What if the ‘Godfather of British Blues’ was actually a woman?

The ‘godfather’ is a familiar honourific in popular music. Tap in ‘the godfather of soul’ into google, and we can be pretty sure whose picture is going to appear – James Brown. ‘Godfather of funk?’ That’s George Clinton. ‘Godfather of house?’ – Frankie Knuckles. In some genres, the jury seems to be out on this question; the title ‘godfather of punk’ has been variously attributed to Joey Ramone, Pete Townshend, and Iggy Pop.

Who holds this title is always a matter of consensus or debate, but it’s clear in every case what qualities these musicians have in order for the title of ‘godfather’ to be conferred upon them. They’ve been around since the start of the genre, and put in years – if not decades – of hard graft. James Brown is a case in point: he’s also known as the ‘hardest working man in show business.’ As a result, his influence extends beyond those he worked directly with, informing the activities of generations of subsequent performers and listeners.

In this post, I want to explore some further implications of the ‘godfather’ title, particularly with regard to the way it makes us think about the history of musical genres. First, the ‘godfather’ title is often used to identify the musician as one of the first people to play in that style. Calling James Brown the ‘King of Soul’ makes him sound like ‘the best’ or ‘most successful’ soul musician amongst many others. Yet calling him the ‘godfather‘ means that he was there at the beginning, setting the standard for others to follow.

This use of the ‘godfather’ title is particularly common when talking about British Blues. The holder of the title ‘Godfather of British Blues’, judging by a search through google pages and twitter hashtags, seems to be John Mayall, but both Eric Clapton and Alexis Korner get a look in too. This seems well deserved; each was a highly influential figure on the British popular music scene of the 1960s, not only turning generations of young British listeners onto the sounds of American blues, but also acting as mentors for countless other British pop and rock musicians.

Too often in the case of British Blues, however, we think that these ‘godfather’ musicians were the first people to start listening to and performing the blues in Britain. This simply isn’t true. Many British jazz musicians of the 1940s and 50s were interested in the blues, such as Chris Barber, George Melly, Sandy Brown, George Shearing, Tony Short, Vic Lewis, Cyril Blake, Humphrey Lyttelton, Harry Parry and many others. Indeed, Alexis Korner, who is best known for his performing activities in the 60s, was actually a founding member of the ‘Blues and Skiffle Club’ at the Round House pub on London’s Wardour Street in 1955. Earlier than that, too, Chris Barber recalls playing blues numbers in a trio with Korner and Trinidadian bassist Brylo Ford in 1949.

In fact, the further you dig into the jazz scene of 1940s and 50s Britain, the more blues you find. Blues performance was often marked out as a specific segment of a jazz concert; a smaller collection of musicians from the main band would accompany a singer. This programme from a 1951 concert in Leicester is indicative. New Orleans-style jazz repertoire is interspersed with more bluesy numbers, performed by smaller groups. Both Cy Laurie and Mick Mulligan’s groups feature a guest singer for blues numbers. George Melly is even advertised as ‘Britain’s Great Blues Singer.’IMAG3221

As far as I can see, the ‘blues singer’ label is not uncommon at this time. Adverts in Jazz Music magazine in 1955, for example, invited readers to Bath’s ‘Club Dixie’ to hear Joe Brickell’s Jazzmen ‘every Tuesday night,’ featuring the well-known clarinettist Terry Lightfoot, and the ‘blues singer’ Pam Coster. Later that year in the same magazine, an advert alerted readers to Manchester’s Rainy City Jazzband performing at the Wheatsheaf Hotel. Again, it made sure to highlight the appearance of ‘Blues singer-guitarist Chris Holroyd.’ Indeed, it seems that many jazz bands contained one or more musicians capable of singing the blues as a matter of principle.

So why are we not more familiar with any of these earlier British blues performers? Why does one of them not hold the title of ‘godfather of British blues?’ The answer has to do with a shift in the relationship between blues and jazz in the 1960s. As blues-influenced pop music became more popular both in the UK and the USA, its performers and audiences came to relate less to the jazz scene through which earlier listeners had first encountered the blues. It’s partly a matter of generation: to audiences growing up in the 1960s, ‘traditional jazz’ was often what your parents listened to. Consequently, younger British blues fans legitimised their own tastes by distinguishing them from their parents’ – even if in many cases both older and younger generations shared an awareness of the blues’s cultural value. This transition is revealed in the liner notes to the 1962 LP R&B from the Marquee by Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Although the Marquee Club was swiftly becoming the go-to venue to hear British blues, the liner notes describe Korner’s band as ‘One of the most exciting innovations on the British jazz scene.’ Furthermore, the liner notes also make it clear that the Marquee Club is owned and managed by the National Jazz Federation.

