Chris Barber died aged ninety on 2nd March 2021 suffering from dementia in the period before his death. Chris was born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom and began learning to play the violin when he was seven years old. After the end of the Second World War, he attended St Paul's School in London, and began visiting clubs to hear jazz groups. He then spent three years at the Guildhall School of Music, and started playing music with friends he met there, including Alexis Korner.
In 1950 Chris Barber formed the New Orleans Jazz Band, a non-professional group of up to eight musicians, including Alexis Korner on guitar and himself on double bass, to play both trad jazz and blues tunes. He decided then to leave his job in an insurance office in 1951 and the following year he became a professional musician.
Chris Barber and clarinetist Monty Sunshine formed a band in late 1952, with trumpeter Pat Halcox among others, began playing in London clubs, and accepted an offer to play in Denmark in early 1953. Simultaneously, it was found that Pat Halcox would be unable to travel but that Ken Colyer, who had been visiting New Orleans, was available. Colyer joined the band, which then took the name Ken Colyer's Jazzmen. In April 1953 the band made its debut in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The band's first recording session in 1954 produced the LP New Orleans Joys, and included "Rock Island Line", performed by Lonnie Donegan. When released as a single under Lonnie Donegan's name, it became a hit, launching Lonnie Donegan's solo career and the British skiffle boom. The Chris Barber band recorded several In Concert LPs during the 1950s, regarded by music critics as "capturing the early Chris Barber band in its prime.
In 1959, the band's October 1956 recording of Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur", a clarinet solo by Monty Sunshine with Dick Smith on bass, Ron Bowden on drums and Dick Bishop on guitar, spent twenty-four weeks in the UK Singles Charts, making it to No. 3 and selling over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. After 1959, Chris Barber toured the United States several times where "Petite Fleur" charted at number five.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chris Barber was mainly responsible for arranging the first UK tours of blues artists Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters. This, with the encouragement of local enthusiasts such as Alexis Korner and John Mayall, sparked young musicians such as Peter Green, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. British rhythm and blues powered the British invasion of the USA charts in the 1960s. In January 1963, the British music magazine, NME reported the biggest trad jazz event in Britain at Alexandra Palace. It included George Melly, Diz Disley, Acker Bilk, Alex Welsh, Kenny Ball, Ken Colyer, Sunshine, Bob Wallis, Bruce Turner, Mick Mulligan and Chris Barber.
Chris Barber stunned traditionalists in 1964 by introducing blues guitarist John Slaughter into the line up who, apart from a break between April 1978 and August 1986, when Roger Hill took over the spot, played in the band until shortly before his death in 2010. Chris Barber next added a second clarinet/saxophone and this line-up continued until 1999. Then Chris Barber added fellow trombonist/arranger Bob Hunt and another clarinet/sax and trumpet. This eleven-man "Big Chris Barber Band" offered a broader range of music while reserving a spot in the programme for the traditional six-man New Orleans line-up. A recording of the Lennon–McCartney composition "Catswalk" can be heard, retitled "Cat Call", on The Songs Lennon and McCartney Gave Away. Written by Paul McCartney the song was recorded in late July 1967 and released as a single in the UK on 20 October 1967.
With rock guitarist Rory Gallagher, Chris Barber and his band recorded the 1972 album 'Drat That Fratle Rat'. In 1999, he expanded his band to eleven members, eventually renaming it The Big Chris Barber Band in 2001. This was among other things so that he could play the music of the early Duke Ellington band, one of his favourites.
Chris Barber published his autobiography Jazz Me Blues in 2014, with co-author Alyn Shipton. He announced his decision to retire on 12th of August 2019, after seventy years of performing. The band continued under the musical direction of Bob Hunt.
Chris Barber was awarded an OBE in 1991 for services to music. In June 2006 he received an honorary doctorate from Durham University, and in September 2013 he was awarded the "Blues Louis" for his services to popularizing the blues in Europe at the "Lahnstein Blues Festival" (Germany), where he is honored with the annual award. In 2014, he was honored for his life's work with the German Jazz Trophy.
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