“I had gone to school and, in show and tell, I had sung ‘Sixteen Tons and What do you Get’. The teacher sent a concerned letter to my mum saying your son has a really deep voice for his age. She seriously wanted to know if my voice had broken. So, my mother became worried by my deep voice and sent me to a singing teacher.”
Singing was in his family. Barry’s father was a singer, a whistler and a ballroom dancing champion. Also, his grandfather had a powerful bass baritone voice. He was a respected opera singer who had sung with Dame Nellie Melba for one season in 1927 in the Melbourne Town Hall performing the opera ‘The Desert Song’.
“One day when I was still a small boy”, said Barry, “grandad, who was then in his eighties, sang to me The Holy City (Jerusalem) and I just stood there, amazed at the tone and power of his voice.”
Barry’s family had a long history in Collingwood in inner Melbourne owning a shoe manufacturing business and had close ties with the Collingwood Football Club. Barry couldn’t follow his father’s wish to be a famous footballer because he had contracted polio at 15 months of age.
“I still loved the game and even though I had polio, I did play football until one day at school I was banned for splitting a kid’s head open with my leg calliper when I tried to kick the ball”. “My teacher sent me home with a letter suggesting to my parents, maybe that in future Barry should do a bit of scoring.
“When I went to high school I couldn’t play football so I got into a lunchtime ukulele group run by our Sri Lankan science teacher. We started with 2 and ended with 30 of us playing ukes. We learnt all these funny little songs like Little Brown Jug and Swanee River and some naughty Sri Lankan folk songs – that’s another story.”
It was around the period of the Beatles in the early 60s when Barry was at Mornington High School and he started to teach himself the electric guitar, and joined a local instrumental band playing songs of The Shadows and Duane Eddy. Later when he started to take his singing seriously, he appreciated the importance of the science of breathing and using the diaphragm and various exercises to look after his voice that he had learnt from his singing teachers.
“I think it was listening to the likes of Paul Robeson, Nat King Cole, B.B. King and Ella Fitzgerald that made me think, I think that I can do that. As I developed my voice I loved that resonation and vibration – the feeling you get when you’re floating around in that lower part of your register. With scatting, it’s using the voice like an instrument. I’m always exploring sound and looking for new tones and expressions of emotion without words. It’s using the full range to bring colour into a song.”
The Barry Charles repertoire moves easily from his original songs with influences of Otis Redding and Percy Sledge to Tim Buckley and Al Green, and there is always Tom Waits in a Barry Charles song list. He loves the word images and the emotion created by Tom Waits songs, so it wasn’t surprising that fans persuaded Barry to record an album of Waits covers – ‘Under the Influence’.
“I have lots of influences but I still strive for my own individuality and interpretation” says Barry. “My voice is probably getting deeper as I get older and the tones are getting stronger. I have learned to enjoy the patter between the songs that make a gig so entertaining. When I was first in a band I felt nervous even introducing a song. I’m more comfortable taking risks these days,and changing or abandoning a play list at the last minute.”
Despite his physical difficulties ( he walks with two sticks these days), nothing has slowed down this high spirited performer. June is a typical month – playing the Melbourne Blues Club, Burrinja Cafe Upwey, Victoria, the Currimundi Blues Stomp Festival, Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall, and other gigs up and down the Sunshine Coast.
“I will probably go on into my eighties,” he says with a smile. “I always like to come back here even though I have performed and recorded overseas – in New York, Jamaica, the UK and Europe. I am very attached to the environment and the lifestyle here. I like the freedom of managing myself and I like the quality of my life with all these creative people around me. I look around me and I think, I am really very very lucky.”
HOW to describe singer Barry Charles? This unique singer with a blues and rock background has been entertaining locals since he first jumped into his Zephyr in 1973 and moved to Lake Weyba from inner Melbourne. His vocal range and technique are astonishing and his connection with his audience is immediate and emotional. Barry took time out from his busy local and interstate gig schedule to talk to HT editor Michael Berry about the source of his music.