Barry Coope

Tue, 03/29/2022 - 11:16
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He was quite selective about his listening, but it was very wide. He had elephantine ears, so he listened to all sorts of stuff. He distilled it down and took a bit from here and a bit from there and then modelled himself into the Barry Coope we all knew and loved.

Barry Coope will be known to many as one of Coope Boyes & Simpson and also for his duo with John Tams. He was also my brother-in-law. Sadly, Barry died in November 2021. It was not expected and shocked those nearest to him - family, friends and colleagues plus the wider folk and music communities.

There were lots of lovely tributes which, understandably, focussed on what he was most known for - he left an amazing legacy – but I wanted to write an article that gave you more of the man and what made him tick, as well as reminding us of his musical life. My journey in putting this together led me to speak to John Adams, Tom Brown, John Tams, John Dowell and Katy Coope.

Why don’t I start by listing who he has played with or the bands he has been in. How many can you remember? Ram’s Bottom, Derby Morris, Keith Kendrick & Barry Coope, Muckram Wakes, The Everlasting Circle, Tangent Band, Rogues Gallery, Fire And Brimstone, Voices At The Door, Coope Boyes & Simpson, John Tams & Barry Coope, Dayteller, Blue Murder and Narthen. He was also a presenter on the Derby radio folk show, Derby Tup. He had been a consultant on the BBC Radio Two folk ballads and involved in shows at Celtic Connections - I doubt this list is complete.

Barry was a summer baby, born at home in Heage on Friday 9th July 1954.  He was the youngest child of Joyce and Walter and a baby brother to Geoff and Sheila. He took part in many chapel activities as a youngster, including singing and elocution competitions. He loved music from a very young age and apparently his first record purchase was Lennon & McCartney’s Ob-La-Di,Ob-La-Da - meaning ‘life goes on’. Barry left school at 16 and went to work at Johnson’s Wireworks in Ambergate.  Then, at 18, he took up a post at Lubrizol in Hazelwood.

As I said at his funeral, my brother-in-law inherited me as a job lot when he married my sister; he had no choice, of course, but he never once complained. He was, maybe, baffled at times by me, but he never showed it and he always made me feel welcome and part of his family.

He was a funny, kind, inclusive and generous man and he never, in all the time I knew him, bragged about his achievements, music related or otherwise. One of the things that struck me about him over all that time was his lack of sense of how much he was valued and revered in our music world. Like many musicians, there was almost an ‘imposter syndrome’ about him in that, for instance, he didn’t refer to himself as a piano player, but more as someone who played the piano and got away with it. This was his way of saying that his style of playing didn’t stand up to ‘real’ piano players that he admired greatly. And whilst he knew he could sing, he didn’t view himself as anything other than …probably a ‘good singer’ - no better than the people he was singing with and not as good as many he admired.

I asked John Adams when he first became aware of Barry.  “Barry was the percussionist in Ram’s Bottom. They were a brilliant band. We were all mates together. I wasn’t as close to them as I was to the Druids and Muckram Wakes end of things, but we mucked in and played stuff together, booked each other, and Barry was always an integral part of that side of the Derby folk scene.”

Ram’s Bottom obviously struck a chord with Tom Brown as well. “The first time I came across Barry was up at Dancing England when Ram’s Bottom was the ceilidh band and I was hunting for dance bands to bring down to Sidmouth - must have been 1980. I thought, I’m definitely having them for Sidmouth, as I was the dance producer for a couple of years. They came down and that’s when I first heard him singing as well, with Keith and, of course, with Ram’s Bottom. Yeah, he made quite an impression straight away.”