Since the early 1960s, British ‘traditional’ jazz has come to be seen as the hackneyed cousin of the more authentic, hard-hitting British blues scene, even though ‘traditional jazz’ provided British audiences with their first taste of the blues over a decade earlier. The musicians we know today as ‘godfathers’ of British blues (Clapton, Mayall, members of the Rolling Stones, etc.) had yet to pick up their first instruments – let alone be old enough to go to a jazz club – when the likes of George Melly were performing as ‘British blues singers.’ While their influence on popular music is unarguable, this does not mean they were the first British blues musicians.

So who, from the earlier crop of British jazz musicians, might be awarded the accolade of being the ‘godfather of British blues?’ Several critics have identified trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber for this prize, and of course there is Alexis Korner, who was active both before, during and after the 1960s. Yet our appreciation of Barber and Korner has so far been quite selective. They are appreciated solely for having ‘set the stage’ for the 1960s: Barber for inviting American blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee to perform with him in the 1950s, and Korner for his late-1950s activities, mentoring teen-aged musicians of the later ‘British blues boom’.

Recognising a 1950s musician purely for their influence on the 1960s does not tell us what their contemporary listeners thought of them. Many attendees at Chris Barber’s concerts with Muddy Waters in 1958, for example, came to hear Barber’s band just as much as they came to hear Waters. As blues scholar Roberta Schwartz has pointed out, the success of Waters’s 1958 tour – playing in large theatres all across England – was due in no small part to the fact that Barber’s band was the only jazz band capable of attracting such a large, nationwide audience.

Perhaps calling Chris Barber the ‘godfather of British blues’ is appropriate, as long as we qualify that this is just as much because his own band played the blues (from as early as 1949) as it is about the African American musicians he toured with in the late 1950s. Yet, even here, I’m not sure we’ve got it quite right. The reason here is to do with a further implication of the ‘godfather’ title, one that is perhaps more damaging than the first.

Not only does ‘godfather’ title imply that its holder was one of the first musicians of influence, it also provides a model for successive musicians. In the case of British blues, all the candidates for ‘godfather’ are male. In my research, however, I’ve found that there seem to be just as many – if not more – female British blues musicians before the 1960s as there are male. Fans who know their early British blues might have heard of Alexis Korner, George Melly, or even Cyril Davies, but very few are aware of Ottilie Patterson, Beryl Bryden, Neva Raphaello, Doreen Villiers, Rita Marlowe, Pauline Hinchcliffe, Pam Coster, or Joan Roberts.

This imbalance between reality (who was performing) and history (who we judge to have been the most important performers) is again to do with the blues’s changing meanings in the 1960s. In the process of reducing the genre’s connection to the British jazz scene, 1960s audiences also began to prefer the sounds of male guitarists, in particular those we now call ‘delta blues’ musicians. Bluesmen such as Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Son House came to be regarded as the most authentic and most influential African American musicians, meaning that British fans began to model their playing after them. Because we now hear these 1930s and 40s male guitar players as the most influential, it’s tempting to create a lineage of important blues musicians in later decades consisting of more male guitar players.

In contrast, British blues performers and listeners before the 1960s heard female blues vocalists such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox from the 1920s and 30s as the best examples of the genre. This is due to the fact that many important jazz musicians, (e.g. Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson) had accompanied these singers on record. Moreover, contemporary jazz critics such as Max Jones and Iain Lang recommended recordings by Smith, Rainey and Cox alongside those of New Orleans-style jazz in their reviews.

In view of 1940s and 50s listeners’ preferences for female blues singers, perhaps the candidate for ‘godfather of British blues’ should be female. One name that springs to mind is that of Ottilie Patterson, vocalist with Chris Barber’s band from 1955 until the mid-60s, when health problems forced her to retire from performance. Patterson was born in Comber, Northern Ireland in 1932, and began performing with Barber’s band after sitting in with them during a gig in London during the summer of 1954. By the new year, she was with the band full-time, with her renditions of ‘classic’ blues repertoire such as ‘Careless Love,’ ‘Reckless Blues’ and ‘St. Louis Blues’ attracting rave reviews. Critic Gerald Lascelles reported that ‘more than any other British singer has she got to the heart of the blues idiom,’ while another reviewer declared her to be ‘the nearest thing to a real blues singer to emerge this side of the Atlantic.’

