My friend Barry St John, who has died aged 76, was one of the elite group of backing singers who were the first choice for major 1970s artists keen to have a powerful soul sound behind them. She appeared on albums by, among others, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Steve Harley, Bryan Ferry, Kevin Ayers and John Lennon, and can be heard on the soundtrack of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Most of the time people just rang you up,” she said of those days. “There were no agents.”
She was born in the Gallowgate area of Glasgow, to Arthur Thomson, a baker, and his wife, Jenny, who named their daughter Eliza. She “always sang but then everybody in Glasgow sings”. Though not many sang like Lizzie, who got her first paying gig at 14 with Iain Campbell’s Midnighters.
After leaving Whitehill secondary school in Dennistoun she worked in the accounts department of Rowats Pickles in Gallowgate, while doing evening singing sessions in the pubs and clubs. Then, at 17 she moved to London, and then on to Hamburg and the Star Club, with the Glasgow rockers Bobby Patrick and the Big Six.
Not comfortable there - “Glasgow was tough but Hamburg was a different fear” - she moved back to London and became the solo artist Barry St John. (“I loved the dancer Barrie Chase and I nicked the St John off Ian St John the footballer.”) In the 1960s she released a number of singles, including Everything I Touch Turns to Tears, and an album, According to St John (1968), on the Major Minor Label, produced by Emperor Rosko, whose liner notes dubbed her “the pretty kitty from the gritty city”. But often producers gave her material that did not suit her style and by the early 70s, now a single parent with a daughter, Gaynor, to care for, she moved into session work.
In 1978, touring with Johnny Hallyday, she met Greg (Peter) MacGregor, a saxophonist, whom she married in 1989.
I met Barry at a Saturday morning piano class at Goldsmiths College, now Goldsmiths, University of London, in 1983. When we got the same bus home we realised that we lived within 100 yards of each other, and our families became friends.
Seeing the changes in the music scene, Barry now used her energy, intelligence and determination to work as a legal assistant for law firms in south-east London. But she was still delighted when a friend told her that Northern Soul fans had discovered her 60s work and wanted to meet her. She retired in 2007 after suffering a minor stroke, followed by the removal of a kidney.
Before illness prevented it, Barry enjoyed travelling with Greg and spending time in their cottage in France.
She is survived by Greg, Gaynor, her grandson, Josh, sister, Rita, and brother, Alan.