I wanted to know how Barry had ended up in Muckram Wakes. John Adams said: “Suzie and I joined Muckrams when John Tams left. We had several years being on the road - Suzie and I and Helen and Roger Watson.  After about seven years, Roger and Helen left. That left me and Suzie, and she thought we ought to get Keith Kendrick in. That led to the inclusion of Barry. We had a point where there was four of us, and then three because Suzie decided she didn’t want to carry on. It was a natural progression, then, to include Ian Carter. That was good. I enjoyed working with Keith, and had worked with him in The Druids, but to have Barry there as well was excellent. I’ve always thought that Barry, like myself, wasn’t a particularly good solo musician but a very good supporting musician, and working with him and Keith in a team was solid and very enjoyable.”

I asked John what else he liked about working with Barry.  “He was very, very much part of the ideas team. He would come up with excellent ideas and we’d test them out and if they worked, which they often did, we’d include them. Having four good musicians and four good singers worked really well and gave us a lot of possibilities - it was a very strong outfit. The problem was that we were supporting four households and that was never going to work unless we hit the big time - and we weren’t Celtic! There just wasn’t and isn’t a big enough market for Derbyshire folk.”

I couldn’t resist pointing out that Derbyshire hasn’t yet been declared a patronised, oppressed country in its own right, has it? Once it has, I am sure Derbyshire music will take off. After much laughter, John continued: “Barry was a multi-instrumentalist who could play keyboards, melodeon and percussion, so having Ian on baritone sax and me on trombone with Keith on concertinas (I also played melodeon, accordion, mandolin and banjo) we really had a lot of colour to call on to produce the music. Sadly, we never got into a recording studio. It’s a great shame. Nothing exists unless someone has a folk club recording somewhere.”

“Originally in Muckrams we were two couples - so less households to support. We could do some of the smaller clubs and it was very streamlined - we needed two beds and could all fit in a Peugeot 4x4.  It was also easy for us to get abroad so we toured Holland and Belgium extensively and in Germany a little. To replace all that with this line-up was an impossibility. By that time, we realised it was not going to work professionally.”  Eventually the band came to an end.

It may come as a surprise to many of you that Barry never went fully professional - or even partially. He held down a full-time job with Lubrizol, and he worked for that company for pretty much his entire working life - 44 years.  His raison d’etre was family. He had a daughter from his first marriage, Rachel, known as Rae, and a daughter from his second marriage, Katy, whom you’ll hear from later. He wanted to be able to provide for them always. Even as they progressed out of their twenties, Barry never stopped sending them their monthly allowance. He did that until the day he died. Can you imagine that level of dedication one way or another? I am utterly convinced that there were some years he had more gigs than I did, and I went fully professional in the later part of the 1980s. Barry would come back from wherever he’d been gigging, maybe not getting home until 3 or 4am, and then get up and get to work for about 8am. He had a dedication to everything he did.

John’s mention of The Everlasting Circle is why I decided to talk to Tom Brown, but first a bit of history. The show was an ambitious piece featuring singers, dancers and players all demonstrating the traditions and themes of English folk music. Tom was one of the directors and I asked him how Barry had become involved. “We sort of evolved who the cast were going to be and invited them for interview, with Roger Watson. I knew some of the Oyster crew, Roger knew some of Ram’s Bottom, and then there were yourselves,” he said, referring to my sister, Fi Fraser, and I, “with Old Swan. So we put together a list of people we wanted to audition. In the end we chose everyone who came, which was three or four more than it was supposed to be. Barry was a straight shoe in for that, and in terms of a part for The Everlasting Circle, he was ideal for the young lover, with you, I believe, as the other young lover.”

In terms of myself, I had seen Barry around, but wouldn’t say I knew him very well, and there we were playing opposite each other and singing duets and love songs in this show. It may not have escaped your notice that he didn’t marry me, he married my sister, but we all laugh about the fact he crushed my freesias every night, which were pinned to my bosom, in our ‘directed’ embraces. I was going out with a fiddle player in the cast at that time, Laurie Harper. Fi and Barry fell in love and later married.   As a member of the cast Tom felt that “Barry was focussed on what we needed to do and got on and did it - exceptional professionalism. The people who did that saved me a lot of angst. As you know, the show was under-rehearsed, but he just rode above it. He got on with everything very well.”

