Barry St John (Eliza Thomson) – Singer
Born 1943: died July 24, 2020
Barry St. John, who has died aged 76, was a singer whose early singles and a sole album, According to St. John (1968), are now regarded by 1960s pop and Northern Soul aficionados as classics. Yet, despite being possessed with a soulful voice honed on the Glasgow spit and sawdust circuit and Hamburg cellar bars, St. John never quite hit the big time in her own right.
She nevertheless became one of the go-to backing singers for rock cognoscenti throughout the 1970s, appearing on records by John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Mott the Hoople and Elton John. St John’s voice can be heard on Lennon’s Power to the People on his Imagine album, four songs on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Brian Ferry’s take on Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and three songs on John’s Madman Across the Water album, including Tiny Dancer.
Eliza Janet Thomson was born in the Gallowgate area of Glasgow to Jenny and Arthur Thomson, and went to Whitehill Secondary School in Dennistoun. She first found her voice taking part in tenement backcourt concerts, and made her first professional live appearance aged 14 with The Midnighters. She later sang with The Playboys, before joining Bobby Patrick and The Big Six in 1961. It was with The Big Six she moved to London, playing American air bases and living hand to mouth before she and the band headed out to Hamburg.
She stayed with The Big Six for three years before returning to London. Taking her stage name from dancer Barrie Chase and footballer Ian St. John, she signed a solo deal with Decca Records. Backed by session musicians who included future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, St. John recorded a quartet of singles between 1964 and 1965 that began with a cover of The Jarmels’ song, A Little Bit of Soap. Its follow-up, a cover of Bread and Butter, previously recorded by The Newbeats, made the German charts. Two more singles, Mind How You Go and Hey Boy, followed, before St. John moved to Columbia Records.
The move was initiated by producer Mickie Most, who oversaw her version of Come Away Melinda, previously recorded by Harry Belafonte. A second Columbia single, Everything I Touch Turns to Tears, followed in 1965. With St. John squeezed into pop-based records that didn’t suit her voice, none of her releases captured its full fire. In 1967, St John was drafted in as vocalist with The Krew, whose saxophonist, Howie Casey, was her boyfriend. The pair married in 1969.
In 1968, St John was signed to Major Minor Recordings by DJ and producer Mike Pasternak, aka Emperor Rosko. It was here St. John got a chance to give full vent on soul bangers such as Turn On Your Light, Cry Like A Baby and Tell Mama, as well as a version of By the Time I Get to Phoenix.
With the album title playing on the biblical associations of St. John’s acquired name, the sleevenotes saw producer Emperor Rosko go overboard with the era’s groovy largesse, describing her as ‘the pretty kitty from the gritty city’. With little in the way of chart action and with a young daughter to look after, St. John split with Major Minor and moved into session work, often working alongside other key female singers of the era, such as Lesley Duncan, Liza Strike, Sue and Sunny and Madeline Bell.
“Most of the time people just rang you up,” St John told Nick Warburton of The Strange Brew magazine (www.thestrangebrew.co.uk) in an extensive interview that took place not long before her passing. “There were no agents. With Pink Floyd, I remember there were five sessions that day and the one for Dark Side of The Moon was the last one. It was all right but a bit weird. They didn’t seem to smile. I remember Lesley Duncan told somebody that she didn’t know what we had done wrong because they were so stand-offish.”
Nevertheless, Dark Side of the Moon featured St. John on the songs, Time, Us and Them, Brain Damage and Eclipse. She later sang on Mott the Hoople’s final album, The Hoople, and appeared with the band on German TV miming Lynsey De Paul’s part on Roll Away The Stone. She also appeared on Roger Coverdale’s concept album, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.
St. John recorded more solo work in the mid 1970s, releasing Bright Shines the Light in 1974 and I Won’t Be a Party a year later. She went on to record further sessions as a backing vocalist with John Cale, Kevin Ayers, Squeeze, the Tom Robinson Band and Nazareth.
In 1978, while touring with French singer Johnny Hallyday, St. John met saxophonist Greg MacGregor, who became her second husband a decade later. Latterly, St. John worked as a legal assistant for law firms in London, before retiring in 2007 following a minor stroke. With tracks by St. John appearing on Brit girl compilations and collectors paying high prices for her records, a posthumous collection of her solo work is surely overdue, and would be a fitting tribute to an overlooked but vital contribution to British pop and soul.
She is survived by her husband Greg, her daughter Gaynor, her grandson, Josh, sister, Rita, and brother, Alan.
The Herald, September 20th, 2020