It all started back in those early Skiffle and Rock & Roll days in the 1950s in my 17th year. Teenage music was moving into a new era that was to change popular music forever. To me, although the music was easy on the ear and all my friends were taken with it, it didn't quite do it for me. I guess it was thanks to Chris Barber that I discovered jazz. I'd heard mixed stories of this "jazz music":"A real mish-mash of sounds"; "A total jumble, everyone seems to be playing whatever they want -- a free for all"; "Just a bloody noise". However, one statement that did intrigue me was "Jazz is an art form".
My first introduction, to this "art form" was through a friend. "Listen to this record called Whistling Rufus by a band called the Chris Barber Jazz Band", he said, putting on the 10-inch vinyl record. Although this wasn't my first experience of this type of music, it stuck with me and I wanted to hear more of it. Then I learned that much of this new popular music derived from jazz. Bill Haley's Comets were jazz session men and of course our own Lonnie Donegan came from Chris Barber's band, so there was an eagerness to learn more of this "art form".
Whilst looking through the Melody Maker one day, I came across an advert for the Barber band at the Royal Festival Hall. "I'll have some of that," I thought, and my pal and I booked a couple of the best tickets through the then Keith Prowse ticket agency, not realising at that time that the concert would be recorded and become an important part in the Chris Barber story.
We're obviously talking of an event that took place nearly fifty years ago, so dear reader, I apologise for the cloudiness of the event that took place that eventful night. Gone were the familiar names on earlier records of Lonnie Donegan and Jim Bray. "Who are these other guys -- Eddie Smith, could he replace Lonnie? Dick Smith, could he replace Jim Bray?" Well, they did and in my opinion proved to be very able replacements.
Arriving at the Festival Hall, on a cold chilly December evening, for the first time was an experience on its own, such a great venue for concerts, the acoustics far outstripped the Albert Hall. Seeing the band in the flesh was an amazing experience for an impressionable teenager. "These guys can really play," I remember saying to my pal at the time. This was a musical experience that started and developed my interest in jazz. Although the recording is now legendary, some of numbers played that evening still bring back memories of that eventful evening.
After the initial applause a packed hall was silent as the band struck up its first number. Kicking off with Bourbon Street Parade, with me suddenly realising that this was the band's signature tune (!), the appearance of Johnny Duncan adding a skiffle session, Ottilie Patterson playing the piano, then toe-tapping numbers: Willie the Weeper and Panama; hearing these two latter numbers today still brings a "tingle" to my music buds! Seeing Pat Halcox, Monty Sunshine and of course the man himself, Chris Barber, live and performing was a great thrill. (There were of course to be further concerts but this was my first!).
I can remember afterwards, making our way home from the South Bank from the Festival Hall crossing the Thames towards Waterloo Station and feeling exhilarated by the whole experience. There was to be further elation: eventually finding out the LP had been released then buying it from a record shop in the West End of London. That record is still in my possession to this day – a bit scratchy maybe but the rest is history now. This wasn't the end, only the beginning of my love affair with jazz, which has since progressed to other reaches of music and this "art form".
Fifty years later ...
Almost fifty years later, Chris Robins is still a Chris Barber fan. Here are two photographs of Pat Halcox, Chris Barber, Chris Robins, and David Pawsey taken by Don Bentley at a concert during the Big Chris Barber Band's Christmas Tour, 2005.