Saturday, 2 July 2011

'She sang the songs, as the songs should be sung'

Ottilie Patterson, the singer who became Britain’s greatest exponent of the blues, has died in Ayr aged 79, after living for four years in a local nursing home.

Patterson, who at the height of her powers was compared with Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, sang with the Chris Barber Band in the 1950s and 1960s, gigging with some of the giants of jazz and blues. She married Barber in 1959, and though they divorced in 1981, they remained friends, even performing together after he remarried.

“She was a most excellent singer and a lovely person,” Barber said last night. “The world will be poorer without her.”

Patterson was born in Comber, Co Down, the daughter of an Ulsterman and his Latvian wife (Ottilie is a Latvian form of Matthilde). She trained to be an art teacher, but as a student sang with local Belfast bands.

In 1954, during a school holiday, she travelled to England, to visit Humphry Lyttelton’s club in Central London, where she asked if she could sing with the band.

“Humph always said no,” recalled Barber, “but Beryl Bryden, another larger-than-life singer, told Ottilie she should go and see us.”

Patterson did so, arriving at the London Jazz Centre on Greek Street in Soho, when the Chris Barber Band was playing — though the band leader and trombonist was at home unwell.

“At the end of the evening, the others were packing the instruments up when Johnny Parker, the piano player, started playing,” Barber recalled. “Ottilie got up on stage and started singing, whereupon, in true Hollywood musical fashion, the rest of the band got their instruments out of their cases and began to play.”

In a quick succession of gigs, Patterson proved her star quality, but Barber was unable at first to persuade her to give up her teaching career in Ulster. However, by the time he formally wrote inviting her to join the band, she had changed her mind. Patterson answered in a telegram: “I’m coming, if I have to ride the rods [jump the train].”

Patterson recorded a series of albums under her own name and loved music of all types, but it was her command of the blues that was magical, Barber recalled.

“Blues is a mixture of musics; the metre of the singing, the way the words are accented is all part of it,” he said. “Ordinary black people reacted to her singing with so much excitement, it was almost embarrassing.”

In 1959, Ottilie gave one of the greatest performances of her life when she was invited on to the stage at Smitty’s Corner in Chicago to sing with Muddy Waters’s band. “The reaction she got from the people was exceptionally moving,” recalled Barber.

“She sang in a way that meant something to the audience, and they responded to her as if she was from Mississippi. She sang the songs, as the songs should be sung.”

Patterson received the same respsonse on her final American tour, when, in the summer of 1962, she sang at President John F Kennedy’s First International Jazz Festival in Washington. After another show-stopping performance, she was approached by the Staples Singers, the most accomplished of American Gospel groups, and invited to record with them.

“Ottilie was so scared, she couldn’t do it,” recalled Barber. “Mavis Staples was the absolute marker for gospel singing — Ottilie said ‘I can’t compete with that’.”

That reticence and her reluctance to travel hampered Patterson’s career. She was also self-conscious about her looks. On one occasion, a make-up girl on a TV show told her: “I thought you must be a singer, because you wouldn’t be here for your face.”

Barber said: “People in showbusiness are harsh. She felt like she was meant to look like someone."

Though she and Barber moved to Ulster in 1972, he continued to tour and almost inevitiably, they began to drift apart.

Following the divorce, Patterson moved to St Albans with her mother, and then north to Scotland, where her sister lived in Ayr.

Troubled by epilepsy from chilhood, she also suffered from depression, which intensified as she aged. She died ten days ago in Ayr and was buried in Co Down on Tuesday.