I’ve heard at least a half-dozen white female jazz singers who I would pit against anyone in the field (Connee Boswell, Anita O’Day, Alice Babs, Annie Ross, Sheila Jordan and Cleo Laine), but only one white female blues singer, Anna Ottilie Patterson. If you happen not to be British and/or a fan of 1950s revivalist trad bands, you’re probably scratching your head and asking, “Ottilie who?” But I assure you that she is worth exploring and, once you hear her, I think you’ll be as bowled over as I was a couple of years ago when I accidentally tripped across her on YouTube.
She was certainly the least likely woman on earth to become a blues singer. Short of stature with dirty blond hair and a wide-eyed look, Patterson was the daughter of an Irish father and a Latvian mother. She studied classical piano when she was nine but apparently had little enthusiasm to become a professional in that field. While studying to be a teacher at the Belfast School of Technology, she met a fellow student named Derek Martin who played boogie piano and introduced her to the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith. Patterson was absolutely bowled over and began singing blues numbers with a local band that included both Martin and trombonist “Wild” Al Martin (later named The Muskrat Ramblers) and, later, with Jimmy Compton’s Jazz Band. “I’m still trying to work out whether I got the blues or they got hold of me,” she mused later.
She graduated and became a teacher at Ballymena Technical College, but found her job drab and dull. During her 1954 summer vacation she went to London where she met singer Beryl Bryden, who took her to hear cornetist Ken Colyer’s band in Soho. Patterson asked the band if she could sing with them but was brushed off. After the gig was over, she asked pianist Johnny Parker to accompany her in a few numbers while the rest of the band was packing up. Suddenly, the whole club took notice, the musicians unpacked their instruments, and the party was on. Word got around and, a few days later, she was asked by trad jazz trombonist Chris Barber to sing with his band for the remainder of her vacation.
Out of such chance meetings are careers often born, and Patterson was no exception. While back in Ireland teaching at Ballymena, she received a telegram from Barber making her a firm offer to work full time with his band. She quit in an instant and flew to London where she debuted with his band in January 9, 1955. The audience went absolutely wild over her. For more than a year she shared the stage in the Barber band with young Lonnie Donegan, dubbed “The King of Skiffle,” who then went out on his own and had a storied career for a few years until such rock bands as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and The Beatles took over the British pop market.
Patterson was caught up in a truly whirlwind career, singing up to 200 nights a year. In 1958 she married Barber and not only starred on his recordings but also made discs on her own,
occasionally playing piano and contributing songs. Her biggest thrills were when she was allowed to perform with visiting American black blues artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, who toured England with the Barber band. “If they thought her dedication to the blues was incongruous,” wrote Peter Vacher in her obituary in The Guardian, “they never let on, offering her nothing but encouragement and approval.”
Patterson herself felt that the highlight of her career came during Barber’s tour of the U.S. in the early ‘60s when she visited Smitty’s Corner blues club on the South Side of Chicago to hear Muddy Waters. Waters recognized her in the audience and asked her to come up and sing with him. You don’t get more black than that, yet the crowd went wild and, when she was finished, one woman called out, “Hey lady, you sing real pretty. How come you sing like one of us?” But there were other great moments as well. After singing in San Francisco, a music critic in The Examiner raved about her. At the Washington Jazz Festival of 1962 the reaction of the largely black audience to her singing was so enthusiastic that Duke Ellington’s band wasn’t able to take the stage for ten minutes.
Her obit in The Guardian simply states that “her health began to fail and she stopped singing in the mid-1960s.” I’ve been unable to discover what health issues she had, particularly since she emerged to record an album of folk music in 1969 (3,000 Years with Ottilie), briefly returned to tour with the Barber band in 1983, and lived to age 79. My best guess is that it was work stress: as a natural, untrained singer, her voice simply didn’t have the stamina to stand up to the constant touring and performing, but whatever the case she was devastated when Chris Barber divorced her. She permanently retired to an old castle in Ayr, Scotland in 1988 where she spent most of the rest of her life in virtual isolation and oblivion. John Service, one of the few people to visit her there, recalls that she had returned to playing classical music on the piano for her own enjoyment but also listened to blues records and continued to sing for friends. She also began to paint and sketch—Service owns two Patterson originals, “one being The Dream of being a professional musician, and the second The Reality which she captures to perfection.” She was also one of the first people to own a computer and had amazing command and dexterity with it. Her biggest love during her years of retirement was, of all things, American “Western” movies, of which she had a huge collection on videotapes and DVDs.
Then real health problems overtook Patterson, In 2008 she moved to the Rozelle Holm Farm Care Home in Ayr, where she spent the remaining years of her life. She died in anonymity on June 20, 2011.
Listening to Ottilie Patterson is an amazing experience, for here was a clear, pure Irish soprano bending notes and growling like an African-American blues diva. One difference is that her diction is crystal-clear, not always the case with blues singers in general. Another is her astonishing sense of rhythm. The Barber band tended to be stiff and metronomic in their playing, but Patterson’s singing transcends these limitations. Listen, particularly, to Bad Spell Blues, Stumblin’ Block, Georgia Grind (one of the few double entendre songs she performed) or Weepin’ Willow Blues and you’ll hear what I mean. The voice and the diction is Ottilie’s, but the phrasing is Bessie Smith’s. It’s absolutely uncanny. Note that she also recorded one of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s big hit songs, Strange Things Happening Everyday, and two songs she wrote herself based on texts of Shakespeare, Oh Me, What Eyes Hath Love Put in My Head? and Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred (from The Merchant of Venice). This is a way of combining the Bard with the Blues, years before Cleo Laine did something similar with her “Wordsongs.” In her live 1983 performances her voice has clearly lost some firmness of tone but nothing in terms of guts or expressiveness. This is blues singing of a very high order.
One of the few touring blues performers who recorded with Patterson was harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, who blows up a storm behind her version of I Feel So Good, but if I had to select one recording to illustrate just how good she was I’d have to pick Jealous Heart. It’s not that the song is so good—it’s really just a mediocre pop tune—but that she proves how good she is by completely transcending this trite material to create a work of art. The song is pure junk, and the introduction, played by an ersatz rock band with a whitebread chorus humming in the foreground, does not bode well; but as soon as Patterson enters, pushing the beat and slurring notes, the entire mood changes. By the end of the record, you are left stunned by what she could make of this tripe.
If you already know of Ottilie Patterson but haven’t heard her in a while, you need to reacquaint yourself with her; and if you don’t know her, you really need to go to the Internet Archive and listen to her now.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley