The Big Chris Barber Band
Thursday 5th June 2014
Chris Barber OBE this year celebrates his Diamond Jubilee as leader of his band on a full-time professional basis. In fact his career began even earlier - in 1949 – when he started his first amateur band which included Alexis Korner on guitar. Little could either Chris or Alexis have known that they were destined, in their respective ways, to become major figures in bringing blues and gospel music to audiences of the UK and Europe.
That first band, known as Chris Barber’s New Orleans Jazz Band, gave way to Chris Barber’s Jazz Band who played their first professional engagement in December 1953 following a spell when known as Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. This ‘co-operative’ band gave it Ken’s name because he had gained publicity by jumping ship in New Orleans to play his trumpet alongside many of the local pioneers of the music. A policy disagreement led to the band ‘voting out’ Ken and he was replaced by Pat Halcox who remained with the band until his retirement in 2008.
By 1954 Chris Barber’s Jazz Band was performing at major concert venues such as The Royal Festival Hall and their first LP ‘New Orleans Joys’ included a skiffle track, ‘Rock Island Line’ featuring their banjoist Lonnie Donegan. Released as a single, it topped the charts both sides of the Atlantic and paved the way, not only for Lonnie Donegan’s solo career, but also for USA concert appearances by Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. So, as we can see, Chris Barber’s Band were ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ several years before The Beatles were acclaimed (and honoured!) for similar achievements.
Chris Barber, from out of his own pocket, financed the introduction to the UK and Europe, of numerous American artistes. The UK promoters weren’t interested because the band was selling out “without the need for guests”! The first visiting artistes to appear with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band arrived in 1958 in the form of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Sister Rosetta Tharpe followed shortly afterwards. Tommy Tucker, Alvin Alcorn, Professor Alex Bradford, James Cotton & Dr John are just a few examples of U.S. artistes introduced to Europe by Chris Barber in the ensuing years.
During this time the bands of Chris Barber have been enriched by those experiences and influences. On record, Chris’ career has been skillfully encapsulated by Proper Records with their Double CD release ‘Memories Of My Trip’ (PRP CD 073). The aforementioned historical encounters are reflected on this recording, along with more recent collaborations with Van Morrison, Paul Jones, Eric Clapton, Andy Fairweather Low and others.
The Chris Barber Jazz Band of 1953 was a six piece line up. These days - known as The Big Chris Barber Band - it is ten in number. Chris’ explanation for that is interesting: “Throughout the years we have always enjoyed playing the music of Duke Ellington. From time to time we have brought to Europe the artistes we admire and who would enable us to perform larger arrangements than could be achieved by a six-piece band. For example we have been joined in the past by Wild Bill Davis (piano) and Russell Procope (saxes) for the ‘Echoes Of Ellington’ tour. Then there was John Lewis (piano) with Trummy Young (trombone) on the ‘Swing Is Here Tour’. We now have, amongst our TEN, Bob Hunt – a student of The Duke’s music, a fine arranger of The Duke’s music and, into the bargain, is the proud owner of a trombone once the property of Ellington trombonist ‘Tricky’ Sam Nanton! So we can all play those Ellington arrangements whenever we (or the audience) feel like it!”
Brownie McGhee wrote ‘Memories Of My Trip’ back in 1958 as a ‘Thank You’ to Chris and his band after that first ground-breaking tour. Well, Chris Barber’s OWN ‘trip’ has so far extended well beyond 60 years and you can bet he’ll still be ‘blowing strong’ at his Diamond Jubilee Concerts!