. We’re doing a march down to the cemetry, we’re doing a march and they were all playing hot solos! Those brass marching bands don’t do it, any one who did that wouldn’t get invited again. You don’t show off for yourself you do it for all the other people involved in the feeling of it.
As I understand it you were also the first to bring over Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lewis Jordan to England?
Yes, Howlin’ Wolf was a nice man. A great man. They were all wonderful musicians.
You not only invited these people over from the USA but you also spent a lot of time with them, sometimes putting them up in your own home perhaps and certainly travelling on the road with them around the country as their “backing band”? This was quite an eye opener for you and the band at the time?
Backing band is not quite the word for it. A backing band is what Bill Wyman’s band doing or people like that. Eric (Clapton) is a point in question. Your going to have a backing brass section and yet they don’t play the blues at all. You’ve got to play the blues it’s so important.
I did a charity concert organised by Mike Rutherford from Genesis in Surrey. Eric Clapton was there and we did “Stormy Monday” I know Stormy Monday very well.
The song starts with, “They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad” Then I played a blues riff on the trombone and it was the same as Eric played on the guitar, but he couldn’t understand why I played the same thing. That’s what blues players do! Brass players don’t play the blues, they play the brass things. Rather amusing, I found it rather amusing, but sad.
It must also have been quite a culture shock for them coming to a blossoming, or very soon to be blossoming, England in the swinging sixties, when back home they were probably less respected both as musicians and also as human beings?
It wasn’t as if all the black people in the USA were all down in the South on plantations growing cotton. A lot were by then up north working in arms factories during WW II and so on. They didn’t have any difficulty at all coming to Britain.
Certainly down in the deep South things were different particularly in the South in Louisiana it was actually illegal for black and white people to perform on the same stage together, not just “odd” or “not wanted” but actually “illegal” until President Johnson signed the laws (Civil Rights Bill) in 1964.
We got on very well with them and we didn’t differ with them one iota. It was great to learn what they liked and enjoyed. They were very gentle and nice.
You not only brought over black musicians over to the UK but you also toured in the USA yourselves. How did you find this experience?
We went to Chicago and visited Muddy Waters in his club. Muddy’s audience in Chicago in the 1950s were not kids, they were black people, elderly black immigrants from the South who mostly worked in cloakrooms at downtown night clubs. Woody asked to get up and sing something and there’s a Big Bill Broonzy one called “Southbound train”
“I wonder why that Southbound train don’t run?” the point about that being is that of course you know why it doesn’t run and you know why you’re not going to take it either, because the South is “shit”. So once we sang that the entire audience raised their hands!
Carlos Santana once said, “Rock and Roll is a swimming pool, the Blues is a lake, but Jazz is an ocean!” Do you agree?
Did it not seem somewhat strange at the time for you yourself engaging reverse gear and “dumbing down” to play Blues again with these people rather than the more sophisticated Jazz to which you had already become accustomed?
We played it because we loved it. We didn’t play it because we were trying to prove that we could play better then them, or even as well as them, we played it because we loved the music. We loved playing it.
We played at President Kennedy’s Jazz festival in Washington DC in 1962 and we finished off our set with Ottilie singing with the band on Muddy Water’s number “I got my Mojo working”. Nothing to do with New Orleans jazz, but we got a stunning response. The Staple Singers were crowding around wanting us to make records with them.
I personally find that the Blues is one of the most amazing forms of expression known to the human soul. It takes all the pain and suffering of slavery and turns it into musical sound and then adds a bit of hope and then adds a few initially simple innocent sounding words which actually have the duplicity and finesse of William Shakespeare. The old work songs are a classic example of this and convinced the bosses that they raised productivity whilst also giving true voice and interactive communication to the workers. Do you agree with this?
If we sang or when Ottilie sang or when I sang the words in question they, the black audience then knew perfectly well, that we knew perfectly well what it’s all about. That’s the point.
You seem to be a great collectivist and give great weight to treating people equally. This was probably a reason for you splitting away from Ken Colyer? It is probably the reason why Lonnie Donegan left the band in 1956. Do you regret losing him after he had a solo hit record with ” Rock Island Line” whilst in your group and demanded more money afterwards, or are you proud that you stuck to your principles?
Ken’s brother Bill decided he thought he could get further on and earn more money for Ken by his leaving the band.
Lonnie Donnegan could be the most annoying person the world has ever known and Ken Colyer was the person least able to handle that.
