|Where to start? When I discovered the new and wonderfully improved ChrisBarber.net web site and contacted webmaster Ed Jackson I did not expect that he would recognize my name. To my surprise he told me that "of course" he recognized my name because it was on every one of the earliest Chris Barber Fan Club booklets that he was in the process of uploading to the web site. In the days of those early booklets, which we grandly called magazines at the time, I was working as secretary to the band. So Ed's next sentence involved a request that I write a "reminiscence" of those days. Naturally I agreed, only to realize that I had written about those days as we produced each fan club magazine – largely because getting the guys in the band to write anything was a lot more difficult than pulling teeth! As a result, with much already written, it seemed difficult to decide what to write. Of course the passing of time, and the fading of memory don't make reminiscing any easier. (Incidentally, the design of the cover page was done by Monty, and I remember how crazy we went trying to figure out new color combinations for the front cover when the set-up was such that we could only use one color plus black.)
So, using a fairly stream of consciousness approach, what do I remember…?
My first encounter with the band, and with trad jazz (now more often called Dixieland in the US) came when I was working as a brand new secretary at London School of Economics, and a co-worker dragged me to the jazz club at 100 Oxford Street. From then on I could not be persuaded to be anywhere else on Mondays, when Chris played there. Sometimes I'd be "jiving" in front of the band, where each couple fought for sufficient space to move, so that elbows became weapons of both offense and defense. More often I could be found standing behind the band, where the true and adoring fans stood.
Those were heady times. Rock 'n roll had not yet taken hold of England's heart, and trad jazz was probably the most popular form of music around. Even semi-amateur bands could find gigs in Germany, where fans seemed to have an even greater hunger for the genre than in the UK. The band was hugely popular. At that time Lonnie Donegan's Rock Island Line was flying up the charts, which would very shortly lead to his "going solo" and leaving the band.
It is perhaps surprising that I have no recollection of how I got the job of secretary to the band and editor of the "magazines." I had firmly decided that I was going to work in the world of jazz, and as a result had left LSE and started working as a "temp" so that I could be available to go to whatever job arrived. No doubt I had let folks know that I was looking for a job, but who I talked with I don't know. I remember that once I started bassist Jim Bray, who knew me by sight at the club, remarked "We didn't know you were coming to work for us." So how the decision was made I have no recollection.
The truth is that the band was on the road a great deal, and their bookings and travel arrangements were usually made by their agent, so that they did not have a need for a full time secretary. As a result, I worked partly for them, and partly for the National Jazz Federation. However, since the NJF was not guaranteed to make a profit, the folks who ran that also ran a printing business that could pay the bills. Thus I found myself dealing with fan mail, editing the magazines, and also acting as telephone operator and receptionist for all of the above organizations. Usually it was fun. Frequently it was crazy. Always it was exciting. We never knew who would walk into the office next.
In those days the band had only one van – there were, after all, just six guys in the band, plus Ottilie Patterson as the singer. Sometimes there was a band manager, sometimes they managed themselves – so to speak. There was no sound man that I can recall. Everything was much more informal than are most major bands today.
Musicians do tend to come and go. During the time I was involved with the band I remember that at different times the line-up included Chris (of course), Monty Sunshine, Pat Halcox, Ron Bowden, Graham Burbidge, Jim Bray, Micky Ashman, Dicky Bishop, and Eddie Smith. Johnny Duncan joined the band for the "skiffle" aspect shortly after Lonnie left, having walked into the club one evening wearing a burgundy corduroy jacket exactly like the one Lonnie wore, and carrying a guitar case similar to Lonnie's, so that some fans thought that Lonnie had returned and wondered why he was not playing with the band. When they were playing in the London suburbs I would sometimes ride out to the shows in the van, but I did not travel with them, and for the most part continued to hear them only at 100 Oxford Street.
There was a huge amount of interaction between the various trad jazz bands at the time. Humphrey Lyttleton's band was, I think, the only band as "big" as the Chris Barber Band, but Ken Colyer was up there, too. As someone who, by virtue of my job, "belonged" in that fraternity I could walk into any of the jazz clubs in London and get by without paying. When I visited the Colyer band they enjoyed making me blush by switching, as they saw me walking in, to "Dinah, is there anyone finer" while directing their instruments in my direction. Truthfully, probably none of the fans there even noticed, but I knew what they were doing and was hugely embarrassed!
The Acker Bilk band was based in Somerset but sometimes came up to London to play. They had a reputation for being involved in wild parties, and the jazz world started buzzing whenever they arrived. Either I was extremely naïve or there were very few drugs around the trad jazz scene at that time. We used to joke that drugs were for the modern jazz crowd, and the trad jazz crowd were drinkers – although the guys in Chris's band were less known for that – or, again, perhaps they were just very discreet. In many ways I was astonishingly naïve in those days. The only people I knew who ever referred to drugs were a couple of people whose job is was to drive vans for other bands, who claimed it was necessary to keep themselves awake since, when the bands were on tour, they would often drive to the next gig immediately after finishing a concert.
Being the secretary to one of the most popular bands in the country was an interesting experience. I was eighteen when I started working for Chris. You can imagine, of course, the reaction of my family, in a fairly rural area of Berkshire. Musicians! Horrors! Was their daughter doomed to a life of depravity? In actual fact the guys in the band were quite protective of me, treating me somewhat as a younger sister. The down side was that I could not always tell whether some young men who appeared to be interested in me were actually more interested in being able to brag to their friends that they dating "Chris Barber's secretary." I was acutely aware of this, to the point that in at least one case there was a flip side. At that time the Suez Crisis was going on, and one of our fans, a very attractive Navy man, was posted thither. He kept writing letters that appeared to be fan mail for the band, and I reluctantly treated it as such, believing against my own wishes that his interest was strictly in jazz. Alas, by the time he returned to declare his interest to me in person I was already involved elsewhere!
And that, sadly, is one of the major reasons why I eventually left the band. The young man I was at that time "seeing" happened to be in the office when some of the band members came in one day. As soon as he had left Monty turned to me with a horrified look on his face and asked, in a condemnatory tone, "And who was that?" As it eventually turned out, he was right in believing that this was not the right person for me, but try telling that to any nineteen year old in love!
Shortly thereafter that I called a friend, who was the girlfriend of one of the band members. She was working at a shipping company, and was at lunch. I spoke briefly to her boss and left a message. When she called me she said, "He says you have a very good telephone manner and he's looking for another secretary and will you come and talk with him." Bolt from the blue, with the offer of quite a bit more money and luncheon vouchers (very important back in those days). I was at that time becoming more and more involved in bicycle racing, with an urgent need to buy more and more equipment, including a track bike. The lure of the money, and the sting of Monty's disapproval of my (then) beloved, led me to leave the band. I've often regretted it, and wondered what life would have been like had I stayed. But I will never know!
Diana Robinson is now living in the U.S.A. Her e-mail address is Diana@choicecoach.com.