Eamonn McCann - Ottilie was up with the best

I remember my late friend Mickey Joe O’Kane and myself heading down to the Guildhall in high excitement when we were 16 or so to see Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson.

Barber led the best-known traditional jazz outfit in Britain at that time, the first to cross over into the mainstream. Ottilie Patterson was the singer.

Mickey Joe thought she was the best blues singer he’d ever heard, and I suppose he was right.

She sang in deep-throated African-American style, with passion and lusty strength and lovely clarity. George Melly said she was the only singer he’d ever known who reminded him of Bessie Smith.

She was from Comber in Co. Down, a fact which at first bewildered and then beguiled audiences and critics alike in London. She also bewildered many, in fact most, in the North. Jazz? Far from where she was reared, very.

She died last week aged 79.

The most unusual thing about Ottilie growing up in Comber was that her mother was Latvian. Latvians were few and far between in Northern Ireland at the time.

Any music she inherited from her family came from her grandfather, who played bagpipes in a local band, not exactly the cusp of cultural innovation. She became engrossed in jazz at the Belfast College of Art, where she first encountered and became entranced by the music of Jelly Roll Morton, later to stone Van Morrison to his soul.

On holiday in London, she met Beryl Bryden - another of Mickey Joe’s jazz idols at the time - and was emboldened to step onto the stage at a tiny club in Soho and ask to sing a number with the house band led by Ken Colyer. He introduced her to Barber. She sang with his band every night for a week before heading home. A couple of days later, a telegram arrived with an invitation to join Barber’s band full-time. So she gave up the job at Ballymena Technical College, which must have been a no-brainer, and made her formal debut seven days later – which is astonishing - at the huge and hugely prestigious Royal Festival Hall, where she swept the audience away. She remained the band’s singerfor the next 10 years.

She shared the stage with Lonnie Donegan – he began as banjo-player with Barber - and was to sing alongside gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and a list of luminaries of the burgeoning American blues scene - Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee.

She sang with Muddy Waters at Smitty Corner in Chicago, which even in an era of slow and fitful communication was known to some in Derry. The young Gay McIntyre would have been well-versed in the significance of the venue. When she performed at the Washington Jazz Festival in 1962, the reaction was so overwhelming Duke Ellington’s arrival on stage was delayed for 10 minutes. He hugged her and raised her arm, like a boxer taking the plaudits.

She made albums on her own - The Patterson Girl, Volumes One and Two - using blues classics and songs she’d written herself. She contributed original music to “It’s Trad Dad”, Dick Lester’s most recent film before “Hard Day’s Night”.

The thing is, Ottilie wasn’t just a surprisingly good jazz and blues singer to have come from Northern Ireland. She was right up there.

She was married to Barber from 1959 to 1983. They were to remain good friends. Her career at the top lasted only a decade. Her time on the road took a toll on her health, physical and emotional. She stopped singing regularly in 1966, returned for short tours with Barber in the 1970s, and, briefly, in 1991, before retiring for good. She spent her last years in a care home in Ayr in Scotland, where she died on June 20th.

I was surprised that her passing went almost unnoticed.