The British trad boom collapsed in about 1963, due to the combination of an excess of poorly prepared and unimaginative trad bands (we used to call them "ricky-tick bands"), the public's tiring of the same old music, and the rise of the British beat, R&B, and blues movements. In effect, the release of The Beatles' "Love Me Do" in October 1962 sounded the death-knell for plunking-banjo-powered bands, interminably cranking out undistinguished – and indistinguishable – versions of "High Society" or trad interpretations of music hall ditties and Disney novelty songs. Beatlemania, and Beatmania in general, swept the country, then North America, and then the rest of the world, becoming the new focus of adulation for teenagers, but probably leaving the traddies wondering what had hit them so hard and so quickly.
Of course, a handful of the best bands survived the death of trad more or less intact, if no longer at the top of the charts. Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk established a smaller but enthusiastic and permanent following which has persisted to the present day, while Alex Welsh, for example, who (like Chris Barber) had never fully sold out to trad, continued quite happily with his Chicago-Dixieland style, which had its own aficionados who had remained more or less tangential to the pop-trad scene.
Ironically, it was Chris Barber and his band, together with Ottilie Patterson, who laid the foundation for the very developments that led to the Beat Boom and set the scene for trad's demise. This they did in two ways, quite unintentionally and with the purest of motives (not always shared by their contemporaries). First, Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan virtually invented (although this has been disputed in the Colyer camp) and unquestionably popularized, skiffle – a British interpretation of American folk blues that not only created a massive fan-base but single-handedly democratized the whole business of making music in Britain: any schoolboy could buy a cheap guitar and learn three chords, sing in an almost passable imitation of Lonnie's or Johnny Duncan's nasal whines, build and thunk a tea-chest bass, or acquire a washboard and thimbles. (I speak from direct experience here!) The most successful, but by no means unique, descendants of the skiffle craze were Liverpool's The Quarrymen, soon to become The Beatles.
The second thing that Chris Barber did that ultimately undermined trad jazz was to bring to Britain – and pay for! – legendary American blues and gospel greats, notably Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1957, followed by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee in early 1958, and Muddy Waters and Otis Spann at the end of that year. (Guests towards the end of the 1950s and on into the early 1960s included Jimmy Cotton, Howlin' Wolf, Champion Jack Dupree, Memphis Slim, and perhaps the most notorious of them all, Sonny Boy Williamson). There is no question that exposure to live performances by these blues legends influenced, if they did not solely determine, the emergence of the British blues and R&B movements – an influence that has been acknowledged by Alexis Korner, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Eric Burdon, and Eric Clapton, among many others.
What did all this mean for the Barber Band? As always, Chris was well ahead of the curve. The band, together with Ottilie Patterson, had already recorded a blues album in 1959, while most of the future beat and blues luminaries were still at school (Chris Barber's Blues Book, Volume 1; sadly, there never was a Volume 2, although 1964's Good Morning Blues could have been thus subtitled). Monty Sunshine was still with the band when the Blues Book was recorded, and the album was very much influenced by Chicago-style rhythm-and-blues, albeit played using a jazz instrumentation. The band continued to refine and master the tight sound required for this sort of music, and benefited greatly from accompanying Louis Jordan on tour and on record in 1962.
It was really in the space of a few short months in 1964 that everything changed, or at least became noticeable to the listening public. The year started off with some fairly conventional recordings: folk songs such as "On Top Of Old Smokey" and "Tom Dooley" interpreted using the traditional jazz six-piece instrumentation and released on the LP, Folk Barber Style. Then, in July of 1964, young blues guitarist John Slaughter joined the band, prompting an immediate effect on its sound and repertoire. Soon after John came on board, the Chris Barber Band recorded what appeared to be a radical departure from what fans had come to expect. The album was Good Morning Blues, based almost entirely on the Chicago style, with the rhythm section sounding at times remarkably like the Stones and the Animals. It was a public declaration that the days of "Petite Fleur" and "When The Saints Go Marching In" were over – at least, temporarily.
Eddie Smith played on Good Morning Blues but didn't stick around for long after that: he left in November 1964, just four short months after John Slaughter joined. His replacement on banjo was the rather more metallic and plodding chord-based sound of Stu Morrison, who was probably more suited in taste and temperament to the new direction the music was taking. Stu's first recordings with the band appeared on Dans Le Vent, an album – now extremely rare and virtually impossible to find – made exclusively for the French market. It included several re-takes of tunes recorded previously for Good Morning Blues. Listen to and compare, for example, "Hamp's Blues" with Eddie on banjo and then Stu and "Jeep's Blues" (Eddie; Stu).
At this point Dick Smith was still on bass, but he, too, left before long, departing in March 1966 and being replaced for just over one year (March 1966 to May 1967) by Micky Ashman, who had been the band's bassist back in 1955 and 1956, and who had in fact briefly been a member of one of Chris's pre-professional bands in the early 1950s. Only a few recordings were made with this line-up: three tracks with Alex Bradford eventually ended up on the Hot Gospel set, which was not finished until some years later.
When Micky left, the new bassist was Jackie Flavelle, an accomplished and versatile musician recruited from the showbands of Northern Ireland. While he started out on string bass, he was also able to play electric bass, providing a sound and approach that contributed enormously to the band's distinctive style as it developed into the mid-1970s.
The rest of the line-up – Chris Barber on trombone, Pat Halcox on trumpet, Ian Wheeler on reeds and harmonica, and John Slaughter on electric guitar – remained the same until 1968, although the front line did take time out for a quick "back to the roots" session with Barry Martyn and his rhythm section on Collaboration, a terrific LP (and now a CD with bonus tracks) that showed that Chris, Pat, and Ian could still play in the traditional style with authenticity and feeling.
By 1967, the band's sound and repertoire are best described as eclectic, as witnessed by the varied selection of tunes recorded in concert for the Live In Hamburg 67 album. It was in the last year of the 64-68 period, too, that seven of the tracks on the ground-breaking Battersea Rain Dance LP were recorded. Ian was still there for these tracks, but he left in June 1968, to be replaced by John Crocker, with whom the band completed Battersea Rain Dance and went on to record the pioneering and sometimes puzzling Drat The Fratle Rat album and the two-LP set, Get Rolling. But that's the next chapter in the story....
The interpretations and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Ed Jackson, and are not necessarily endorsed by Chris Barber or the other past and present members of the band mentioned above.