Tom had mentioned being dance director at Sidmouth and it suddenly reminded me that this was yet another thing Barry had done. Another friend of mine, John Dowell, had been the festival director at the time. A quick phone call garnered this about Barry’s role.  “Barry did two years as assistant song director at Sidmouth and then two years as song director. That’s the way we did it in those days. You didn’t do a great deal as the assistant - it was a question of suggesting the odd act - but when it came to being song director, he chose virtually everybody. He was so easy to work with because he was so organised. He knew what he was doing, knew what he wanted and, of course, he knew all the people. We tried to fill the role with people from different parts of the country - move it around a bit - so we had someone from Southampton do it, then it was John Heydon and then we wanted someone from the Midlands as that was the up-and-coming place in those days. Val Carmen, Lester Simpson’s partner, suggested Barry. I didn’t know him particularly well in those days, but as I said, he was easy to work with, and knew how to put concerts and a programme together.  His taste was wide-ranging. My background was in folk clubs and stuff, and I was interested in pulling up that side of the festival. Those were good days. He was professional and easy to get along with. A major thing was that artists were mostly booked for the week and that allowed a lot more socialising, sessions and spontaneous acts where people decided to play with each other. I was only 30 then and Barry would have been about the same age; those were the days”

John Tams had been around the area a long time too and I was curious to know how things had developed between them. We sat down over a drink and a pub lunch for a natter.  “I recall meeting Barry at The Fox and Hounds in Cox Bench and he was freelancing, obviously whilst holding down a job which he always did, for BBC Radio Derby’s radio show, The Derby Tup, and he came to the pub to meet me and do an interview - which I was honoured to do.  We’d not really spoken before that, but that led to pretty much everything else that followed over the next 45-50 years.”

“It was a good conversation, incisive and detailed, as you’d expect from Barry. That was him; he worked with detail and he carried quite a lot of that into his performing career. He liked to get things right, you know. I recall that with great affection. After that we were in each other’s company variously. I asked Barry to share the vocals and play keyboard on a ‘solo album’ I was making.  I think that was the first time. I don’t think we’d done anything else together before then.”

Before that album, I remember John’s wedding, as I was there, as were Fi and Barry, so we were all friends then.  After the wedding, John spent time in Russia.  “I think Barry played in the band at the wedding too. I came back from Russia with a lot of paper as I had spent a good deal of time whilst there writing, to while away the time and buffer against isolation. I think we started to put that material together as a band and that became the first album, Unity.”

Was Barry an immediate choice?  “Yes, because he was the best male singer I’d ever heard.  I knew he could sing everybody off the bandstand. He was gifted with his voice, but he did work on it. He didn’t just take it as a gift and then ruin it. He listened to the right people, and he had an innate sense of harmony. He could harmonise anything; the most inconsequential line, that was impenetrable, even to sing as a soloist, he could harmonise it. He taught himself how to listen… I mean, he was a scooter boy with a parka listening to Northern soul, so Otis Reading would be in his list of greatest traditional singers in my view, because he was authentic and he liked to be in and around anyone he perceived to be having that authenticity - writers, singers, musicians, whatever… if they were authentic, Barry could spot it. He could also spot if they were chancers and having a laugh. He was quite selective about his listening, but it was very wide. He had elephantine ears, so he listened to all sorts of stuff. He distilled it down and took a bit from here and a bit from there and then modelled himself into the Barry Coope we all knew and loved. Discerning, but he sought authenticity and he could see through it if people were blagging.”

I remember him saying to me, “I like singing with you, because you don’t do what I’m expecting you to do.” He seemed to find that refreshing.  “Yeh,” said John, “and he would just check out from singing along to me from time to time… I can normally hit the notes but I have a perverse sense of time, on purpose. I mean, my favourite traditional singer is Frank Sinatra. Now Barry’s was Otis. Otis Reading sings on the beat. Frank Sinatra sings early and late, and I quite like singing before the ‘one’ or after, then rushing like mad to try to get all that line in before I bugger about with the next line. That’s no good if you’re a harmony singer because I never sing the song the same way twice. So, we agreed that he would play the keyboard metrically - so he’d play that on the ‘one’ - and don’t forget he was a good percussionist and drummer. So, he would play that, and I could sing where the hell I wanted.”

