Chris Barber: A Trailblazer’s Legacy

Four-CD retrospective of the trombonist, bandleader and blues apostle, the 'godfather of British rock', comes in book form with 18,000 words of annotation


This aptly entitled four-CD tribute, handsomely produced and spanning the seven decades of Barber’s prolific recording career, draws attention to his sometimes overlooked wide-ranging interests and innovative achievements. He blended a sincere loyalty to vintage jazz – particularly New Orleans and classic Ellington -with an unflagging quest to broaden and develop his band’s style, constantly experimenting with fresh ideas and unusual repertoire.

He introduced a long and diverse succession of celebrated American guests over the years, making a big impact not only on jazz audiences, but also (with stars such as Muddy Waters) on the growing UK worlds of Chicago blues – rock, R&B and gospel. Rock Island Line inspired a national skiffle craze. One such group later morphed into the Beatles. Barber’s widespread influence and involvement has been acknowledged by such diverse artists as Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Hugh Laurie, Tim Rice, Van Morrison and Jools Holland. 

CDs 1 and 2 feature the Barber band throughout the 50s. The ensemble was balanced and organised, the arrangements catchy and melodic and the piano-less rhythm section provided a tight, lilting and bouncy rhythm, ideal for dancing. It was a fresh new sound which proved enormously popular, and was much copied by lesser bands in the current trad boom.

High spots selected here include Isle Of Capri, (with Ken Colyer), Skokiaan (with veteran West Indian altoist Bertie King), Moonshine Man (authentic blues from Ottilie Patterson) and several striking arrangements – e.g. Chimes Blues, The Martinique, Papa De Da Da, Majorca and The Golden Striker. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sonny Terry and Brownie Mc Ghee added vibrant gospel and blues. By 1960 the band had visited America twice. Chris is heard here with his American rrecording band, which included Sidney de Paris, Ed Hall and Hank Duncan.

CD3 covers the 60s. Special guests include altoist Joe Harriott, who shines in his calypso/gospel original Revival. In due course, James Cotton, Ed Hall, Louis Jordan and Albert Nicholas are heard with the band and Chris gets to jam on a BBC broadcast with Sammy Price and Sandy Brown. Guests apart, major changes began to happen to the band’s style and sound. Blues guitarist John Slaughter was added to the (still piano-less) rhythm section, and alto and tenor from Ian Wheeler and John Crocker filled out the ensemble texture. A daringly slow Jeeps Blues predominantly features amplified guitar, blues-band style, in fills and solo, flagging up Chris’s increasing attraction to the blues idiom. The band’s use of dynamics and sense of rapport continued to grow with outstanding trumpet from Pat Halcox in an impressive Black And Tan Fantasy.

CD4 fast-forwards nine years to 1974 for upbeat gospel from Alex Bradford. The next 44 years of Barber’s recordings are condensed into a dozen tracks. We hear Chris with Van Morrison and Dr. John, Eddie Bo and Jools Holland. Csikos, an adaption of Balkan folk music with dauntingly difficult time signatures, inspires an impressive solo from Chris. By the late 70s, the band was tackling a heady mix of funky blues, jazz-rock, soul and gospel, whilst still touching base with traditional New Orleans standards, and of course, Ellington – whose Merry Go Round, from 2007, is regrettably the only track from the Barber Big Band in a selection mostly representative of Barber’s formative 50s and 60s days.

The set is packaged very attractively and tastefully in the format of a small hardback book. Alyn Shipton (who co-wrote Chris’s autobiography Jazz Me Blues in 2014 and did the notes for the recently reissued Memories Of My Trip tribute album) compiled the selection and contributes 18,000 words of discography and biography. There’s also an account of Chris’s motor-racing career from Dave Brodie, a footnote by reedman John Crocker and 150 photos and images, mainly from Chris’s private collection.

Ending on a personal note, it was a special pleasure and privilege for me to play alongside Alyn, with a fine band, backing this remarkable musician on his last recorded session in 2018. It was 65 years after I first heard him. He was almost 89, still enthusiastic, still planning distant tours. Oh didn’t he ramble . . .

