By Spencer Leigh
Bill Wyman wished Chris Barber a happy 75th birthday.
He said, “Without this man, there would be no Beatles, no Stones, no Kinks. There would no popular music in Britain without Chris Barber.”
Gushing praise, yet not too much of an exaggeration. Following the lifting of a Musician’s Union ban on foreign musicians, Chris Barber brought over and accompanied many U.S. blues and jazz musicians in the ’50s (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee) and they impressed the fledgling rock ’n’ rollers. More to the point, he included a skiffle group fronted by Lonnie Donegan in these early shows, and skiffle, in the U.K. at least, led to rock ’n’ roll.
Wyman was part of Barber’s 75th birthday concert staged July 6, 2005, during the Summer Pops events in Liverpool; Barber’s birthday was April 17. The annual series of concerts in a brightly colored big top seats 4,500 people and is erected on the Liverpool waterfront. This year’s guests included Andy Williams, who said, “I’ve never played in a circus before.”
Although he is 75, Barber has never stood still. He has expanded his lineup to 11 musicians, and they are now known as The Big Chris Barber Band. This enables Barber to perform Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey compositions with something akin to the original sound, and in particular, the twin trombones of Barber and Bob Hunt work extremely well. Barber’s international hit from 1959, “Petite Fleur,” is still centered on the clarinet, but the band arrangement enhances its attractiveness.
The star guest for Barber’s concert was Van Morrison. As is his wont, Barber gave him a garrulous introduction, and as Morrison said not a word, it was more like a tribute evening to him than to Barber. Often at celebrity bashes, the participants bring out their warhorses and work through them after a quick rehearsal. However, Barber and Morrison had carefully planned what they were doing. Barber described how Morrison had bought his record “Goin’ Home,” written by Ken Colyer, in 1953 — Morrison, then 8 years old, must have been a precocious little lad! As the band played “Goin’ Home,” Morrison came out with his rhythm guitar and added an impassioned vocal.
Morrison performed such a heartfelt version of “St. James Infirmary” that I could imagine his girlfriend lying on that slab. Then there was the romance of Fats Waller’s “Lonely And Blue” and a Big Band workout of Morrison’s showstopper, “Moondance.” I loved the good fun that they had with “All Work And No Play” in which the band bounced up and down as they sang backing vocals. Morrison almost cracked a smile. Almost.
Andy Fairweather-Low from Amen Corner is so thin that he looks like he doesn’t have a note of music in him. He still possesses a wonderful voice and plays the guitar excellently. The gospel numbers “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” hardly taxed him, but they were good listening. He excelled with a smoldering “Stormy Monday Blues.”
Big Bill Morganfield is a giant of a man who writes songs in the same vein as his father, Muddy Waters. Most of the 3,000- strong audience would not have heard him before, but they went away impressed. Wyman added “You Never Can Tell” with an insidious New Orleans setting, but he does little more than talk the vocals. The compére was The Rolling Stones’ first manager, Giorgio Gomelsky. He described driving the Stones from London to Liverpool in a van with no windows — no wonder he didn’t remain their manager for long.