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It is with considerable sadness that we have to inform Members of the death on Tuesday of Chris Barber at the age of 90. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for some time. Chris was elected as an Associate Member of the BRDC in 2003 although his active involvement in motor sport had been many years previously.

The Chris Barber Jazz Band was at the forefront of British popular music from the late 1940s and played a major part in creating an environment in which the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones could later emerge and flourish. An early success was a recording by the Band with Lonnie Donegan of Rock Island Line which became a million-seller. By then the Band had become so popular that it was capable of filling the Royal Festival Hall and selling-out the UK tour which followed. Among its many hits was Petite Fleur with Monty Sunshine on clarinet (Chris’s own instrument was the trombone) which reached number three in the British charts and number five in the USA.

Although accused by the purist minority of unduly popularising jazz music, unlike many of the latter Chris had had a conventional musical education, spending three years at the Guildhall School of Music studying trombone and double bass whilst at the same time running a New Orleans-style group which included Lonnie Donegan, Monty Sunshine and cornetist Pat Halcox. From the late 1950s the Band began to tour the USA and was the first British group to perform on the famous and influential Ed Sullivan Show a few years before the Beatles. Later the Band became popular in Eastern Europe, Live in East Berlin being one of its classic albums. Well into his 80s, Chris continued to keep abreast of, and embrace, all manner of musical trends but he never departed from his belief that jazz was the freshest and most resourceful music, and never missed an opportunity to pass on his passion to the widest possible audience. 
Chris Barber also had a great enthusiasm for motor racing, usually involving some type of Lotus. His first race was at Brands Hatch in 1957 in a Lotus Mk 9 with which he competed when his musical commitments allowed. He also raced his Aston Martin DB2/4 occasionally. At the end of December 1958 Chris, who was a good friend of Colin Chapman, took delivery of one of the first two production Lotus Elites, road-registered CB23. The other Elite went to Scottish farmer and enthusiast Ian Scott-Watson and was the car with which Jim Clark finished second to Colin Chapman’s similar version on Boxing Day at Brands Hatch. Chris used his Elite to travel round Europe to various concerts and also went racing with it. 

Chris enjoyed the outstanding performance of the Elite on road and track although in the latter sphere he once said ‘I enjoyed myself without doing anything spectacular’. His best result was third place and fastest lap in a BARC handicap race at Goodwood behind the Sebring Sprite of future Formula 3 star Chris Williams and Stephen Minoprio’s supercharged Austin A40. Chris also ventured to the Nurburgring for the GT race supporting the German Grand Prix in 1960, when it was on the Sudschleife, and 1961 when he teamed up with, and finished not far behind, a certain ‘PNS Herman’, one of the various aliases under which Littlewoods Pools and Stores heir Nigel Moores raced. 

Chris retained the Elite until 1963, continuing to compete with it himself but also entering it for John Whitmore with notable success. John won the 1300 cc GT race at the 1962 Spa Grand Prix event and was a podium finisher at Snetterton, Zandvoort in the World Cup race, and at Oulton Park. As John moved on to touring cars and a European Championship title, Chris acquired a Lotus Elan 26R and entrusted its racing activities to Mike Beckwith whose best results were victory in the 1965 Prix de Paris at Montlhery against a rather less competitive field than Mike had encountered the previous year when his best results were a third place at Mallory Park behind Jackie Stewart’s Chequered Flag version and Peter Arundell in one of the Ian Walker Racing ‘Gold Bug’ Elans and fourth at Brands Hatch behind Jackie Stewart and Mike Spence in the Chequered Flag cars and Jackie Oliver’s DR Fabrications version.

While Mike went off to pursue other opportunities, the late John Hine took over as Chris’s driver for the next five and a half years, initially with the Elan and subsequently from partway through 1967 a Type 47. The latter was raced widely both in the UK and Europe and brought John and Chris a promising early success with a second place at Zandvoort to Ben Pon’s Porsche 904GTS. However, from 1966 the Chevron GT, usually with a 2-litre BMW engine, was more than a match for the smaller-capacity Lotus and results were hard to come by. For once abandoning Lotus, Chris acquired a Piper GTR in 1970 but this did not prove to be either reliable or competitive while the Lotus Type 62 successor to the Type 47 also proved relatively uncompetitive despite the best efforts of Dave Brodie who nevertheless gave Chris and his last Lotus a couple of victories in the wet in national races at Brands Hatch and Ingliston.

In addition to his involvement in motor racing, Chris supported cycling teams from the 1960s to the 1980s. He also owned classic Lagonda sports cars. He was made OBE in 1991.

For many years Chris had been friends with Formula 1 team owner and BRDC President Ken Tyrrell. Only a few weeks before his death, Ken had been able to attend one of Chris’s concerts at the Civic Hall in Guildford and so it came to pass that at Ken’s Memorial Service in Guildford Cathedral in November 2001, Chris led his Jazz and Blues Band in the Panama Rag and When the Saints Go Marching In. For many in the Cathedral that day there were memories of the Band’s performance in the Pits at Brands Hatch after the circuit’s first World Championship race in 1964. Many years later Chris and his Band performed in the Silverstone Clubhouse for Members and their Guests, the sight of Chris, with one foot in plaster from an accident shortly before, playing with his irrepressible enthusiasm, will never be forgotten. Chris officially retired in 2019, marking 70 years as one of the UK’s leading jazz musicians. 

Chris married four times – to dancer Naida Lane, to singer Ottilie Patterson who for many years had been an intrinsic part of the Band, to Renate Hilbich with whom he had two children Caroline and Christopher, and to Kate who survives him and to whom, and to his two children, the BRDC sends its most sincere condolences.


The Club regrets to report on the death of Neville Hay, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1993
The Club regrets to report on the death of Alan Minshaw, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1984
The Club regrets to report on the death of Ray Thackwell who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1957
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