Ottilie Patterson RIP

July 2, 2011 at 8:48 am (black culture, good people, jazz, Jim D, The blues)

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.

42 Comments

  1. Keith Tanner said,

    I feel exactly the same about Ottilie. She was the first and best Blues singer I ever heard and I was hooked from the start. I have just about every recording she ever made including a couple of her playing piano. Twice in the mid 1950’s I “met” the band, to be more precise on both occasions once in Blackburn and once in Preston a Transit van drew up alongside, the back doors opened and there was the entire band with Ottilie and also on the first occasion with Donegan- they wanted directions to the venue! I was at both of the concerts.
    Her performances were simply electric.
    I never knew what had happened to her after the 1983 recordings.
    How sad that she was apparently reclusive.

  2. Matt said,

    In the late 50’s, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson visited Chicago where Muddy Waters put them up, took them around the clubs etc. The stories of that trip and some great photos are in Robert Gordon’s definitive biography of Muddy, Can’t Be Satisfied.

  3. Jim Denham said,

    By a sad co-incidence, another ex-Barber almunus, clarinettist Ian Wheeler
    http://www.chrisbarber.net/former/former-wheeler.htm
    also died recently.

  4. Jim Denham said,

  5. Keith Tanner said,

    I have never attended any funeral of “celebrity” but I would have made an exception in Ottilie’s case. I know that she was buried in the “family grave in Comber” but I wonder does anyone know which churchyard?

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Stu Morrison writes in the present (September 2011) edition of ‘Just Jazz’ magazine:
    ************************************************************************************

    I was surprised, at a time when so many of my friends are leaving us, at the amount of sadness I felt when I learned of the death of Ottilie Patterson. Her contribution to music was set out splendidly by Michael Pointon in the August issue and I am not going to duplicate his work.

    One of the first things I did on hearing was to phone Chris Barber who, as we know, had been married to Ottilie for some twenty years. Chris’s usual upbeat, machine gun delivery was absent and we were, for several minutes, two sad elderly men sharing our thoughts and memories.

    I had heard Ottilie many times on stage before I joined Chris but no seat in any audience prepared me for the real thing. Ottilie was in full come-back mode, when I met her at a rehearsal somewhere in North London. I forget exactly where but it doesn’t matter. We were setting up and Chris had gone home to collect Ottilie. When she arrived she was in a really good humour and any nervousness I had was was quickly dispelled.

    You must remember that I was the New Boy and had only been in the band a matter of days. I knew much of the repertoire from record; no-one then used chord books or had computers. It was a matter of play the record, learn a few bars, play the record…not like now.

    The song was a blues, maybe *Mean Mistreater* or *Weeping Willow*, it doesn’t matter.We played the intro and this small pale woman threw back her head and this *stonking great voice* came out! I’ve recounted this story elsewhere and in the same manner, so I hope you will forgive the repetition, but it was a milestone in my jazz life. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I almost forgot to play. Remember too that this was an Ottilie not at her best, plagued with pooir health and worries over many issues. I wish, oh how I wish, I could have backed her in her glory days.

    I think I can safely say that she and I became good friends. I know I made her laugh and I hope the laughter came from happiness, however brief, as laughter is therapeutic they say.

    Despite her problems Ottilie still retained her magic. She could step onto a stage and lift the audience by the scruff of its neck into a howling stamping crowd of the sort more often seen at rock concerts. But it was not just her stagecraft. Ottilie’s singing was in a class of its own. During our reminiscences Chris stated that he considered her work up to the standard of Mavis Staples and I agree with him entirely.

    Many, many European women have tried to grasp or emulate the spirit and style of the Afro American blues and gospel singers. Janis Joplin tried and, some say, succeeded, in doing so, but I am not making comparisons here. All I know is this: I have worked with American blues singers – Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, to name but two – and I think I may be permitted to say that *no-one* else of European extraction came as close to doing it as Ottilie did.

    After Chris’s band and I parted company I kept in touch with Ott. On one memorable occasion the late Ron Weatherburn and I went round to see her and made a significant dent in Chris’s wine cellar. We had a super evening. But now Ottilie has gone and I am saddened by her passing. I still have her records of course. You will find them in the section marked ‘Black female vocalists’.
    -Stu Morrison

  7. keith tanner said,

    Stu’s is a moving tribute to Ottilie. As a mere fan I too get the feeling of the hairs rising on the back of my neck when I play many of Ottilie’s inimitable renderings of her Blues and Gospel numbers.
    I am glad to find that whilst she may have died in relative obscurity so far as the public was concerned, that clearly she retained many loyal friends in her retirement.
    We have lost a true Legend.
    I will now go and play the latest CD of hers that I have just “discovered”.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    Yes, it is moving isn’t it?

    And it’s good to know that Ott’s old friends stayed in touch in those last years of obscurity.

    Happily, Lake records have re-issued most of Ottilie’s work on CD:

    http://www.fellside.com/shop/Details.asp?ProductID=707

    • Erskine Willis said,

      Ottilie Patterson was born in Comber Co Down N. Ireland and a group of friends and fans in Comber are considering marking Ottilie’s life by having a plaque placed on the house where she was born and including perhaps a musical event at the time of the unveiling – maybe in February next
      We do not know how much interest there will be in this in the wider community but we know she was very well liked as a young person and admired as a great singer
      Ottilie was buried near Comber
      If anyone is interested in attending an event to celebrate Ottilie’s life I would be glad to hear from them

      • Keith Tanner said,

        Hi
        I would be very interested in attending any event to celebrate Ottilie’s life. For me she was the finest singer of her genre.
        Please keep me posted
        Many thanks
        Keith Tanner

  9. George Walker said,

    I tried to find Ottilie’s grave in the huge Comber cemetery at Christmas but without success. My wife was born in Comber too so when we go over the water we have occasion to visit the town. We looked first among the new graves but then thought that she might have been interred in the family grave. Further research confirms this to be so. I shall try again on our next visit in April if I can find out more from Stu, whom I know, or even Chris himself, about the precise location of the grave.

    She was one of my first inspirations.

  10. Keith Tanner said,

    George My wife and I are attending the unveiling of the plaque and Musical tribute. If you find the location of her grave before then I should like to visit it. I wonder if it is possible to trace the funeral director for details of the grave’s location?

  11. Jim Denham said,

    George, do you guys know about this ( I presume the tribute Keith is referring to)?

    OTTILIE PATTERSON REMEMBERED (“The Lass from Comber – Famous Jazz and Bluses singer”)

    A CELEBRATION OF HER LIFE IN MUSIC

    La Mon Hotel – Castlereagh, Thursday 23rd February 7.30 pm

    PATSY MELARKEY AND GUESTS – LIVE MUSIC
    Hosted by BBC’s WALTER LOVE and LINLEY HAMILTON

    Tickets £10 (38 concessions)

    Tickets available from Erskine Willis, phone 028 91842048 or mob 0781 7068740 or 07854 279006; email: erskinewillis@btinternet.com

    Post: SAE – 11B the Square, Comber BT23 5DX (cheques payable DE WIlliis)

    * Promoted by friends and fans of Ottillie

  12. George Walker said,

    Dear Keith, Jim, Erskine, Thanks for your information. Mike Pointon tells me that Walter Love will be doing a feature on Ottilie in his Sunday night jazz programme on Radio Ulster. I’ll be listening via computer.

    As to Ottilie’s burial site, I shall ring some undertakers round the Comber area to find out who was in charge of the funeral. If and when I have any luck I’ll post details here. Ann and I will not be over to Belfast until April.

    • Erskine323 said,

      The cemetery where Ottilie was buried is Movilla in Newtownards

  13. George Walker said,

    Thanks, Erskine.

    George

  14. George Walker said,

    Eureka! The third undertaker I rang put me on to Ards Borough Council Offices and the lady there was very helpful. Ottilie was not listed as Patterson but as BARBER, I was amazed to hear. She is buried with her sister Jessie who died in 2002 in Movilla cemetery, Section 29 West, grave 68. The cemetery is within the grounds of the ruined Movilla Abbey in Movilla Road, Newtownards.

  15. keith tanner said,

    George
    We attended the unveiling of the plaque for Ottilie and the Musical Tribute evening. I am in danger of using far too many superlatives here
    but the entire day was simply fantastic. Erskine and his friends whose idea it was to commission the plaque and the Tribute together with Ards Borough Council did Ottlie proud. The moment we arrived outside Ottilie’s birthplace the Mayor of Ards came over and welcomed us personally, as he did to virtually all the 70-100 people present. Ottilie’s carer for 20yrs Lisa Watson assisted him in unveiling the plaque.
    I had not heard of Patsy Melarky prior to the evening tribute concert but both she and the band were outstanding. During some of the numbers if you closed your eyes she WAS Ottilie.