Did he learn to interpret what you were going to do?  “Oh yeah, as an accompanist he was brilliant ‘cos he knew where I would start messing with time - pushing stuff and pulling stuff - and he could do that, but when I was doing that, it was better for him if he was just playing piano with me, rather than trying to try harmonise as well. Too many balls in the air really.”

Why do you think he never did a solo album?  “That’s a good question. I don’t think he had the confidence for some reason. We could all tell him that he should have, and he might take 10 or 15 percent of that on board, but fundamentally he was a team player, happiest in a team, whether that was in a trio like CBS or a band with Chris Wood and Andy Cutting, and all the rest. He’d probably like to be remembered as a team player I think, rather than a soloist.”

Yes, he was that odd mix of someone who didn’t blow his own trumpet but who knew where his trumpet was!  “Yeah, and he was very good at blowing everyone else’s trumpet. The writers he enjoyed say quite a lot about him; he’d probably disagree if he was sitting there, but I think one of his favourite writers was Michael Marra. He loved him because he was authentic. He liked Robby Robertson, who was not particularly authentic but was a great musician and was in one of his favourite bands, The Band. He also liked Elbow and loads of things.  If he put a record on he would listen to it almost professionally. It wasn’t background because he thought, like you and I do, that if someone had put in all that time squeezing that into a microphone, the least you could do is sit down and pay attention. When he listened to stuff it was, kind of, work.”

He could be very intransigent about mucking around with anyone else’s chords.  “Well because of his brilliance as a harmonist there were occasions, and I think Lester will testify to this, where, for example, Lester would come up with a lyric and a sketch of a tune and then Barry would formalise it, put it into an order, structure it and find the harmonisation for it. He would then give it back to Lester and Lester would have a complete song. But Barry would consider himself marginal in the process, whereas he wasn’t, he was fundamental. I think Barry made songs; I mean he made them important by how he perceived the harmonisation to go.”

“With Coope Boyes & Simpson you got precision - Lester’s very precise as well. Not clinical to the point of being scientific, but they were very detailed. If Lester had written a song and Barry had harmonised it and maybe even indicated the bass part for Jim, there was a lot of detail.  And the quiet man in all that was Barry, who was just bringing it all together with an engineer’s micrometre for detail and with a fantastic musicality; an understanding of the journey the songs were on and where they started from.”

With you, did he make alternative suggestions around chords and stuff or did he stick to your chords?  “He quite liked what I’d come up with, but he might bugger about with the time. There were some songs that were pretty much driven by his interpretation of where it went. He might occasionally say… ‘oh you could put an F# minor in there and it will lift the end’, and so I’d try it and it did - suddenly the sun came out. There are chords I still play that I think of as ‘Barry chords’ because I’d missed them when I was writing it, but he would sneak something in that just made it light up. He was very clever and sadly underrated.” 

But where does this leave us in terms of understanding the man? Who better to finish this picture of Barry Coope than his younger daughter, Katy Coope. I wanted to know how she perceived him as a musician, what her upbringing in relation to music was, and what they loved doing together.

“I always felt dad didn’t tend to do centre stage stuff; he could do it when he needed to. He was great at musically tying things together. I have always assumed a lot of arrangement ideas came from him, but he had a way of dodging credit for them. Harmony was always really important, which essentially you don’t do on your own, so he preferred to work with others. He did about three solo gigs in his life. The one I heard in Derby was interesting; hearing him sing when he wasn’t working around anyone else, the way he expressed things and his own sense of timing when he didn’t need to synchronise with other people, which was something he was really good at by the way, was lovely.”

