BARBER AND BILK – GREAT BRITISH JAZZ MEN.
David A Ellis writes~ In 2004 I interviewed two legendary British jazzmen, Chris Barber OBE and Acker Bilk MBE. They often played with another great, the late Kenny Ball, calling themselves The Three Bs. Barber plays trombone with his big band, Bilk played the clarinet with the Paramount Jazz Band and Ball the trumpet with his Jazz Men. Bilk and Barber performed separately on many occasions in Chester at the Royalty Theatre and Quaintways. Quaintways was the brainchild of Mill hotel owner Gordon Vickers.
Donald Christopher Barber was born on 17 April 1930. At school he learned to play the violin. He said his father was a good player but he was only sort of interested in the instrument. After leaving school he went to work in insurance. He says it was as a boy during WW2 that his interest in jazz began. He would tune into the BBC Light programme where a number of jazz records were played.
In 1952 he formed an amateur band with clarinet player Monty Sunshine, banjo player Lonnie (Tony) Donnegan, Ron Bowden drums, Jim Bray, bass and Barber on trombone. They became The Barber Sunshine Five. In March 1953 they turned professional and were joined by trumpet player Ken Colyer. The band then changed the name to Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. “When I started there weren’t any professional jazz bands in England. The audience was then a minority. The amateurs get together and play the tunes they love and it doesn’t matter to them if they don’t get it exactly right. I wanted to play it right like the guys on the records. The only way to play it right is to play it everyday and don’t do anything else,” said Barber.
Colyer left the band in 1954 and was replaced by trumpet player the late Pat Halcox. Halcox remained with Barber until his retirement in 2008. In 1954 the band’s name was changed to The Chris Barber Band. In July 1954 they recorded an LP on Decca records called New Orleans Joys. One of the tracks was Lonnie Donnegan singing Rock Island Line with Barber playing bass. Barber says that the album wasn’t released until December 1954. In 1955 Rock Island Line was released as a single. Barber adds that Decca took a long time in getting his music out so the band switched to PYE records.
In March 1956 Donnegan left the band and went on to have a successful career in the skiffle genre. Donnegan died in November 2002 having suffered from heart problems. Barber said that Donnegan wanted to die while playing, but it didn’t happen. He added: “Lonnie could have carried on playing but not gone on tour. He couldn’t restrain himself. When he played he let fly, he had had heart bypasses but wouldn’t take it easy.”
In 1959 the band released Petite Fleur on PYE records, which Barber didn’t play on. Monty Sunshine, who passed away in 2010 played clarinet on it. Barber says he has played bass on more recordings than the trombone. The band went on to record for Columbia records and in recent years have made recordings for the Dutch jazz label Timeless. Asked about retirement he said he regards the job as a hobby and you can’t retire from your hobby.
Barber received the OBE in 1991 for services to music. He said he was put forward by former Prime Minister John Major. The band is now known as The Big Chris Barber Band.
Acker Bilk MBE was born Bernard Stanley Bilk on 28 January 1929 and was brought up in Pensford. Like Chris Barber, jazz records influenced him as a boy during WW2. He was given the name Acker, which means friend or mate in his part of the world and decided to use it professionally.
Bilk was musical from an early age and started to learn the piano when he was around six. He said he had to stay in and practice scales on a Saturday morning when all his mates were out having fun. Bilk obtained a clarinet while he was doing his national service in Egypt. “The instrument always fascinated me,” he said.
The Paramount club in Bristol was responsible for Bilk’s band being called The Paramount Jazz Band formed in 1956. He said: “We used to play in the Paramount so we thought we would call ourselves after it. I don’t know how it got that name.”
The band has played in Germany a lot. Bilk with his bowler hat, waistcoat and goatee beard trademark, said that they go down very well over there. They played there in the early days before becoming recording stars. He says: “We played eight hours a night with two twenty minute intervals. We came out of Germany a good band. In those days we were paid around twelve pounds a gig.”
In 1960 they had a record at number five in the charts called Summer Set, a pun on Somerset where he came from.
The band was approached by Denis Preston a record producer. Their first long play (LP) record was released on the PYE label called Acker Bilk Requests.
Later, he recorded for the EMI label Columbia records. It was at Holland Park’s famous Lansdowne studios that he cut probably his most famous tune, Stranger on the Shore, released in 1962, which remained in the British charts for fifty-five weeks. It was also a number one in the States. He said it is his old age pension. The tune was written by Bilk and was originally called Jenny after his daughter. The title was changed to Stranger on the Shore after a TV programme with the same name. Bilk said his arranger Leon Young told him it wasn’t quite tied up, needing a middle eight. Bilk finished composing the tune on the back of a Star cigarette packet when in a taxi.
Asked if he wrote music he said: “No, I don’t write down music I play and record the composition in the studio, then I get an arranger.”
In 1962 he appeared in the film It’s Trad Dad, followed by Band of Thieves (1963) and Holiday in St Tropez (1964).
Bilk has written a great number of tunes and has written material for Van Morrison. He wrote the theme tune to the film Bitter Harvest (1963)
In 2001 he was awarded the MBE for services to music. He jokingly referred to it as Member of the Bristol Empire. Bilk liked paintings and for an hour or so before being given his MBE he says he was in a room full of wonderful paintings. To unwind after a hectic tour he liked to paint in oils. Asked if he sold any he said he’s not for selling.
Sadly Acker Bilk passed away on November 2nd 2014, but his music lives on.
DAVID A ELLIS chestercinemas.co.uk