    We arrived in Comber early and so went to find Ottilie’s grave at Movilla Abbey. The graveyard is vast and despite being assisted for well over 1/2hr by one of the groundsmen were unable to trace her grave, The numbering system is chaotic and not in any sequence. (Burials commenced in the 11C and some graves are 11 coffins deep!)
    The fact that there are West and East areas both with similar numbering adds further to the confusion.
    However, after the unveiling of the plaque we were able to speak to Ottilie’s carer and she gave us directions to the grave.

    It is actually easy to find!

    On entering the graveyard by car follow the one way system to the right, beyond the buildings take the roadway which cuts down to the right swings immediately left and takes you into the car park. Leave the car and go through the opening in the wall to the left of the entrance; go left immediately and Ottilie’s grave is about 50yds on the left alongside the wall and opposite to another Patterson grave which you will see facing you.
    The inscription is simple, “Ottilie Anne Patterson” with nothing about her achievements but no doubt that is as she wished it to be. It is a peaceful spot.
    I gather that both events were covered by the BBC and Ulster Radio.
    The death of Frank Carson, overshadowed in NI any coverage of Ottilie, at least whilst we were there we did not see anything about her, but I have my own videos and photographs to commemmorate the events.

  16. Jim Denham said,

    Sounds great, Keith. I’m glad you made it.One day I hope to visit the grave and pay my respects. Congratulations to Erskine and all involved!

  17. Jim Denham said,

    What a great clip! Thanks a million for that, Erskine! I watched (and listened) with moist eyes…

    • rennatgk said,

      Jim I have dug out the recordings I did at Ottilie’s Tribute Concert and the unveiling of the plaque at her birthplace. I must warn you that the concert videos are scrappy to say the least, I found myself with a faulty backup battery and ended up with several snippets.
      However, if you would like a copy just let me know. My email address is rennatgk yahoo.com.

  18. George Walker said,

    Many thanks, Keith. Sorry for the delay in replying but I’ve been away and had limited access to the net, though I saw the TV clip.

    Stu has sent me photos from his private collection which are great. I shall print out your directions which will be invaluable when we go over in April.

    My wife was trying to identify the Pattersons’ home from the TV report. Her dad, Thomas Moore, was a foreman at the mill in Comber, he died in the late 60s. My Ann would like to know which street Ottilie’s house was in.

    Thanks again, George W.

    • Keith Tanner said,

      Hi George
      Glad the directions are of help.
      Ottilie’s house is 26 Carnesure Terrace Old Ballygowan Rd. It is almost opposite to the mill which is now in flats!.
      It was not clear from Google Street View which is her house but in fact it is the left hand end of a short terrace with yellow brick reveals and window heads. It is due to be renovated and re-let so it was not possible to get into it.
      If you contact me by email (rennatgk yahoo.com) I can send some photos which will make it clear. The terrace is visible from the main road through Comber.
      Regards
      Keith

  19. Keith Tanner said,

    Hmm my email address was not intended to be so obvious, several masking characters disappeared!

    • George Walker said,

      Dear Keith, Finally made it today,24 April, to Movilla cemetery and found Ottilie’s grave easily using your excellent instructions.Then we went to see the plaque on the house in Comber. All this after a lunch with Walter Love! A great day. Dear Ottilie, she was a one-off.Thanks to all for your help!

      George & Annie Walker

      • keith tanner said,

        Hi George

        Glad you made it.

        If you let me have your home address – send it direct to my email address which you already have, I will forward the Musical Tribute videos on a CD.

        Keith

  20. rennatgk said,

    A gentle reminder that it is 7yrs, and two days, since the passing of Ottilie. RIP to a Legend never forgotten.

  21. George Walker said,

    So glad this is still going. Ottilie is still an inspiration!
    Erika, vocalist with Tuba Skinny in New Orleans (see YouTube) is very nearly as good. Great band all round.

    • rennatgkith Tanner said,

      George Good to hear from you. I agree entirely, Erica and Tuba Skinny are ‘something else’.
      Recently they toured Europ but sadly did not come to the UK. Shaye Cohn too is amazing, she appears in numerous ad hoc bands playing a variety of instruments to perfection.
      Another band I seek out is Loose Marbles.

