Barry St John obituary

Other lives: Session singer in the 1970s whose solo work was rediscovered by Northern Soul fans

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.

Barry St John on stage with Howie Casey’s Krew in France around 1968
Barry St John on stage with Howie Casey’s Krew in France around 1968 Photograph: none

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.

Brian Clover

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
John Gregory obituary
Other lives: Award-winning musician, composer and arranger

Lyn Ferrand

31, May, 2020 @4:06 PM

Article image
John Shaw obituary
Other lives: Folk musician who co-founded the electric folk-rock group Elecampane

Angela Shaw

19, Sep, 2021 @3:55 PM

Article image
Barry Ryan obituary
Singer, composer and photographer who shot to fame in the 1960s as part of the teen duo Paul and Barry Ryan

Suzie Mackenzie

07, Oct, 2021 @5:04 PM

Article image
John Poole obituary
Other lives: Choral conductor who led the BBC Singers and championed new music

Laura Poole

10, Jul, 2020 @12:40 PM

Article image
John Nicholson obituary
Other lives: Director of music at Gordonstoun school who also created the Schubertline website

Sophie McCook

21, May, 2023 @4:35 PM

Article image
John Wurr obituary
Other lives: Leading trad jazz clarinettist and saxophonist who spent the other half of his life as a computer and IT specialist

Max Wurr

10, Apr, 2023 @3:44 PM

Article image
Mikey John obituary
Other lives: Reggae DJ known as DJ Cuppa Tea and adventure playground leader who played a central role in his west London community

Carol John

06, Jul, 2023 @10:42 AM

Article image
Barry Mason obituary
Songwriter whose hits included Tom Jones’s Delilah and Edison Lighthouse’s Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)

Adam Sweeting

26, Apr, 2021 @4:34 PM

Article image
John Byrt obituary
Other lives: Composer, conductor and music director at East Devon College for more than 20 years

Celia Boden

10, Feb, 2021 @6:45 PM

Article image
Kay Bateman obituary
Other lives: First manager of the Manchester band the Fall who later became a nurse to people with HIV

Dave Simpson

21, Jun, 2020 @10:45 AM