I’ve just heard that Ottilie Patterson, singer with the Chris Barber Band in the 1950s and ’60s, died on 20 June aged 79. She had been living in obscurity in Ayre, South West Scotland for many years. In my humble opinion, she was the finest and most sincere blues singer that Britain ever produced (she was born in Comber, County Down, N Ireland).
The writer and trombonist Mike Pointon interviewed her at length in 2008 for Just Jazz magazine; this fascinating document deserves to be republished somewhere. Here’s a couple of extracts.
On first experiencing jazz and blues:
“Well, this guy lent me those records with Bessie [Smith], St. Louis Blues and Reckless Blues, and I came home from college with these, and my mother is making the dinner and I was up in the living room, and the only gramophone record player I had was the one that my brother John had got in the Air Force. He had swapped something for this player, a real old clapped out thing, but he got it for two shillings and something else, and if he ever had a 12 inch platter on, you had to rewind it before it got to the end. That was the only thing in the way of a music player we had, and it was just a little portable-type thing. We had a small wooden stool that my father or grandfather or somebody had made, like a little country stool, and we used to set it on that.
“So I came in from college, wound up the thing and put Bessie on, singing St. Louis, and I thought, gosh, that’s amazing. It’s kind of funny, when she sings, she sort of flattens all the notes out, so you didn’t get so much of a tune, you got a kind of wail, and then I turned it over and put on Reckless, and from that day to this I wouldn’t hardly play that record because it’s too precious, ’cause you’ll never capture that feeling you got when you first heard the thing, and I never wanted to tarnish it. And even once I started to sing it, I thought, I’m not going to sing this too much, it’ll spoil it, it was ethereal, and that record hit me hard and I was hooked forever. Then I remember my mother saying, ‘Hurry up, your dinner’s ready.’ I was in another world – then add Mezz Mezzrow ['s book Really The Blues] to that. Oh boy!”
On touring with Big Bill Broonzy:
“It was such a short space of time, you wonder how you got so close to somebody, but then you’re travelling in the car together all day. Bill asked me out for a Chinese meal at The Great Wall, and I was so pleased. We were walking along Oxford Street and he could have broken my heart. He had a sort of flat-footed gait, and he said, ‘You’re not ashamed to be seen with me?’ I said, ‘I’m proud,’ and my heart nearly broke. We went to the Chinese restaurant and Bill was talking about the Blues, and he said, ‘The Blues isn’t just anything,’ and he took up his beer glass, which was empty by this time. Then he said, ‘Depends on how you look at life. I could take this glass and save a man’s life, bring him water and save his life. Or I could take this glass and fill it with strong liquor and he could be very drunk. Or I could take this glass and break it, and I could kill him.’ That was part of his little sermon about what the Blues are like, and he told me never to give up. That said more than white critics did.”
The record that changed Ottilie’s life: Reckless Blues by Bessie Smith.