Scottish singer Barry St John released some fine tunes in the mid-to-late 1960s but they were largely ignored by the record-buying public. She had to wait a decade before they became sought after by Northern soul fans.
She was born Elizabeth Thompson and raised in Glasgow, Scotland. Liz, as she was known, enjoyed singing from a young age and it came as no great surprise to people who knew her when she chose to pursue a career in music.
Her first stop was Hamburg, Germany, where she performed at the Star Club.
Upon her return to the UK, she landed a recording contract with Decca Records under the name Barry St John. Both the A-side, a version of The Shirelles’ A thing of the past, and the flip, A little bit of soap, penned by American Bert Russell and originally recorded by The Jarmels, showed off the young singer’s soulful vocal stylings. It was issued as her first single, in July 1964.
Bread and butter became the follow up later the same year. The song gave the singer her first taste of chart success when it made the German top 40 in December 1964.
1965 kicked off with the release of Mind how you go, which had been written by Chris Andrews, the man behind most of Sandie Shaw’s hits, but it continued Barry’s run of chart misses in the UK.
High hopes were held for Hey boy, issued later the same year. The song was her interpretation of US singer Freddie Scott’s Gerry Goffin/Carole King-penned Hey girl, and was produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, the man behind the Rolling Stones and a host of Brit girl singers, including Marianne Faithfull, Adrienne Poster and Vashti (Bunyan). However, despite its impeccable credentials, it failed and signalled the end of her time with Decca.
She switched to the Columbia label where Come away Melinda became her first single. The song, issued in late 1965, marked something of a departure for the singer. A downbeat anti-nuclear protest number, it had been picked by producer Mickie Most, who later worked with fellow Glaswegian Lulu, amongst others. It included little girl vocals, which Barry herself also recorded. The single was produced by Mike Hurst, though production was credited to Most. Hurst claims that Most must have known it wouldn’t be a success, otherwise he would have produced it himself.
Although atypical of her work, the song came the closest to providing Barry with a UK hit – it spent one week at number 47 in the UK charts in December 1965. The B-side, Gotta brand new man, written by Barry with Hurst and Guy Fletcher, was truer to her style – evoking the smoke-filled cellar clubs of the 1960s, it later became much in demand on the northern soul dance scene.
The follow up, Everything I touch turns to tears, also became popular with northern soul fans many years after its release in 1966, though, inexplicably, it bombed at the time. (Cilla Black – who had no shortage of quality material to record – thought it had potential too and included a version on her Cilla sings a rainbow album, issued the same year.)
When the single flopped, Barry was released from her contract.
She turned up two years later on the Major Minor label where she issued two singles. The first, Cry like a baby, was released in 1968 against a rival version by The Box Tops – but it was the American five piece that scored the hit with the song. The second was a cover of By the time I get to Phoenix, which had previously given Country and Western singer Glenn Campbell a hit in the US. (The B-side, Turn on your light, had since found popularity with fans of late 1960s British soul.)
Both singles and their flip sides were included on an LP, According to St John. On the album, Barry – or “the pretty kitty from the gritty city”, as the sleeve notes had her – gave accomplished interpretations of a number of US soul numbers, including Etta James’s Tell Mama, Otis Redding’s Fa fa fa (Sad song) and William Bell’s Love-eye-‘tis. Brit girls Lesley Duncan and Sue and Sunny provided backing vocals on the album and the result was something that sounded easily as though it could have been recorded in America’s deep south.
In the 1970s, Barry moved into session work, performing with Elton John, Pink Floyd and Roxy Music, amongst others.
She also issued a few singles in the mid-1970s, including My man, back on the Decca label in 1974, and I won’t be a party on the independent Bradleys Records in 1975.
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