It is also arguable that the Barber band’s success was down to Patterson’s presence. Barber identifies the period 1955-61 as the height of the band’s popularity, selling out venues such as the 3,000 seat Newcastle City Hall five times in one year, and attributes this to Patterson’s own popularity with audiences. He recalls in is autobiography ‘we were not like…other jazz musicians. Once Ottilie was singing with us full time from January 1955, we became very different from other traditional bands because we started to play the blues regularly.’ In turn, when Patterson’s health problems caused her withdrawal from the band in the early 60s, Barber recalls that ‘promoters…would ask “will Ottilie be there?”…It wasn’t so much a question of whether the band was good, or not so good, it was just that promoters did not want us without Ottilie Patterson.’

I think the best way to tie up this post is to leave you with some examples of Patterson’s work. Her 1956 EP Blues (Decca DFE 6303) is widely available second-hand on ebay (perhaps another measure of its contemporary popularity!), and many tracks featuring her can be heard on YouTube – for example, here, and here. My own favourite example of Patterson’s work is a video of a live performance in 1955 at the Wood Green Jazz Club, at the Fishmonger’s Arms in North London. You can watch that on Vimeo here.ottilie-patterson-weeping-willow-blues-decca

Now, you might not think this sounds like ‘real’ blues. But, then again, who gets to decide what types of blues are more ‘real’ than others?

Finally, we should be cautious of the implications of titles such as ‘godfather’ in popular music history. While I don’t want to suggest that any of the musicians it is currently conferred upon are undeserving of praise, I think we also need to recognise that the ‘godfather’ title often obscures the importance of the musicians that came before, and the presence of those who do not fit the image of the title holder. Each generation has its own godfathers – and godmothers too.

Further Reading

Barber, Chris, with Alyn Shipton, Jazz Me Blues: The Autobiography of Chris Barber (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2014).

Brunning, Bob, Blues: The British Connection (Poole: Blandford Press, 1986).

Schwartz, Roberta Freund, How Britain Got The Blues (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2007).

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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4 thoughts on “What if the ‘Godfather of British Blues’ was actually a woman?

  1. Thank you Lawrence and Hamilton for illuminating an important and neglected area. I am currently working on an article about Northern Irish music in the period (50s into 60s). Ottilie is clearly extremely important on so many levels, especially with regards to myths of authorship, ownership and authenticity. At the moment, trying to figure out when she started writing and performing her own songs and how much of her oeuvre with and without Chris Barber was self-penned. Just trying to track down a good resource for this?

    Good luck with your work

    • Dear Noel,
      Thanks very much for your comment. I’ve just sent you an email with some resources. I think Patterson’s first efforts at songwriting being to emerge in the late 1950s, particularly after she and Chris Barber visited the US on tour in 1959. The 1961 LP Chris Barber’s Blues Book Vol. 1 is the first release that has some of her own songs on it. Patterson also wrote quite a lot of poetry, too, and a some songs that make reference to Northern Ireland rather than the blues tradition. Hope that’s helpful! L

  2. Excellent! Yes – rock prefers to write its own mythology and to forget or ignore anything that doesn’t conveniently fit in with what it has already made up for itself. The idea that somebody like Otillie Patterson might be a key figure would be anathema to many rock historians (“Aaargh! She sang with a jazz band! She’s from Ulster!! She’s a woman!!!”). They know all about Sonny Boy Williamson’s recordings with the Yardbirds and the Animals, but would rather not think about SBW’s recordings with the Barber band (although ‘C-Jam Blues’ has to be one of the one of the most interesting things SBW did in this period – a real revelation), or the Ottilie Patterson 45 he played on.

    • Hi Hamilton,

      Thanks for your comment – as it happens, I had absolutely no idea about that Ottilie Patterson 45 with Sonny Boy Williamson. I’m mainly studying British blues in the 40s and 50s, so this one wasn’t on my radar. Thanks for posting it!
      Lawrence

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