R.I.P. Jazz legend Chris Barber. The celebrated Jazz trombonist died on 2 March aged 90. One of the ‘three B’ greats of trombone alongside Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball, Barber will be remembered beyond his instrumental abilities. His involvement in bringing some of the early legends of popular music to the UK was pivotal to Pop’s evolution, as he brought names like Sister Rosette Tharpe, Muddy Waters and Bill Broonzy to young 50s audiences containing eager listeners who themselves would go on to make Britain the Pop Music Kingdom of the ’60s. Bands like The Stones, Beatles and even Hard Rockers like led Zeppelin.
Barber’s was certainly a long career. He had a hit record the year I was born,1959, with ‘Petite Fleur’. I have much to thank him for. Lonnie Donegan, a hero of Rory Gallagher, was in Barber’s Band until his own career skyrocketed with the massive hit ‘Rock Island Line’ (on which Barber was a surprise bass player).
Barber’s father was an economist tutored by the great John Maynard Keynes and a keen violinist. If he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps I suspect that was expected to mean career-wise. Instead, Barber took up the instrument playing part of his fathers lifestyle – and never looked back.
He quickly rose in the ranks of the local London Jazz scene, and it was playing at the London Palladium that introduced a young Chris Barber to the exciting ‘Folk Blues’ artists coming over from America, He not only liked what he heard but wanted to champion it too. Hence the arrival in the UK and Europe of seminal female Blues singer/guitarist Sister Rosette Tharpe and the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Howlin’ Wolf – who Barber recalled as the total opposite of his wild name, even saying ‘Grace’ before dinner when they used to meet. It was Barber who brought British Blues pioneer Alexis Korner into his orchestra. Korner was so taken by the new breed of American music and musicians that he spread the word out to a white audience that included John Mayall and Eric Clapton. Put simply, Barber’s popularity and influence on Pop, Blues and even Rock music is incalculable, as one anecdote told to John Harrison in a 3songsbonn interview in 2015:
“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.”
In his autobiography ‘Jazz Me Blues’ (Equinox books, 2014) Barber recalls working with German promoting duo Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau to bring top black Jazz artists to Europe. A tour with Harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson II in 1964 is an example of the impact these shows were having – soon after the exuberant Sonny Boy’s appearances, William’s songs were being played and recorded by the likes of John Mayall, Led Zeppellin, Van Morrison and The Who. The roots of modern Rock music were being laid.
Careerwise Barber had longlasting popularity, reflecting his ability to stay up with new trends without selling out to them. It probably doesn’t sound cutting edge to modern ears, but The Chris Barber Band put a whole new spin on the Dixie-land sound with its three-pronged attack of Trumpet, trombone and clarinet. A touch of skiffle aided by Lonnie Donegan on banjo and some Blues aided by Alexis Korner. From first recordings in the 1940s, Chris Barber went on to play with his Big Band right up until 2019, when Dementia began to become a problem for him. A pretty good innings for the man who started his rise to music stardom with a worn-out trombone that he bought from a player in the Humphrey Littleton Band who had spotted him sitting front of stage night after night. Probably the best £5 he ever spent.
The full interview with Chris Barber is HERE
and my review of his 2015 show HERE
Enjoy the music (and the haircuts!)…