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A Fond farewell to a true original
The death of Northern Ireland blues singer Ottilie Patterson has gone largely unnoticed. But she was a genuinely revolutionary force in the staid sixties.
Eamonn McCann, 22 Aug 2011
I was surprised so little attention was paid to the death of Ottilie Patterson.
I remember going to see her at Derry Guildhall half a century – Jesus Christ! – ago. She was the singer with The Chris Barber Band, the best-known jazz combo, as we used to say, in Britain or Ireland at the time. She sang in deep-throated black American style, full of passion and lusty strength and lovely clarity. She was from Comber in Co. Down, which bewildered and then beguiled jazz audiences everywhere.
Initially, the North didn’t know quite what to make of her. Jazz? Far from that she was reared.
She’d first encountered jazz and blues at Belfast College of Art, became entranced by Jelly Roll Morton, later to stone Van the Man to his soul.
On holiday in London, she got up in a Soho club. Barber had her singing with his band for the next seven nights, until she went back to the teaching job at Ballymena Tech. Days later, a telegram arrived asking her to join the band full-time – a no-brainer. She made her formal debut the following week at the Royal Festival Hall – a truly astonishing progression.
Over the next ten years, she shared vocals with Lonnie Donegan, duetted with gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe, sang with Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee. When she performed at the Washington Jazz Festival in 1962, the reaction was so overwhelming Duke Ellington’s arrival on stage was delayed for ten minutes. It’s said someone shouted out from the largely African-American audience, “How you sing like us, girl?”
She made albums on her own, blues classics and songs she’d written herself. She contributed original music to It’s Trad Dad, Dick Lester’s last film before Hard Day’s Night.
The thing is, Ottilie wasn’t just a remarkable jazz and blues singer from Northern Ireland. She was right up there.
But the road was to take a toll on her physical and emotional health. She stopped singing regularly in 1966, returned in the ‘70s for short tours with Barber – to whom she was married from 1969 to 1983 – then, briefly again, in 1991, before retiring for good. She spent her last years in a care home in Ayr in Scotland, where she died on June 20. I remember well the gig at the Guildhall and how proud I felt that she was one of our own.