Chris barberNobody did more to introduce the Blues into Europe than Chris Barber, bringing over American stars in the 50s to play with his band and going on to inspire the young men who started the British Blues Boom. Chris saw no meaningful barrier between Jazz and Blues players as he rated the qualities of musicianship and improvisation higher than the niceties of academic categorisation. He continues to lead a touring band, more than sixty years after it was formed.

Chris was born in Welwyn Garden City in England in 1930 and formed his New Orleans Band, when he was still a teenager. He played trombone in an eight-piece unit dedicated to the music of King Oliver, with Monty Sunshine on clarinet and Lonnie Donegan on banjo. They had a Transatlantic hit with a cover of the Sydney Bechet instrumental ‘Petite Fleur’, which topped the British charts and made the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100. Irish Blues singer Ottilie Patterson joined in 1955 and she stayed in the band for fifteen years, and stayed married to Chris for 24 years. Chris had a deep interest in Blues music and he organised the visits of many great American Blues stars, who came to Britain in the wake of Big Bill Broonzy‘s visits in the early 50s. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee all toured with Chris’s band, when the revolutionary sound of Muddy’s electric guitar outraged purists. The second time Muddy toured Britain, he appeared with an acoustic guitar and wearing overalls, but fans had heard his albums by then and were confused by the rural theme, so Muddy soon got plugged in again! When Sonny and Brownie were in London they recorded an album with Chris playing string bass on some tracks.

ChrisBarberEven without these American giants on stage, Chris’s band usually played a Blues set, as guitarist Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies on harp would accompany Ottilie as she sang the songs of Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie with a cut-down band. Eventually Alexis and Cyril would break away to form Blues Incorporated and set up The Ealing Blues Club, where British Blues was forged into a force that would change the world of popular music, but Chris was the man who lit the fire. He was also, along with Harold Pendleton, the founding Director of The Marquee Club, a legendary venue that is now at its third premises, and also the National Jazz and Blues Festival that started at Richmond and went on to find a permanent home as the huge Reading Festival.

Rory Gallagher and Chris’s string-bass on Muddy’s ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’;

Chris continued with his jazz band but it always had a blues flavour, as he recruited electric guitarist John Slaughter in 1964 and he remained in the band, barring one period when he was substituted, until his sad death in 2010. Aware that the experience was good for the band, Chris continued to bring American talent to Britain throughout the 60s, with Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, Rice ‘Sonny Boy II’ Miller and Louis Jordan sharing the stage with his excellent musicians. This proud tradition continued into the eighties with Dr. John and Van Morrison taking their turn. In 2001, Chris formed his 11-piece Big Band, and they still maintain a busy touring schedule in Britain and Europe. He is also partly responsible, along with Eric Clapton and others, for setting up the co-operative Blues Legacy Record label. It says something about Chris’s open minded approach that the latest recruit to the Big Band, saxophonist Ami Roberts, joined straight from music college.