The John Barry Seven were the vehicle through which the British public first came to recognize the name of composer/conductor/arranger John Barry, years before there were any James Bond movies for him to score. They are so distinct a part of his career, and their work so separate from the work for which he ultimately became best-known, that they rate a separate chapter in music history, especially as Barry wasn't an active member of the group for its last three years. Though they're only a footnote in Barry's overall career, for seven years the John Barry Seven were among the two or three busiest and most successful rock & roll bands in England, their only rivals the Shadows.
Barry began putting his band together in the mid-'50s, immediately after ending three years of military service (in a band unit). He drew on former army buddies and other musicians he knew, and by 1957 he had assembled the first incarnation of the John Barry Seven, consisting of Barry on trumpet and vocals, Mike Cox on tenor sax, Derek Myers on alto sax, Fred Kirk on bass, Ken Richards on lead guitar, Keith Kelly on rhythm guitar, and Don Martin on drums. They started out in York, with gigs secured with help from Barry's father, who owned a small chain of theaters. They were lucky enough to be spotted in one of their shows at the Rialto Theatre in York by Harold Fielding, an agent from London who was impressed enough to get them a summer gig as Tommy Steele's backing band in an extended engagement in Blackpool -- that, in turn, earned them a spot on the BBC's youth music showcase Six-Five Special (which had previously passed on the group) in September of 1957. That same month, they made their first appearance at Royal Albert Hall, on a bill that included Lonnie Donegan, Russ Conway, and Nancy Whiskey, under the aegis of the music journal the New Musical Express. The group subsequently made regular appearances on the BBC and on rival ITV, and also got into the movie The Six-Five Special, where Barry sang on two numbers, and the group was sandwiched in between a lineup that included a young Cleo Laine, Petula Clark, Jim Dale (doing "Train Kept a-Rollin'"), and Lonnie Donegan. They were signed to EMI's Parlophone label -- their debut (credited to "John Barry and the Seven") was "Zip Zip" b/w "Three Little Fishes," which failed to chart, or to enjoy significant sales anywhere in England except in Barry's hometown of York. It was in the winter of 1957-1958 that the group got their first gig backing a visiting American star, Paul Anka (then riding high on the U.K. charts with "Diana"). They made their first appearance on a long-playing record that same season when, in December of 1957, EMI included three of their songs on a 15-song album hooked around The Six-Five Special. By 1958 the group had moved to London and was a permanent fixture on the new Jack Good-produced show Oh Boy!, which, unlike The Six-Five Special, was more closely focused on rock & roll. In addition to getting their own spot with Barry singing, they also accompanied other artists, and in the process they earned a Top Ten hit single in London with "Farrago" in early 1958. The original lineup soon gave way, between the strain of moving between York and London and the gigs that they were then getting regularly across the British Isles. With Barry and rhythm guitarist Keith Kelly hanging on, Derek Myers was succeeded by Jimmy Stead, who played baritone in lieu of alto sax, and Fred Kirk was replaced on bass by Mike Peters, Dennis King replaced Mike Cox on tenor, and they got Dougie Wright to replace Don Martin on the drums. And Ken Richards was succeeded by a man who became something of a legend on lead guitar, Vic Flick. The new lineup was considered important enough to get an exclusive contract with EMI. This was the version of the band that did the vast majority of the records ever released under the John Barry Seven name, and which had all of the hits upon which their long-term reputation came to rest.
By 1959, the group had made the leap to another television series, Drumbeat, which starred Adam Faith. That led to Barry's becoming Faith's arranger and the group his backing band. Faith became a star and, in the process, Barry became one of the great young success stories in early British rock & roll, and the John Barry Seven were suddenly one of the two top backing bands in England, surpassed only by the Shadows. By 1960, they'd left Parlophone and were recording for the far more prestigious EMI label Columbia (no connection to the U.S. label of that name). The group continued to back Faith, on record and on tour, and Barry and the band were featured in the movie Beat Girl (1960), Faith's debut feature film vehicle. Their own single successes included "Hit and Miss" in early 1960, which made the U.K. Top Ten, and "Never Let Go," a B-side that made the Top 50 (and might've done better if it hadn't been competing with its own A-side, a version of "Blueberry Hill"). There was an LP, Beat Girl, that showcased different aspects of the group's sound, though for his second album, Stringbeat, Barry utilized larger forces than his own band. He ceased appearing with the band on tour after September of 1961. Instead, from that point on, he was replaced on trumpet by Bobby Carr (whose tenure with the band was tragically short-lived -- he was murdered just a few months after getting the gig with the band), and Vic Flick became the group's leader on-stage. It was during the same period that Barry began releasing records credited to the "John Barry Seven Plus Four," the "John Barry Seven and Orchestra," and other variants. Even on the sides credited to the John Barry Seven, they were frequently augmented by the presence of Ted Taylor, a keyboard player who owned a clavioline, an electronic keyboard instrument that made a killer sound in tandem with Flick's guitar.
In 1963, Vic Flick, whose guitar had been a central part of the John Barry Seven's sound for four years -- and can be heard on the original recording of the "James Bond Theme" -- left the band. By then, it had been a long time since Barry himself had worked regularly with the group, and he was soon to reorganize the band once more. Drummer Bobby Graham became the de facto leader of the new version of the John Barry Seven, with Ray Russell on lead guitar, Dave Richmond on bass, Ron Edgeworth playing keyboards, Terry Childs playing baritone sax, Bob Downes on tenor sax, and Alan Bown on trumpet. Ray Styles soon succeeded Richmond on bass, and Tony Ashton replaced Edgeworth at the keyboards, and by 1964 Graham -- who was already well on his way to being one of the top session drummers in England -- had left for session work and a producer's gig at Fontana Records that would soon yield a classic recording in the form of the first Pretty Things LP. Alan Bown and Terry Childs were the only surviving members of the previous band, and Bown began rebuilding the lineup as its leader, with Dave Green playing tenor sax, Ron Menicos on lead guitar, Mike O'Neil on keyboards, Stan Haldane on bass, and Ernie Cox on the drums. This version of the group, with Jeff Bannister replacing O'Neil on keyboards, recorded one single, "24 Hours Ago" b/w "Seven Faces," the A-side showing a grittier, more R&B-flavored sound than they'd previously generated. That record might've been the beginning of a new era for the group, but in 1965 Barry finally decided to consign the John Barry Seven to history. By then, he was so overextended in his obligations as a producer, arranger, and composer, and now as a film composer as well, that he could scarcely handle those commitments, and he was also moving very far away from the brand of pop music that the septet was generating. Additionally, the name the John Barry Seven, though they were still getting lots of gigs (and served as backing band for Brenda Lee on tour just before their demise), seemed very dated, and made them a poor fit for the kind of rock & roll that was now in fashion, and an oddity among the groups with whom they were competing. Merseybeat had overwhelmed the charts for over a year, and there was also a tougher, bolder R&B sound coming to the fore. A total, top-to-bottom retooling would have been in order, and in effect that was what happened -- out of that final lineup of the John Barry Seven sprang the Alan Bown Set, with Bown, Bannister, Haldane, and Green at its core. In the decades since, amid the growing interest in the history of rock & roll in England, the John Barry Seven's work has been reissued many times, both on LP and CD. Indeed, between the various CD re-releases and re-compilations of their catalog, at the start of the 21st century there was more of their music available at one time than had ever been the case when they were an active, working band 40 years before. ~ Bruce Eder