      • George WALKER said,

        Keith, good to hear from you too!
        Have you also seen the Shotgun Jazz Band, also N.O. based, also on YouTube. Look for their ‘Over in the Gloryland’ to see what I think is their best line-up. On clarinet, James Evans, a Brit. I played with him a few times when he depped in Max Collie’s band. He’s now resident in N.O.
        Another lady trumpet/leader, Marla and husband John on banjo; excellent tight drums and bass, but the greatest surprise is the little Japanese trombonist – a tiny girl, not doing some delicate geisha tea-ceremony as would more befit her size, but giving out with this booting, gut-bucket Kid Ory tailgate stuff!
        More power to them! I’ll look out for your Loose Marbles – before I lose mine which are definitely loose!
        I’ve been corresponding a lot with John Beecham, ( talking of trombonists), he of the Colyer, Mike Cotton and Monty Sunshine bands.
        Lovely man, great on both trombone and brass bass. Wish I’d played with him more! Best wishes, George

      • keith Tanner said,

        George. Yes, I have downloaded several tracks of the Shotgun JB. Great minds?
        There are some v good bands in and around NOL at present. I would love to get back there some time soon.
        Returning to Ottilie, I have just done an 80mile round trip by car with the same again tomorrow with Ottilie blasting out the whole time. I almost forgot where I was going!
        Another singer I have on a flash drive is Naeva Raphaelo (I am sure I have not spelt that correctly) have you any idea what happened to her? A powerful voice, at times she sounded like Ottile.

    • rennatgk said,

      George I have dug out the recordings I did at Ottilie’s Tribute Concert and the unveiling of the plaque at her birthplace. I must warn you that the concert videos are scrappy to say the least, I found myself with a faulty backup battery and ended up with several snippets.
      However, if you would like a copy just let me know. My email address is rennatgk yahoo.com.

      • George Walker said,

        Dear Keith, That’s kind of you but I already have footage of the two events and i believe it was you who sent them! May 2015 or thereabouts.

        Hope you are keeping well. I have been in regular contact with John Beecham, trombonist with Mike Cotton, Monty Sunshine and Ken Colyer over the years. He’s a fund of anecdotes as you can imagine and I wish we’d played more together!

        Best wishes,

        George ________________________________

      • rennatgk said,

        Hello George Oops! I blame my age. . . . I had been in contact with Erskine who did not have any recording which is what reminded me. Apparently, some educational group recorded the whole event but hold on to it on the basis of copyright. Sounds spurious to me. They cannot possibly hold intellectual rights to the concert.
        Keeping well? Hmm, clinging on to the wreckage is how it feels. 🙄

        The Colyer Band 👍👍👍👍 I recall “discovering” them on a Tempo EP in mid 1950’s it was an extract of their Copenhagen recordings, and became comprehensively hooked. I still have the EP! I saw them live only a couple of times. For a number of years the Smokey City JB here in Manchester played very similar style of jazz usually at the Band on the Wall. or the Black Lion in Salford. Sheila Collier was their vocalist. Sheila was in Sweden the last I heard, still singing. I have exchanged emails with her.

        BTW Neva Raphaello, who was Portuguese, sang extensively with the Dutch Swing College Band and also Papa Bue sadly, she died in 1975.

  22. keith Tanner said,

    George, Wow, I just listened to Over in the Gloryland it was one I had somehow missed. How tight was that? Thanks for pointing it out.
    Jazz looks alive and well in NOL and it is great to see so many young musicians in there. There is great interplay too with musicians drifting in and out seamlessly. Sometimes Tuba Skinny has 5 players but several numbers on there could be 9 or 10.

  23. keith Tanner said,

    Surprise find, Tuba Skinny with the Shotgun Band and Gloryland with Shaye on piano. The washboard player is always a hoot and, very good.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Wonderful young musicians: keeping the flame alive!

      • keith Tanner said,

        Tuba Skinny’s repertoire is vast. Most I Have never heard of but I have yet to hear anything I don’t like. They all seem to be note perfect with no flannel or filler “twiddles” at least, to a none musician like me.
        How do they remember them all?

      • Erskine Willis said,

        I am pleased to see you remembering Ottilie – I have been approached by a man from USA who says he will write a play about Ottilie. I have given him access to her archives both here in Belfast and the Nation Jazz Archives in London. (Have viewed Tuba Skinny -Great!)

      • rennatgk said,

        Hello Erskine Good to hear from you. It would be wonderful to have a play about Ottilie.
        I have emailed you about the videos. I have around 8 external drives, I will need to trawl through them to extract the videos you mentioned.
        In addition to Tuba Skinny have you viewed Loose Marbles? Some personnel are common to both bands. There appears to be a resurgence of “real” jazz around NOL at the moment involving lots of young musicians.
        Wonderful stuff!

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