“One of the things I liked in the Narthen stuff, and with all the individuals in Narthen, was that it felt like you all seemed to be unconstrained and totally free to choose whatever material you liked for the band to have a go at. Dad had a very eclectic taste in music and every now and then he would do something unexpected. For instance, there’s a track on Fire And Sleet And Candlelight (Coope Boyes & Simpson, Fraser, Freya, Boyes), Down In Yon Forest, with that line, ‘May, Queen May, sing May queen May’… that arrangement was spookily like something from The Wicker Man, not at all what you’d expect. That’s dad going gloriously off on one. It was always interesting when you could hear his less folky influences coming out.”

“All musicians are informed by what they listen to, and he was musically omnivorous, he liked everything. We listened to comparatively little ‘straight’ folk music in the house. One surprise was when we were watching Glastonbury one year and dad got really excited about Pendulum, and I was able to say, ‘Dad, I’ve already got two of their CDs. I’ll lend them to you.” Pendulum is an Australian drum and bass act that also has guitar and vocals in it.”

Yes, he really was open to anything he hadn’t heard before. I remember playing him Pergolesi, Stabat Mater, and he wanted to know what it was so that he could get it. I remember Geoff, Barry’s brother, saying he used to play Barry stuff and make him guess the track from the opening bars. Did he ever do that with you?  “I’m not sure, but there was always music at home. There are certain albums that were extremely key to me growing up - like Abbey Road, Revolver, later XTC stuff, There Might Be Giants, Jellyfish and Eurythmics. I also remember him and mum getting me this music magazine, Classical Music Adventure, which came with CDs. I was obsessed with Rhapsody In Blue.”

“He used to run a choir called Rolling Stock and I went to that as a teenager.  It did a lot of local things. There’s a book, Songs Of The Midlands, by Roy Palmer, it’s bright orange.  The choir did quite a few things from that, though with dad’s arrangements.  Also a lot of Sheffield carols and that type of thing. Grey Funnel Line, sheep counting, songs of industry, some from the sea, and a lot of carols. Oh, and John Tams’ stuff too.”

“In terms of my musical development, whilst I went to a lot of the festivals, my parents never pressured me in any direction which was a good thing - although I kind of wish they had done a little bit!  It meant that later on there was folk stuff I didn’t really know. I didn’t have a ‘folky education’ as such.”  What about your later musical relationship with your dad?  “Some started before I left home. There was a running joke about my inability to buy my dad an album that I didn’t end up stealing. He had such great taste in stuff. If he thought I might like a band, he’d buy me one CD knowing that I’d go and spend the rest of my allowance on all their other CDs. It always worked, and vice versa. We would send each other tracks. And we went to quite a few live concerts. I was always worried that Dad and I might turn up in the same T-shirts!”

Well, he certainly had more T-shirts than anybody else I know.  Along with your sister Rae, one of the things you enjoyed doing with your dad was beer tasting.  “Yes, he loved well-crafted things, craft beers, good art, nice food, great music. He just appreciated so many different things. With the beer, we weren’t fans of getting drunk, but we liked tasting interesting things. Finding a good pre or post gig venue for a drink was part of the fun. Not always easy at 11 at night in Manchester city centre when you have your dad with you!”

“He got into cooking once he retired and loved learning new techniques. One time he was visiting, he got interested in a comic called Super Crash, a graphic novel I had. He ordered a copy for himself. Typical of Dad to do. What he was interested in was often a surprise.  We talked about all sorts of things too. When there were parties at home, Dad was last up, clearing up, and I liked to do that with him. He’d put music on, DJ Barry, and it would quite often involve me and Dad nerding out about some synthesiser twiddle. Just getting really hyped out by the tiny details in the track.”  Ah that eye for detail.  “Yes, and appreciation of craft. People making really cool stuff. He appreciated the fine details - food, art, music, whatever.”

Barry Coope - 9 July 1954 - 6 November 2021 - music lover with the voice of an angel, appreciator of authenticity, an eye for detail, and a fantastic ear for harmonisation.

by Jo Freya