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Music Review: Chris Barber Presents The Blues Legacy Lost & Found

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Chris Barber Presents The Blues Legacy Lost & Found is a three-CD set of blues masterpieces recorded in the late 1950s, the early 1960s, with the Jimmy Witherspoon portion from 1980. The story of how these CDs came into being is every bit as interesting as the music.

Chris Barber is relatively unknown to most Americans unless you happen to be an aficionado of traditional jazz, also called New Orleans or Dixieland style jazz. His reputation in the rest of the world and mainly Europe is one of a true bastion of blues and jazz music.

Chris Barber began his professional musical journey in 1949 when, at age 19 and having been strongly influenced by the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, he formed his first Barber New Orleans Band. In 1953 he formed, with Monty Sunshine and Lonnie Donegan (of later skiffle fame), Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. He’s played in all parts of the world since, and although the musicians in the group may have changed over the years, his renown has done nothing but expand and improve. This is exemplified by his band picking up three additional musicians in 2001, and by his surpassing 10,000 performances worldwide during his career.

Barber was instrumental in introducing many American blues musicians to Europe, with those included in this set among them. This music originally came to Europe in volume first with the American soldiers and airmen stationed in England during World War II, and second, with the sailors and crews on American ships. It didn’t take long for the music to gain a strong following.

Barber’s role in this cannot be overstated: He was one of the first, if not the first, to introduce American jazz and blues to England and Europe with live music. Period. From there, the influence of American music led musicians such as Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Eric Clapton, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, The Who, Aerosmith and the Beatles to base their music on it. All the musicians on these three CDs were brought to England for the first time by Barber.

Following this European craze, the blues was re-introduced to the United States by these very same English musicians, which resulted in the inclusion of blues in the Newport Folk Festivals beginning in 1964, and the subsequent Blues Revival in the US. (If this period of English and American Blues history interests you, watch for my upcoming review of It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues, later this month.)

“Lost and Found” is not simply a tired, overused cliché for these tapes; it’s an appropriate title for these recordings since the original tapes of these performances were, in fact, truly lost for thirty years. Barber was preparing to restore one of his old American cars that had been in storage for years. When he opened the trunk he found the treasure: the original quarter-inch magnetic tapes that had been “lost” for all these years.

These recordings are also unique in that these sessions are probably the only time that many of these musicians ever recorded with a traditional jazz band. Think about it: When have you ever heard a horn intro to Muddy Waters singing “Hoochie Coochie Man?” Or when have you ever heard Sonny Boy Williamson’s harmonica weaving in and out of a Dixieland backup? Even moreso, when have you ever heard Chester Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf to most of you, sing “May I Have A Talk With You?” If you have, it would have been on a recording before this one, since the performance of this particular song is the very last one he ever recorded.

(There is another recording from this same tour that was released late last year, but it predates this one by a few days. It’s on a Howlin’ Wolf CD titled Live in Europe 1964. There is also a video of parts of this tour in which Howlin’ Wolf was taped singing this song. It’s on one of the three volumes of The American Folk Blues Festival video series.)

Barber was responsible (back in the 50s and early 60s) for bringing all of these artists to the UK for the first time. These are the original recordings of those groundbreaking shows, when the British public heard and saw these artists for the first time. Barber is undoubtedly the capo de tutti capi of the British Blues. He was also the founder of the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival, which became the famed Reading Festival, the founder of the Marquee Club in London, and was an instigator of the entire rock scene which came to life in the 60s in England. Barber and his business partner Harold Pendleton were the progenitors or two of the staunchest supporters and champions in the rise and subsequent stardom of many of those mentioned earlier, including Korner, Mayall, Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, Hendrix, the Stones and the Who, as well as many others who came up during this time.

As far as furthering the rebirth of blues, everybody’s at least heard of Muddy Waters, even if you’re not a fan. But some nuggets regarding some of the lesser known names on these CDs may surprise you. Few people realize that one of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s biggest fans was Jimi Hendrix, or that Bob Dylan is also among them. And to add even more accolades, Barber, in bringing people such as Muddy Waters to Europe reinforced and in many cases reawakened the interest in the US in his music. I think by now you’re getting the picture of the role Barber played in modern music.

What struck me was the enthusiasm shown by the British audiences. They clearly appreciated these American musicians far more than Americans ever did while they were alive. It’s our music, fer chrissake!

Musicians on these CDs include Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann (a very underrated Chicago blues pianist who died far too young), Champion Jack Dupree, Louis Jordan (another underrated Jump Bluesman), Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Howlin’ Wolf, and the inimitable Hubert Sumlin (who’s still playing and who recently won a Grammy!).

Meanwhile, Barber’s band is backing or playing along with many of these, along with a truly amazing blues singer that even I had not heard of: Ottilie Patterson, a woman born in Ireland with a set of industrial-strength pipes that could also charm the paint off of the Mona Lisa. She sings in several places throughout the performances, but the high point is the performance when she and Sister Rosetta take the stage together.

You can catch a trailer of some of the music on these CDs on Youtube.  And you can also learn more about Chris Barber at his site.

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