‘We paved the way for the Rolling Stones’: Ottilie Patterson, the forgotten first lady of British blues

<span>Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

The late British jazz singer George Melly used to ask his audiences: “Who is the greatest blues vocalist Britain has ever produced?” He’d tease them, asking, “Mick Jagger? No! Steve Winwood? No! Van Morrison? No!”, before suggesting the greatest of all time was Ottilie Patterson. Who?

County Down-born Patterson surely is the finest blues vocalist hailing from these damp isles. She was also an excellent jazz and folk singer, and her mellifluous voice can even be heard singing Shakespeare sonnets and baroque late-60s psychedelia. She blazed a trail that everyone from Dusty Springfield to Amy Winehouse has since followed; the Rolling Stones, Patterson said, “didn’t come out of a vacuum – we paved the way”. Her best recordings are exquisite: moody blues with swagger. Yet Patterson has been almost entirely forgotten, an unheralded pioneer. Thankfully, 2023 looks to be the year that she finally receives her due, with a new BBC documentary, My Name Is Ottilie, and a Record Store Day reissue of her 1969 album 3000 Years With Ottilie leading the way.

“Ottilie was a standout talent – in terms of writing skills, vocal distinction, performance and charisma,” says BBC presenter and singer Cerys Matthews. “She emits true authenticity and originality, even while singing blues – so much so her abilities were recognised by her American blues peers.”

“She was very personable, intelligent and witty,” adds Ronnie Greer, a Belfast musician who played with her when she occasionally returned to Northern Ireland, but attests that Patterson “was also very troubled – she could be volatile”.

Ottilie Patterson (left) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe rehearsing at the Marquee Club, London in 1960.
Ottilie Patterson (left) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe rehearsing at the Marquee Club, London in 1960. Photograph: Jones/Getty Images

It was never on the cards that Anna Ottilie Patterson would rise to international prominence singing jazz and blues. Born in 1932 to a British father and a Latvian mother, Patterson received classical piano training. But when she enrolled at Belfast College of Technology to study art in 1949, she heard 78s by Jelly Roll Morton, Meade Lux Lewis and, most importantly, Bessie Smith. These pioneering African American recordings clicked with Patterson and, by 1951, she was singing with local bands while working as an art teacher.

During her summer holidays in 1954 Patterson travelled to London, specifically seeking out Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. Trombonist Barber and band were the hottest trad jazz outfit working – their 1954 debut LP New Orleans Joys would sell more than 60,000 copies – so Patterson was aiming high. Arriving at a band rehearsal in Greek Street, Soho, she requested to sing but was roundly ignored until, as they were packing up, she convinced pianist Johnny Parker to accompany her on Careless Love. As she sang, the other musicians reassembled their instruments and joined in. Barber, absent at the rehearsal, then arranged an official audition. Impressed, he immediately offered her a job.

She returned to Belfast to finish her teaching commitments but joined the band in late December and made her first public appearance with them at the Royal Festival Hall on 9 January 1955. Her first solo EP, That Patterson Girl, was released later that year – by then, she was acclaimed as Europe’s first lady of jazz as the Barber band relentlessly toured. (She was also romantically involved with Barber even though he had recently married.)

Barber’s energies shaped British popular music in myriad ways: Lonnie Donegan was the band’s banjoist; his Rock Island Line, featuring Barber on propulsive bass, launched skiffle. Alexis Korner was the guitarist and Barber, having co-founded Soho’s Marquee club, gave Korner’s Blues Incorporated a residency that employed the likes of Charlie Watts and Jack Bruce.

Recognising Patterson’s remarkable talent, Barber pushed her forward. She performed Bessie Smith’s Shipwreck Blues on her 1956 EP That Patterson Girl Vol 2, replacing the original’s raucousness with meditative piano (which she played) while singing with wistful melancholy. It’s a profoundly beautiful rendition (Jasmine Records have compiled two CDs of this Barber-era work). At the same time, Barber was touring with African American artists he had invited to the UK – Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Big Bill Broonzy – and Patterson befriended and sang with them. Her performance of T’Aint Nobody’s Business If I Do with Jordan is stunning and the Americans reportedly adored Patterson – Waters invited her to join him on stage in his Chicago club Smitty’s in 1959 (his audience embraced her) while Tharpe complimented Patterson.

‘He wanted her to keep singing’ … Ottilie Patterson and Chris Barber.
‘He wanted her to keep singing as she was a big draw’ … Ottilie Patterson and Chris Barber. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

In 1959 Barber and Patterson married; the first couple of British jazz and blues were fronting one of Europe’s most popular bands, selling huge numbers of albums and tickets. All should have been hunky dory but Patterson began cancelling performances, blaming voice problems while those around her noted mental health issues. In a 1990 interview the vocalist detailed how, after discovering she was pregnant in 1956, Barber forced her to have a then-illegal abortion. He made her perform two days later. The trauma of it, Patterson suggests, ruined her life.

“It was a knitting needle job,” says John Service, a trombonist with the Barber band and a close friend of Patterson’s in her later years. “It meant she could never have children and she wanted to. Pat Halcox, Chris’s trumpeter, always said: ‘If she’d married anyone in the band but Chris she would have been all right.’ See, Chris had ADHD and possibly a form of autism – he wound everyone up, couldn’t stop picking at things. I’d give as good as I got, but Ottilie wasn’t that type of person – she’d crumble. And constantly being on the road, it damaged her voice, but Chris wanted her to keep singing as she was a big draw.”

Related: Ottilie Patterson obituary

Why did Patterson slog through years of these tensions? An answer she gave in that 1990 interview, with author Jen Wilson, gives a sense of her spirit. Playing live, Patterson says, “I got this almost out-of-body experience. On a good night’s work, you can’t beat that. That can make up for so much in this terrible life. You can’t get that feeling any other way. You are in rhythm, you are in tune, improvising; the boys are picking up everything, they are backing you. The audience is with you. And there is a heat generated. And it is all one big unified thing. And the thrill is phenomenal. So how could I leave that? No matter how bad the marriage was, no matter how cruel the band were, when that could still happen, my God, you can’t buy that.”

On 3000 Years with Ottilie, she finally recorded without Barber and band for the first time, singing her own songs alongside poems and sonnets. Richard Hill orchestrates proceedings and the album has a beautifully late-60s autumnal quality. Its label Marmalade folded in 1970 and a 1971 reissue on Polydor (as Spring Song) achieved little. Patterson then retired from music, her mental health shredded, before rejoining the Barber band in 1980 for lucrative engagements – this led to turmoil and she and Barber divorced in 1983. After that, silence resumed. Service and Patterson became friends when she settled in Ayr, in 1988. “She didn’t want any attention. We’d jam on trombone and piano but she wouldn’t join me in concert and didn’t want anyone to know who she was. She was reclusive.”

Patterson died in 2011. “Ottilie was a lovely person,” continues Service, “but deeply unhappy. In 1964 she’d performed a solo concert with Sonny Boy Williamson, with the Yardbirds backing them, and it was, apparently, fantastic. If she had got out then, gone solo, I think she would have had a new career, a new life. Instead, she stayed with Barber too long.”

“She’s a very rare beast,” adds Matthews, “and an extraordinary character all round.” Time, then, for a rediscovery of the Belfast vocalist who pioneered British blues.

• My Name Is Ottilie is available on BBC iPlayer. 3000 Years with Ottilie is released via Sunbeam on Record Store Day, 22 April.