CD1: (1) Stomp Off, Let’s Go; Misty Morning; (2) The Isle Of Capri; La Harpe St. Blues; (3) Stevedore Stomp; The Martinique; Chimes Blues; (4) Rock Island Line; (5) Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out; (3) Ice Cream; (6) Skokiann; (5) St Louis Blues; (3) Goin’ To Town; Papa De Da Da; (5) Careless Love; (3) Doin’ The Crazy Walk; Petite Fleur; Bourbon St Parade; (5) Kay Cee Rider; (3) Bye And Bye; (5) When The Saints Go Marching In (67.41)
CD2: (7) Every Time I Feel The Spirit; (3) The Sheik Of Araby; (5) Moonshine Man; (3) Majorca; Rent Party Blues; (8) Do Lord Do Remember Me; Betty And Dupree; (3) Give Me Your Telephone Number; The Golden Striker; (5) Well Alright, Okay, You Win; (9) X Marks The Spot; (3) Swipsy Cake Walk; The Entertainer; Beautiful Dreamer; (10) You Tell Me Your Dream (71.49)
CD3: Li’l Liza Jane; (11) Just A Little While To Stay Here; (5) Too Many Drivers; (11) Revival; (12) Love Me Or Leave Me; (3) Trad Tavern; Gonna Build A Mountain; Chiquita; (5) The Mountains Of Mourne; Lonesome Road; (13) High Society; (14) Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?; Don’t Worry ’Bout The Mule; (3) Eh La Bas!; Weary Blues; Black And Tan Fantasy; (15) C Jam Blues; (16) Tailgate Boogie (72.40)
CD4: (3) I Never Shall Forget; Jeeps Blues; (17) Couldn’t Keep It To Myself; (3) Csikos; Mercy, Mercy, Mercy; (18) Oh Didn’t He Ramble; (19) Heavy Henry; Sideways; Good Queen Bess; The Weight/Caledonia Mission; (20) Wake Up; (19) All The Girls Go Crazy; (21) Winin’ Boy Blues; (22) Merry Go Round; (23) Savoy Blues (80.06)
(1) Chris Barber’s New Orleans Jazz Band. London, 26 October 1951.
(2) Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. London, 2 September 1953.
(3) Chris Barber’s jazz Band. Various dates and locations 1954-75.
(4) Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group. London, 13 July 1954.
(5) CBJB with Ottilie Patterson. Various dates and locations 1955-1962.
(6) Bertie King (as) with CBJB. London, 30 October 1954.
(7) Sister Rosetta Tharpe with CBJB. Manchester, 9 December 1957.
(8) Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with CBJB. 2 and 12 May 1958.
(9) Harlem Washboard. Ed Allen (t); CB (tb); Cecil Scott (cl,ts); Don Frye (p); Leonard Gaskin (b); Floyd Casey (wb); NY, 3 November 1959.
(10) CB American JB. Sidney De Paris (t); CB (tb); Edmond Hall (cl); Hank Duncan (p); Hayes Alvis (b); Joe Marshall (d); NY, 7 November 1960.
(11) Joe Harriott (as) with CBJB. London, 31 March 1961.
(12) James Cotton (v, hca); Alexis Korner (g); CB (b); Keith Scott (p). London, 10 August 1961.
(13) Ed Hall (cl) with CBJB. 16 November 1962.
(14) Louis Jordan (as, v) with CBJB. 15 December 1962.
(15) Albert Nicholas (cl) with CBJB. Geneva, 6 August 1968.
(16) Sammy Price (p); Keith Smith (t); CB (tb); Sandy Brown (cl); Ruan O’Lochlainn (g); John Rodber (b); Johnny Armitage (d). London, 3 December 1969.
(17) Alex Bradford (v, p) with CBJB. Hanover, 28 September 1974.
(18) Van Morrison (v) and Dr. John (p) with CBJB. 13 December 1976 (vocal track added 2010).
(19) CB Jazz And Blues Band. Various dates and locations, 1978-1994.
(20) Eddie Bo (p,v); CB (tb); Red Morgan (as); Wayne Bennett (g); Walter Payton Jr., Chuck Moore (b); Russell Batiste (d). 11 April 1991.
(21) Jools Holland (p, v) with CB sextet. 2010.
(22) CB Big Band. 1 December 2007.
(23) Alan Gresty (t); CB (tb); Ron Drake (cl); Richard Simmons (p); Hugh Rainey (bj); Alyn Shipton (b); Emile Martyn (d). Pizza Express, London, 3 December 2018. Barber (tb, b, v) on all tracks.
Personnels from CB bands include: Pat Halcox, Mike Henry (t); Bob Hunt (tb); Monty Sunshine (cl); Ian Wheeler, Sammy Rimington (cl,as); John Crocker (cl, as, ts); Lonnie Donegan, Eddie Smith, Johnny McCallum (bj); John Slaughter, Roger Hill (g); Jim Bray, Micky Ashman, Dick Smith, Jackie Flavelle, Vic Pitt (b); Ron Bowden, Graham Burbidge, Pete York, Norman Emberson (d); Ottilie Patterson (v).
The Last Music Co. LMCD 227