Lonnie left the band because he was getting offers of large amounts of money to play large halls with his skiffle group doing 20 minute sets for thousands and thousands of pounds.
This is in 1956 and I said to Lonnie you’ve been in our band a long time and skiffle is very popular now but in ten years time it could be clarinette solos that became popular and the next year we had a hit with “Petite Fleur” after Lonnie Donegan had left
You helped to found the Marquee Club in London in 1961, Couldn’t anyone else have done it, and if so why not?
That was it Harald Pendleton and I wanted to. We wanted a club to play at. We were playing at the 100 Club in London in those days. The 100 Club is the worst place to play in for acoustics in the world. It is evil and unpleasant on the stage. I can listen to bands there and from the back it sounds alright. On the stage it feels like bloody hell. I wanted somewhere different somewhere with more room in it.
We found one which was the basement room of the Academy cinema in Oxford Street almost 200 yards from the 100 club. So we got the lease of the place, and that was it. It opened in June 1958
One of my own personal heroes, who listened to Bessie Smith every morning upon waking, was George Melly. He inspired me to both listen to more Jazz and to more Blues. I listen to him live in Loughborough in the mid 1970 with the Feeetwarmers. How do you rate him posthumously?
The campness of him was a bit much for me really, but I mean he loved the blues , he really loved the blues and that’s it, you can’t say more than that.
Was Alexis Korner ever in your band?
Yes, he was in my amateur band already in 1948-49. I’ve got pictures of him playing then but at the time I never had much memory of what his guitar playing actually sounded like. I looked at pictures of him the other day and I thought, “Bloody Hell!” He had a Hofner, which was a copy of a Gibson. It was a semi-acoustic Hofner right, and he had no amp! He just thrashed away. He knew the style, he was very good, he was a very good voice, he was a lovely singer. We had a piano player in the amateur band and we were playing all the Big Maceo Merriwhether numbers then that Eric Clapton and Chris Stainton played everytime. We were doing those back in 1948 already. That’s life, it was nice music. We had a blues section then, but Alexis wanted to try and get a group together just playing blues, but he didn’t find anybody for quite a long time.
What are your memories of John Mayall and the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton during the early days of the British Blues “Revolution”?
I didn’t know much of them. Bear in mind I had the Marquee club and we had a booking company and a management company we managed some groups and so on. The Yardbirds were managed by Giorgio Gomelsky who was a partner of ours, and Eric Clapton played the guitar with them and then Giorgio wanted to do some other different things so they sent Harald Pendleton and partner around to Eric’s flat to pick up the guitar because the guitar had been bought for him to play with the group. They took the guitar away, he didn’t mind, he understood. .
We met them. We got on very well with some of them. I know them all now pretty well. I had a great time with John Mayall a couple of times recently.
They’ve all worked hard playing good music which is fantastic and it’s great to have the opportunity to do that. It’s nice to be able to do it.
There seemed to be more collaboration in those days between jazz and blues?
There was less of it, there was so little of it, there was so little seriously good jazz about in my estimation and ditto for blues so of course we got together because these were the only people in town who knew what it was about.
In the middle of 2014 last year you were awarded the prestigious German Jazz Trophy 2014 in Stuttgart. This must have been a proud moment for you?
That has been reserved up until now (a) for Germans and (b) none of them are black.
It’s a great thing to be recognized. It’s very nice indeed, wonderful.
How are your languages?
I was good in languages and I did get a distinction in French.
I didn’t really try hard with German until we were touring there. I’d listen To BBC world service in German, it’s the only place you will hear real “Hoch deutsch”.
I can get a laugh out of a German audience in German and even get a laugh from a French audience in French.
How much time do you spend playing in Germany?
About 30 or 40 concerts a year in Germany and around 25 or 30 in the UK.
Will you be playing with your big band in Bad Godesberg on Saturday?
Yes, we’ll have the current band in the Stadthalle which we had couple of years ago. They do very well.
I’ll look forward to seeing you on Friday Chris. Thank you so much for your time and intuition.
Interview: John Harrison for 3songsbonn.com – 06.01.2015
Born 17 April 1930 (age 84)
Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England, United Kingdom
Genres Skiffle, ragtime, swing, blues, trad jazz, folk
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter, bandleader
Instruments Trombone (& upright bass & trumpet)
Labels Decca, Tempo, Columbia (EMI), Pye, Lake
Associated acts Lonnie Donegan, Ken Colyer